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Searching for some words of wisdom for a Thanksgiving tenderfoot.

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My Dear Chowhounders:

I am cooking my first Thanksgiving dinner solo this year. Although in years past my duties have been limited to fetching drinks for the chef and picking the skin off of the turkey, this year I have decided to take up my turkey baster and potato ricer and head fearlessly into the kitchen, hopefully creating something fantastic, or at the very least, edible.

I am cooking for my boyfriend's family, a family of very lovely and wonderful people who also happen to be very picky, very traditional eaters

Obviously, I am filled with various doubts and concerns.

I have never cooked a Turkey before. Despite my shiny new roasting pan, regardless of how much research I put in or how many brining recipes I read, I continue to have nightmares that I will overcook it, or mistime it so we eat dinner at 11.30. I am not exaggerating. I have had both of these nightmares within the past week. As for the sides, I have recipes that I am planning on using, things that I have made before and am very comfortable with, but have no idea how to make it all come together, let alone look calm doing so. Appetizers and desserts elude me. I long to make something a little more avant garde for these but have no idea what.

Please Help!!!!!!

I know I am not alone in this endeavor and that we could all use a little guidance before the big day. Here is your chance to share all of your Thanksgiving wisdom, both successes and mishaps, with the next generation of home cooks. I am quite sure that you are all much wiser than I am and look forward to any advice that you can offer.

Thank you so much!!!!
-C

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  1. cooking a turkey is EASY. Really. I promise. I do it regularly. In fact, it was the first meal I cooked (solo) as a teenager.
    Do not worry about avant garde. It is Thanksgiving, people want family & traditional. Plus, I am sure they all know it is your first time & will be gentle with you.
    Wash, dry, & season the turkey. Put it in a 325 oven and LEAVE IT ALONE. I stuff my turkeys, but a lot of people don't. Your choice. Read the guidelines on the turkey package or google "turkey cooking times" for an estimate based on weight. A probe meat thermometer is your friend. Timing can be tricky, but most times the guests are there for the day - if it is a little late, it is ok. And it should rest once out of the oven, which gives you time to pull the rest together at the end.
    Without knowing your menu, kitchen set up, and methods, I can't really give timing advice. The best I can say is, try to relax and enjoy yourself. It is easy to psych yourself out over a "HOLIDAY MEAL" - it is just dinner. Do you roast chickens? This is just a bigger bird.

    GOOD LUCK!

    2 Replies
    1. re: elfcook

      My first Thanksgiving was for the potential in-laws. To add to the mix, they were divorced and didn't much like each other. Long story on why we had them both over at once, but I digress.

      Best advice I got was to make a "mini" thanksgiving using a large chicken as practice. Go ahead and make the sides (make the pie another day, cuz you'll make it the day before anyway, so it's not part of the stress factor) and prepare your chicken. Once you get it in your head that a turkey's just a big chicken, a lot of the stress invoved melts away.

      1. re: amysuehere

        Why even make it "mini"? Have some friends over a few weeks before Thanksgiving, buy the same size turkey you intend to make for the holiday, and roast it. You'll be able to figure out how long it will take to defrost and roast, plus you'll find out if the size you intended was really the right size. You might even figure out how best to use leftovers, assuming there are any. Ask your friends to bring their favorite sides. You might pick up some recipes that you hadn't considered.

    2. Just as a reminder... take the turkey out to defrost WAAAYY in advance! It can take 3-4 days for a frozen turkey to defrost in the fridge.

      Apps can be simple, like a nice cheese plate and some fruit/crackers. You will likely be making enough food for a small army so no one will go hungry.

      Skip the avant garde and make a nice pecan or pumpkin pie (which you can safely make the night before and store at room temp) with some freshly whipped cream or good vanilla ice cream.

      And good luck. Just remember--if you do a good job they will keep asking you every year. I know... my family has done just that!

      2 Replies
      1. re: iluvcookies

        Darn good advice about the defrosting. Every year it amazes me how long it takes.

        1. re: Vetter

          And if it is to be brined then allow 24 to 48 hours after the brining.

          Brining increases the flavour. One big advantage is that it gives more room for error on cooking times - it is more difficult to overcook.

          And I have to disagree with some posters. Turkey is not easy. I have seen more disasters with turkey than any other dish. OK, maybe souffles are worse.

          Here are a couple of bits of advice, any of which you can ignore.

          First one - do not bring the bird to the table. This is your first time. Do not court disaster.

          It is difficult to thoroughly cook a turkey breast without some parts of the bird drying out. Use a meat probe. Timings are useless except as an estimate of when it will be ready. It depends on the accuracy of your oven, the size, is it convection, how the bird is laid out (trussed, spatchcocked, spread etc)

          Use a deep dish of water in oven underneath the bird. (ie, sit the bird on a rack well above this dish.) The bird cooks quicker in a 'steamy' oven than a dry one. You've been in a sauna - it's the same effect as adding water to the coals. It also reduces loss of moisture. The final benefit is that the juices dripping into the liquid will let you have the bird with au jus gravy. ( but that's another thread altogether)

          Stop short of the final temperature and cover the bird to rest for a long, long time. Carve the bird in the privacy of your kitchen. You will see if any bits are slightly undercooked and can avoid them. Having blood seep out onto a platter in the middle of the table will distress somebody and cooking it to a level where there is no blood left in the bird means you will have some parts which are like shoe leather. The only way to avoid that is to joint the bird.

          And make sure the lights in the dining room are not too bright. A romantic lighting hides many sins such as aging decorations and slightly pink turkey. I discovered many years ago that turkey that is slightly pink is far better and enjoyed by everybody -provided they don't know it hasn't been incinerated.

          The final advantage of a meat thermometer is that it helps you gauge how long before everything is ready so you can time your vegetables. The resting period for the bird is your get-it-all-together time.

