The funny thing about holidays is that you are the same person on those days as you are all the other days of the year. If you are generally disorganized and a little chaotic in the kitchen, you won’t magically transform into someone who isn’t. Take it from me, someone who is disorganized and a little chaotic.
But that has never stopped me from being enthusiastic about Thanksgiving, a holiday that’s dedicated almost exclusively to cooking and eating, my two favorite things. I’m also a sucker for tradition and routine, and while my lifestyle and schedule don’t leave much room for either, I cherish the one day a year to honor both.
To avoid unnecessary personal meltdowns while cooking this meal, I’ve learned to match my expectations with my reality. This means nothing is getting done more than three days before Thanksgiving, and I refuse to panic about it. Even with that relatively generous timeline, all the real cooking I do for Thanksgiving simply happens the day of, in a very small New York City kitchen with an extremely small refrigerator and an even smaller oven.
It can be done, and if I can do it there, you can do it anywhere. Here’s what I’ll be cooking, and how I’ll pull it off.
3 Days Ahead
PLAN THE MENU
Aside from making sure your preferences on potatoes are represented, the secret to a good Thanksgiving menu is timing. To avoid a traffic jam, there has to be a mix of items made on the stovetop and items made in the oven, a mix of room-temp items and hot items.
When it comes to what makes the cut, I am an unapologetic traditionalist on this day and this day only. I tend to play it pretty fast and loose with the details, and things are always subject to change, but even I appreciate some structure to help stay organized.
Of course I’ll be making turkey and gravy, to be eaten on a bed of stuffing (my favorite part). For the sides, I’ll make creamy potatoes, a sweet orange vegetable and a savory green vegetable. To provide a break from the richness, there’ll be cranberries on the table. For a bright, lemony moment, there’ll be herby salad to nibble on between bites of stuffing and gravy. To finish, I’m not a pumpkin person, so I’ll make an apple dessert to serve with lots of ice cream.
GET STARTED ON GROCERIES
Using that menu, I make my shopping list, which I break down into three categories: grocery delivery (kitchen basics, pantry staples, dairy products), farmers’ market (vegetables, herbs, fruit, bread) and other (turkey, wine, specialty items).
I place my delivery order to arrive the day before Thanksgiving, which always makes me feel more relaxed, knowing that at least some food is going to arrive at some point. If you don’t do delivery, send someone you trust to the store instead, or make a run yourself. Don’t forget aluminum foil, plastic wrap, paper towels and resealable bags for leftovers.
Many people will tell you to order your turkey about a month ahead. That is a really good idea! As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I don’t do that. It’s fine, though, because unless it’s a very specific breed from a particular farm, you will be able to get a turkey three days before Game Day from most butchers and grocery stores, which anticipate disorganized or forgetful people like me.
If you’re planning on supplying wine — I like to, because I am a control freak and want to make sure I’m drinking fantastic things all night long — place an order at a local wine shop for pickup or delivery.
As for which wines to pour, my advice is to drink what you like drinking. I don’t believe in wine pairings, really, and especially not on Thanksgiving. I’ll probably start with something sparkling and festive, then move into light reds that prefer a little chill on them.
For storage of beverages I’d like to keep cold, I either put things out on the fire escape (assuming it’s cold outside) or fill half my bathtub or an extra sink with ice and keep bottles and cans in there. I realize that technique isn’t for everybody, but this is a 100% honest account of my Thanksgiving, so there you have it. You have to admit, it’s resourceful.
2 Days Ahead
CLEAN OUT THE FRIDGE
My refrigerator is about three-quarters the size of a normal fridge, so if I don’t need something for Thanksgiving, it must go. Instead of tossing everything, I pack a cooler with ice and use it to store all the weird mustards and miscellaneous condiments I refuse to part with. I also adjust the fridge shelves to clear space for the turkey and the 29 sticks of butter I’ll be buying.
