Like a turkey trying to fly.
November 20, 2009 10:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm hosting my first Thanksgiving. I have zero idea what I'm doing. Advice, s'il vous plait!

I got the bright idea to organize a Thanksgiving dinner for my fellow NYC transplant friends who aren't flying home for the holidays, doubling as an excuse to show off my cool new apartment. Oh, except, I can barely cook tofu, let alone an entire turkey. Today I saw a sign-up list at a grocery store for turkeys that ended yesterday, and I was mortified that somehow I'd missed the turkey lottery deadline. I need advice on everything.

My ten guests are bringing side dishes according to their household traditions, but I'm in charge of the turkey, the mulled wine, candied bacon ice cream and pumpkin pie. I'm a good baker and will do right by the desserts, but I need easy-to-follow advice on good places to acquire a bird (preferably free-range, organic) suited for 10 people, gutting it, basting it, etc. If you've got a good mulled wine recipe, send it my way. Any favorite Martha Stewart touches would be lovely. Miscellaneous advice related to large dinner parties would be much appreciated as well.
posted by zoomorphic to Food & Drink (45 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
For cooking the turkey, this recipe from cooking for engineers to be a good step-by-step starter.
posted by thebestsophist at 10:42 AM on November 20, 2009

Turkey is really very easy. Just follow any basic recipe and baste the hell out of it with herb butter two or three times an hour.

How about posting that candied bacon ice cream recipe?
posted by something something at 10:46 AM on November 20, 2009

Go here for Ms. Martha's turkey. There's videos, too.
posted by bunny hugger at 10:48 AM on November 20, 2009

Turkeys are usually (always?) sold pre-gutted so you don't need to worry about removing or disposing of entrails.
posted by anadem at 10:51 AM on November 20, 2009 don't need to worry about removing or disposing of entrails.

Heh. Don't forget to pull the little paper bag out, though. The giblets are good for gravy. If you don't have the time or wherewithal to brine the bird, roasting it in a plastic bag just about guarantees that it'll stay nice and moist.
posted by jquinby at 10:54 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding Martha's turkey, as bunny hugger suggested. When, at age 35, I cooked my 1st turkey I followed that recipe. It's simple, delicious, and makes a good-looking bird, which is important. In later years I moved along to some more creative recipes, but that is a very good place to start.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:55 AM on November 20, 2009

Best answer: You will be okay! First of all, go out and buy a frozen turkey now. Don't worry about the sign-up list. A defrosted turkey will work just as well. You are more likely to find a free range bird at this late date if you're willing to go frozen. Try Whole Foods. There will be plenty of turkeys to go around. Some other key things:

1) You want about 1-1.5 lbs. of turkey/person. 10 people= 10-15 lb. turkey

2) It takes a really long time to defrost a fully frozen turkey- a minimum of 24 hours for every 5 lbs. of turkey. It must be defrosted in the fridge, NOT the counter-top! I would put the turkey in the fridge on Monday or Monday evening.

3) Cooking a turkey is not that hard. In my opinion, turkey is never THAT great anyway, so simple is fine. Maybe you want to get a free 14-day trial to Their front page has a ton of turkey recipes and I find their recipes pretty reliable and well-explained. I would also go to and search for turkey recipes and go with the one with the most consistently good reviews. I would also refrain from stuffing the turkey, make dressing on the side. For me, Thanksgiving is actually all about the sides, so don't sweat the turkey too much. (BTW, you will not need to "gut" a turkey, just take out the little paper bag inside.)

4) Worst case scenario-- make turkey breasts rather than a whole bird. You lose the presentation factor but you can make the breast moister than you otherwise could when cooking a whole bird.

5) Large dinner party advice-- Do whatever you can do the day before. Make the pie and the ice cream and even the wine. That way the day of you can just concentrate on the bird and also helping your friends heat up their dishes, etc. Be sure to plan backwards for when you want everything ready. This means that the turkey goes in the over early in the day.