          If you are going to have an assistant pick the one you want in advance and don't take volunteers. At that stage you do not want advice, you want to give directions. This is YOUR meal. A kitchen is not a democracy. This person however needs to be able to run independently and not continually looking for advice. So if you could say to them, "Saute that broccoli with the garlic over there" and they'll just do it. That's the person you want. Not someone that asks if you want coasters underneath the serving dishes.

          Certain things can be done well ahead of time. Most veg can be cleaned / peeled a day ahead and stored under water. You can prepare mashed potatoes in the morning, mix with cream / butter and stick it in the slow cooker. Switch it on 90 minutes before serving. You can parboil and pre-roast potatoes, oil them and keep them in a sealed environment for hours before returning them to the oven for 20 minutes. Luckily the oven is now empty as the bird is resting so you can bump up the temperature.

          On a cookie tray you can roast potatoes, carrots, parsips and whole/half onions in the same fat. Three or four veg needing little attention. You can even throw half sticks of celery or whole/half tomatoes in with them near the end to add an extra veg. BTW, parsnips roast quicker then potatoes unless they potatoes are parboiled. Parboiling potatoes roughens them so they absorb more oil, taste better and are more calorific. Life's a bitch.

          One final thing - do a couple of extra veg and if one doesn't work out just ignore it.

      2. Oh.. if you post your proposed menu and how many guests maybe I can help with the timing aspect.

        1. The best advice I can give is to not expect perfection and keep a good attitude..

          Keep in mind that cooking for your friends and family is about giving them something personal from you - even if it is a mistimed turkey or cold side dishes. The stories of mishaps and mistimings can be pleasant memories for years if you yourself do not get caught up in them. Smile, be happy, enjoy the time, and laugh at yourself.

          At my first thanksgiving cooking endeavor I put a turkey on the grill out back to keep warm... my roomate at the time's Great Dane was later seen running around the backyard with it in her mouth. Later, our power went out and the sink stopped up.

          We laughed, let the dishes pile up, and drank wine by candlelight.

          To this day we all remember that Thanksgiving warmly, and it is a wonderful memory of our first Thanksgiving.

          1 Reply
          1. re: mcap

            This is good advice. It' a big day with a lot of moving parts. They most likely won't all move in sync. Don't sweat it. It can still work out great.
            I'm horrible at critiquing my own food. I'll make something and start getting irritated because it's not turning out the way I had it in my head. The Mrs. Sippi will look at me like I've got antlers because her taste test gives it straight A's.

            More so than that however is don't make this a big deal in your head. It's cooking, it's supposed to be enjoyed. Enjoy it.

            DT

          2. First rule: write down your entire planned menu and make a schedule. Figure out what you can do before Thanksgiving Day itself. You'll most likely find that a lot of the sides and desserts you can do beforehand, which opens up the day itself quite nicely.

            1. I did my first solo Thanksgiving last year (having done them with the rest of the women in my family since I could reach the stove to stir gravy or the counter to slice bread), and so from one (relative) noob to another, my suggested timeline, based on countless holiday meals with my mama:

              Monday: put frozen Turkey in fridge. Tear bread for dressing, make cranberry sauce (or, ahem, my mama's cranberry sherbet)

              Tuesday: chop all veggies (celery, onions), make stock -- for dressing

              Wednesday: make pies, start roll dough, mix dressing and put in baking pan, peel potatoes and put in the cooking pot covered with water. You can even make the mashed potatoes and then re-heat them tomorrow. Put together but don't bake other sides (sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, etc.). Put together crudite platter. Set table. Have cocktail. Go to bed.

              Thursday a.m.: shape rolls and put in baking dish, put turkey in oven, assemble any remaining sides, boil potatoes. Put dressing in oven. Put out crudites, plus the appetizers you've asked the family to bring. Relax.

              Thursday p.m: Mash potatoes, remove turkey from oven, tent with foil. Throw rolls and casseroles in oven. SET TIMER. Make gravy. Remove rolls, put in a cute basket. Take 10 minutes to freshen up. Come back and remove casseroles. Take everything to the table. Get someone else to carve turkey while you open the champagne. Gorge yourself.

              Good luck!! :)

              7 Replies
              1. re: LauraGrace

                Will you post your cranberry sherbet recipe on the home cooking board? it sounds amazing.

                1. re: mollyomormon

                  Please don't make the mashed potatoes a day ahead. The starches in the potatoes don't reheat well and you'll end up with gloppy paste like mashed potatoes. What you can do though is peel the potatoes and leave in water in the refridgerator the day before. Dump the water they were sitting in then boil and mash on turkey day.

                  1. re: Flaxen_Vixen

                    Oh, F_V, I stand by the pre-made spuds. I've had good luck making them, putting them in a microwave-safe dish, and nuking them before serving. I've even reheated them (covered, of course) in the oven along with the turkey. Sure, they're not as great as fresh, but I've never ended up with pasty potatoes.

                    1. re: Flaxen_Vixen

                      I've made Suzanne Goin's recipe for pureed potatoes the day before (which she says in the instructions that you can do) and they've always been wonderful. May have something to do with the obscene amounts of butter, cream and milk in the them.

                    2. re: mollyomormon

                      Done! :) Twice, in fact!

                      1. re: LauraGrace

                        For me, it's all the difference in the world. I'm kind of a mashed potato snob. If you make everything else ahead of time mashing taters doesn't take too much time and much better results. Also if you're cooking up a big batch, have always been a fan of whipping/mashing them in my stand mixer.

                        1. re: Flaxen_Vixen

                          Well, last year, based on CH recs, I made the potatoes the day before (did them in the stand mixer with butter and heavy cream). Put them in the slow cooker and reheated the next day. They were perfect. I think it;s important to have an open mind to change :)

                  2. I would recommend you try roasting one as a test beforehand, this weekend or next, to lessen your performance anxiety. (If you're buying frozen, buy several days ahead to defrost it in the fridge).