PICK UP AND DEFROST THE TURKEY
At some point, I go pick up my turkey. If it’s frozen — many turkeys, even the very good ones, are sold frozen or partly defrosted — I set it on a rimmed baking sheet, take off its plastic outfit, and let it begin defrosting in my sink. (I won’t tell you I’ve done this in the bathtub for space reasons, even though I have; FYI, this is not what the FDA would recommend.) Before I go to sleep, I pop the turkey into the fridge to finish defrosting.
1 Day Ahead
FINISH GROCERY SHOPPING AND EMOTIONALLY PREPARE
For me, this is really the busiest day. It’s the day I’m doing the bulk of the shopping and prepping my physical and emotional space for all the cooking to come.
This shop is for all of the remaining items — vegetables, herbs, fruits, nice bread for stuffing — that aren’t arriving in today’s grocery delivery. These are the things you’d want to pick out yourself to make sure the potatoes are the correct size and the parsley is perky. This can be done at a farmers’ market or grocery store.
Once I come home, I unpack everything, basking in the pleasure of knowing I won’t have to leave the house for the next 48 hours.
Temperature-sensitive vegetables should be put away accordingly (herbs and leafy greens wrapped in damp paper towels and stored in resealable bags, for instance). Because my fridge storage is so precious and limited, I keep anything that doesn’t need to be refrigerated out on the counter and grouped with like-minded items.
DRY-BRINE THE TURKEY
Once all that is done and you’ve got a good playlist going, it’s time to start prepping. My attitude toward making anything ahead is that, unless you absolutely must for the sake of the recipe, it’s probably not worth it. For example, I will never tell you to make the mashed potatoes a day ahead, because reheated mashed potatoes are called leftovers. Your turkey, on the other hand, should always be seasoned a day ahead.
First, I remove the turkey from the fridge and take out the giblets and bits inside. There’s no easy way to say this, but you have to go into the turkey from both ends: The heart, kidneys and liver are almost always bagged together at one end, the neck at the other. Remove everything, discarding the kidneys and setting aside the heart, liver and neck. (You’ll use them to make your Cheater’s Turkey Stock.)
Then I prepare the dry brine, a basic mixture of salt, pepper, thyme and brown sugar; I prefer my turkey to be well seasoned but classic, so the side dishes are the boldest things on the table. I rub the dry brine over the turkey: over and under, inside and out. Then I put the turkey back into the fridge where I won’t think about it until tomorrow.
MAKE THE STOCK
I call my stock Cheater’s Turkey Stock because instead of buying an additional 5 pounds of wings or turkey parts and doing the whole song and dance, I start with store-bought broth, which I fortify with vegetables, the turkey neck and some of the giblets. This is a trick I learned from my Grandpa Bob, who would do that, then pick the meat from the cooked neck and eat it as a pre-Thanksgiving midnight snack. (I skip that part, but it’s still a nice memory.)
MAKE THE CRUST FOR THE GALETTE
While the stock is simmering, I make the crust for a deep-dish apple galette. (Even if you’re not making this particular galette, this is generally the time you’d make any sort of pie crust.) My crust is always butter, never shortening or lard, and I make it by hand, never in a food processor. It gets wrapped and chilled until I’m ready to bake tomorrow.
TEAR BREAD FOR THE STUFFING
The stuffing is the thing I feel most passionately about for Thanksgiving, and defending those feelings is the hill I will die on. I will not say, “You can also cut the bread with a knife if you like,” because I really don’t believe you should. You should tear it. This gives you those craggy edges and nooks and crannies, better for soaking and crisping. Plus, a baking dish of neatly cubed bread looks like bread pudding to me, and this is not that!
Anyway, I tear the bread, crust and all, onto a sheet pan and leave it uncovered to dry out overnight. This is a crucial step in making perfect stuffing, ensuring the bread is fresh enough that it remains porous, so it can absorb the brothy mixture, but also dry enough that it doesn’t turn to mush.
