xoThanksgiving: A Turkey Day Dinner 101 For First-Timers

Before you drive yourself insane with elaborate plans and over the top recipes, no one will ever talk about your Thanksgiving in terms of how moist the turkey was. But just in case.

Nov 11, 2013 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

I wish I could remember Thanksgivings as a kid. My parents were both great cooks, we had a real formal dining room and living room with white carpet and white silk furniture no one was allowed in except for occasions like this (the idea of two spare rooms for this purpose is ridiculously foreign to me) and we had family in town.  But not a single one sticks out.
 
Maybe because they weren’t really mine. Because the Thanksgivings I’ve been a real part of, that I’ve had a role in, been surrounded by my people… I remember every single one of those. Every scant detail. 
 
And that’s the thing -- not all of them were hit-em-out-of-the-park meals. Not all of them came off smoothly or on time. But they were mine. I was surrounded by great people and anything that didn’t work was smothered by roaring laughter and people genuinely happy to be a part of the day. 
 
Now that you’re hosting your own Thanksgiving, this is the important gift I can give you. Before you drive yourself insane with elaborate plans and over the top recipes, I want you to know no one will ever talk about your Thanksgiving in terms of how moist the turkey was or how great the garlic tasted in the mashed potatoes. 
 
They’ll talk about how hard you everyone laughed about a particular joke, or the bet about how late so and so would show up, or the amazing Cards Against Humanity play someone made. Every time the plans scale up and become more elaborate, slap yourself on the hand and remember this is your holiday and you need to be able to enjoy it. Being stuck in a kitchen won’t be fun for you or for anyone else there. 
 
Costs
 
The first hurdle for throwing your own Thanksgiving is often the cost. We’ve got an entire media trying to tell us about new tools we need, special heritage birds, or expensive pots and pans, special spices. None of those things will make the day more special, though they might make it easier. Don’t be intimidated by the overwhelming amount of information flying at you and the things you’ll need. In the end, you’ll require very little in way of tools. 
 
  • Roasting Pan (and a tin foil one from the supermarket is more than fine. I have a version I got at Bed, Bath and Beyond for $40, its worked for years). I found this comparable version on Amazon
  • Tin Foil
  • Fry or saute pan
  • Big pot for boiling water 
  • Big bowls or dishes or casseroles for serving all your dishes. Many of mine come from Ikea, I can’t tell you how many of these glass dishes I have for serving. 
  • One decently long sharp knife for slicing turkey. A slicing knife is ideal, but dude, something that cuts will be fine in a pinch. 
  • A pitcher, bottle, bowl or cruset or gravy bowl (for the gravy)
  • Enough plates, napkins, glasses and silverware for everyone (whether china or paper/plastic)
  • A meat thermometer
  • Towels, potholders or something to shield your hands while you handle hot pots and dishes.
  • Baster. its a real thing. They’re cheap.  You’ll want one. 
 
Also consider borrowing the items if possible from friends who aren't hosting a dinner. If you're REALLY lucky, you might have a kitchen library in your area.
 
Budget enough for these items and all that’s left is the groceries, which are based on what you’re making. Standard Thanksgiving fare includes the turkey, stuffing/dressing, potatoes (mashed and/or sweet), vegetables (green beans, root vegetables, etc), gravy, cranberries and pie for dessert. 
 
Families of course have their own variations and dishes, and just because there is a “traditional” range of dishes doesn't mean you need to stick to it. Something to be conscious of is that by inviting people, it is not just your Thanksgiving anymore, but your friends’, and they may have some traditional expectations for the holiday. Let them know ahead of time if you won’t be preparing a turkey, and absolutely offer them the opportunity to bring something that makes them feel at home.
 
There’s also no rule that you can’t cater part of the meal or all of the meal, run it as a potluck, or that you have to make everything from scratch. I can make a good pie crust, but there are times I skip ahead and buy a premade pie crust -- because I can. Hell, there's a place down the street from you that can probably make a killer pie. There is no shame in putting really good food, that supports local businesses on your table. Not for nothing, it is often less expensive.
 