                    Do you know what size bird you're getting?

                    Thanksgiving is one meal where it does not pay to be inventive and cutting edge. Be confident in being traditional, even boring; it's a ritual meal, and the focus is on the ritual, not inventiveness.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: Karl S

                      And several days means several to defrost a turkey, I recently defrosted a 7 lb turkey BREAST in the fridge and it took 5 days.

                      1. re: buttertart

                        Yes. I prefer to use "fresh" birds, which are partly thawed already - I give those at least 2 days in the fridge if they are big. I've always wondered who calculated the days it takes to thaw a fully frozen bird: they are very optimistic.

                        1. re: Karl S

                          I usually get around a 20 pounder, and give it at least 5 days. At least! And there are still frost crystals insides sometimes. If so, I rinse out with lukewarm water. Otherwise it will never be done. Oh speaking of feeling around inside, don't forget to do so, and take out the neck and asst packages of giblets, rather than finding those later on after cooking.

                        2. re: buttertart

                          yep buttertart, that sounds about rpgiht. if your fridge is kept at the proper temp it will take a good full week of thawing. But, Jesuisgood don't panick about his. Because that turkey was flash frozen quite soon after slaughter and processing, it isn't in danger of spoiling while it thaws. If you try to thaw it for a week and hold it for a week, you might run afoul (sorry about that pun.) But thawing for 5-7 days in a very cold fridge will be just about right.

                          And rinse that brid inside and out very well. If you aren't brining, and I don't, I still give it a bath in salted water.

                          I'm in the don't baste category. Every time you open the oven you let out heat and that will lead to roasting the bird longer. Longer cooking equals dryer bird. I just stuff the cavity with cut up apple, orance, celery carrot, onion and herbs (thanks Alton!) put butter and herbs under the skin, rub butter over the skin and leave it alone. If it's a big bird, say a 20 lber, I'll tent it with foil and remove the foil halfWay through so the skin doesn't get too dark.

                          Also, listen to those who recommend a probe thermometer. I've got one with a cord that I leave in. It beeps when it reaches the temperature I set. It's the only way to make sure that the turkey.roast beast is properly done. It also let's me reheat sides that have been made up in advance perfectly. All you have to do is make sure the internal temp at the center of the dish hits 140-155 and you know that it's ready to head to the table piping hot all the way through.

                          Good luck and enjoy the day!

                      2. Practice starting now- side dishes with your regular meals. Serve what you know how to do.

                        I got a whole turkey for 37 cents a pound on Sunday. You should be able to also. Most stuff is on sale anyhow.

                        Practice, practice, practice. Something new every day. By Thanksgiving, you'll know what you can-and can't- do.

                        1. My suggestion is that you make yourself a time-line for the day. Think about what time you want your dishes to be ready and work back from there. Here's an example:

                          10:45A ......Turkey out of refrigerator
                          11:00A
                          11:30A.......Sage stuffing for bird (made day before) out of refrigerator/preheat oven
                          11:45A
                          12:00
                          12:15P.......Turkey (stuffed) into oven 325 degrees covered with foil
                          1:00P
                          1:30P
                          2:00P
                          2:30P........ Ham into convection oven 325 degrees - glaze every 15 - 20 minutes
                          3:00P
                          3:15P
                          3:30P.........Foil off turkey
                          3:45P ........Sage sausage and apple stuffing (made day before) out of refrigerator
                          4:00P ........Pearl onion au gratin (made day before) out of refrigerator
                          4:15P.........Sage sausage and apple stuffing into oven
                          ..................Start green bean casserole
                          4:30P ........Turkey out of oven, out of roaster, cover with foil, rest 20-30 min.
                          ..................Pearl Onion au Gratin into oven
                          ..................Start Madeira gravy
                          ..................Make candied carrots
                          5:00P ........Pearl Onion au Grain out of oven - cover with foil
                          ..................Green bean Casserole in oven
                          ..................Check apple sage stuffing add liquid if needed
                          ..................Start heating peas and corn
                          ..................Carve turkey
                          ..................Ham out of oven, carve
                          5:15P.........Sage sausage apple stuffing out of oven - cover with foil
                          ..................Dinner rolls in oven
                          5:25 P .......Stir green bean casserole, add remaining onions to top
                          ..................Dinner rolls out of oven
                          5:30P ........Green bean casserole out of oven

                          EAT!

                          You get the idea. I didn't think I'd use the timeline after the first year, but I've used it every year for the past four. I wouldn't want to be without it now. Also, prepare whatever you can the day before. You don't say what your menu is, but depending on the size you may want to ask people to bring simple things like mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes or desserts which frees more time up for you to focus on other aspects of the meal.

                          After I wash and dry the turkey and have it stuffed I rub both under the skin and the skin with a mixture of room temp butter, olive oil and seasonings such as salt and pepper, rosemary, sage, thyme. It assures the skin will be beautifully browned. I also always stuff the turkey, it's another way to guarantee a moist bird.

                          Don't be afraid to ask for help. As you can see the last 45 min to hour before dinner things get a bit hectic. My MIL carves the bird and my SIL makes the gravy so I can tend to other things.

                          Try to relax and enjoy it - it only gets easier after your first!

                          1. My first Thanksgiving hosting was pretty nerve-wracking. I was hosting the in-laws and this was back when Butterball had a commercial where the two old biddies whispered cattily about the young hostess' bird, "I'll bet the turkey's dry!" I was terrified. My turkey wasn't thawed by T-day and I had major timing issues on all the sides. There's a much longer, more embarrassing story to my first Thanksgiving but I'll save that for another day.

