Making Thanksgiving dinner is a huge - and wonderful - job! And just in case no one else thinks to tell you, YOU, my cooking friend, are totally awesome for doing it. Whether everything turns out perfectly (fingers crossed!) or something goes wrong (it almost always does), pat yourself on the back in the knowledge that you totally rock!
Here's how we get everything done:
Start the weekend before Thanksgiving...
Have everyone who lives in your home pitch in and help to clean it. This is totally unglamorous, but someone has to say it! You don't want to be scrubbing toilets or mopping floors - or wishing you had - on Thanksgiving day (we've all been there).
Clean out your fridge. Throw away or freeze anything you're not sure you'll need between now and the end of Thanksgiving weekend. You'll need the space.
Shop for everything. If you'll be roasting an unfrozen turkey (which I recommend, because it makes your life easier), order it now but arrange to pick it up on Wednesday. This will save you precious fridge space during the week.
If you're buying a frozen turkey, buy it now. Defrosting takes about 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of bird, so a 16-pound turkey can take 4 days to fully defrost in the fridge. Store it in someone else's fridge if at all possible (write them a nice note or give them a bottle of wine to thank them!).
Dice about 5 yellow onions (or more, check your recipes) and keep them in your fridge to use throughout the cooking week.
If time permits, mince about 6-8 cloves of garlic and store them in a jar with just enough olive oil to cover. You can use out of this when cooking through the week, rather than having to spend time dicing them up for each recipe.
Make cranberry sauce and store it in the fridge.
Make pate brisee (pie crust pastry); store in fridge.
Dice bread for stuffing/dressing into cubes; spread it onto baking sheets to dry (we leave these out on the dining room table for the next 2 days).
Find or borrow a large cooler. If you are brining a turkey (and you live in the real world with a normal-sized refrigerator), you'll probably need more refrigerator space than you have. You can either store the brining turkey in the fridge and store other non-meat items (veggies, butter, milk, etc.) in the cooler with ice, or vice versa.
Wash, dry and trim the green beans. Store in a plastic container (if they are dry they will stay perfectly fresh).
Dice and prep ingredients for stuffing. Store them in the fridge.
Make stuffing/dressing, all except for the last step of adding giblet broth/egg mixture. Store it in a large plastic container in the fridge.
Evening: buy unfrozen turkey and any groceries you still need.
Make the brine.
Put the turkey into the brine about 12-18 hours before you plan to take it out the next day.
Make giblet broth. When it has cooled completely, store it covered in the fridge.
Peel potatoes and make mashed potatoes. Store them covered in the fridge.
Roll out and prebake the pie crust for pumpkin pie. This can sit out (in a safe place) until tomorrow.
Make the pumpkin filling for pie. Store it covered in the fridge.
Make the green beans through Step 3, leaving them slightly underdone. Let the green beans and the toasted breadcrumbs cool completely. Store the green beans with the onions/garlic in a covered container in the fridge; store the breadcrumbs on the counter in an airtight container.
Assemble all serving dishes and utensils; rinse or wash them out if they've collected a little dust since you used them last.
Thanksgiving Day -
Calculate how long the turkey will roast: assume 16-20 minutes/pound, depending on whether you are stuffing the bird or not (see this recipe for more specifics). Plan for the turkey to finish cooking about 45 minutes-1 hour before serving. This will give the meat time to rest, and give you time to remove the stuffing, make the gravy, carve the bird and make a beautiful presentation. Don't worry - if covered loosely with foil during resting, the meat will still be hot inside. (Note that it will begin to cool much more quickly as soon as it is carved, so do this last). In this schedule, we assume a 5 hour roasting time for a 16-pound stuffed turkey.
9 hours before serving -
Finish the pumpkin pie: put the pumpkin filling in the prebaked pie crust and bake.
8 hours before serving -
Remove the turkey from the brine, rinse and pat dry. (Do this 2 hours before roasting, to allow the turkey to come to room temperature. This will shave a little time off roasting.)
Soak the cheesecloth in the wine-butter mixture and prep the turkey according to the recipe: stuff the turkey if desired; rub it with softened butter, salt and pepper; truss the turkey (fold its wings behind its back and tie the legs together); prepare the roasting pan with onion, carrots, celery and wine; put the turkey on the rack in the pan.
