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Nov 4, 2009 10:39 AM

Searching for some words of wisdom for a Thanksgiving tenderfoot.

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!!!!

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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.


    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.


          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.