A lot of people freak out at the very thought of cooking a massive multi-course meal for a large group, but the stakes are even higher when that meal is for such a beloved holiday. Rather than have a complete meltdown as you try to plan and execute your Thanksgiving dinner this year, heed these game-changing tips, tricks and time-saving techniques from two top chefs: Charlie Palmer, chef of Aureole in New York, among many others, and Matt Baker, chef/owner of the one-MICHELIN-starred Gravitas in Washington, D.C. With their knowledge, you'll be able to pull off a memorable feast that won't necessitate an emergency visit to your therapist.
Create a Calendar
Build a prep list of everything that needs to get done and divide up the duties by day. "It'll help you stay organized and make sure you don't miss anything," Baker says.
Carefully read through all your recipes to make a master shopping list. To save time, consider purchasing basic ingredients—i.e. butter, cream and flour—through a grocery delivery service. "But when it comes to vegetables and proteins," Baker says, "I recommend doing that yourself, so you can pick out the best products for your needs."
"A lot can be done ahead of the big day," Palmer says. Vegetables can be peeled and chopped; casseroles can be parbaked; and many sauces, compotes and relishes can be made completely.
Premade Isn't Cheating
"Everyone wants to make everything from scratch," Palmer says, "but it's just not realistic." Buying pie shells will save you both time and energy. Store bought cranberry sauce tastes just as good as homemade to a lot of people. And premade apps or a crudité platter are a perfectly acceptable way to kick off the festivities.
Embrace Mise en Place
Palmer advises scanning through a recipe before you tackle it. This way you understand what ingredients and equipment you need, what you'll be doing and how generally long it will take to complete. Then gather everything you need and prep any components, so they're ready to go when the recipe calls for them.
Thanksgiving is a communal affair, so meal preparation should be a group activity too. Ask guests to bring elements of the meal or come ready to help cook. "Don't try to do it all yourself," Palmer warns. "You'll just end up driving yourself crazy."
Picking the Best Turkey
Baker recommends sourcing an organic, heritage breed turkey. Estimate one to two pounds per person, which accounts for both the meat and the inedible parts of the bird. "Get out to your butcher or the grocery store at least a week beforehand so you have the pick of the litter," he says.
Brine Your Bird
Palmer always brines his turkey for 24 to 48 hours in a salt and sugar solution accented with a variety of fresh and dried herbs. "It'll ensure the meat is well flavored all the way through, while keeping it juicy and tender," he says.
Don't Stuff It
Filling the turkey's cavity is a recipe for a foodborne illness related disaster. Either uncooked elements of the turkey will end up in the stuffing or the bird won't cook all the way through without drying out. Instead, Baker simply seasons the cavity with salt, pepper and sometimes ground sage, and then packs in a couple of heads of garlic and fresh herbs, such as rosemary, thyme and sage.
What to Drink
"I always look at holidays as celebratory, so start with bubbles," Palmer encourages. If the football game is on, Baker believes beer is always a good way to go, though a pre-batched Manhattan is certainly a fan favorite. When it comes to pairing with the turkey, Zinfandel is classic, though Palmer prefers lighter options, like Pinot Noir or white Burgundy.
Stay on Top of the Dishes
Cleaning as you go is the way to ensure a tidy workspace and that your equipment is always ready to be used again. "However, everyone else should clean up after dinner," Baker says. "The chef doesn't clean."
Nevin Martell is a D.C.-based freelance food writer, parenting essayist, cookbook author, and recipe developer. His three favorite desserts are his Gramma's lemon meringue pie, sticky toffee pudding, and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.
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