The list below assumes you are going to do a very basic Thanksgiving. Anything you’d do to bump it up, dishes you add, etc should be added to this list. 
 
Menu: 
 
Roasted turkey w dressing
Mashed potatoes
Sweet potatoes
Green beans
Gravy
Cranberry Sauce
Pumpkin pie
 
Shopping List
 
For each person who’s going to attend, figure 1lb of turkey. This seems like a lot, but frankly, a lot of the turkey isn’t actually meat, but carcass, so you figure that in. Also, not for nothing, but people eat a LOT OF FREAKING TURKEY. Also: leftovers.
 
Anything less than an 8lb bird is not only unobtainable, but worthless due to small amount of meat. I’ve gone as big as 22lbs.  Consider your oven size as well -- a really huge bird isn’t going to fit into a really small oven. If you have a standard oven, almost any size bird will fit just fine.
 
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My friend's turkeys, which she raised, which she kills herself as humanely as possible

 
While I would recommend, from my own ethical perspective, purchasing a turkey that had lived a good life and died a good death with as little stress as possible, do not allow this recommendation to weigh too heavily on you. I do not fundamentally believe “heritage” or organic birds taste better, and I am fully aware they are more expensive.
 
If you have the budget to splurge in any part of the meal, I’d ask it is for a bird from a local farmer you trust, who’s raised his own birds and can tell you how they’re raised and how they die. Factory farming of poultry is terrible and cruel, and of all days, it's my wish that on a day to be thankful, we do so in a way that doesn’t cost any living being a miserable existence. The more we purchase ethically raised birds, the more we encourage this behavior in the farming industry. 
 
As for everything else, I spent a whole lifetime trying to figure out what to buy for an appropriate serving size until a year ago when someone briefly explained that I was being an idiot and it was as simple as doing it in handfuls. How many green beans do I need to buy? One person will eat a handful, so 8 people will need 8 handfuls. 
 
How much mashed potatoes? Figure 1 large potato per person. Same for sweet potatoes. 
 
How much pie? 1 pie will feed 6-8 people a good sized portion, and if you have multiple pies people tend to take smaller slices of a few different ones.  
 
For each 4 potatoes you need 1 cup of cream and 4 tbsp of butter. For each sweet potato you’ll need a tbsp of brown sugar and some cinnamon. 
 
For the pumpkin pie you’ll need a can of pumpkin pie filling and either a pre made pie crust or you can make one, requiring 2 cups of flour and 1 stick of butter. 
 
You’ll need a few sticks of butter for the turkey and a bottle of white wine, cheap is fine, sweet is fine. Butter being something that you always need and that never goes bad, making sure you have extra is not a bad thing. 
 
The Week Before
 
Now’s a good time to start clearing out your refrigerator. You’ll be amazed how much room you’ll need, so while you still need to eat this week, its time to clear out the stuff that can go. 
 
If you’re going to shop at the farmers' market, that’s got to happen the week before. Confirm your turkey with your store/farmer/butcher. Confirm your guests so you can make sure you have the chairs, dishes, ingredients you need. If you’ve asked people to bring things, double check. For instance, at my house, I do not purchase alcohol, I leave that to guests to bring with them. But a wineless house holiday would suck, so I double check. 
 
Make sure you have enough toilet paper for the bathroom and a few rolls are accessible, and hand towels are clean. I like to hand bandaids in case I cut or burn myself during the day. 
 
It's also a good time to start cleaning. Don’t leave it until the night before. Check your napkins if you’re using cloth and wash them and a tablecloth if you’ll be using one. Get out the wine glasses and run them through the dishwasher if they’re dusty, same for the plates. Create a space for coats and purses.  Take out all your serving dishes and make sure you have enough for what you’re making. I use a sticky pad and write what will go in each. 
 
Remember to pick up the bird, and if it's frozen, start defrosting it three days ahead of time in your refrigerator. 
 
The Day Before
 
I execute the final clean the day before Thanksgiving, meaning the table is set, the bathroom is clean, my kitchen is completely ready to roll, and my refrigerator is ready to accept dishes. I have all my groceries and I’m set. 
 