                            I've since calmed down quite a bit. I've learned the hard way (took two lessons) that a fresh bird is the way to go. The guidelines may tell you how many days in the refrigerator it takes to thaw but you can't bank on it. Um, and then you do want to make sure you remove the bag of liver, heart, etc. from the bird. That was REALLY embarrassing. Erm. Twice.

                            Past several years, I've become a huge fan of brining. Brining a turkey works so well! The meat is delicious and moist (even the breast) and it's not at all salty. Plus, there's less likelihood of frozen or giblet-packed turkey. Damn. That's STILL embarrassing. It's great for family storytime, though... Here's the basic recipe I use:

                            1 gallon water
                            1 cup kosher salt
                            1 1/2 cups sugar
                            4 ounces cracked black pepper
                            Any other seasonings you want (I use a bit of sage, some garlic, and whatever else strikes me as I rifle through the spice cabinet; orange or lemon peels also work nicely)

                            EDIT: You may need to double this for a large turkey

                            Bring all ingredients to a boil in large pot then simmer 15 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.

                            To prepare turkey: Remove contents in main and neck cavities, reserve for other uses if desired. Rinse turkey with cool water. Place bird in cooled brine, fully covered, for 12 to 24 hours in refrigerator.

                            Remove from brine and rinse turkey, inside and out, with cool water and pat dry. Roast as usual (although I've found my turkeys seem to cook a little faster when they've been brined).

                            Don't fret. Plan ahead.

                            I have become a fan of making a spreadsheet. I have every dish listed (and who's bringing it if I'm not making it), the serving dish I'll use, all ingredients for it (on the far right of the list I make my grocery list), recipes for new things, etc. A day or two before the event, I'll start staging things. All of the dry/non-perishable items go in the serving dish so I can immediately see whether I'm missing a key ingredient or if I need more of something. It's really helped me feel in control of everything and not worry that I'm forgetting something.

                            Good luck! Have fun!

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: Ima Wurdibitsch

                              I can't endorse strongly enough the fabulous results you describe when a turkey is brined. I use a simpler brine, just one cup of table salt to one gallon of water (probably need two gallons for a turkey), just for 8 hours though. It does give the turkey wonderful seasoning, and the meat is incredibly moist.

                              Last year our host made a turkey which wasn't brined and the breast meat just dries all up. I was sad, as it is a needless tragedy.

                              I WILL NEVER COOK ANOTHER TURKEY (OR CHICKEN) AS LONG AS I LIVE WITHOUT BRINING IT FIRST. EVER. Yes, I was yelling.

                              1. re: Ima Wurdibitsch

                                I agree with all of this - except I add sugar to my brine.

                                1. re: Paulustrious

                                  me, too. helps the skin to brown.

                              2. A few other suggestions: Turkey is perfectly fine served room temperature, as long as the gravy and sides are hot. It also helps to gather your baking pans, casserole dishes, etc., and place them in the oven before they're filled to see what fits so you can maximize oven space. Do the same with stove top items. And, have fun...it's a great holiday!

                                1. First of all, thank you everyone for taking the time to respond to this. I can honestly say this is already making me feel better. I really like the idea of a time line, and I appreciate everyone advising me to stay traditional. I've been reading too many Thanksgiving magazines and I think I got carried away.
                                  Is there anything that you would not recommend preparing at least somewhat in advance? I've heard things about making a base gravy the day before and then adding the pan dripping right before serving. Since gravy is next to turkey in terms of what I'm afraid of messing up (I hate bad gravy), it would be a nice shortcut, but I don't want to ruin the final product.

                                  There will be 8 people for dinner (at least that I'm aware of) including myself. My BF's mother has ordered a 20 lb turkey, which I'm pretty sure is fresh.

                                  The proposed menu, as of now is:

                                  Unknown Hors D'oeuvres
                                  Butternut Squash Soup (with ginger and apple cider, from a restaurant I used to work at... so good, but I'm not sure if it's too much with everything else)
                                  Turkey (Brined, and according to Martha Stewart, roasted with a wine and butter soaked cheese cloth... Is this valid or am I better off with the butter rub?)
                                  Gravy
                                  Cranberry Sauce
                                  Stuffing with Mushrooms, Swiss Chard, and Gruyere (providing that my trial goes well)
                                  Succotash
                                  Green Beans With Tarragon and Lemon
                                  Ginger Molasses Carrots (http://www.chow.com/recipes/10732
                                  )Mashed Potatoes
                                  Unknown Rolls
                                  Unknown Dessert

                                  Does this sound like it goes together pretty well? I was just trying to stick to things I know I can cook.

                                  4 Replies
                                  1. re: jesuisawesome

                                    The menu as is sounds lovely.

                                    Oh, do make the gravy base ahead (I normally buy a few turkey wings, necks or other parts and roast them with some vegetables (onion, carrots, celery, leek greens, a head of garlic unpeeled, some herbs, you get the picture) a weekend or two before, and deglaze the pan and freeze the base. That way, I can prepare the gravy while the turkey's cooking. I save the day-of pan drippings for making gravy for the leftovers.

                                    I would not brine a turkey - takes up too much room. I would instead salt it inside and out the day before cooking - much less effort.

                                    You cannot make the green beans too far ahead: beans can be parcooked no more than a couple of hours ahead and then immediately shocked in ice water, then dried and put to the side, then warmed.

                                    Make some croutons ahead for the soup.

                                    * * *

                                    Now, for the *non* cooking aspects of the meal: I find it easiest to have a list of all the cooking and serving plates and utensils I will need, and where they will go in the kitchen and the dining room.

                                    I am a single host, and I am a clean-as-you-go type, so many years ago I learned to simplify the crowding at the table and side tables by having warm foods stay in the kitchen. Guests self-serve therefrom. While not quite proper, I don't have staff, and food stays warmer and guests are not put in the role of server as much: I prefer this compromise and I've learned that many Hounds do likewise. Consider if this might work for you.

