Thanksgiving can be a stressful day in the kitchen, especially if you don’t have a smart strategy. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are a lot of small things you can do before and during the holiday to relieve some pressure. For some creative ideas to make your life easier this Thanksgiving, Managing Producer Sally Swift turned to Julia Collin Davison and Bridget Lancaster, the hosts of America’s Test Kitchen. Also, don’t miss the America’s Test Kitchen recipe for Make-Ahead Turkey Gravy. Make it now – you’ll thank us later.
Sally Swift: We are deep into the busiest time of the year for home cooks, and I wanted to bring you here as a public service to whip through some strategies for our Thanksgiving dinner. I want to start with, first and foremost, do we need to truss our turkey or not?
Bridget Lancaster: Only if you want to be more stressed out. You do not have to; there’s absolutely no reason for that. Depending on how you cook your turkey – usually in some sort of rack – it is actually a bad idea to tie the legs together. You want them to spread apart a little bit, so the heat will get in there. There's that little area between the turkey thigh and the rest of the turkey body that always lags behind in cooking time. Do not truss; that will speed things up.
SS: That is sweet relief. Julia, will you tell us what we can make ahead?
Julia Collin Davison: You can make a ton ahead. I think the game-changer for me was when I started making gravy ahead of time. It's amazing. For example, this year I'm visiting my folks. It’s about a six-hour drive, and my mother said, “Oh, you can't bring anything.” I said, “Yes, I can. I can bring a gallon of homemade gravy.”
SS: I'm packing gravy!
JCD: And no matter whether you're having Thanksgiving at your house or someone else's house, you show up with a gallon of homemade turkey gravy, you're a rock star. Because if you think about the gravy, most people wait until the last minute when the drippings are in the pan, during that time when the turkey's resting. That's about 45 minutes to an hour before dinner, which is the busiest time of the day. For make-ahead gravy, you roast parts. Wings work well. They're inexpensive, and you can buy them separately at the store with some classic vegetables: celery, carrots, and onion. You make a stock, and from that stock, you make a quick gravy. You can make that now and freeze it.
SS: What about sweet things? How do you feel about doing breads, rolls, and pie doughs before?
BL: For pie dough, I made it three weeks ago, and it's already rolled out. I store it between pieces of parchment paper, stacked in a pizza box that I stole from the local pizzeria.
JCD: You roll it out?
BL: I already have it rolled out.
JCD: I never thought about doing that.
BL: Why do that on the day of, right?
JCD: Holy cow! You just blew my mind.
BL: All you do is take out this giant frozen disk of dough, let it sit on the counter for maybe ten minutes, and then it's soft enough to start fitting into the pie plate. Done.
SS: What about stuff for the stuffing? What can you do in advance?
BL: I do cornbread stuffing. I make the cornbread, then let it stale and dry out. I toast it in the oven, too, so it can have some brown color. All the vegetables – the onions and the celery – everything gets chopped ahead of time, put into a zipper-lock bag and frozen.
JCD: You can assemble that stuffing at least the day before.
SS: Let's move on to hacks that people may not have thought about to keep the Thanksgiving system going. Julia, do you have some favorites for this year? I bet you have something with that gravy – since you're hauling it.
JCD: Totally. The slow cooker.
JCD: Yes. It can be used for the gravy and/or the mashed potatoes, if you make them earlier. When I worked for a caterer, I learned to put the mashed potatoes in the slow cooker. You take little pats of butter and poke them down into the mashed potatoes. When it comes serving time, you go in with the spoon and get these pockets of melted butter. It's amazing. Sometimes there are little slow cookers meant for dips or cooking for two. The smaller ones are perfect for keeping gravy warm.
And then the dumbest one – the dumbest hack ever – which is my absolute favorite --
BL: Way to set it up.
JCD: It’s Post-Its. Pull out all your serving dishes and utensils, and label them with a Post-It: “This one's for the turkey. This one's for the green beans. This one's for the mashed potatoes.” What that does is – in that last hour before the meal when you're cooking the delicate vegetables, carving the bird, and people want to help you – it make makes it easier to help if they know where to put things. And it comes out the way you want it.
SS: That is super geeky, but still a great idea.
JCD: You have to be on the intense side of Thanksgiving planning. I do a full-on list with a timeline. People make fun of me, but you know what? The turkey's in the oven, and I'm going for a walk with the dogs because I know everything's in place.
SS: That is unheard of.
JCD: Yeah, laugh all you want.
BL: In the morning, Julia's up with the trumpet and reveille like, “Get up, get up! It's time for Thanksgiving!”
JCD: And everyone has a line item on the schedule. They know what they’re responsible for.
BL: Yes, good idea.
SS: Wow. I think you're a producer at heart.
JCD: I'm definitely an over-planner at heart.
SS: I have one more gravy question because people ask every single year, “What do you do about lumpy gravy?” Do you just leave it?
BL: The easiest way to deal with lumpy gravy is throw it in the blender. Blend it up.
SS: Just do it, right?
BL: All the lumps will be gone. The other way is to strain it. Everybody makes lumpy gravy once in a while. Just change the name. Call it biscuits and gravy, or dumplings and gravy, if the lumps are too big.
JCD: Rustic gravy.
BL: Artisan gravy.
JCD: Scorch it a little; it's Cajun gravy.
BL: Throw it in the blender, and there's no more lumps.
SS: When people bring wine, they may bring white bottles that are not chilled. Is there a fast way to chill it down? Basically, how do you drink the wine as fast as you possibly can? That's my question.
BL: Sally, I like the way you think. What's up with those people bringing warm bottles of wine, anyway? We should have a whole separate conversation about that at some point, but there is a fast way to chill down a bottle of wine. If you put a bottle of wine in the fridge, it's going to take an hour for it to get down to about 50 degrees. A much faster way is you wrap it in wet paper towels – or better yet a wet kitchen towel – and put it in the freezer. It's going to chill down to 50 degrees in 30 minutes. The towel's going to be frozen, but it's the perfect amount of time. What's happening is the wet towel is wicking away heat from the bottle of wine; it’s actually a heat transfer. Any time you cool something, you're taking heat away from it. The wet towel does a much better job than just the air in the freezer.
SS: I've never heard that trick before. Thank you very much. Happy Thanksgiving, you two!
BL: Thank you.
JCD: Happy Thanksgiving!
Each week, The Splendid Table brings you stories that expand your world view, inspire you to try something new, and show how food brings us together. We rely on you to do this. You have the power to keep us cooking, sharing these stories, and helping you in the kitchen.
Donate today for as little as $5.00 a month. Your gift only takes a few minutes and has a lasting impact on The Splendid Table.
On each episode of The Splendid Table we visit with the test cooks at America’s Test Kitchen to discuss a wide range of topics including recipes, ingredients, techniques and kitchen equipment.