To pull off the perfect Thanksgiving feast, you need a plan. We turned to Natasha Gandhi-Rue, Williams-Sonoma culinary expert and French Culinary Institute graduate. Besides being the mastermind behind our in-store technique and cooking classes, Natasha has hosted many a holiday dinner for friends and family — and she has her timeline down to a science. Read on for her expert tips.
I think it’s fair to say I’ve become a pro at preparing the Thanksgiving dinner, both from hosting the holiday for the last decade as well as my part in our Thanksgiving technique classes for the last seven years. When my family’s Thanksgiving feast accrued more than 15 adults, I knew I had to use my culinary expertise to plan this holiday like a general approaching a battle, or perhaps more fitting, like a restaurant chef approaching a Saturday night dinner crowd!
Here are my plan-ahead tips that make this special Thursday completely stress-free in my house:
Use a calendar and write in what you are going to do when. It makes it easier to stay on task.
- Create your guest list. Get an idea of how many people are going to come, just so you can start figuring out the quantity you need.
- Order your turkey. This way I don’t have to panic and worry about finding the right size and type (organic, free-range, etc.) the week of.
- Make your pie dough. If you make pie dough using a stand mixer or food processor, it comes together in minutes, and you can enjoy delicious homemade crust for your Thanksgiving pies without having to stress the week of Thanksgiving. I find the best way to store the dough is to form individual pie discs, vacuum seal each in its own bag and freeze. Then you simply to defrost in the fridge overnight. And I always make a few extra discs of dough for Turkey Pot Pie with our leftovers!
- Go through linens and serving pieces. Make sure you have everything you need. I also send all my linens to be dry-cleaned and pressed, if they haven’t been already. And I always have pressed a “fancy” apron (you know the kind – frilly bottom or seasonal print) to put on once my guests start arriving and it’s time to take off the stained grungy one! I make a list of serving pieces I need to buy. I like to buy them a few weeks before Thanksgiving, mainly to help spread the cost from the big week but also to make sure I get the pieces I want instead of what is left.
- Make a huge pot of turkey stock. By now you can go to the butcher and buy an abundance of turkey necks and wings and make a delicious homemade turkey stock to use for the big day. After my stock is done and cooled, I divide it into one-quart containers and freeze. This way it’s ready for stuffing, side dishes and turkey soup — I also use it to make my gravy (yes, ahead of time!).
- Make and freeze your gravy. I can’t handle the stress of making gravy while the turkey is resting and everyone is hovering, hungry for the meal. So I deglaze my roasting pan that I used to roast the necks and wings for stock with sherry or white wine and make an amazing, silky turkey gravy. My family doesn’t like bits of anything in their gravy, so I strain it through a chinois. Once it’s cooled, off it goes into the freezer in quart size containers. The greatest challenge I have is knowing how much gravy is enough, because frankly, you can never seem to have enough. It’s consumed on Thanksgiving and in leftovers — whether sandwiches or potpie — so I always keep a few jars of Williams-Sonoma Turkey Gravy Base on hand when I am running low.
- Buy your nonperishable items. This includes serving pieces, place setting decorations, candle holders, platters, etc.
- Clean house. I hate to say it, but sadly it has to be done! If you’re lucky, you’ve splurged and scheduled a cleaning service to come early this week and take care of the task.
- Take out all your dishes. Begin to run your dishes and wine glasses through the dishwasher. When they come out, I set them on linen dish cloths or flour sack cloths (something that won’t leave lint) and then place another towel over them.
- Pull out your cookware. That means your roasting pan, carving board, carving knife (make sure its sharp!), and any specialty pieces of cookware you do not use daily. Have them washed and ready for cooking.
- Write your whole menu down on paper with notes. Note if a guest is bringing something, what drinks you are serving, etc.
- Copy recipes. If you need to refer to recipes, make photocopies of them so your originals stay clean.
- Create a grocery list. I like to organize mine by categories: produce, dairy, meats, bakery and more. I know the layout of my grocery store well, so I list my categories according to how I walk the store. You won’t believe the time this saves you; you’ll never go back to meandering down aisles!
- Set up a schedule. I create a spreadsheet for my menu based on timing. This way I know what is going in the oven, what’s being reheated and even when to set the bread machine for fresh bread. Here is a quick example:
- Do your grocery shopping. When you get home, organize the groceries in your fridge.
- Make your brine. If you’re brining your turkey, you need to make your brine early enough so it can chill completely before you immerse your turkey.
- Remove all your frozen prep items and place in the refrigerator. This includes pie crusts, turkey stock and gravy.
- Chill wine. Place the wine you’re serving in the refrigerator, or if you’re out of room and live somewhere cold, in the garage or on the back deck.
This is the day I try to request off from work, because it’s my big prep day. If you have to work, order pizza for dinner that night and start chopping!
- Chop and dice your ingredients. Have lots of airtight bags available for holding all your diced veggies. Don’t forget your chopped herbs for garnishes. Most herbs may be placed in airtight containers lined with a damp paper towel in the refrigerator.
- Sauté stuffing ingredients. I cook the celery, onions, sausage, etc., and once cooled, I place the combination in a labeled airtight bag in the refrigerator. The next day it only takes me a few minutes to put my stuffing together and into the oven for baking.
- Finish making your pies. I use my homemade, previously frozen pie crusts.
- Prepare any vegetables or side dishes you can. I have a beautiful assortment of serving pieces that can go straight from the fridge into the oven, so I prep and place dishes in the serving piece, wrap tightly in foil, label and store in the refrigerator.
- Set up the buffet table. I leave nothing to chance or to the judgment of my husband, so I place post-it notes with what food goes in what serving piece. Yes, the gravy boat has a post it that says “gravy” on it!
- Set the dining table. My last task is setting my table complete with floral arrangement, candles, and whatever else I have envisioned this year. This is my favorite task and a nice way to wind down the day. It’s usually done after dinner, while enjoying a glass of wine that helps me get a much needed good night of sleep before ovens are preheated, pots of water begin to boil, and our celebration begins!