With a little planning, the proper tools and some strategic cookery, it’s possible to not just survive this Thanksgiving, but to rock it. But cooking for a crowd is daunting if you don’t do it all the time. Here’s what I’ve learned from my pro cooking gigs, including single-handedly preparing a weekly six-course buffet dinner for 40. These four tips will help you enjoy a successful, low-stress Thanksgiving.
Find your bird
Choosing your turkey begins with the guest list. Depending on the amount of leftovers you desire, allot anywhere from 1 to 1.5 pounds of turkey weight per guest. Next, determine your turkey type. From fresh to frozen to organic to kosher to heritage birds, the choices are many. Some require ordering in advance, so don’t delay.
To brine or not to brine
Somewhere in the turkey equation you’ll need to decide how to prepare the bird. The basic method applies seasonings immediately before and during roasting. Another alternative is to smoke the turkey on the grill, which frees up oven space on the big day.
Brining involves soaking the bird in a seasoned saltwater liquid (usually for 12-24 hours, depending on the size of the bird) ensuring moist turkey with flavor throughout. Pre-salting is also gaining ground as an effective and space-efficient way to deeply season the bird, and involves sprinkling the turkey with salt three days in advance. For hassle-free flavor, kosher turkeys are an excellent option, as the koshering salt used during processing results in a flavorful bird right out of the bag.
Make Your Prep List
You’ll never feel lost in the details if you have a well-written game plan. Start with a brainstorming session that includes lists of:
- Tasks for guests, from pie-baking to playlist making
- Tasks for yourself, like counting forks and washing table linens
- Recipes you’d like to serve (remember to account for special diets)
- Assigned cooking and serving vessels for each menu item
- A shopping list including everything you need, from green beans to stemware
Next, map out a prep list by working backwards from meal time. For example, if you want to serve a fresh, brined turkey at 5 p.m. on Thursday, you should be preparing it for the oven by noon, so it should be soaking in brine no later than noon on Wednesday. This means the turkey needs to be picked up, and the brine made on Tuesday, and so forth. Repeat this process for every task and recipe and before long, you’ll be feeling enthusiastic instead of overwhelmed.
Using a frozen bird? The safest, easiest way to thaw it is in the refrigerator, and you’ll need to allow 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds. That means you should move a 20-pound turkey from the freezer to the fridge four days before Thanksgiving, five if you plan to brine it.
Gather the Right Equipment
Among my must-have kitchen tools for the big day:
- Instant-read thermometer: Affordable, reliable and easy to use, this little tool is the best way to guarantee a perfectly cooked bird, as well as thoroughly heated side dishes. Just insert the rod into the deepest and coolest part of the food, and the temperature gauge will tell you within about 60 seconds, exactly how hot it is.
- Fat separator: The fastest way to skim the fat from pan drippings, this simple, low-spouted tool looks like a measuring cup with a strainer on top. Simply pour the drippings through the strainer and the fat will rise to the top so you can pour out the flavorful gravy while leaving the fat behind. It will drastically cut gravy prep time.
- Carving board: If you don’t own a behemoth carving board with a moat, don’t worry. Make do with a cutting board placed within a larger, rimmed baking sheet to catch every drop of juice. Lay a damp dishtowel on the counter to hold the baking sheet in place while you carve the bird.
Writer, poet and chef Ginny Mahar currently resides in Missoula, Montana. When she’s not busy freelancing or posting on her blog, Food-G, you can find her in the mountains, earning her calories.