Planning is everything, the plan is nothing.
[UPDATE 2018-11-20]: I wrote the "Thanksgiving Countdown" plan, below, over the last couple of days. This morning I checked on the frozen turkeys thawing in my basement fridge, and found out...the fridge died. Everything in the freezer was room temperature, and my refrigerator thermometer says it's 50°F in there. My no-longer-frozen birds are now in the trash, and I have to brave the last-minute Thanksgiving rush at my grocery store to replace them. (Not to mention the freezer full of now-room-temperature food that has to go.) Worse, this basement fridge is my staging area, where I dry brine the turkeys and stash the make-ahead ingredients. Looks like I'm going with the "back porch freezer" approach: a bunch of coolers and a high temperature of 36°F between now and Thanksgiving. Sigh.
Back to what my plan was...before it fell apart.
Thanksgiving is coming! Are you ready?
Thanksgiving is not about recipes; it's about schedules. I can have the best turkey, gravy, and stuffing, but without a plan, I have nothing. Cooking for a large crowd - I’m serving 17 this year - is not a cooking challenge. It’s a logistical challenge.
Here's my Thanksgiving game plan:
Shopping Saturday: Shopping - stock up on everything I need. (Lord help you if you try to go shopping on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.) Put the frozen turkey in the bottom level of the fridge to start thawing. I cook two 12-pound turkeys - smaller turkeys are easier to cook - and I can’t resist the doorbuster sale at my local grocery store: “Only $0.69 a pound? SUCH A DEAL!” A frozen turkey thaws at about 3 hours per pound, so my 12-pounder will be ready on Tuesday, just in time for dry brining.
Stock Sunday: Make a batch of chicken broth for the gravy and stuffing; freeze in 2-cup containers. Homemade broth makes a huge difference, particularly for the gravy. And, it’s easy with an Instant Pot and a package of frozen chicken backs from the grocery store.
Dessert Monday: Cook the pies and cheesecakes; store in the refrigerator for T-Day. Mental note: Threaten the kids with a fate worse than death if they touch the dessert before Thanksgiving. (Worse than death? Taking away their cellphones. Muahahahah.)
Dry Brine Tuesday: Pick up the fresh turkey. To counteract the cheap grocery store turkey, I’ll usually make this one a Natural turkey from my local health food market. The USDA guideline: turkey is safe for up to 2 days in a home refrigerator, so this is the earliest I can get it. (And conveniently, this is when my frozen turkey should be done thawing.) Rub the turkeys with a dry brine, set on racks over roasting pans, cover with plastic wrap, and stash in the bottom of the refrigerator.
Prep Wednesday: Make the gravy, whisking up a roux and using the stock from Sunday. Sauté all the ingredients for the stuffing. Store everything in snap-lock containers in the refrigerator. Eat a light supper.
The Big Day
My goal is serving at 4 PM, between the football games, because it’s easier to pry certain uncles away from the TV set if the game isn’t on.
10:00 AM: Threaten the kids with a fate worse than death (cellphones, gone!) if they don’t clean their rooms. Set up Mario Kart for the cousins racing series.
11:00 AM: Turkeys out of the refrigerator to take the chill off. Put zip-top bags full of ice on the turkey breasts to even out the cooking. (See Step 2, here)
11:30 AM: Start the charcoal grill
11:45 AM: Start the gas grill
High Noon: Put the turkeys on the grills. I use my grills as outdoor ovens, leaving the oven itself for side dishes. Note: My gas grill turkey always runs fast, and my charcoal grill turkey always runs slow, so I put the charcoal grill turkey first.
12:15: Relax for a little bit with the football game. (The Lions are behind already? I was only out there for 15 minutes!)
1:00 PM: Peel and dice the potatoes, leave covered in water. (Grab any nearby kids and hand them potato peelers - it makes the process go quicker.) Toss the stuffing ingredients, pour into the serving pan, cover with foil, and stash in the refrigerator for later.
2:00 PM: Guests start arriving. Say hello to everyone and enjoy a tasty beverage.