Good luck and try to have fun!
posted by picklebird at 10:57 AM on November 20, 2009

Knowing what you're doing is hugely overrated. You won't need to gut the turkey unless you kill it yourself. Turkey is ridiculously easy to cook just use a probe thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature of the bird as it cooks and you'll be all set. I usually salt the bird a day or two in advance, let it air dry in the fridge on a wire rack, dust off the salt, stick some fresh herbs (thyme, parsley, sage, and bay) in the cavity with a couple of quartered onions and some garlic cloves, chuck the thing in the oven at whatever temperature you decide (higher temp will give you a more crispy skin, lower will give more juicy meat, low then high with a 15-30 minute rest in between is my preference). If you use a roasting pan you'll probably want to put some stock in the bottom of the pan to keep the drippings from burning, if you're not making gravy then I'd roast the bird on a pile of potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and shallots that have been tossed in olive oil. The roasted veg will be delicious and no real work since the bird will flavor the veggies while it cooks.

Oh, and I'd ignore all the advice saying to brine the bird, just be careful not to overcook it (take the bird out of the oven when it's a few degrees under your target temperature). Brining is sort of like insurance, if you overcook the turkey it will still be edible if you previously brined it, if you don't overcook it then the brine will just give it a slightly spongy texture and make the meat taste like whatever you brined it in rather than turkey.
posted by foodgeek at 10:58 AM on November 20, 2009

Best answer: DON'T STUFF YOUR TURKEY. By the time the stuffing has cooked to the right temperature, the meat will be bone-dry. Besides, if people are bringing side dishes, someone is surely going to bring along dressing.

Alton Brown's brined turkey recipe never fails. Ever. Never ever. I've been making it for going on a million years now and people who don't generally like turkey rave about it and ask me for the recipe. It'll take time - it's an overnight brine - but it's mostly unattended time.

Also, two helpful videos from Good Eats.
posted by cooker girl at 10:58 AM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You might want to look for that free range turkey now, they go quickly. I know the health food store here carries them but you have to let them know in advance.
posted by mareli at 10:59 AM on November 20, 2009

Re: Turkey: It's hard to screw up completely. There are a ton of different ways to do it (high heat, roasted, smoked, etc). Really, it just needs heat and whatever flavors you like. Turkey is kinda meh, so don't be afraid to use a lot of herbs and spices.

However you do it, the main challenge with turkey is getting the breast and thigh to finish cooking at the same time. Put a bag of ice on the breast for a half hour before cooking and you've conquered the bird. Oh, and use a digital thermometer on that thing. You're shooting for 170F breast and 180F in the thigh.

Personally, I don't baste birds. Butter and herbs under the skin, salt on top, some fruit/onions jammed in its back side and it's good to go. Sometimes it's nice to glaze the skin with a bit of honey or reduced wine/beer/whatever ~15 minutes before it comes out.

Get your knives sharpened. Cut around the edges and then under the large chunks of meat before cutting it into smaller pieces. Slicing servings off the bird at the table is not a winning strategy.
posted by paanta at 11:00 AM on November 20, 2009

And I should have previewed. Again.

Must disagree with foodgeek re: spongy texture of meat following brine. I've never experienced that. Ever. Also, the brined turkey I make tastes very much like turkey.

What you're going to find, clearly, is that everyone has different opinions. Find a recipe that looks appealing to you and go for it. I guarantee no one will find any fault with any turkey you make on the day. You're opening your home and that's what counts.
posted by cooker girl at 11:01 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

If someone wants to get a little crazy, you can always deep fry the turkey with the very same equipment your roommate uses to hold his crab boils.
posted by soma lkzx at 11:03 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you freak out during cooking and have a question, you can call the Butterball hotline.
posted by radioamy at 11:09 AM on November 20, 2009

first year we did a turkey, we had an aluminum roasting pan from the supermarket along with a turkey baking bag (clearly you won't need that many). We rubbed it down with salt and pepper, and then proceeded to cut up a stick of butter into a bunch of pats and shove it up under the skin all over the bird. We then rubbed another stick all over the outside of the bird, poked some cut up onions and other veggies up its rear, and roasted it for the length of King Kong at whatever temperature was indicated (I always have to look it up). We used the veggies in stuffing and gravy. Set it and forget it. Awesome.

That was a damn fine turkey.