TIDY UP AND GET TO BED AT A REASONABLE HOUR
Before I retire for the evening, I strain and refrigerate the stock and use whatever energy I have to clean the kitchen so I can start with a (mostly) clean space in the morning.
WAKE UP, DRINK COFFEE AND EAT SOMETHING
I try not to wake up too early today, knowing that it’s going to be a long one. Since I plan on eating around 6 p.m., I start cooking around 10 a.m. This allows me to take my time, stop for breaks (and snacks), get lost in the news cycle, tidy up the apartment and mindlessly scroll Instagram in between slicing apples and trimming green beans.
I’m not usually a breakfast person, but to me, Thanksgiving is like running a marathon, and I need some version of carbo-loading to make it through. I’ll have something like jammy eggs or cottage cheese with buttered toast. I’ll make my first (but definitely not last) Chemex of the day.
MAKE THE GALETTE
The first thing on my to-do list is to finish that deep-dish galette. I’ll need the oven space later — plus, the galette is genuinely better after it’s rested for a few hours, and it does not need to be served warm.
I pull the crust from the fridge to soften slightly while I slice the apples and toss them with the honey, cinnamon and other ingredients. I roll out the crust and slump it into a 9-inch springform pan, making sure to leave plenty of overhang (that’s what makes it a galette, not a tart). I fill the crust with the apples, fold up the sides, brush with egg wash, sprinkle with sugar, flaky sea salt and sesame seeds, and put it in the oven. This galette also works in a 9-inch pie plate, but the high sides of the springform are pretty dramatic, and I live for a little bit of holiday drama.
MAKE THE STUFFING
Once the galette is in the oven, I start on the stuffing so it can go in for its first bake once the galette is out. I’ve already mentioned this, but if you’re just tuning in: Stuffing is my favorite thing, and I have a lot of opinions on it. First is that I do not believe stuffing is the time to get whimsical or creative. I do not want a “riff” on classic stuffing. I want classic stuffing.
Mine starts with leeks, garlic and more celery than you’re probably used to seeing sautéed in lots of butter and olive oil. Stuffing is unapologetically indulgent, so this is not the time to skimp on either fat. I season and then combine the celery mixture with the bread in the largest bowl I have. Then I add broth, whisked together with a few eggs, and I toss the whole mixture a few times like I’m working the salad station at Sweetgreen. I transfer this to a baking dish, dot with butter, cover with foil and bake. This is the first bake that cooks the stuffing through. (Later, I’ll crisp it up with a second bake.)
Now at least two tasks have been done, which makes me feel pretty accomplished. If all I served tonight were galette and stuffing, I’d be pretty happy, but other people are coming over so I’ll continue.
KNOCK OUT SOME GENERAL PREP WORK
For the next few hours, in between other tasks, I’m doing general prep, like cutting squash, trimming green beans, tearing kale, boiling potatoes, picking herbs — stuff that’ll help me once it’s time to execute each dish. I’ll even do things like make the cream mixture for the potatoes. I love seeing my counter filled with lots of bowls of prepared ingredients, ready to be cooked. For me, the sight alone is as good as Xanax. I feel relaxed for at least 10 minutes.
PREP THE TURKEY
Timingwise, the only thing I’m concerned about is making sure that I put the turkey in the oven about four hours before I want to eat. My goal is 6 p.m., so I’ll put the bird in around 2 p.m., which means that around 1 p.m., I’ll remove it from the fridge and prepare it for roasting. It’s better to have the turkey roasted and resting than to have to wait for it to finish, so get it in sooner rather than later.
The turkey has released a lot of liquid, so I transfer it to a new baking sheet, sans wire rack. This is a good time to mention that, no, I do not own a large roasting pan. I’ve been cooking professionally for 15 years, and I have never owned one, because a tool I’ll use only once a year has no business taking up space in my kitchen. Roasting a turkey on a sheet pan promotes even browning, still gives you the opportunity to make a fantastic gravy, and is incredibly efficient. I’ve always thought roasting a turkey is like roasting a giant chicken, which I’d just do on a baking sheet.