2:30 PM: Stuffing into the oven; change the water for the potatoes and put them over high heat on the stove. Time to start checking the turkeys; I want 160°F in the deepest part of the breast, measured with an instant-read thermometer. As I said before, one turkey is always running ahead, and one is running behind; this is where I figure out which is which. And, it gives the anyone who’s interested an excuse to stand around the grill with a tasty beverage.
3:00 PM: One hour to go, and things start to move quickly. The turkeys should be done. (Ha!) Bring them in the house, set them on cutting boards, and cover with foil for a little rest. Drain the mashed potatoes and dragoon someone into mashing them. (There’s always someone hanging around, asking if you need help - hand them the masher.)
3:15 PM: Reheat the gravy on a back burner set to low. Sort out all the volunteer side dishes - who needs a burner, who needs the stove, who forgot to bring their spatula, and get them organized. (This is where my Instant Pots stand in for stove burners - I use the Sauté or Keep Warm modes as needed.)
3:30 PM: Carving time! Uncover the turkeys and start slicing. Take the stuffing out of the oven and pop the dinner rolls in for a minute.
3:45 PM: Suppertime! Herd everyone towards the table - the kids' table is over that way - and then serve yourself another (well earned) tasty beverage. Then load up your plate - I want mashed potatoes and stuffing, doused with gravy, and a drumstick that I can wave around. Enjoy!
No plan survives contact with the enemy.Helmuth von Moltke the Elder
We have met the enemy, and he is us.Walt Kelly
The thing about a plan is…nothing ever goes according to plan. You’ll note that my “Dinner is at 4” schedule ends at 3:45…but I’m wildly optimistic. The turkey is always running late, or the gravy is scorched, Aunt Edna will forget to reheat the green bean casserole. That’s OK. I got enough stuff ahead of time that it will all work out. Even if I have to say, (like I usually do): “The turkey's running late - looks like we'll eat at 5 PM. Have some more wine.”
Finally, remember what you’re really giving thanks for. Thanksgiving is about the people, the chance to celebrate with friends and family. The point of the plan is to clear mental space, to get enough out of my head so I can be there with my family and enjoy the holiday. No one will remember the minor disasters. (There will always be minor disasters.) If I don’t make a big deal out of it, no one will even notice. And, if there’s a major disaster? At least it will be a story that lives in family history: “Remember when we found Fido on the table eating all the pumpkin pies?”
PS: Don't forget to save the Turkey carcass for Day-After-Thanksgiving Turkey Soup...
What do you think?
Questions? Other ideas? Leave them in the comments section below.
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Cary Hill says
Mike, my heart goes out to you as our basement refrigerator died and we lost a full freezer's worth of food 2 months ago. I immediately ordered a new one only to be told 2 weeks ago it would be until the new ye as r for delivery. Fortunately I found a similar but more expensive model which was delivered 1 day before I had to leave town unexpectedly and i won't be able to return until the day before Thanksgiving and still put on a meal for the whole family. Wish me luck. This year I will be trying CharBroil's The Big Easy oiless fryer. I hope it is as easy and rewarding as the make it seem. Wishing you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving.
Mike Vrobel says
A brilliant tip I saw this year was to pre-make things like mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, gravy, etc and store in gallon ziplocks. Then keep them warm indefinitely in a 140-degree sous vide bath.
Mike Vrobel says
I’ve thought about that - especially the make-ahead mashed potatoes - but I am cooking a whole 10 pound bag of russets, and that’s a LOT of ziploc bags to reheat. Maybe next year...
Coincidentally I was putting together my weeks timeline in OneNote this morning.
I've never made the gravy the day before and I kind of have a feeling the family would freak out about it. But it would help with the last minute stuff - and I've already got drippings and stock in the freezer since we're sous viding the turkey this year. Any tips or hints for "day before gravy" that I should know about before I try it?
Mike Vrobel says
Not really - I make it a day ahead, reheat it on Thanksgiving, then scrape in the drippings from the turkey. (My recipe is here:https://www.dadcooksdinner.com/pressure-cooker-giblet-gravy/)