                                    1. re: jesuisawesome

                                      No question, your menu sounds great. However, if you are looking to impress your bf's family, I would find out what they have at every Thanksgiving meal and include as many of their traditional sides as possible. You do not want to hear "where are the sweet potatoes?" when you have just killed yourself putting together an amazing spread. If your bf only knows from canned cranberry sauce, have that as well as your homemade sauce.

                                      Find out when they usually eat, and work backwards. I am not suggesting you should not add your own touches, but people (described by you as picky and traditional) can become very attached to certain items. Ask the home-owner about any quirks in the appliances and in the guests, particularly any allergies or dislikes. You don't want to find out on Thanksgiving that your bf's mother hates mushrooms.

                                      The person who mentioned that a turkey can be served at room temperature makes a good point. If you time your turkey to be done a little earlier, it can rest and if it runs longer than expected, you still won't be late.

                                      As a nice touch, bring some containers to give away leftovers

                                      1. re: jesuisawesome

                                        You've gotten some great advice but even for a great home cook, I think this is an awfully ambitious menu unless you are going to have a LOT of help and cook most of it in advance. It ends up being endless dishes and washing and rewashing and rewashing pans to prep things in and no room for everything as it's getting done, and you doing things in a frenzy and ending up burning the rolls because you forgot them, etc.

                                        I would honestly serve HALF the # of items you have. Remember, the day is about getting together and having a meal together, not how many dishes you can serve. You don't need succotash AND green beans AND carrots, you know? Turkey and gravy, cranberry, a green or orange veg, the mashed and some rolls. Ixnay the soup, it's filler and not necessary. Simple relish tray and cheese and crackers is FINE for the app. Make the pie ahead of time (or, gasp, buy one! Nobody will care, I promise you.) I can tell you most people do not appreciate all that work that went into a home cooked meal, they just go, where's the CANNED cranberry sauce, that's what I like, or where are my marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes.

                                        I agree with the suggestions on doing a test bird. It's very easy to get the bird wrong and you won't know how your oven performs with a big bird until you cook one. Plus if you make one now, you can have the stock on hand to use for gravy, stuffing, etc.

                                        1. re: rockandroller1

                                          I made soup a few times but it's a waste unless you're not serving any other appetizers. However I'm big on vegetables, I always make at least 3 or 4 in addition to cranberry. I'm the one that mostly eats them, the reason I do it is more so I have some healthy leftovers instead of turkey, stuffing and mashed with gravy for the entire weekend. And if anyone skews towards vegetarian, it's a big plus.

                                          PS Don't forget about the distribution of leftovers, in my experience as important as the dinner itself.

                                          And as Karl S says, have a side table for the feast and let everyone help themselves, can't imagine any other way to do it expeditiously.

                                          Also you MUST make some type of time line for the day itself, mine is more general, like 6am to 8am finish cleaning (funny no one mentioned this, it's the worst part of the holiday for me), 8am to 9am turkey out, ingredients out, put on parade at full volume, 9am turkey in, start giblet gravy, and so on and so on. Up to 1 PM (guests arrive 2 Pm) have a drink and take a shower and mellow out. Most important, be mellow, you are the the one who will set the mood of the whole day.

                                      2. oh yeah, to make you feel better about your meal, let me add to the stories of horrors survived -

                                        I used to use disposable roasting pans, until one buckled as I was taking the turkey out of the oven, dropping the stuffed bird & all juices on the open oven door.

                                        I once had to take a screwdriver to pry apart frozen turkey legs to get the giblets out , despite days of thawing in the fridge.

                                        4 Replies
                                        1. re: elfcook

                                          PS on the frozen legs - it's common for the thigh/drumstick joint to be hard as a rock, even in "fresh" (really partly thawed) turkeys. Pouring running cold water is the fastest method of thawhing (cold water thaws faster than hot - you can consult the thermodynamics of that counterintuitive fact).

                                          1. re: Karl S

                                            yes, despite my best efforts (and long thawing times), my turkeys frequently get a running water bath as I am prepping them.

                                            1. re: elfcook

                                              In all my years of cooking turkeys, I would have to say that it is typical for that joint to be frozen even after days in the fridge.

                                              It's one reason I never truss my turkeys (I don't stuff the main cavity except with aromatics - the smaller cavity can be helpful to plug with something). Yes, the turkey appears "wanton" when done (to use the immortal bon mot of Julia Child about untrussed poultry). But its more evenly done in that critical joint.

                                              Of course, if you don't truss your bird, you have to use a lot of paper towels to (1) hold it while turning it, and (2) to plug the cavities so the juice doesn't pour out while turning.

                                              Oh, and I always remove the wishbone while prepping the bird. Makes jointing and carving sooooo much easier. A professional truc.

                                              1. re: Karl S

                                                One of the best gifts I've ever received was a Popeil rotisserie oven, not the oven itself but it came with a pair of thermal plastic gloves that are SO handy for flipping the bird ;+)

                                        2. my sugesstion is get as much done aheas as possible. I think the day or two days before it is helpful ( if you have room) to get all the serving pieces out and label them with a post it note. this not only ensures you have everything but if popel are hleping you plate, you canjust tell them, go get the dish labeled stuffing. much easier than having people rummage your cabinets. Also, set the table way ahead. the turkey itself is easy. Get yourself a meat thermometer if you dont have one as this will make you feel more confident that the bird is done.
                                          I also think it is helpful to make gravy ahead of time. buy turkey parts to make it, that way you have it on hand and arent wisking the gravy last minute.

