Planning in advance is the secret sauce to a stress-free Thanksgiving. Thanks to the culinary goddess, Pamela Salzman, she shares her tips, tricks, and everything guide for the holiday ahead. Although this year may look more like an intimate dinner party, we still believe in making Thanksgiving as special as possible. One thing that doesn’t have to be changed this year is a delicious and well thought out feast.
Below Salzman elaborates on the importance of planning your menu ahead, the questions you should ask yourself and your guests, plus a checklist that makes the week before Thanksgiving as seamless as possible.
Planning the Thanksgiving menu requires a bit of strategy and balance. Make sure you have a balance of cooked and raw food (one thing I have learned is no matter how big your kitchen or how many ovens you have, it’s never enough on Thanksgiving!); protein, starches, and vegetables (I find most Thanksgiving menus to be too starchy;) and ingredients (make sure not every recipe has dried fruit and nuts in it.) Know what dishes need an oven and when because if you’re making turkey and you have one oven, you won’t be baking too much in the hours before dinner.
I love trying new recipes, but my family looks forward to the same traditional standbys every year. There was almost a revolution when I took Breaded Cauliflower off the menu in 2007 (I now serve it as an hors d’oeuvre.) So I compromise by making the classics (traditional roast turkey with gravy and cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and pumpkin pie), but I also try out a new salad or vegetable side dish every year.
Just because you’re cooking overtime for Thanksgiving dinner, doesn’t mean your household won’t be needing dinner the night before and breakfast the morning of. Instead of ordering takeout pizza on Wednesday night, make and freeze a casserole in the weeks ahead or plan for your easiest 20-minute meal. The same goes for Thanksgiving day, especially if you have young children in the house. You can save your appetite and get by on a piece of fruit for the day, but your four-year-old cannot. I always make a pot of butternut squash soup the day before and a pan of cornbread to be served around noon to tide anyone over until the big meal.
I remember my first Thanksgiving with a stack of cookbooks and magazines taking up valuable counter space and wasting so much time looking up each recipe multiple times. Ugh! Put your photocopied recipes in sheet protectors and create a dedicated Thanksgiving or holiday binder organized by category. This just might be the most useful tip I give you.
Order the Turkey: If you eat turkey on Thanksgiving, it’s a good idea to order it now. I have always ordered a fresh, free-range, organic turkey because in my opinion it has a tasty turkey flavor and is of higher quality than most other alternatives. The only thing that may be better is a heritage turkey, which has a much stronger turkey flavor and supposed to be moister. It will have less breast meat though and will be more expensive. If you want a heritage bird, you need to order this ASAP since they sell out fast. Avoid “self-basting” turkeys which are injected with anything from chicken fat to salt to chemicals. True, they are easier to cook, but I think they taste more like salt than turkey and they are just full of stuff you don’t want to feed your family.
Here are some questions that will help you decide what size to order:
How many ovens do you have?
If you have one large oven that can accommodate two turkeys side by side and an extra oven to spare (you’re so lucky!), then you have the option of cooking two smaller birds versus one large one. But with two small ovens, you may not want them both to be monopolized by turkeys.
Are your guests dark meat-eaters or white meat-eaters?
You will get more white meat by weight from one large bird than from two smaller ones. Likewise, you will get more dark meat from two smaller birds than from one large one.
How big a turkey should you buy?
The rule of thumb is one pound of turkey per person. That doesn’t mean that you will have 1 pound of meat per person, though. Personally, I think this is only a good rule if you don’t want leftovers if your guests are not big eaters, and/or you have a good number of dark meat eaters versus all-white meat-eaters. Five years ago I cooked two 17-pound turkeys for 20 adults and 5 kids and I had just enough leftovers for the five of us for dinner the next day. Four years ago I cooked two 18-pound turkeys for 24 adults and 5 kids and we had the same amount of leftovers. My point is that I think 1 1/4 pounds per person is a safer bet.
Do you have a bad back?
What does this have to do with anything? A very large turkey is mighty challenging to keep pulling out of the oven to baste. I find two smaller turkeys much more manageable if you have the oven space.
Planning Your Table Decor I don’t do anything fancy for my table decorations, but it’s nice to make the table look special. Now’s the time to check your linens for stains and make sure you have enough napkins, plates, and glassware. I generally like to do something simple with fresh flowers in autumnal colors and add in a few of the kids’ Thanksgiving art projects from years past. But you can put out bowls of apples and pears or gourds and nuts, add in a few votive candles and it will look lovely. If a tablescape isn’t your thing, you can always order from your local florist or full-service market. Just plan ahead. For additional detailed table decor tips, you can read more here.
This is my schedule if we eat at 4:00 pm
After dinner: whip cream, coffee, and tea, sparkling water
After everyone leaves, write notes for next year!
photo courtesy of Pinterest
Pamela Salzman is a chef, author, and cooking instructor based in Los Angeles, California. She has been featured in New York Magazine, The Malibu Times, KTLA, and NBC News, including several others. For more delicious recipes you can check out her website pamelasalzman.com and follow her on Instagram.