Any pies can and should be made the day before. No reason to stress yourself with them. You can prep vegetables and make the stuffing/dressing the day before. Cranberry sauce can be made the day before. Even mashed potatoes can be made the day before, and sweet potatoes can as well. Recipes for pies and sides will be forthcoming in articles over the next week or two. 
 
 
Before you go to sleep, go over the schedule for the next day. The only important thing is that the turkey get into the oven at the right time. The chart below will show you how long to cook the turkey, but add one entire hour to the total time since your turkey needs to “rest” before you eat. I also recommend adding another 30 minutes to that because… you know. Shit happens. Better to give yourself some padding.  
 
Weight of Turkey - Time to Cook
 
4½-7 lbs. - 2-2½ hrs.
7-9 lbs. - 2½-3 hrs.
9-18 lbs. - 3-3½ hrs.
18-22 lbs. - 3½-4 hrs.
22-24 lbs. - 4-4½ hrs.
24-30 lbs. - 4½-5 hrs.
 
Take out a stick of butter and leave it on the counter to get to room temperature overnight. Set your alarm, and hit the hay. 
 
Thanksgiving
 
Wake up, and take a deep breath. You’ve done the work -- today will not be overwhelming. Turn the oven to 400 degrees, make sure the racks are on the bottom rungs of the oven. Throw some herbs in a bowl. Sage, rosemary and thyme are great, I add salt and pepper, and some paprika never hurt for color.
 
Get the turkey out, unwrap it, reach into the big cavity and pull out everything. It's a bag and the turkey neck. It's a mental thing, its really not gross.  Although delicious in the gravy, we're not going to use the giblets in the basic recipe below, so feed them to the dog or toss. Save the neck, and rinse the entire turkey off, inside and out, and pat it dry.
 
Do this without any other food around the sink, because there's evidence that the water spatters and you get cross contamination. Place the turkey it in the rack breast side down. 
 
 
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Now… with use your hands to smear the turkey with the soft butter, and then sprinkle some of the herbs on and rub everything into the skin. Now, sprinkle some of the herbs into the cavity and rub it in. Then flip over so its breast side up, and use the rest of the butter and herbs and rub them in completely. 
 
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Take a piece of string and tie the drumsticks together, crossing them. There is no “correct” way to do this, just tie them together. The point is to not have them flapping around getting too much heat. Use small pieces of tin foil to cover the tips of the wings. 
 
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Take out a large piece of tin foil and fold it in half, creating a triangle. Now place it on top of the turkey breast molding it slightly to the bird. And then, take it off! You don’t need it yet. Put it aside. 
 
IT IS TIME. As long as the oven is to temperature, put the bird in the oven, set the oven for 30 minutes. Then wash your hands. Then wash 'em again. 
 
Now take out a small saucepan, dump in 1 stick of butter and the bottle of white wine and the turkey neck. Turn it onto medium, high, let it come to a boil and melt together and then put them on low and on the back burner. 
 
Because then you’re going to turn the bird around, give it another 15 minutes at 400 degrees. This should have given your turkey a great seared and roasty skin. Now its time to turn it down to 325 degrees and put on that tin foil bikini.
 
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And, time to baste! Here’s the hint: you want the oven open as little as possible, so be ready. Open it, with one hand holding the pot of basting liquid (the butter/wine) nearby; don’t leave it on the stovetop. The other hand holding the baster, suck up some of the liquid and then spit it, aiming down, at the turkey. Don’t overshoot, it's not the olympics and you just baste the oven that way. Just do it once, then close it. Set the timer for 30 minutes. Every time it goes off, baste and then reset the timer. If you run out of basting liquid, use the baster to suck up some of the liquid in the bottom of the roasting pan instead. 
 
Get your green beans ready to go into the saute pan. Wash them, trim the edges, put them into a ziplock with a bit of olive oil and salt and pepper and send them back to the fridge. 
 
Turn on the parade. Start drinking. 
 
What? I mean, start cutting out turkey-themed table decorations. (Someone needs to, I’ll be busy drinking.)
 
