How To

Brandon Friend, Starving Artist (A.D), 2009. Courtesy the artist.

How to Cook Thanksgiving Dinner

You’ve got less than two days to prepare Thanksgiving dinner. Is the menu set? Do you have a cooking timetable ready? Uh oh. Sage advice for those whose stuffing isn’t quite ready for prime time.

What is it about Thanksgiving that brings out the crazy in everyone? When you distill the holiday to its essence, it’s just another dinner for a bunch of people; but for most people, this is no ordinary dinner party—this is family. So, any insecurity you might have about your cooking skills is magnified by whatever factor equals how much your family members stress one another out. As the tensions mounts, remind yourself this entire hullabaloo is over 20 minutes of speed-eating and 10 minutes of sighing and belt-loosening. That’s tantamount to gluttony, which is a sin. And if you’re going to sin, you might as well have fun doing it.

Everybody has a thing they do—and, Ladies and Gentlemen, what I do is holidays. While I’ve made Thanksgiving dinner for the last 10 years running, only once was it for my own flesh and blood, but I assure you, Turkey Day for groups of friends causes almost as much chaos. Apparently, the very arrival of Santa on his sleigh float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade sets off a primal reaction in people to act up. If you’re the one driving the roasting pan, here’s a simple guide to both getting things done and keeping the peace for the final 48 hours before you gather to give thanks.

If you’re lucky, people will be coming to your house. Call them now and reschedule the time they’re supposed to arrive so they get there about 90 minutes before dinner is served. This allows you the most peace and quiet and all the free labor you need when you need it most. The other upside of this strategy is there is always a well-intentioned person who wants to “help” by telling you everything you’ve done is “wrong” and trying to “correct” your “mistakes.” It’s annoying as hell, but it comes from a good place, most of the time. Tell them you really need their help to do something very important—answer the door and take care of the coats. This high-profile, hands-on job gives them the attention they crave and keeps them out of your hair. Telling them it’s an important job generally prevents them reassigning themselves a different task. I share this with you at my own peril, because if my Aunt Rose sees this, she’ll be on to me, and not only will she try to hang out in the kitchen: She’ll make her annoying huffing disappointment noise all day.

More on the crucial final 90 minutes in a bit, but as I said, make the calls and get your schedule straight. I will have to assume you’re making a turkey and your side dishes are the traditional fare; if you’re diverting from the norm, either you don’t need my help or you’re in way over your head. Good luck to you either way.

The Day Before

Because it’s Wednesday, we’re hoping you’ve already done your shopping, defrosted your bird if you’re going the frozen route, and made your piecrusts. Today is your make-or-break day, and your job is to do as much as you can in the hope that once your guests arrive you may actually be able to enjoy some of the day before collapsing in exhaustion. If you’re the kind of person who brines your turkey, this morning is the time to start the process. To make sure you add ice often enough, write yourself a timetable (you’ll need to refresh it every four to six hours) and post it not on the fridge, where it can quickly blend into your photos and kid artwork, but on the bathroom mirror. Safety first: Keeping the bird cold is important, because no matter how much you might enjoy some passive-aggressive revenge on your cousin for stealing your best Barbie in 1976, you have to eat the food, too.

OK, I know you didn’t really make your piecrusts Tuesday night. Go ahead and either make or buy them today. Remember to use frozen butter and ice water when making the crust, and if you roll the dough out and it doesn’t quite fit or there’s a hole in one spot, patching is better than re-rolling the dough. The more you handle it, the tougher the crust. Now bake those pies.

Anything you can make ahead of time should be made today. If you steam beans or broccoli: Do it now so you only have to heat them tomorrow. If you’re making salad or crudités: Peppers, onions, celery, carrots, and radishes can all be cut up in advance; cucumbers and tomatoes need to wait until an hour or two before you serve them. If you bake rolls from scratch: Again, make them today, heat them tomorrow. Devil the eggs. Make the cranberry sauce. Cook the turkey? Not yet, buster.

Clean out your fridge. You’re going to need room in there—plus, there will be tons of prying eyes, so toss the mystery leftovers, old condiments, and curdled milk, and clear off at least a half shelf. Tidy up your freezer—it’s going to need enough room for a bag of ice; and yes, you should try to make as much ice as possible but you’re still going to have to buy some today anyway. It’s never more than two dollars a bag, and running out of ice will haunt you like a bad perm. Everyone gets amnesia once the ice is gone and asks over and over, “Is there any more ice?” and then you say “No,” and then someone asks, “You’re out of ice?” like you just killed a kitten. What’s worse, this scene becomes your Groundhog Day, and does nothing but repeat with each cocktail made once the ice is gone. If your family is like mine, that could mean a lot of cocktails.