I've also made this turkey. It's amazing. Protip: remove the top of your roaster to get it to brown up. I forgot to do that, and it still tasted like a million bucks, but it was you know, floppy bacon. SO good though.
posted by Medieval Maven at 11:23 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I grilled a turkey last year to great success. Not sure if your living situation allows that option, though. If you're doing it in the oven, I would add a few suggestions:

-Cut a lemon (or two if it's a big bird) in half and shove them in the body cavity. It adds a nice subtle citrusy zing and helps keep the insides moist. Put some herbs in there, too.
-Before it goes in the oven, rub salt and pepper in to the skin and brush the entire bird with fat. I use olive oil, but you could use butter if you want something richer. This will give a nice crispy skin.
-Use a real meat thermometer to determine the doneness of the turkey; don't rely on the pop-up one that's in the breast. In fact, pull it out and throw it away.
-Check both dark meat (the thickest part of the thigh) and white meat (thickest part of the breast). The dark meat may cook quicker than everything else; if it looks that way, you can wrap the legs and wings in tin foil to slow it down a little bit.

You're also going to need to carve the turkey. If you have access to the Joy of Cooking, check out their recommended process. In a nutshell:

-You're going to need a sharp knife and one of those two-pronged meat forks.
-Remove all the appendages first. Hold down the leg/wing with the fork and then slice into the turkey where the joint to the main carcass is (roughly - it helps to make a slice in the skin first so that you can kind of see where the joint is).
-Expose the joint, then slide the knife into the joint. It may go in at a funny angle. As you're push the knife into the joint (use the blade, not the point), twist the knife back and forth. When you do it right, the ball will pop right out of the socket. You're basically disconnecting the joint with this method.
-After the wings and legs are removed, separate the thigh from the drumstick and the wingette from the rest of the wing using the same method. Discard the wing tip.
-To slice the breast, first find the breast bone. Stick the fork into the bird just next to the breast bone, then take slices starting at the outside and working in towards the center. The cuts should be parallel to the breast bone. Do one side, then turn the bird around and do the other side.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:23 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice so far! I agree that turkey is boringly simple and was originally planning on making oysters courtesy of this magazine spread, but then I realized that I would poison my entire dinner party if I attempted live seafood. I'll probably check out Alton Brown's recipe first, as he is generally right in all things food-related. Greg Nog, that Cowboy Mashed Potatoes recipe looks really promising! I also like the halved lemon idea.

Candied Bacon Ice Cream yay
posted by zoomorphic at 11:29 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, a rather mortifying moment for my mom when when her MIL discovered the cooked plastic bag of organs inside the stuffing.

If you've ever roasted a chicken, the fundamentals are the same. It's just bigger, messier, and heavier. Oh, it's also got to look perfect, so no pressure.

Things to consider:
Trussing, or tying a turkey are intended to make the littler parts, like wings, cook at a rate more similar to the bigger bits, like the breasts. Same idea applies to stuffing. An unstuffed turkey will cook faster than a stuffed one, but stuffing will give you one big even mass to cook.

Turkeys will almost always come frozen. You need to have your turkey several days in advance, just to thaw it in the fridge. It's also a good idea to let the turkey come to room temp for an hour or two before you start messing with it. Massive very cold meat is unpleasant to stick an arm in. Pull it out early in the morning and start your first pot of coffee. Rinsing it under cold water will also take the chill off of it.

You'll see stuff about, spice mixes, herbs under the skin, oyster-waterchestnut-chorizo-pecan-cheese-whatever stuffing. It's pretty unnecessary. An amazing bird can be made with salt pepper, butter (lots of it), sage, and aromatic veggies. Also some turkeys will come already salted, so you may not need to brine it.

If your turkey is dry or under seasoned, thats what gravy is for!

As for mulled wine, I've found that a terrible bottle of wine cannot be redeemed. It doesn't, or shouldn't, be good wine, but you need to be able to drink it and not go "bleh!".
posted by fontophilic at 11:31 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here's the Serious Eats guide to turkey sourcing in NYC, and here's the page on ordering them from the New Amsterdam Market. I just ordered one from Whole Foods, so that's definitely still an option.

Make sure you think about what you're going to roast it in; you can get disposable aluminum roasters or go out and buy a basic large roasting pan (this is on my to do list for today). Also make sure you have a meat thermometer.