                                          1. Here are a few lessons I've learned along the way...see if they work for you.

                                            1. As mentioned. Order a fresh turkey. Not really too expensive, and worth not having to worry about defrosting. Pick up the tuesday before.
                                            2. Pick a dinner time that makes sense for you and your guests. The first few years after my mother passed and I assumed the duties. I would always have the meal at 1pm because that's when she did. I was exhausted by the time the meal came, because I didn't have as much time on the day to prepare. I now have the meal at 6pm. That works for my family.
                                            3.As stated, plan your day, your do ahead dishes, what time what goes in...I would add to that...plan your serving dishes. Make sure you know which serving bowl the potatoes go in, which the stuffing etc. Don't forget to plan your shower and makeup. And a glass of wine.
                                            4. Not all dishes have to be loved by all guests. I always add a good macaroni and cheese dish so my nephews and nieces will be happy, then I feel free to go ahead and add something funky to the dressing if I'd like.
                                            5. Buy gladware, or have clean tupperware ready for put away...it will make clean up go easy. Have your dishwasher unloaded and ready.
                                            6. Plan your oven dishes and stove top dishes accordingly, so you know you have enough space. I would rather cook corn pudding and stuffing in the stove, so green beans will be my green vegetable, cooked on the stovetop for example.
                                            7. Have simple, light appetizers. You want people to be hungry for dinner, but they should have something to nibble on in case your are running late.
                                            8. Ask someone to get the drinks when people arrive. You will be busy. Or set up a do it yourself bar.
                                            9. This one may get me some debate...but a turkey cooked to the proper temperature doesn't need brining. I'm sure it adds something, but for me it's not worth the extra step. A timed thermometer,is, however, ESSENTIAL. Have always made perfectly cooked turkey, once I learned that lesson.
                                            10. Unless you have a cat, set your table the night before. You'll feel well on your way in the morning.
                                            11. Once your guest get there, LET THEM HELP IF THEY WISH. They like feeling usefull, and you won't work as hard.
                                            These have worked for me. I hope you find some of them helpful. Enjoy yourself. You're well on your way to a lovely dinner. I wish I had your forsight to ask others when I first got started. Happy Thanksgiving.

                                            3 Replies
                                            1. re: LA Buckeye Fan

                                              Oh, yes, set the table the day/night before. Essential for sanity. Get all the serving plates and utensils lined up too, et cet.

                                              1. re: Karl S

                                                I think the only exception to setting the table the night before is if you have a lot of "helper-types" invited that are, in fact, not at all helpful but will be bossy or underfoot. If I know a couple of them are coming, I purposefully wait to set the table in order to give them something to do when they arrive and keep them out of my kitchen. =)

                                                1. re: thursday

                                                  Oh, no. No one sets my table for a special meal. Never. I've been known to set it up further ahead and toss a (clean!) sheet over the whole thing.

                                            2. Lot and lots of wine!

                                              I dropped the turkey once- it was pretty funny (at least it is now). I spilled some breast milk I had pumped for my daughter into the turkey once, also. I never told anybody about that. One year I was "brining" the turkey (in a weak salt solution in order to please my granddad who is on a salt restricted diet) on the porch and it froze. Solid. We had ham. And lots of wine...

                                              1. Let's turn jesuisawesome into la turkey perfecto. First relax, the turkeys already come pre-educated on what to do as long as you do not do aything foolish.

                                                First - If you have access to a fresh turkey, go that route since the defrosting time for a turkey is a timeframe that is hard to comprehend. Let us know the size of the bird and people will give you opinions on when to start the roasting. Jfood has used the buttered cheesecloth. Great idea for the first few turkeys.
                                                Second - that menu sounds fantastic. Also let us know if you are stuffing the bird or cooking the dressing outide the bird. Big difference in prep and cooking times.
                                                Third - as someone else suggested, the turkey need not go straight from the oven to the table. Plan on 20 minutes per pound and add 20 minutes for yucks and grins. Buy a good thermometer because the little plastic thingy is sometimes broken.
                                                Fourth - Keep people who only cook once per year away from the stove. One time some thought they "locked" the oven by throwing that handle that is required to clean theovens. It actually turns it off. Two hour delay in the turkey is a difficult timeframe to make up.
                                                Fifth - As Karl S stated. Table set the day before or if possible the weekend before.
                                                Sixth - Jfood loves the timeline idea. Does it all the time
                                                Seventh - Make what you can each night Mon-Wed. On your menu, everything but the potatoes should either been done or mis en placed in plastic bags and the bags stapled together.

                                                We're all here to help. Been there done that sorta thing. Jfood would bet that hundreds of turkeys have been roasted from the posters already on this thread.

                                                7 Replies
                                                1. re: jfood

                                                  For several years, I would cook three turkeys for Thanksgiving: two for the church social the Sunday before (cooked in my oven and the oven of my downstairs friend - we lived in a 2-family house) and then one for the day. Doing that for a few years is good practice.

                                                  And I am not one who lets people in the kitchen to help unbidden. They'll get hurt. I mean it. Do not get in the way.

                                                  My normal goal is to have everything more or less ready (except for something like green beans being heated at the last minute) a half hour before people arrive, so I can shower and change clothes and have a drink by myself (I am mildly introverted in terms of energy sourcing - I recharge on my own, thank you very much). And it's a cool shower - you get very warm doing this. I don't do an appetizer course because it just delays things and screws with that pre-event cool-down. All of my guests know to be prompt (that is, within 15 minutes of the stated time). They are well trained. None of this shilly-shallying about time. They all remember the time I had a guest (who was notorious for being late, and who was told specifically the time we would actually sit down to eat) show up 2 hours late (we were between the main course and dessert at that point), with an uninvited guest and a dog.