Anyway, moving the turkey: I do this by simply picking it up from both sides and gently plopping it right on the baking sheet. Not since I removed its giblets have I been so intimate with a turkey. It’s not a glamorous job, but someone (me) has to do it. I scatter garlic, onions and lemon around the turkey, and stuff them in the cavity too, then drizzle with a mixture of melted butter and olive oil. I season the whole shebang liberally with salt and pepper.
ROAST THE TURKEY
It is time. I place the turkey in the oven, untrussed, for about 2½ to 3 hours at 325 degrees, before cranking the oven to 425 degrees to finish browning the skin. Once the turkey is golden brown and cooked to temperature, I’ll remove it from the oven and let it rest on the sheet pan to allow it time to release juices and fats I’ll use for the gravy. All in all, you’ll want at least 30 minutes (and upward of 45 minutes) of resting.
After a lot of experimenting, I prefer the low-and-slow treatment for my turkey. It’s more evenly cooked, the fat is better rendered (which equals crisp skin), and I’m not worried about a dry breast (the worst). I don’t truss because, well, who has the time? I also feel that trussing prevents the legs from getting as brown as they can become, which is why I’m here. That said, if you must truss for aesthetic reasons, truss away.
Putting the turkey in the oven starts the true Thanksgiving countdown clock. This act signals that I have about four hours until I have to deliver on my promise of dinner for a roomful of people. If I wasn’t stressed before, I may be a little stressed now. I stare at my bowls of prepped and ready-to-cook ingredients and feel calm again.
ROAST THE SQUASH
The first thing I do after the oven gets cranked to 425 degrees is put the squash in there on the rack below the turkey. This squash is a Thanksgiving “orange food” moment: something kind of sweet and salty, probably roasted, and done with an orange vegetable. You can use carrots, squash or sweet potatoes here. I’ve already cut the squash, so I just toss it with olive oil, maple syrup and spices on a rimmed baking sheet and place it in the oven. While that’s roasting, I toast some hazelnuts, which are sprinkled over the top for added texture, which means that once the squash is out, the dish will be pretty much ready to go. It’s excellent at room temperature, so I won’t worry about reheating.
TEND TO THE CRANBERRIES
While the turkey finishes roasting and the squash is in, I take care of a few things that don’t need the oven, like the cranberries. You may be surprised to learn that these cranberries come from a can, but listen: I’ve made cranberry sauce using fresh cranberries and frozen ones. I’ve simmered them with cane sugar and freshly grated ginger, and cooked them to a perfectly saucy texture. That is a good way to make cranberry sauce!
You know what else is good? Opening a can of jellied cranberries, slicing the wobbly textured tube into glistening gemstone slabs, and garnishing them with freshly sliced citrus and thinly sliced red onion. It’s the ultimate in high-low, my personal brand. You’ll love it. I make two plates of these so one can go on each end of the table.
MAKE THE GRAVY
At this point, the turkey will have been resting for a little while, so I transfer it to a cutting board, tipping it ever so slightly tail-side down to get rid of any juices inside the cavity. This will aid in deglazing the sheet pan and add extra juice to the gravy, instead of spilling out onto your cutting board.
I move the onions, garlic and caramelized lemon to the serving platter I’ll use for the turkey. What’s left on the pan is all the good stuff to make gravy with. Since I’m not going to be making the gravy on the actual baking sheet, I scrape up all the bits and pour them into a measuring cup with the Cheater’s Turkey Stock. (This now becomes our “fortified stock.”)