You'll probably want to make gravy from the drippings, which means separating out the juices from the fat. The easiest way to do that is to get one of those separator things that look like a measuring cup with the spout at the bottom. You cook fat and flour together into a roux and whisk in broth/pan juices. (It's like 1 cup of liquid to 1.5 tb each of fat & flour.) Which means you'll need chicken broth or turkey broth on hand; or, if you have giblets/neck etc with your turkey, you can make broth with them while the turkey roasts.

I'm against brining because I think it makes the drippings too salty for gravy and the carcass too salty for stock - one of my favorite things about hosting Thanksgiving is getting to make stock after. Making the stock is easy, as long as you have a big enough pot; just throw the bones in with some onions & carrots and simmer covered in water for several hours. Can be done the next day.
posted by yarrow at 11:42 AM on November 20, 2009

Response by poster: Oh, question! I am having the dinner on Saturday, not Thursday, to make time for people with nearby families. Can I leave the turkey in the freezer until Wednesday and then put it in the fridge for later?
posted by zoomorphic at 11:46 AM on November 20, 2009

If it'll fit... but I think you'll have less trouble finding a fresh turkey in NYC than folks do elsewhere.
posted by yarrow at 11:49 AM on November 20, 2009

Best answer: Others have done you well by the turkey, so I'll go with the mulled wine. This should serve 16 people:

2 bottles wine
3-4 whole cinnamon sticks
8-10 whole cloves
half a cup of port or brandy
1 sliced orange (unpeeled)

Dump everything into a big pot and bring to a simmer; keep at a simmer (do NOT boil) for 20 minutes.

You can also play around with spices (adding a couple stars of star anise or a couple cardamom pods may be a nice touch) or adding lemon slices as well as the orange. You should be able to find the whole spices easily.

You can just let the spices float around loose in everything; if you'd rather keep things tidy, you can get mesh "tea balls" and just throw the spices into that and throw the whole ball in.

Am memaling you with a question on another matter.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:51 AM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

For getting a turkey: You can cook a frozen turkey, of which there will be plenty. Buy one *now*, throw it right into your refrigerator. It should be just thawed for turkey day. The above advice is good. I like the Good Eats method, myself. But, you won't really be able to brine for a lot of time if you're defrosting a rock-solid turkey. Do not be tempted to thaw a turkey outside the refrigerator - it's the road to a GI disaster.

Mashed potatoes are the easiest things to make. Boil chopped up potatoes just until you can stick a fork through them easily, drain in a colander, return to pot, add copious butter and milk (I like half-and-half), and use a cheap potato masher to beat it up. (Don't stir, if you can avoid it. Just smush up and down.) Oh, and salt/pepper to taste. It will need a good amount of salt.

Gravy: Simmer three turkey legs in a pot of water to cover and some salt, for two hours or so. This will create a nice turkey broth. (Feel free to season this any way you like.) Also, make a roux. These can be done in advance. On turkey day, mix in some of the roux (cold) with the broth (warmed until "melted", but not hot). Boil and stir the combination until it magically combines into gravy. Check for seasoning (i.e. add salt/pepper if necessary), and serve immediately. If it's too thin, turn off the heat, add more roux, and then continue stirring/boiling. If it's too thick, add some plain old water to thin it out. Or, more broth if you have it.

Cranberry: you're much better off buying this than trying to make it. See if you can find a fresh compote, instead of the can-shaped jelly stuff.

Stuffing: There are thousands of ways to do stuffing. My basic method is to buy a baguette, chop it up and toast lightly it in the oven at 300F or so (this simulates letting go stale for a day, but it tastes better), and add it to chopped and sauteed vegetables (celery, carrot, onion, garlic, etc.) in a very large pan, mixed with some tasty stock (you can use the gravy broth from above). Apply heat, and stir until it looks tasty.

(Also, no one will get on your case if you buy a tray of stuffing.)

Buy a nice pie or three from your favorite bakery. Better yet, have your guests bring them. :) You're already going to go nuts on main dishes, don't burn out trying to bake dessert as well.

Hope this helps!
posted by Citrus at 11:57 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

try this link for Greenmarket Vendors selling fresh turkeys. Some are free-range and organic others not. But they are all local and fresh and will be much better than a frozen butterball.
posted by JPD at 12:08 PM on November 20, 2009

Cranberry: you're much better off buying this than trying to make it. See if you can find a fresh compote, instead of the can-shaped jelly stuff.