Two hours before the turkey is going to come out of the oven, it's time to get ready. Take out all pans in the refrigerator: the mashed potatoes, the sweet potatoes and the stuffing. Let them get to room temperature. 
 
The thermometer is the sole foreteller of turkey doneness. When inserted INTO THE BREAST (and not hitting the bone) it should read 165. When it does, its time to take the bird out. It's heavier than you think and now it's hot. Have a place for it to go, with a towel down and ready or a trivet. 
 
As soon as it's down, cover it in tin foil and walk away. The turkey will continue to cook a bit and you now have an hour. Immediately move the racks in the oven, one stays on the bottom and one in the middle. Put the stuffing on the bottom rack, and the mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes next to each other on the top rack. Everything should have tin foil on top so it cooks, but doesn’t dry out. Turn the oven to 375. Set the timer for 45 minutes. 
 
Get everyone out of your kitchen, it's time to work. 
 
Saute the green beans: heat a fry or saute pan to medium high. Wait a minute then dump the green beans in, having the final serving dish for it nearby. Stir the green beans, but they really don’t take very long at all, a few minutes. As soon as they’re dark green, take them off, dump them into the serving dish and cover it with foil. 
 
Now wipe the pan out and throw in another 4 tbsp of butter and let it melt over medium heat. Throw in 2 tbsp of flour and let it sit for 30 seconds, then begin stirring it into the butter over the heat. As soon as it starts to bubble, take it off the heat. Slowly start to pour in ¼ cup of the remaining basting liquid and stir furiously so you don’t get lumps. Remove the turkey neck from the basting liquid (and if you're starving, eat it!) Then pour everything back into the pot for the basting liquid and stir over medium heat. 
 
As it heats up and bubbles, it should start to thicken. Bam, gravy! Use your baster to grab some juices from the bottom of the turkey pan and add those to the gravy, stir in. If you have not yet yielded enough gravy, use some chicken stock to give you volume. 
 
Pull the foil off everything in the oven and put it back in. Put the green bean dish next to the stuffing. 
 
It's time to put the turkey onto a cutting board. They sell turkey lifters for this, but they're really just two giant forks. Use any implement you can to move the bird, and its helpful to have one person lift it, and another slide the cutting board underneath it instead of trying to go mobile with your bird in flight. I like to put a towel down underneath the cutting board because of all the juices that’ll go everywhere.
 
This is a GREAT thing to offer a guest, the opportunity to cut the turkey, if they know what they’re doing. Otherwise, it's on you. I can’t describe it better than they do here: 
 
 
While this is happening, have your guests begin to put the hot dishes onto the table. Make sure to put towels or trivets down on the table, and place big spoons or serving spoons into each dish. Pour the gravy into your gravy boat and put it on the table. Put the cranberry sauce on the table. 
 
Plate the turkey on your serving plate, and once everyone is seated, its time to step into the room with the turkey! 
 
You DID IT. Congrats. 
 
After the Meal
 
Let your friends do the dishes. Not just because its polite of them to offer and you did all the work, but because they want to feel like they’re a part of the dinner.  You can focus on leftovers and getting things set up to put away. 
 
Carve the entire bird til there is nothing left on it. Put a giant pot of water on the stove, throw the carcass in it, put a cover on it and leave it. Almost all leftovers can go into ziplocks and be generous giving away the sweet potatoes and stuffing to guests -- they have a time limit on how long they last. Save the vegetables and mashed potatoes and gravy. The turkey can go right into a ziplock, and I toss in a tbsp of gravy or two and then suck the air out of the bag. This will keep it moist. 
 
Once guests leave, turn the stove onto medium heat under the pot w the carcass and let it cook for an hour. Then strain it over a colander, save the stock and toss everything else, and the pot can sit on the stove overnight with the heat off. The next morning, you can strain the fat off the top, throw the stock into ziplocks or containers and put it in the fridge to be used for leftovers, to be covered in another article. 
 
These are VERY basic recipes, guaranteed to get you through the first thanksgiving. Of course, you can bump them up, and we’ll have tons of recipes over the next three weeks to do so. There is no right way to do Thanksgiving, so more than anything else, don’t let it stress you out. 
 
Because PILGRIMS.