Wednesday is also liquor-store day. While you’ve hopefully delegated the purchasing of wine and booze to your guests, make a trip today for your secret holiday stash. Get something you like, for your own “medicinal purposes,” and stuff it into a cupboard no one is likely to rummage around in. Protect your stash—you’re going to need it. Rent a movie or two, preferably comedies, because you might need the levity and anything with real suspense will tempt you to actually watch, potentially throwing your schedule completely out of whack. Think orderly. Think Tom Green.

Clean your house. The most important areas are the kitchen and bathroom. Resist the temptation to redecorate, rearrange, or buy any new furniture. This will only add to your stress and panic. No matter how much it may seem like your guests have come to judge your living space, they have really come to see you, and each other, and to get the feedbag on. Vacuum, dust, make sure all underwear, pornography, love letters, and other R-rated materials are tucked away. Finally, clean the bathroom around 6 p.m. and draw yourself a nice bath. While in the tub, contemplate anything but what’s ahead of you, because as soon as you get out of the tub—for the next 24 hours—you’re all about the holiday. When you get out, put on sweats, order dinner in, and start drawing up your timetable.

Depending on the size of your turkey, you’re going to need to start working on that bird five to seven hours before dinner is served. Below is a chart of turkey cooking times. Add between two and two and a half hours to the time specified for your turkey, and start the countdown from there. One hour will pad the beginning and one will be at the end, since the bird needs to stand, or “rest,” for about 30 to 45 minutes after it is done cooking and before it’s carved. Once you’ve outlined your Thursday schedule, go ahead and be wasteful, tossing out the leftovers, since you need to preserve your fridge space. Now take out the garbage. Finish by watching The OC, having a nightcap, and turning in early.

cooking times at 325°F
Weight (pounds) Unstuffed (hours) Stuffed (hours)
10 to 18 3 to 3.5 3.75 to 4.5
18 to 22 3.5 to 4 4.5 to 5
22 to 24 4 to 4.5 5 to 5.5
24 to 30 4.5 to 5 5.5 to 6.25


The Big Day

It takes about 45 minutes to clean and dress a bird, slightly less if you don’t stuff it. Make sure there are no pinfeathers, and be sure to pull the giblets and neck out of the inside of the turkey and do with them what you will. Rinse the bird in cool water, pat dry, season, and dress it according to your taste and traditions. If you’re going to stuff the bird, get the stuffing ready, cram it in, and lace it up tight. Once you’ve seasoned it and rubbed it with olive oil it goes right in the oven and you’re on your way. But before you go any further: Wash any dishes dirtied in the process. If you keep washing them as you go, the nightmare at the end isn’t as scary.

Now you can leisurely peel potatoes and cut them into quarters for boiling. If you’ve got a big turkey you may get a break here, since you’re not going to boil the potatoes until three hours before dinner is served. If so, put the potatoes in a bowl of cool water to keep them from turning brown. If you’ve got a small bird, go ahead and start boiling those taters.

Three hours before sit down is when the real fun begins and by “fun” I mean “hard work.” No matter how cute your cashmere is, put on a nice summery top because you’re going to get hot and gross slaving over the stove. If fashion is high on your list of concerns, you can change your shirt right before you serve dinner. Potatoes generally take around 40 minutes to boil; you’ll know they’re done when you stick a fork in and get little resistance. I like to turn the heat off when they feel almost done because I let them sit, still cooking, in the hot water a while and I don’t want them to get mushy and gross. While they boil, assemble the green-bean casserole and set it aside. Take the rolls and wrap them in foil, so they’re ready to go when you are. Once you turn the potatoes off, set out your appetizers—I generally put out vegetables (cut up the night before!), olives, and crackers. You want to keep people out of your hair, but not spoil their appetites. Setting out a little pre-meal snack generally accomplishes this.

About this time someone will call you in tears. The holiday is now officially under way. Once you’re done on the phone, go back in the kitchen and get out the serving plates and corresponding serving utensils so they’re ready as soon as their corresponding dish is. Set the table, including salt, pepper, and butter, or lay out the plates and cutlery if you’re doing it buffet-style. Have your first drink—this should put you at about 10 minutes before the first guest arrives. Take a few deep breaths, baste the turkey one last time, and wait for the doorbell.