                                                  Oh, and one more thing for Thanksgiving tenderfeet: don't be surprised if you don't have much of an appetite when dinner is finally served. Being surrounded by the smells of cooking for hours does wonders for satiety, for good or ill. My mother said this for decades, and she was right. It's one reason that people who want to limit what they eat should be encouraged to cook for others and enjoy dinner together: they will not feel as much of an urge to consume as much food.

                                                  1. re: jfood

                                                    It's a 20 pound fresh turkey (picking it up the tuesday before) and i'm cooking the stuffing on the side.
                                                    I'm a little nervous, because I'm cooking at their house and not my own, but I'm bringing my own tools, which should be a little bit of a security blanket.

                                                    1. re: jesuisawesome

                                                      For that size boyd you are looking at ~6 hours in theoven

                                                      http://homecooking.about.com/library/...

                                                      If you plan on a 4PM sitdown, turkey out between 2-3 and counting back 6 hours, bird into oven ~8ish; therefore oven on to preheat at 730ish. Hoepefully you are resident the night before.

                                                      BTW - some may giggle when you call stuffing not cooked in the bird "stuffing." Try calling it "dressing" so the relatives have one less thing to snicker abotu.

                                                      1. re: jfood

                                                        Absolutely re dressing. If outside the bird - my lifelong preference - it's dressing.

                                                        1. re: c oliver

                                                          It always takes me much longer to make the dressing than I anticipate. Do you think I can mix it up the day before and keep it in the casserole dish in fridge? Or, would it be better to just have the celery/onion chopped and in containers ready to be sauteed? I do like to stuff some into the turkey so I have to let it cool off before I stuff -- I usually stick it in freezer for 20 minutes to speed this part up.

                                                          1. re: walker

                                                            I always make my stuffing/dressing the night before, no rest for the weary: besides the usual vegs I use mushrooms and sausage so lots of sauteeing, and then put all together (eggs, heavy cream, vermouth etc). Just take it out an hour or so before cooking, same time as the turkey actually, to take the chill off.

                                                            1. re: walker

                                                              I missed this update. I would have definitely made it up the day before. But I'm more casual than some :)

                                                    2. I can't add much more than the other hounds; they pretty much have it covered. Only that, you already have so much on your menu (everything sounds wonderful), why not just let the butternut squash soup be your appetizer or hor doeurve ? You could serve it in pretty cups or small bowls with a garnish (maybe toasted pumpkin seeds) and some nice crackers or toasted crostini. Then you could go on with your meal.

                                                      Another tip is that if you do get a frozen turkey and so that you don't find yourself with an unthawed bird on Thanksgiving even if you did take it out of of the freezer on the Sunday before, you can fill up your sink or a large container and immerse the turkey (make sure the bird is covered with water). It takes a bit of work in that you have to keep check on the water to make sure it stays cold (you could add some ice or ice packs) but your turkey will thaw faster this way. The way I've done this is by immersing the bird in water for about 7 hours (16-20 lbs, during the day). Take the bird from the water & refrigerate until the night before turkey day and it should be fully thawed. If not, you could use the immersion method again.

                                                      The important thing is not to worry, go with a schedule and everything should be fine.

                                                      1. I'll just say that I find appetizer during Thanksgiving overkill. There is so much food on the dinner table that it is unnecessary to have appetizers, in my opinion. My mom always does a veggie tray, but everyone tries to avoid it because they don't want to spoil their appetite for dinner.

                                                        1. So much good advice!

                                                          My mother always made giblet gravy. Her recipe is made in a stock pot ahead of time, so no last minute whisking of pan drippings. Our family loves it, but there are some who don't thrill to offal. It does cut down on the craziness of that last half hour though!

                                                          (We always saved the drippings for a milk gravy later in the week.)

                                                          1. You might wish to take the time to cut the bird into quarters ahead of time, and remove the wings from the breast. Each portion of the bird requires a different temperature (and therefore often a different cooking time to finish. Breast meat, for instance, is at its moistest and juiciest at around 160 degrees F internal temperature. Dark meat requires a higher temperature. On an intact bird, often the breast is less than optimal due to overcooking, or else the thigh is slightly undercooked. By separating the bird into quarters, each piece can be optimally cooked. Then, after resting, the breast meat is best removed from the bones, and cut across the grain into slices, which can be reassembled on a platter into something resembling the breast, for a nice presentation. Most people recommend that the stuffing be cooked separately in any case, to avoid ingestion of well incubated bacterial cultures and their associated toxins.

                                                            1. my best advice would have been to cook two 12 lb. turkeys instead of one larger bird; but I see that won't be possible. I figured this out after many MANY years of cooking exceedingly large birds. d-u-h

                                                              my other advice would be to find out what food or dish means "thanksgiving" to your guests AND to you and plan accordingly. Its about ritual and tradition.

                                                              1 Reply
                                                              1. re: laliz

                                                                I love 12# turkeys.

                                                              2. An incredible amount of really great advice. All i can share is that the first Thanksgiving I did was one of my best. I kept it simple because I knew I was not going to be capable of too much. But most of all because it was the first time, I really planned and paid attention to what I was doing. I often find the first time you do a food is great. The second time you fool yourself into thinking you know what you are doing. So just relax and be glad this is the first event. When it turns into a disaster next time, everyone will already assume you know what you are doing, so it wont be a problem then either. ENJOY!

                                                                1. I always cover the turkey with cheesecloth soaked in cooking oil--but I like the idea of a wine and butter-soaked cheesecloth! I baste both over and under the cloth, but I only baste a few times. Since this is your first turkey, I suggest you get a turkey with one of those little pop-up things in the breast, because it may get done sooner than you think it should. Trust the little pop-up thing, and the breast meat won't be dried out.

                                                                  I transfer the frozen turkey from the freezer to the refrigerator on Sunday night, or Monday morning at the latest. It may still need a cool running water bath on Thursday to remove the last of the ice crystals.

