How to Cook a Thanksgiving Dinner

Cooking a full, traditional Thanksgiving dinner can be intimidating. There’s a lot of dishes and a lot of moving parts, all of which basically need to be on the table at the same time.

But it’s not as hard as you might think. With just some basic cooking knowledge and some project management skills, you too can wow your family with that home cooked traditional feast on Thursday.

First, let’s start with the turkey. Now, a turkey spends upwards of about 15 minutes per pound roasting in the oven, so you’ll need to start early. I hate cooking frozen meat, because your bird will defrost unevenly and it can make it tough, so start with a fresh (or at least defrosted) turkey. On Tuesday, you’ll want to brine the thing. Brining is essentially the same as marinating, and since your bird will spend so much time in the oven, the brine will keep your turkey nice and moist. I recommend any of the various versions that come from Williams Sonoma, plus their bags storage for the next two days. Make sure you get out all the giblets from the turkey’s cavity, then throughly wash and pat dry before dropping into the brine bag.

Thursday morning, when you’re ready to cook, preheat to 500 degrees (yeah, not a typo). You’ll want to take your roasting pan and spray it with cooking spray. Cut up 4 onions roughly, and put half into the roasting pan with a few cut carrots and some celery. Then melt some butter in the microwave with rosemary and thyme. Once melted, you’ll want to carefully insert some of the mixture under the turkey’s skin, between the skin and the meat. Using a paper towel or a brush will help with this. Then insert 4-5 pats of butter under there as well to melt into the meat. Finally, roughly cut up an entire bunch of parsley, and shove that into the turkey’s cavity with the remaining onions and a few more pats of butter. I don’t put stuffing into my turkey – it slows the cooking down and makes it uneven.

Finally, put the turkey into the roasting pan on top of the veggies. Douse it with chicken broth (maybe 1/4” deep in the pan), then douse the turkey again with olive oil. Shake on some dry rosemary and thyme onto the skin. Your turkey is now ready for baking.

Get the turkey roughly centered in the oven and bake at 500 for about 30-40 minutes – you’ll need to check it regularly to make sure the skin doesn’t burn. What this does is makes the skin crispy and hold in the turkey’s juices. Then open the oven for a minute and let the temperature drop to 325. Baste the entire turkey with either the liquid in the pan, or add a little more chicken broth to the top. Let the turkey roast that way, basting every 20-30 minutes, until the internal temperature reaches 165 in both the breast and thigh. Add more liquid as necessary – basically, if you’re about to run out. Your turkey will finish ahead of the traditional 15 minutes per pound computation. Your turkey will need to rest for about 20 minutes before serving. If the skin gets too dark at some point, take a piece of foil and make a tent over the top of the turkey – that’ll protect the skin from getting too dark but still allow air to reach it.

To make gravy, get some of Williams Sonoma gravy starter, then drop that in a cooking pan. Add some of the juice from the bottom of the roasting pan, some heavy cream (like 1/4-1/2 a cup), and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. If it’s too liquidly, add some Wondra flour.

Now, I consider cranberry sauce and yams to be the scourge of my Thanksgiving table, so I won’t discuss them here. On my table, we only accompany the Thanksgiving turkey with the following: Mashed Potatoes, Macaroni and Cheese, Sausage Stuffing and Green Bean Casserole.

Of these, the mashed potatoes are the easiest. Generally, we have a good number of people at Thanksgiving, so we start with a five pound bag of russet potatoes. These need to be pealed, then boil them until they’re able to be mashed with a fork. Drain, then return them to the pot. Mash them up with a spoon until they’re roughly broken up. Then add a couple of cups of half and half, some salt and pepper (to taste), some squeeze garlic and parmesan cheese (if you want), then drop in an immersion blender. Keep adding the half and half until you get the consistency you want – the more you add, the smoother they’ll get, but also they’ll be more liquidly. Just trust your own opinion here.

Next up is the green bean casserole. Get a casserole dish, add in 2 bags of defrosted, frozen, french-style cut green beans. Then two cans of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, 1 cut half and half and salt and pepper to taste. I also like to throw in some bacon and cheddar, cause let’s face it: bacon and cheese are awesome in just about anything. Or you can add some parmesan if you want. I also throw in about a 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs to help with consistency – this dish tends to get soupy (geddit?). Finally, throw in a bunch of French’s Fried Onions. Mix it all together, then bake it at 350 for about 35 minutes or so. Coat the top with some parmesan cheese (if you want), then coat it again with the onions. Bake it for another 10-15 minutes.