I make a roux with butter and flour in a clean medium pot and cook it until it’s the color of a graham cracker, then add the fortified stock mixture, whisking constantly until a thick gravy starts to form. I season with soy sauce and a touch of vinegar, and simmer until the gravy is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, but saucy enough to pour without clumping. I remove it from the heat and let it hang out on the back burner until I transfer it to whatever small, preferably pourable vessel I have. It’s not cute, but a Pyrex measuring cup works very well, as do coffee mugs.
CRISP UP THE STUFFING
Aside from the gravy, stuffing is the only thing I care about having hot on the table, so this is one of the last things I do. Once the oven is free, I remove the foil from the baking dish and place the stuffing back in the oven to crisp. You want to bake it hot and fast to get the edges and top as crispy as possible without drying out the interior. This is my favorite part of the day, maybe even the year.
COOK THE GREEN BEANS
While the stuffing is in the oven, I finish the green beans, since they’re done on the stovetop and take all of five minutes. Everything else on the table is pretty rich and creamy or salty and sweet, so this is the moment for a crisp, lemony, somewhat-fresh green vegetable. You can use broccolini, Brussels sprouts, whatever, but this dish did originate as an homage to a green bean casserole.
(Yes, there are homemade fried shallots!)
FINISH THE POTATOES
All I have to do here is reheat the heavy cream mixture and chop the herbs. I smash the boiled potatoes (or ask someone to help, since this is a task truly anyone can do) and combine with the seasoned and simmered cream, sour cream and herbs.
DRESS THE SALAD
Earlier, I prepped the herbs (parsley, cilantro, mint) and tossed them with some coarsely chopped chives and peppery leafy greens (mizuna, arugula). So now all I do is squeeze lemon over the greens, season with flaky salt and freshly ground pepper, maybe drizzle with olive oil. It may seem strange to have such a simple salad (or any salad) on the table, but keeping this part straightforward, fresh and herby is the way to do it. It goes with everything, and you’ll be glad you made it. I divide the salad between two smaller bowls so that one can go to each end of the table.
CARVE THE TURKEY
Last, but certainly not least, I carve the turkey. For space purposes, I may let the turkey rest in the dining room on my credenza while I finish everything else in the kitchen, but I’m not one to need or want a display turkey. I carve the breast into 1/2-inch-thick slices, but I know that thickness is a personal preference. The thigh meat can be sliced off the bone or shredded, depending on how tender it cooked up. Arrange the meat on the platter (or plates) with the lemon and onions.
SET THE TABLE AND THE MOOD
Setting the table and making space for every dish is romantic in theory, but never seems to work with the size of my dining room (not large) and the size of my guest list (large).
I prefer the buffet route, which means the only things that go on the table are smaller items that can be easily passed, like the cranberries, gravy and salad. (Ever try to pass a platter of turkey? No thank you.) I am not a centerpiece or flower arrangement person, but I am a sucker for festive décor, like wild-looking leaves or branches that aren’t too pretty or pristine. Oh, also, candles (everyone looks great in candlelight).
To set up the buffet in an elegant, decidedly un-summer camp way, I stack plates, napkins and a vase of utensils on my credenza. (If you don’t have a credenza, use a kitchen island, countertop or whatever credenza-esque thing you’ve got.) I follow that with the food, like the turkey, baking dish of stuffing and side dishes. This is a good task for someone asking, “What can I do?”
SIT DOWN TO EAT
Now for the actual hardest part of the whole evening: getting everyone to sit down at one time to eat. This is why I’m such a champion of room-temperature food, especially for large holidays, because even if you did a great job of nailing the timing and the food is served piping hot, people will still be milling about after you’ve told them to take a seat.
While all the food is being set out, I delegate someone to open wine so there’s more than one bottle circulating. Then, after I fill my glass to maximum capacity, I look around and feel grateful that I got to take a whole day to cook for people I love. I am full from eating the corners of the stuffing and snacking on the best parts of the turkey as I carved, but I still make myself a plate on which none of my food touches (yes, I am one of those people).
I sit down and eat, get up for seconds of potatoes, repeat.