Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, and as nice as it sounds to have some app to help prep and cook the meal, we think that taking a day (or three) to shop and plan a bunch of dishes for others and yourself can be enormously rewarding — and a good way to decompress from your everyday hectic routine.
But, if you're a first-timer, are juggling the feast-prep in a tight kitchen, are already anxious about family dynamics — or are feeling fraught for any reason about the next few days, let us help bring it all down a notch.
Here, our favorite kitchen hacks for every cook involved in Thanksgiving (feel free to share this with your Friendsgiving hosts, your relatives, and anyone else who plans on entering the kitchen in the next three days).
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Pies are a must on Thanksgiving. (Yes — pies, plural.) But, don’t try to make them all the day of. Crusts can be created and frozen several weeks in advance, and most pies can be baked the day before serving. Tempted to opt for store-bought crust? Nothing beats homemade, and it’s actually not as hard as it may first appear. With a good recipe (this one has never done me wrong) and a bit of confidence, even a novice can pull it off. Whenever you have a spare hour, whip up a double batch of dough (which, depending on your recipe, should yield four crusts), separate the dough into four balls, wrap each tightly in plastic wrap, and pop them in the freezer until you’re ready to bake.
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Speaking of pie-crust hacks: There’s an old-wives' tale that says subbing vodka for half the water in your recipe will yield a more malleable dough for rolling. The evidence (and Cook’s Illustrated) actually supports this idea! Keep a little bottle on hand for pie-making purposes (and some game-time nerve-unfraying — but not until you’ve measured out all the ingredients, because baking is a science, and accuracy is key).
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So much about pulling off a great meal has to do with timing: The turkey must be cooked for precisely the right number of hours and minutes; the chef has to map out the stuffing-vs.-potato prep, find the time to conjure up some gravy, heat the dinner rolls, and serve everyone drinks. Save yourself some angst by setting the dinner table the night before. Take your time plotting seating arrangements, figuring out centerpieces, and hunting down the classy dishware. Wait until the last minute, and you may find the fancy “guest” tablecloth hasn’t been laundered since last Thanksgiving.
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Get the crispiest turkey skin possible by letting the bird air-dry in the fridge, uncovered, for one to two days before you cook it. (Saveur also recommends liberally pre-salting it to guarantee a juicy bird.) Take the turkey out of the fridge a few hours before you’re ready to cook it, and pat it down with paper towels to ensure maximum dryness. This will help perfect turkey-skin consistency.
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Start Thanksgiving morning by whipping up a quick and simple turkey stock to use throughout the day. It’ll serve you well as a liquid for your stuffing, to moisten your turkey, to flavor your gravy — Sam Sifton has even recommended drizzling some on the turkey right before serving to give it a little extra heat. ("It's a cheat, but a good one," he’s said.) And, the process of throwing a stock together couldn’t be simpler: Per Sifton, all you have to do is toss your discarded turkey neck into a pot with some water, carrots, onions, and celery and let it simmer on a back burner all day.
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Tradition be damned; there’s really no need to bake your stuffing inside of the turkey. For one thing, it can be dangerous: An undercooked bird could give your guests food poisoning. Overcooking, on the other hand, yields a dry turkey. Cooking the stuffing separately, in a casserole dish, offers more control over the consistency and seasoning.
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So, you’re running late with your Thanksgiving dinner? Don’t take it out on the turkey. According to culinary expert Gail Simmons, the bird needs to rest for a while after you take it out of the oven, “in order to stay moist and retain all those delicious juices for eating.” Once it's cooked, cover the turkey with some foil and let it hang out on the countertop for no less than 30 minutes, or 60 for a larger bird.
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For the best mashed potatoes, Grant Achatz, chef of Chicago restaurant Alinea, recommends boiling the potatoes with their skins on — so the spuds don’t absorb too much water while cooking. Make sure you give yourself a head start on the process, though, because you’re going to need to let the potatoes cool a bit before you peel and mash them.
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One of the challenges of roasting a turkey is timing the process so that the bird is neither overcooked nor undercooked. According to a few reputable chefs, there’s a better, more foolproof way of getting the best results: cutting the bird up before you cook it. “You have to break these birds down,” chef Andrew Carmellini told The New York Times. “It is literally the only way to get both the white meat and the dark meat done perfectly.” Marc Murphy, of NYC’s Landmarc restaurant, said that he roasts his turkey breasts in one oven and braises the legs in another. Consider this an alternative cooking method for the kind of person who knows his or her way around a turkey, and who has more than one oven on hand.
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The enemy of a roasted turkey is a lumpy, gluey gravy. Thankfully, there’s a good way to mitigate that possibility during the cooking process: Incorporate the flour via a roux — a mixture of flour and butter or oil — rather than solo. According to experts, this is the key to that perfect, silky texture.
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Depending on how much you like spending time with your family, leftovers are arguably the best part of Thanksgiving. Buy a bunch of huge Ziploc bags and store everything but the mashed potatoes in them. (The potatoes, along with anything else that’s not 100% solid, should go in containers.) This is a good way to save space in the fridge, which is critical, unless you are sending your guests home with the lion’s share.