6 hours before serving -
Lay the soaked cheesecloth over the turkey breast and slide turkey into oven (follow roasting instructions).
Make your family a simple breakfast, or better yet, allow them to make breakfast for you! And no matter what, let them do the breakfast dishes.
After breakfast, while the turkey is roasting, get yourself and your home ready. Take your shower, get dressed, set the table, watch the parade on TV, and get drinks ready to offer your guests. You'll be a gorgeous, confident, and gracious host by the time they arrive.
2 hours before serving -
Set up the coffee so it will be ready to brew after dinner.
Warm the premade giblet broth in a saucepan.
Melt butter in a pan and add the premade mashed potatoes to warm them up for dinner.
Dish the premade cranberry sauce into a serving dish and put it on the table.
If cooking dressing outside the bird, get it ready to go into the oven as the turkey comes out. Put it in a casserole with a lid, whisk the egg (if using) into the broth, and pour it in.
45 minutes - 1 hour before serving -
Check to be sure the turkey is done and remove it from the oven.
If you are cooking dressing outside the bird, put it in the oven now.
Transfer the turkey to a carving board and make the gravy. Keep warm and covered.
Remove stuffing from cavity and transfer it to a serving dish with a lid.
Warm the green beans in a skillet with a little olive oil over medium heat. When warm, put the lid on, set a timer for 10 minutes and turn the heat to low. Toss them halfway through.
Dish everything up and bring it to the table in a covered dish except the turkey and green beans.
Back in the kitchen, either carve the turkey or transfer it to a serving platter and garnish it with chopped parsley and a large bunch of herbs in the cavity area. If carving, keep the pieces covered with foil as you work.
Taste the green beans and add a pinch of salt if needed. Transfer the green beans to a serving dish and top with the breadcrumbs. Call everyone to the table and put the green beans on the table as everyone gets settled.
Bring the turkey to the table to make a grand entrance. Carve and serve. Bon appetit!
Enjoy a glass of wine or your favorite beverage and relax through dinner with your guests. Graciously accept all compliments, ignore any ingracious remarks, and rest confidently knowing that your fabulous cooking has given everyone the gift of being together for Thanksgiving!
After dinner -
Allow anyone and everyone to help clear the table and do the dishes. Not only do you totally deserve the help, but this will also make everything go faster, which everyone will appreciate.
Turn on the coffee maker.
Serve the pumpkin pie (or honor someone else by asking them to do it).
Have another drink and put your feet up. Visit with your guests, watch TV, plan the next day's shopping, or whatever you enjoy.
If you're ready for your guests to leave but they haven't taken the hint, offer to pack up any leftovers for them and ask if anyone would like more coffee. Most folks will take the hint at that point.
Some thoughts on timing and logistics:
- I buy fresh (unfrozen) turkeys, and wait as long as possible to buy mine. This is simply to avoid having a humongous turkey taking up precious refrigerator space while I'm focused on prepping other dishes ahead of time.
- If you only have access to frozen turkeys, you'll have no choice but to buy it way in advance so it has time to thaw in the refrigerator (see notes about timing and storage suggestions).
- It's good to do as much as humanly possible in the days ahead to save yourself from last minute crises. So this schedule assumes that everything than can be done ahead of time, is.
- This schedule assumes that, like most humans, you may have to work a full-time job on Monday and Tuesday, but I'm rooting for you to get some cooking time off on Wednesday! So I've loaded up Saturday/Sunday and Wednesday with more of the shopping and cooking tasks than the other days.
- I only have one oven (alas), and this schedule assumes this to be the case for you as well. So everything that requires your oven must happen either before or after the turkey goes in on Thanksgiving day. Side dishes should be stovetop-made, as much as possible.
- Consider tapping someone ahead of time to be in charge of serving dessert. This may be a teenager, young adult, or anyone who might feel more comfortable having something useful to do. Just be sure to give them a little guidance about how large or small the slices should be. This way, they can be serving slices to your restless post-dinner guests while you are in the kitchen making sure Aunt Patty doesn't break too many wine glasses.