Macaroni and Cheese tends to be a more personal thing, and I’m still looking for my “best-ever” recipe, so I won’t bother covering it here. Plenty of recipes on the net if you want.

But now – THE STUFFING. Really, this is what we all come to Thanksgiving for, right? I’ve had a recipe for the last several years that involved cheese bread, but this year I’m moving towards a more herb-based model. For starters, I don’t buy prepared stuffing crumbs – I make my own. I took 3 loaves of good sourdough bread and chop it into crouton-sized chunks about 10 days before Thanksgiving. It was set out on cookie sheets and allowed to fully dry for several days. When I’m ready to cook, I’ll brown up 1.25 pounds of Italian sausage, and in a separate pan, 2 finely cut onions and 6 cloves of chopped garlic. Throw all of that into a huge casserole dish with some sage, rosemary and parsley, then mash it all together with a wooden spoon, adding just enough chicken broth to moisten it all up (but you don’t want it wet – it won’t hold together). Bake it for about an hour, plus or minus, under foil, then take the foil off for about 10 minutes to let it crisp a little on top.

Traditionally, we serve cherry and chocolate pecan pies at my table, and I’ll give you a quick once-over on those here as well. First, either buy or make your two pie crusts. I make them from scratch, and there’s plenty of fine recipes online for it, but store-bought ain’t bad either. Get them into two pie pans.

For the cherry, I used to make the filling from scratch, but I’ve found that to be a waste of time. Get yourself two cans of Comstock’s country-style cherry pie filling. Dump them into one of the pie crusts. In a separate bowl, mix one cup brown sugar, one cup flour and 1/4 cup butter, diced, somewhat soft. Get it nice and mixed up, dump on top of the cherry pie filling, and bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes uncovered.

For the chocolate pecan, coat the bottom of the shell with 2 cups pecan halves. In a bowl, whisk three eggs and 3 TBS melted butter. Then add 1/2 cup dark corn syrup, 1 cup sugar, 2 TBS bourbon and 3 ounces semisweet chocolate (I tend to add a little more chocolate cause, you know, chocolate). Dump that into the pie shell over the pecans. Bake for 10 minutes at 375, then drop the temperature to 350 and bake for another 25 minutes until you can touch the filling without it moving.

Watch the edge of the crust on both of these while cooking – it might start to get too dark. If so, take a large piece of foil, cut out the center, and just cover the crust edge.

BUT JACK – you might ask – HOW THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO DO THIS WITH ONE OVEN??

This is where your project management skills come in. What I’ll do is bake the pies on Wednesday morning, followed by the mac and cheese and stuffing (without the final 10 minutes of crisping it), then assemble (but not cook) the green bean casserole. Refrigerate all overnight.

About 75 minutes from the turkey’s completion, get the mashed potatoes done, and take out all the sides from the fridge. The sides can warm up to room temperature, and the mashed potatoes take around 30-45 minutes to finish on your stove top.

I use a Breville toaster oven (which is really a counter-top oven), and the green beans will go in around 30 minutes before I pull the turkey from the oven.

When the turkey is done, put the stuffing and the mac and cheese in the still-hot oven at 325 to warm up – stuffing on top. Throw a couple of tablespoons of chicken broth into the stuffing and mix, and about a tablespoon of half and half onto the mac and cheese to moisten them up. By the time you’ve carved the turkey, these will be ready to go (if not sooner). If the mashed potatoes are too cold, add in a tablespoon or two of heavy cream, stir and heat on low, stirring very often.

Turn off the oven and serve your food. If you add the pies to the oven once you turn them off, they’ll be nicely heated by the time you’re done with dinner.

One tasty addition to any Thanksgiving table is Williams Sonoma’s pumpkin spice bread, which has the added benefit of making your house smell awesome. Cook that sometime in the morning before doing your turkey or in the Breville oven before the green beans – it’s perfectly fine served at room temperature.

Have a great and delicious holiday!

Programming note: I’m taking next week off – the blog will be back on on December 4.