Blasphemy! Cranberry sauce is incredibly easy and so much tastier homemade.

-Boil water.
-Add a bag of cranberries. Cook until they pop.
-Add sugar.
-Zest some orange and throw a cinnamon stick in there if you're feeling jaunty.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:19 PM on November 20, 2009

Best answer: Cranberry: you're much better off buying this than trying to make it.

I BEG to differ! Cranberry sauce is way easy -- and cranberry relish is way EASIER.

For cranberry relish -- just dump two cups of fresh cranberries, 2 apples, and one whole orange (peel and all) into a food processor. Whiz until it's all chopped up. Add 1-2 cups sugar to taste. You're done. This makes about 3 cups, so you can even scale back if you want.

For cranberry sauce -- you just need a pound of cranberries, 2 cups of water, and 2 cups of sugar. Combine the water and sugar in a pot, bring to a boil, and dump in the cranberries. Let it boil for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the berries start popping. Dump out into a bowl and chill. You're done. For extra flavor, stir in a tablespoon of grated orange zest before serving.

Shoot, I can even give you some cranberries.* My family is a supplier for Ocean Spray and I get a shipment every year.

*note to future readers: this offer applies only to zoomorphic.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:24 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have to second the recommendation to make your own cranberry sauce. I think it's pretty fun.
posted by kathrineg at 12:36 PM on November 20, 2009

Seems I forgot that it's gotten easier to buy fresh raw cranberries at the supermarket recently... One thing I've found is that it is very easy to overwhelm anything you make out of cranberries with the tartness and bitterness they bring in. So, be prepared to put a lot more sugar in than you think you need.

(Of course, of the things I've tried to do with cranberries, I never thought to just make a plain old sauce out of them as above. Maybe I should one day.)
posted by Citrus at 12:41 PM on November 20, 2009

Just to throw another recipe out there, I did Jamie Oliver's last year for Christmas and it was a winner.
posted by hibbersk at 12:41 PM on November 20, 2009

Agreed that cranberry sauce is dead easy to make and can be made ahead.

Oh, misc dinner party advice: think about serving dishes & serving utensils. I always run out of serving spoons - might be worth asking your guests to bring them along with their dishes. Do you have a gravy boat/ladle or pitcher? Also, if you're trying to do this round a table, make sure you have enough chairs; someone will probably have folding chairs you can borrow if you ask around among your guests. Think about how to make coffee/tea in bulk after dinner (and have decaf coffee/tea available if you don't usually). Do you have a creamer/sugar bowl?

Thanks for asking this question. I'm hosting next week too and have been procrastinating on thinking through the logistics.
posted by yarrow at 12:58 PM on November 20, 2009

I done both Alton Brown's and Martha's. Both were great. Brown's tasted slightly better, Martha's was the most beautiful turkey I've ever put on my table in 25 years. If you buy it frozen, I would take it out on Tuesday instead of Wednesday to thaw. I always take that extra day to be sure it's not frozen on the inside. Do NOT stuff the turkey. Cranberry sauce is incredibly easy to make, and a molded gelatin cranberry dish is always good, easy to make ahead, and is pretty on the table.

When you estimate the cooking time, it should come out of the oven at least 45 minutes before you plan to eat, maybe even an hour. That will give the turkey time to rest and will give you time to heat up the sides, make the gravy, and do whatever else needs to be done. Go over your list completely on Wednesday and do everything you can ahead of time, including the baking, chopping and dicing, setting up the tables and bar, etc. Putting a big Thanksgiving spread on the table is a LOT of work, so get everything set up the day before. And I mean everything single thing possible. Or you will be too tired to enjoy your beautiful meal.
posted by raisingsand at 1:37 PM on November 20, 2009

I also use Alton Brown's brining method and love it. It does the unimaginable: renders turkey meat consistently moist, juicy, and flavorful. It's really not very hard to do at all and kind of kicks things off in a festive way. I use a clean Coleman cooler to brine in, and with the ice he recommends, it stays cool throughout. I've had lots of compliments on this turkey from independent eaters - nary a mention of "sponginess."
posted by Miko at 1:56 PM on November 20, 2009

> turkey is boringly simple

Thanksgiving is not the occasion for wild experiments! Turkey may not be the most exciting dish around, but most people expect and enjoy it on that day.

