Consider this your Turkey Day survival guide.
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There are so many things to love about Thanksgiving—quality time with family, watching the Macy's parade, and of course, gorging yourself on all the turkey, buttery mashed potatoes, and creamy pumpkin pie you can imagine. But there are also some things not to love—like the crazy amount of prep work that goes into the big day (especially if you're hosting) and the stress of trying to cook a perfect meal.
If you're having nightmares about overdone turkey, know that you aren't alone, according to a recent survey which revealed the most common Thanksgiving fails. Below are some of the top mistakes people make, along with our own cooking expert's best tips for preventing them.
Our kitchen and cooking editor, Cassidy Olsen, is the first to admit that this is a skill that gets better the more you cook. But there are plenty of ways to help you get your timing down this year, even if you're a novice chef. First, get as much prep work done as you can beforehand so everything is ready to go. Then, use as many different gadgets and appliances as possible so that things can cook simultaneously. "If your oven is full of a turkey, use a toaster oven, Instant Pot, cast iron pans, air fryer, etc. to make side dishes and desserts, Also make as many side dishes and desserts and you can in advance and then you can just pop them in the oven to reheat, rather than trying to time them," she suggests.
Another tool that Cassidy strongly suggests using is a probe thermometer—like our favorite, the ChefAlarm from ThermoWorks—to keep track of dishes as they cook. "Probe thermometers stay in the dish the whole time and alert you when it comes to a certain temperature," she explains. "This will help you understand how much time is left on something/how close it is to being done (particularly a turkey) and prevent over or undercooking."
And if you're really nervous about messing up your holiday meal? Practice. "If this is your first Thanksgiving and you don't know how to make mashed potatoes, gravy, or any of the desserts, throw a mini Friendsgiving or just cook for yourself in advance of the holiday to practice the dishes," Cassidy says.
While you can add some ingredients in at the end (like lemon, salt, or butter), Cassidy cautions that for other ingredients, this one can be very hard to correct. After all, what's a pie without sugar? However, she does have one suggestion: "Don't be afraid to add a sauce or gravy or butter to a dry vegetable/meat, or add whipped topping to something that needs more sugar," she says.
Trying to figure out exactly how much to cook of everything—not too little, not too much—can be tough. To be safe, Cassidy recommends erring on the side of too much (there's nothing wrong with having delicious leftovers for days!). She also says you can ask each of your guests to bring a dish potluck-style to ensure you have more than enough to go around. It's also a great way to try new foods and provide options for a variety of diets and preferences.
This goes along with number one (a.k.a not timing out your cooking correctly so some things are finished way too early). Fortunately, it's easy to prevent cold mashed potatoes or lukewarm gravy. "Always have your oven warm for keeping dishes warm—but don't let them sit there for a long time, or they'll go dry," Cassidy says, adding, "You can always reheat things in a toaster oven or microwave! No shame in that."
Cassidy has a few tricks for cooking the perfect Thanksgiving turkey. First, she always recommends spatchcocking your turkey. This method involves removing the backbone of the bird so that it lies flat, helping it cook more evenly and quickly. You should also use a reliable meat thermometer to keep track of the internal temperature so you don't accidentally overcook your bird.
Another option if you're intimidated by roasting a 20-pound turkey is to opt for multiple, smaller birds, which are easier to cook correctly and also take less time in the oven. And if your turkey still doesn't turn out as juicy as you'd hoped? "Gravy," Cassidy says. "Always gravy."
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