Don’t be ashamed or afraid to hand out tasks. Like I said earlier, the door-answering/coat-taking should go to the highest stress relative, and the other job you need to give away immediately is that of bartender. You do not have time to be fetching people drinks, but you also don’t want multiple people in and out of your space at irregular intervals. Making one person the bartender manages traffic and keeps everyone satisfied while you finish up. Tell them their job is to make drinks and manage traffic; people like having a job, it makes them feel important, as long as the job isn’t too hard. Gatekeeper is power, and everyone wants power over their family. If there are small kids, explicitly ask one person to keep them corralled until dinnertime. This is a perfectly reasonable request, and as long as you’re polite about it, no one will think you hate children, unless, of course, you shout, “Will somebody get these goddamned brats out of my hair?” Threatening to turn them into a side dish will also not portray you in a good light.

It is now time for you to choose a helper. I suggest you select either the least talkative person or the person with the best gossip. I find teenage boys are especially good helpers because a) they take orders well, b) they’re often sulking and silent at family functions, and c) they’re grateful for the break from everyone asking them about school and girls, and therefore actually do the tasks you give them accurately so as not to be sent back in the living room for further scrutiny. Do not be afraid to threaten you’ll tell Grandma he wants to hear about her trip to the crafts fair if he slacks.

Your helper has one main job—stirring things. If you’re heating up vegetables, he should stir them once or twice to heat evenly. Tell them if he sees the water start to boil to shut off the heat. That will be the helper’s job, and that’s all the helper needs to know.

Now, if you make sweet potatoes, they should go in the oven about 30 minutes before the turkey is done, and stay in about 20 minutes after it is finished. As soon as the turkey is done, take the bird out of the oven. The minute it comes out the green-bean casserole goes in, as does the extra pan of stuffing. Kick the heat up to 350. You’re almost there, and chances are you’re feeling like everything is under control. This means someone will spill something and there will be a clamor in the next room. Walk out, hand them a couple of towels, and accept there’s nothing you can do to un-spill it, even if it’s red wine (we told you not to buy any new furniture). Calm everyone down by announcing it’s OK—even if it isn’t—and get back to making dinner. Give any guests who follow you into the kitchen, claiming to be stain experts club soda or iodine or icing sugar or whatever they require. As soon as they head back into the other room, reach into the cupboard and pull out your second drink. It’s OK, you can drink from the bottle.

The spill incident will drive one more person into the kitchen asking if they can help. Realize this is just guest-speak for “Save me!” They now have a job as the person who hands you things (like serving plates) and carries things to the table. I like to think of this person as my personal assistant, for added glamour. Plop the turkey on a platter, and make the gravy. Once you’ve got the flour, water, and drippings mixed, the stirring should be handed off to helper #1. Check in with them periodically to make sure they’re stirring constantly and to see when the gravy actually thickens. Have helper #2 strain the water off the potatoes for you, then add the milk and butter, and salt and hand them back to helper #1 for mashing, since the gravy should be done now. Once they’re mashed, have the potatoes passed to helper #2 to place in the correct serving bowl, cover them so they stay warm, and take them to the table. Now everyone knows it’s almost time to eat. Tell your bartender to open the wine, and get everyone whatever they want to drink with the meal.

Leslie Harpold’s 30-pound basted beauty, 2002

Put the vegetables, cranberry sauce, and whatever else you have on the table. Now put the rolls in the oven; they only need 10 minutes to heat. Get the carving knife out, and tell everyone to come sit down, or if it’s a buffet, to get ready to eat. Pour the gravy into its serving dish, and have helper #2 set out it, the green-bean casserole, and the stuffing. Remove the stuffing from the turkey’s cavity, untie its legs and wings and slowly—carefully!—carry it to the table. Let the carver start carving and trot back to the oven, remove the rolls, drop them in a basket, and carry the gravy and bread to the table. Now, get ready, because as soon as you uncover the potatoes you have to begin soaking up the compliments for how delicious everything looks. Step back for a moment, because by now you’re a little drunk, you’ve put about two full days of work into a meal for those you love, and somebody’s got to be ready to perform the Heimlich on your sister.

Take a good, long look. Because in what seems like mere moments, it’ll all be over, and everyone will be crowding around the TV to watch football like it never happened. Now, go reach into the cupboard and congratulate yourself on a job well done.


TMN Contributing Writer Leslie Harpold was a pioneer in web design and online publishing. At the time of her death in 2006, she lived in Grosse Pointe, Mich., where she was working on a novel and “dreaming alternately of an über-urban or ultra-rural future, as she is not one to do things by halves.” More by Leslie Harpold