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Culinary Lesson #25 - 10 Tips for a Stress-Free Thanksgiving

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Are you the chosen one who gets to host Thanksgiving this year?  If so, there's a good chance that stress levels are running a bit higher than normal.  Whether this is your first time or you've been cooking for years, this iconic meal can have even the most seasoned professionals on their toes.  But fear not...

While there is a lot to think about, we're fortunate enough to live in an age where a whole online collection of videos and articles dedicated to this very subject is just a click away.  After doing a little research, you'll quickly realize that the majority of dishes prepared for Thanksgiving can be made or prepared in advance so that all you need to do the day of is bake everything off.  With the help of online resources along with proper planning and timing the day of, a "Mrs. Doubtfire kitchen fail" can totally be prevented.

Although there is a whole list of topics regarding Thanksgiving cooking 101, I feel that the following ten pointers should get you in pretty good shape for the holiday.  Do your research, try something new, and have fun!

  1. TURKEY:  If you're using a frozen turkey, ensure that it has enough time to safely thaw in the refrigerator.  A good rule of thumb is to allow a full 24 hours for every five pounds of turkey.  If you're in a time crunch, do not let the bird thaw at room temperature as parts of the turkey will eventually fall outside of the safe temperature zone for too long.  Rather, let it thaw while being submerged in properly cooled water.
  2. TURKEY:  Instead of using the pop-up thermometer that sometimes comes with the bird, use  an instant read thermometer to know when your turkey is done.  It should register 160° F in the breast and 175° F in the thickest part of the thighs.
  3. TURKEY:  Just as you do when cooking steaks, allow your turkey to fully rest before slicing into.  When you take your turkey out of the oven, most of the juices have traveled towards the surface of the meat.  When you let it rest, juices are allowed to redistribute throughout the turkey, resulting in a moist bird.  Allow 15 minutes for a smaller turkey and 30 minutes for a larger roast.
  4. TURKEY:  Brining your bird is the best bet for a juicy roast.  For water-to-salt proportions, brining times, and the science behind why brining works, visit this previous culinary lesson.
  5. MASHED POTATOES:  For creamy mashed potatoes:
    1. Use a ricer or food mill rather than a food processor.  This way the starch granules aren't ruptured, which is a key cause for gluey mashed potatoes.
    2. Keep the skins on the potatoes while boiling.
    3. Once the potatoes are riced, add your (melted) butter first, followed by (warm) half-and-half.  This way starch molecules are coated in the fat, preventing the water in your cream from working with the starch to make heavy mashed potatoes.
  6. MASHED POTATOES:  If you're looking for a way to save on dishes, space, and time the day of, consider making a mashed potato casserole a day or two in advance.  Cook for an hour before you're ready to serve, and you're all set!
  7. GRAVY:  For a basic gravy, remember the 1:1:8 ratio.  That is, one part butter to one part flour for every eight parts of broth.  While your turkey is resting, make your roux in the same pan as your turkey drippings and gradually add your broth.  Season to taste.
  8. VEGETABLES:  While the classics never get old, consider preparing your vegetables in a new way this year - whether this means roasting/caramelizing some root vegetables with garlic, shallots, and fresh herbs, or pureeing them for a creamy vegetable soup.
  9. DESSERTS:  To me, desserts are the best part of a Thanksgiving meal (besides the obvious reason) because classics like pumpkin pie, apple pie, or pumpkin cheesecake are best when made a day (or even two days) in advance.
  10. FOOD SAFETY:  With so many types of dishes being prepared for a single meal, it's easy to lose track of how long each dish has been sitting out and what temperature they're at.  For a safe Thanksgiving, make sure to keep these guidelines in mind while preparing the meal as well as while packing up any leftovers.

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