Haven’t planned your Thanksgiving menu yet? That’s A-OK; there’s still time to pull off a fabulous—and stress-free—feast. The cooks in the Williams-Sonoma Test Kitchen shared their top 10 tips for the big day.
1. Create Your Menu
When planning the menu, keep it simple, advised Amanda Haas, Williams Sonoma’s culinary director. “Don’t overdo by trying to cook too many dishes or complex recipes.”
Since oven space will be limited, plan accordingly. Choose some side dishes that can be cooked on the stovetop, such as green beans, and ones that taste great at room temperature, like this brussels sprout salad.
Don’t be afraid to change up your menu. The cooks aren’t suggesting that you give up your grandmother’s stuffing recipe, but why not add a new dish or two, or update a classic? You never know—it could become a family favorite, as well. One year, one of our test kitchen cooks made chicken fried turkey using two boneless turkey breasts. She quartered and brined the breasts, dredged them twice in seasoned flour and buttermilk, fried them and served them with brown gravy.
This year, Amanda plans to roast one bird and fry a second one using this recipe. “We experimented a lot in the Test Kitchen before publishing our Thanksgiving recipes,” she said. “I’m going to make a few of the ones that were left on the cutting-room floor, including creamed greens and a citrus flan that was out of this world.”
There are lots of simple ways to tweak traditional recipes, as you’ll discover in the tips that follow.
2. Make a Plan
Once you’ve finalized your menu, make a game plan. Write down a schedule for Thanksgiving Day, starting with the time you want to serve the turkey, then work backward and list the tasks you can accomplish earlier in the week. Tape the schedule on a kitchen cabinet.
“If there’s one holiday where you need to make a plan, it’s Thanksgiving,” said Amanda. “Then there’s never this panic. Just look at your list.”
Many tasks can be done in advance:
- Chop ingredients and prep “like” ones together, such as all the onions and celery you’ll need for the dressing and other sides. Store in sealable plastic bags or airtight containers, label them and refrigerate.
- Blanch vegetables, such as green beans and Swiss chard, for side dishes.
- Prepare the dressing and other casseroles the day before the feast. Refrigerate them in baking dishes that can go directly into the oven as soon as you take out the turkey. Let refrigerated dishes come to room temperature before baking, or add a few more minutes to the cooking time.
- Make pie dough a few days ahead and refrigerate.
- Label serving bowls and platters with sticky notes, indicating what food will go into which piece.
3. Easy Apps
Even though the turkey and sides are the main event, when hungry guests arrive, you’ve got to feed them something. The key: keep appetizers simple and light. The test kitchen cooks suggest mixed nuts, a dip with vegetables or an antipasti platter. Most of these items can be purchased, so you can check this off your to-do list early.
For festive beverages, offer sparkling wine and cider or autumn cocktails. And if you’ve planned well, you’ll be relaxed enough to hang out with your guests before the meal.
4. Give Stuffing a Boost
Traditional bread stuffing takes to endless variations. Add whole-grain bread along with the white bread, try different herbs or amp up the flavor with add-ins:
- Chopped dried fruits or sautéed fresh fruits, such as apples or pears
- Toasted walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts
- Sautéed mushrooms
- Sausage, ham or oysters
Amanda, who is gluten intolerant, has to get creative. She’s made corn bread using Cup4Cup gluten-free flour, then used it in the stuffing. Or go for grains, such as quinoa or a blend of brown and wild rices; combine with apples and mild Italian sausage for a delicious gluten-free stuffing.
5. Perfect Potatoes
It’s not Thanksgiving without a bowl of steaming mashed potatoes on the table. For a perfectly smooth mash, use a potato ricer, said Amanda. “I bought mine at Williams Sonoma 19 years ago, when I cooked my first Thanksgiving dinner, and it still makes the best mashed potatoes.” To enhance the flavor of mashed potatoes, first infuse the cream or milk with garlic, herbs and other seasonings. See our step-by-step video:
And contrary to popular belief, you can make mashed potatoes entirely in advance. To rewarm them before serving, try one of these techniques:
- Pour a little milk into a large saucepan, add the mashed potatoes and heat, stirring, until hot.