Since everybody's covered the main dish and cranberry sauce, may I offer wine suggestions? Both zinfandel (an American wine!) and rosé go excellently with turkey. (For the rosé you may want to go French, though; Corbières is a good region for good, reasonably priced wines. Just whatever you do don't let them talk you into the abomination known as "white zinfandel.")
posted by languagehat at 1:58 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Go through the recipes for everything you're making, and make a thorough shopping list.
Make a really detailed list of tasks for the day, i.e..
Friday: Brine turkey
make candied bacon
make ice cream
Roast turkey
prep wine

I always write out the menu and post it on the fridge, and review it as I cook. Make sure you have enough serving spoons and dishes. Let people help. Have fun!
posted by theora55 at 2:10 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing Alton Brown's recipe -- my husband made turkey for the first time last year & everyone raved about how delicious it was!
posted by oh really at 2:25 PM on November 20, 2009

I've done thanksgiving maybe half a dozen times and usually I've tried to give the turkey a little extra kick: herbs and butter under the skin, or lemons up the butt, or put it on a basting schedule. One year I even did a fig-honey glaze.

Conclusion: don't bother, it's a waste of your valuable time. I'm starting to think these techniques are scams to make the cook feel all culinary or something, because I've never been able to detect any difference in flavor at all, and that's even before smothering it with gravy.

I'm not saying there's not a time and a place to get your Escoffier on, but the turkey isn't it! Unless maybe I'm doing it wrong. A far better use of time is to buy some turkey wings and make a turkey stock for the gravy the night before, when there's no time pressure.

But what about deglazing the roasting pan? Making gravy by deglazing the roasting pan is lame for the following reasons: first, deglazing uses two burners on the stovetop! It's going to sit there simmering and reducing for ages, and I need those burners for other things. Second, what happens if your browned bits get burned? Sour-tasting gravy is what. Third, it's messy. OK fine, maybe a quick deglaze and then it goes in the sink.
posted by AlsoMike at 4:56 PM on November 20, 2009

Something to be prepared for: the fifteen to thirty minutes prior to everyone actually sitting down and eating is typically extremely hectic. The bird is resting at this point so the oven should be free for sides but I've always found that depending on the dishes people bring the oven is a coveted space in that time window. There always seems to be someone who forgets that their rolls (or whatever) need the oven and there is absolutely no more room. If you plan ahead and make sure that people know when they can heat up a dish (or use your microwave, if you have one) it can ease some of the last minute chaos. I also think just knowing that this rush will occur makes it easier to deal with. I was at a Thanksgiving potluck last weekend where everyone (around 12 people) was standing in the kitchen at this point and the hosts were a little frazzled. Give people a job or tell them to get out of the way (if that makes life easier for you!).
posted by koselig at 5:01 PM on November 20, 2009

You're shooting for 170F breast and 180F in the thigh.

This sounds high to me. Even the USDA only recommends 165°F.
posted by serathen at 5:11 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As the host, you have (aside from cooking) an incredibly important job: everything needs to get to the table at the same time, preferably still hot. It's no fun watching the turkey reach room temperature while the stuffing is still raw, or trying to eat cold mashed potatoes with undercooked gravy.

What you need to do is plan your menu. Sit down with a couple of cookbooks (The Joy of Cooking is my standby, stained pages, broken spine and all), and decide exactly what you're making. Then, copy down the recipes onto paper that you can easily reference. Pay strict attention to the cooking times and prep times. Then, you need to make a schedule. The schedule should actually be broken up into two days. Do everything you can on Wednesday ahead of time. Get the stuffing mixed and in it's pan, wrapped in saran wrap, ready to go. Make sure the turkey is thawed. Get any appetizers (I'm going with stuffed mushrooms) ready to pop in the oven. Double check your ingredients list so that you don't have to make last minute runs to the store. Remember that giblet gravy takes a lot longer than you think.

On the day, stick to your schedule. If you plan things right, all the timers will ding at the right time, and you'll be able to set out all the food while it's still piping hot. I usually try to set out the food on a seperate table and let people approach it buffet style. Make sure the serving plates are at least a little warm, or the food will get cold faster.