                                                                  Keep the menu as simple as you can and be sure you are cooking dishes that your family and your bf's family associate with the holiday. As others have said, this is not the time for innovation, alas. If you know some people will want green bean/mushroom soup casserole, well, make it. It's one of the many side dishes that you can assemble on Tuesday or Wednesday, to be popped into the overn with no hassle on Thursday.

                                                                  Bake your pie(s) on Wednesday.
                                                                  If anyone offers to bring a side dish or dessert, let them!

                                                                  Have fun! I'm a bit envious because I won't be cooking a turkey this year.

                                                                  1. I would not serve a "slightly pink" turkey! That reads as undercooked to me, and I'll be darned if I would serve up salmonella to my guests! Just take it out before it reaches 180F and cover it with foil to finish cooking. It will continue to cook after removing from the oven!
                                                                    You can prepare some of your sides as suggested, or why not consider what my family does and let everyone contribute a side dish? Unless your guests are coming from out of town, a lot of people love to help with the food and show off their cooking talents. We have a fairly open Thanksgiving with lots of friends and family, so that works out well.
                                                                    If that's not what you want, then you can prepare your stuffing the day before but don't add the bread and eggs until you're almost ready to stuff the bird. It will need to be rewarmed and then you can mix those items in.
                                                                    If you aren't stuffing the bird, make all of the stuffing ahead and bake it with thin slices of raw turkey meat (I buy a package of turkey thighs) and lay them over the top of the dressing. (Yes, I include some of the skin and remove excess fat) As everything cooks, the juices from the sliced thigh meat goes into the dressing and it will taste as moist and yummy as if it had been stuffed inside the turkey!
                                                                    I have a very large electric skillet and will be reheating the stuffing inside it. It has a warming feature to keep it warm. If you don't have one, you can take the stuffing out of the fridge ahead of the turkey...about the last 1/2 hour to 45 minutes to take the chill off. When the turkey is out the oven to rest, cover the dressing with foil and reheat it in the oven.
                                                                    If you want to warm your mashed potatoes in a slow cooker, be careful not to leave them in there cooking too long. It will turn them into glue! I have done that and they were horrible! If you have a warming feature that will just keep them warm, then great! Last year someone brought scalloped potatoes and those were awesome!
                                                                    One hint about brining...since it takes up so much refrigerator space, line a large ice chest with a large plastic bag and brine the turkey inside it! If you add enough ice and put in a cool place it should come out fine! Afterward, clean the ice chest throughly and add some bleach to the water to kill the bacteria.
                                                                    Have fun and relax because once the turkey is out of the oven, it can get a bit chaotic putting on the finishing touches Lots of great suggestions from everyone! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

                                                                    2 Replies
                                                                    1. re: Awwshucks

                                                                      IMO, any turkey cooked beyond 165 is overdone and therefore dried out.

                                                                      1. re: c oliver

                                                                        Even the FDA in 'cover their backsides' mode stop at 165.

                                                                    2. C- you can do it girl. Don't panic.

                                                                      Fridge space is an issue here- I keep meaning to upgrade the fridge but the $$$$ is better spent on other stuff, so I have to be very organized. Now is NOT the time to stock up on huge containers of Orange Juice that take up half the fridge...

                                                                      First, I would tell you that it's REALLY not scary to cook a turkey. I'm not anti-brine but I don't have the space. They need time and a little loving baste every so often- but you don't have to be a machine and get there every 20 minutes on the dot.

                                                                      Open the wine as soon as you can. :o)

                                                                      Have some munchies but not a ton- and don't forget you need to eat something too, because you'll probably not be very hungry at dinner time when everyone else is scarfing- I always enjoy the "after-party" (around 10pm Thanksgiving night) MORE when I'm the cook on T-day.

                                                                      PUT DOWN THE MARTHA STEWART books. Back AWAY from the glossy magazines. Buy a few cute lil pumpkins, some orange candles, get some nuts in the shell- throw them (artistically) into the middle of the table and there's yer centerpiece....

                                                                      Don't get dressed or do your makeup or anything until 30 min before guests are arriving. And everything should be finished and hanging out in the low oven to keep warm but not dry out...

                                                                      I have less than 10 years of T-Day experience, and it gets easier. The clean up is always MUCH more scary than the cooking!

                                                                      1. Now that the countdown has begun, I thought of something else. Besides food concerns: Make sure you have plenty of paper towels, clean towels, dish detergent etc. Some funny (in retrospect) things have happened to family members. Like the time SIL didn't have detergent for the dishwasher, so she put in regular sink soap. Please don't do this unless you want to recreate a Marx Bros movie. Also my Mom had a series of calamities one after the other Thanksgiving, I don't remember everything but it involved the turkey pan getting a hole in it, the oven catching on fire, using all the paper towels in the house to clean up then realizing she hadn't washed any of her terry kitchen towels and they had nothing to wipe up with for the rest of the day.

                                                                        Another time there was no heat at Mom's, she was laying down because she wasn't feeling well; so we sat in the cold waiting for the oil burner repair man, when he got there turns out one of the guest had flipped the switch at the top of the stairs. He must have charged her a pretty penny.

                                                                        And last year, well let's just say I changed propane companies the day after Thanksgiving and got a tank with a gauge, so I don't run out of gas in the middle of cooking the turkey, before the side dishes were even started. Propane companies DO NOT come out on holidays unless you have a leak.

                                                                        The thing is, all these meals turned out fine, but there's more involved than just the cooking if you want things to run smoothly.

                                                                        1. I just wanted to check in and see how it went. I also wanted to thank all the people who replied- I 'm another tenderfoot who hosted my first TG on Thursday and (with a couple of minor exceptions) it was perfect. So I also appreciated the tips and kind words in response to jia!