- Spoon the mashed potatoes into a buttered casserole dish and dot with butter. While the turkey rests, reheat the potatoes in the oven.
- After mashing the potatoes, transfer them to a slow cooker and keep warm on low heat.
6. Perk Up Cranberry Sauce
While a basic sauce made with cranberries, sugar and water is tasty, there’s plenty of room for experimentation. Amanda’s secret ingredient is port. She replaces half the water with port and also reduces the amount of sugar. “It gives the sauce an extra layer of flavor without straying from the classic idea too much,” she said.
Other ways to boost the flavor: add chili peppers and other fruits, such as citrus, apple and pear. Or try a cranberry chutney, imbued with warm spices and citrus zest.
Cranberry sauce can be made several days in advance and refrigerated, and the flavor improves over time.
7. Timing the Turkey
Probably the biggest challenge for home cooks is ensuring the turkey is cooked on time—not too early and not too late. To allow for error, Amanda aims to have the bird done about 45 minutes before serving.
A meat thermometer is the best way to determine when the turkey is properly cooked. The breast should register 165°F and the thigh, 175°F. Amanda favors the Smart Therm. “It literally keeps adjusting the finish time even when you open and close the oven door,” she said.
“Turkey takes less time than most people think,” added test kitchen cook Sandra Wu. When calculating your turkey-roasting schedule, allow time for the bird to rest—at least 30 minutes—after removing it from the oven; the meat will be juicier and easier to carve.
To determine accurate cooking times, she conducted a “turkey trial,” roasting multiple birds of varying sizes. The times below are based on roasting the bird, breast side up, at 400°F for the first 30 minutes, then reducing the oven to 325°F and roasting until done.
Turkey Weight Roasting Time
10 to 12 lb. 1 3/4 to 2 1/4 hours
12 to 14 lb. 2 to 2 1/2 hours
14 to 16 lb. 2 1/4 to 2 3/4 hours
16 to 18 lb. 2 1/2 to 3 hours
18 to 20 lb. 2 3/4 to 3 1/4 hours
20+ lb. 3 to 3 3/4 hours
8. Great Gravy
Gravy also tops the list of intimidating Thanksgiving tasks, especially because you need to make it last-minute—or do you? Test kitchen cook Melissa Stewart successfully pulled off a do-ahead gravy base two days before the feast:
- Buy extra turkey wings and roast with diced onion, celery and carrots.
- Deglaze the pan with water and simmer on the stovetop for about 1 hour. Strain the gravy base, let cool and refrigerate.
- On Thanksgiving Day, bring the gravy base to a simmer on the stovetop. To thicken it, whisk in a mixture of equal parts flour and butter, known as beurre manie.
- When the turkey comes out of the oven, whisk pan drippings into the base to boost the flavor. Skim off the excess fat or strain and your gravy is ready to serve.
Here are a few other tips for making perfect gravy.
- When adding pan drippings, use a gravy separator so you get the good juices and not all the fat.
- To prevent lumps, add the liquid slowly to the gravy base.
- For gluten-free gravy, replace all-purpose flour with rice flour. “It tastes amazing and thickens like a dream,” said Amanda.
- If you brined your turkey, the pan drippings will be quite salty, so add a small amount to the gravy base and taste before adding more.
9. Think Beyond Pumpkin Pie
Although pumpkin pie is traditional, there are lots of other delicious choices. “Pumpkin pie is not my thing, so I love doing other festive fall desserts,” said Amanda. Past menus have included an apple and currant lattice tart, pumpkin cheesecake with salted caramel (now a staple), and homey crisps and cobblers paired with spiced ice cream.
Amanda loves to serve smaller desserts, such as bite-size pecan pumpkin butter tassies, which are always a hit—this way, people can allow themselves a small taste of everything.
10. Keep Food Hot—or Not
It’s inevitable: By the time everyone gathers around the table and serves themselves, the hot food has cooled off. Use warming trays if you have the space, said Amanda. “In my house, our dining room table is in our kitchen, so I keep everything warm on the cooktop and in the oven.”
Casseroles and gratins that are baked and served in the same vessel retain heat well. Even if the turkey has cooled off, just remember: hot gravy helps!