I've been cooking Thanksgiving dinners for a very long time now. Most of my family lives in the New England and I've been in Southern California for over 20 years. I don't always make it home for every holiday. In my time here I've met quite a few people who are from "somewhere else" and don't always get home for the holidays.
Quite a few years back a small core group of my friends and I decided to start a tradition. We'd rotate between our places of residence, but essentially we would invite all those we knew who had no place to go, over for Thanksgiving. It started small, but eventually grew--30 people last year and it required my loft apt and my neighbor's to accommodate everyone and get all the food cooked.
In that time, I've become fairly proficient at preparing Thanksgiving dinner. Here's a list of tools, as well as a few tips and tricks that have worked really well and turned a stressful day into a successful meal.
1. Instant Read Meat Thermometer. Seriously. Possibly one of the most important items. The turkey is the centerpiece. It's the star of your meal. You don't want it under cooked(health hazard) or over cooked and dry (reputation hazard).
If you don't use an instant read, you can always get one to leave in the bird while its in the oven.
One of the biggest breakthroughs I had was discovering the crown method of cooking your bird. Essentially this is where you separate the breast meat portion from the legs, thighs, and wings. For the juiciest, most awesome results, the turkey breast should be cooked to 145ºF. The legs and thighs, however are at their absolute best when they've cooked to 165ºF. Breaking your turkey into two parts allows you to get them both to perfection. You will have to sacrifice the visual presentation of a whole turkey on the table before carving, but I'm telling you it's absolutely worth it. Make it a new tradition.
There's a great tutorial for breaking down the bird and cooking it here.
2. Roasting Racks and Pans. I usually have one medium roasting pan for the crown and a medium (or two smaller pans) for the wings, legs, and thighs. Whatever cooking method or pans you use, make sure that the whole bird or bird parts have a rack so it doesn't sit directly on the bottom of your pan.
3. Meat Injector. Most of you probably get a turkey from your local grocer that's already brined. 90% of ones you find at major markets from major brands are. Make sure you double check. If it's not brined, you probably will want to. It's not hard to do. Also, the tool looks cool as hell and you can feel like a mad scientist for a minute.
4. Make clean up easier. Holiday meals like this all have one thing in common They produce a lots of dishes, pots and pans to clean up afterwards. One trick is to use the disposable roasting pans. You can use them for the bird, your ham, stuffing, veggies, whatever. I also recommend them to those who bring dishes over. I still have 5 extra casserole dishes from last year taking up space.
5. Great Mashed Potatoes. People really love the mashed potatoes I make. They're smooth and creamy, not lumpy. They ask for the recipe. I give it to them but add that it's not necessarily the recipe. (Which happens to be salt, lots of minced garlic, good butter, and sour cream) The real secret is in the tool. After the potatoes are boiled--I leave the skins on--I use this immersion blender to mix in the all of the ingredients. Just the main piece, not the whisk or processor attachments.
That said, I also love good, rustic, smashed potatoes.
6. Carve like a pro. No matter how you cook your turkey, you'll need to carve it. I've seen too many people try to carve with regular kitchen steak knives. They usually make a mess of the bird. Get a great carving set. It'll make your life way easier. I prefer Global knives, but choose what you like.
7. Roasted Root Vegetables. Some number of holiday meals ago, It dawned on me that no one really ever makes veggies. Sure potatoes, yams, green bean casserole are staples and vegetables. But they're often topped with marshmallow or mixed with tons of cream or topped with melted cheese. Sort of defeats the healthiness. I know, It's Thanksgiving. No one is thinking healthy. I started making simple roasted root vegetables & they were a hit.
They're super easy to make. Choose your preferred combo. Turnips, parsnips, rutabaga, carrots, beets of any color, and even yukon or red potatoes. Chop them all into equal-sized cubes, Add some halved shallots, then toss them all together with olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic and rosemary. Mmmmm good. Here's a pretty good recipe. Oh... Those sheet pans or roasting pans I mentioned above come in very handy here too.
8. Maximize oven space. Turkey day is a very baking/oven centric holiday. Try to prepare any dishes you can the day before that can just be popped back into the oven once the turkey is out and resting. If you still don't have enough space, consider cast iron braisers or a dutch oven. You're basically getting extra oven space out of your stove top.
9. Awesome gravy. Even if I'm not the one in charge of cooking in a given year. I'm always asked to make the gravy. Essentially I take any and all turkey drippings and throw them into a sauce pan. I'll add butter or poultry broth if there aren't enough drippings. Bring that to as low a boil as you can. Sometimes I'll chop up some mushrooms and add those. Next, using a sifter or , slowly whisk in some flour. Super slowly, and only a little bit at a time--you don't want it to get too thick. The mixture should be simmering this whole time & you need to let the flour cook or it'll have a weird taste. After it boils long enough and is to a consistency you like, remove from the heat and get ready to serve. I found a few good gravy tips here.
10. Lots of towels. Perhaps the thing that's in my hand throughout most of the cooking day. Dry ones to handle hot cookware, using them to clean surfaces, wipe up spills, as hot plates etc. I go through a ton. Clean as you go. You'll be happy you did.
Those are a few of the things I've learned over the years. I'm sure there are many,.many more things you can discover on the Google. Do you have any secrets you'd like to share? Drop them in the comments.
Have A Happy Thanksgiving!