I know this sounds like procedures for moving a regiment in war-time, but it's actually pretty close to that. There's a lot of prep to go into this, and if you don't do the prep, you'll be running around tearing out your hair at the last minute, while your guests are getting hungry. With the right prep, you'll be able to chat with guests, move at a leisurely, if purposeful pace, and deliver a meal that your friends will be impressed by, and give you a lasting memory of satisfaction.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:25 PM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Some expert hints: If it's Thanksgiving eve and the bird is still frozen solid despite your best fridge-thawing efforts, you can speed-thaw the bird using Very Cold tap water in either half of a double sink, a food-quality five gallon bucket, or a bathtub. If you do this, though, do not tell anyone that you did. It upsets people.

Beware Cookbook cooking times. Birds these days are liquid-added birds a lot of the time. What this means for you, the home cook, is that you need to read the package directions for cooking instead of believing Joy of Cooking or whatever. (We had a way overdone turkey two years ago because of this issue.)

Remember to let bird stand twenty minutes or so after cooking and before carving. This lets the moistures inside equalize and makes for a better turkey experience overall. You can make the gravy while the turkey is resting.

Also, last year I wrote All About Thanksgiving Gravy (NSFW, contains swearing along with helpful gravy advice) in response to the NYT pretending that gravy was up there with rocket science in terms of complexity.

Nobody else has mentioned the problem of leftovers. You say you have an apartment and have invited friends for dinner, so I'm betting that your household is not gigantic and cannot really eat a whole turkey worth of leftovers in a timely fashion. Therefore, invest in some ziplock baggies or glad plastic containers or whatever so that you can Send Food Home With People after the meal. Less waste, responsible use of food, a meal or two for people to have after-the-holiday. It's a lot more fun than just taking home your leftover sweet potatoes with pineapple and marshmallows or your leftover cranberry-and-cornbread stuffing or whatever, believe me.

Also, you say that you don't really cook so you probably won't want it, but ask any/all of your invited friends if anyone wants the turkey carcass for stock purposes. Someone might be willing to take it home as The Best Leftover Of All and repurpose it into about twelve cups of fantastic turkey stock, the parent of soups. It truly is a worthwhile thing to have and if someone can use it, why not give it away? (A sturdy grocery bag will carry it, provided it's been placed in a plastic trash bag first so as to not drip on the subway or whatever.)
posted by which_chick at 8:00 PM on November 20, 2009

It's true that planning a great meal is all about the turkey-resting time window and how efficiently you use it. I'll link here to my game-plan comment from last year that lays out my prep timeline and dinner strategy for getting everything on the table hot at once.
posted by Miko at 9:25 PM on November 20, 2009

I agree with those who say make your own cranberry relish, it only takes 10-15 minutes and can be done the night before. The addition of some orange zest or orange juice makes them very tasty. I like to make leftovers into a vinaigrette or cranberry mustard.

If you use a disposable aluminum pan to cook your turkey, definitely put the pan on a cookie sheet so you can take it into/out of the oven easier (learned this the hard way). You can put some rolls of foil underneath the turkey to increase air flow to the bottom of the turkey.

Cooks illustrated doesn't recommend basting the turkey, as it does not make the breast taste any better, but makes the skin rubbery.
posted by missanissa at 12:10 PM on November 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

how about freshdirect? looks like you can get the complete turkey dinner, which is a bit more than you need, or just the cooked turkey:
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:45 AM on November 22, 2009

Also, you say that you don't really cook so you probably won't want it, but ask any/all of your invited friends if anyone wants the turkey carcass for stock purposes. Someone might be willing to take it home as The Best Leftover Of All and repurpose it into about twelve cups of fantastic turkey stock, the parent of soups.


zoomorphic, did I mention I live about four blocks from you guys now?....

posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:35 AM on November 23, 2009

I make "feet" for the turkey out of two potatoes, halved the long way. These go cut side down in the roaster pan to keep the turkey from sticking. They also throw a little potato starch into the pan juices, as well as soaking up surplus grease, making the gravy better.

Also, if your kitchen is infested with vultures, they will fight over these hot greasy potato scraps instead of marring your presentation by nomming the wings off your bird.
posted by Sallyfur at 6:57 AM on November 25, 2009

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