(These tips, tricks and recommendations are not just for Thanksgiving, but are useful for any holiday dinner where a turkey is center stage!)
If you're cooking the whole Thanksgiving dinner this year, or just a part of it, you’ve landed in the right place. Thanksgiving is one of our favorite holidays, but it can easily turn stressful, especially if you're preparing the whole turkey dinner and all the trimmings. With a little know-how, a bit of planning and do-ahead prep, along with the proper kitchen equipment you can avoid common Thanksgiving dinner pitfalls and make this 4th Thursday of November a day to truly give thanks.
Roasting the Turkey | Roasters | Meat Thermometers | Better Mashed Potatoes | Homemade Gravy | Carving the Turkey | Knife Sharpeners | Carving Knives | Carving Boards | Homemade Pie | In Conclusion
Roasting the Turkey.
First you need to determine the size turkey you’ll need. A good rule of thumb is one pound per person. If you love leftovers or have out-of-town guests that are staying through the weekend, bump it up to 1-1/2 pounds per person. It’s always better to have too much food than too little!
- For 8 people buy a 12-pound turkey
- For 10 People buy a 15-Pound Turkey
- For 12 people buy an 18-pound turkey
- For 14 people buy a 20-pound turkey
If you're planning on more than 14 dinner guests, you may want to consider cooking two birds. It will allow for a shorter more reasonable cooking time, it will be easier to manage, and you'll have double the drumsticks! Make sure you either have another oven available for the second turkey or that your oven will accommodate both roasting pans.
The Roaster. You’ll need a sturdy roasting pan that is large enough to accommodate the size of your bird. A roaster with an inside measurement of 16” x 13” will hold a 22 to 25 pound turkey. Smaller birds 15 pounds and under will be fine in a roasting pan 14” x 10”. But remember, you can always fit a smaller bird in a larger roaster but not the other way around. Next year you may have more guests, so lean towards getting a larger high-quality roaster and you’ll be set for years. If you are buying a new larger roaster check to make sure that it will fit in your oven.
If you already have a roaster, pull it out before Thanksgiving week. Check to see if it is the right size for this year's turkey. Does it have sturdy and easy to grab handles? If your roaster is nonstick, make sure it isn't peeling or worn away. If you are in the market to replace or upgrade your roaster, we have a few favorites to recommend.
Our Roaster Recommendations.
Good. This 16” Stainless Roaster from Cuisinart features a stainless roasting rack, high sides and sturdy flared handles that are easy to reach.
Better. All Clad's 16" Hard Anodized Roaster includes a nonstick rack, sturdy upright handles, and high sides. While this roaster is very sturdy it weighs less than stainless versions making it easier to handle when cooking larger birds or roasts. This Roaster is on SALE through November 30th for only $79.95, while supplies last!
Best. All Clad's 16" Stainless Roaster features high sides, a nonstick rack, and sturdy, upright handles. The 18/10 stainless is perfect for deglazing and making gravy and the flared edges make it easy to pour. This Roaster is on SALE through November 30th for only $129.95, while supplies last!
Best Small Roaster. All Clad's 14" x 11" Stainless Roaster features the same quality construction as their 16" Stainless Roaster. This Roaster is on SALE through November 30th for only $99.95, while supplies last!
Best Covered Roaster. Chantal's Enamel on Steel 11 Quart Oval 3-In-One Roaster can accommodate a 22-pound turkey or two chickens! Use as a covered roaster, a high-sided open roaster or a low-sided open roaster. This Roaster is on SALE through the end of the year (2019) for only $149.95, while supplies last!
Best Copper Roaster. When you want to channel your inner Julia Child, splurge on this French Copper Roasting Pan from Mauviel. It features a tri-ply construction of polished copper for the exterior, a responsive aluminum core and 18/10 stainless steel interior surface. The handsome, oversized bronze upright handles make it easy to maneuver in and out of the oven. Come on, just say, oui!
Another Turkey Essential — An Accurate Meat Thermometer. Using an internal meat thermometer is key to tender and juicy meat that is safe to eat. We prefer probe-style thermometers because there is no need to open the oven door to see what temperature you’re at, which keeps the oven temperature constant.
Most of the probe-style models we offer also feature a timer to keep track of everything else you’ve got cooking.
They are easy to use, too. Slip the long metal probe into the innermost part of the thigh or the thickest part of the breast without hitting bone. The heat proof cord lets you close the oven door and place the control unit with display conveniently on your countertop. Set your desired temp and wait for the alarm! The USDA recommends 165˚F for turkey, but you can always cook it to a higher temperature if you so desire.
If you’ve struggled (like me) to get the dark meat cooked to your liking before the breast starts to overcook and dry out, try roasting the breast separately from the legs and thighs. Figure about 12 to 15 minutes per pound for the breast depending on the recipe and oven temperature you choose. I prefer thighs cooked to a minimum 185˚F. The internet is awash with recommendations and recipes.
Our Thermometer Recommendations.
Probe-style Thermometers. Polder’s Deluxe Thermometer & Timer combines electronic accuracy, durability, and fantastic ease of use, right out of the box! It features a wonderfully straight-forward design and comes preset with the USDA recommended temperatures so you can simply select the food you are cooking and the degree of doneness you prefer. There is also an open setting if you prefer to set to your own temperatures.
The CDN Programmable Probe Thermometer & Timer monitors temperature from as low as 32°F all the way up to 482°F and keeps time for 24 hours by the hour and minute.
A Few Other Styles of Thermometers. For a traditional leave-in style, the CDN Meat & Poultry Thermometer features a large 2" dial and a temperature range of 130˚F to 190°F. And if you're after an instant read model, the CDN Pro-Accurate Instant Read Thermometer is a good choice.
Side Dishes That Shine.
Mashed Potatoes. If this popular turkey side-kick is not on your to-do list, add it! Seriously, it's Thanksgiving, we NEED potatoes and gravy! We offer a few suggestions for creamier, more flavorful mashed potatoes that will make you proud to have them at your holiday table.
Better Mashed Potatoes. Several years ago, I learned a few tricks to making better mashed potatoes. While I realize everyone's tastes are different, we can all agree we want smooth creamy mashed potatoes that taste potato-ey. The following two tips achieve this. (I believe I discovered the first tip reading a November issue of my beloved Cook's Illustrated. The second tip I'm sure came from a food chemistry lesson from no other than our favorite food scientist, Alton Brown.)
Tip Number One. Don't peel your potatoes before you cook them. If you don't want skins in your finished dish, use a potato ricer instead of a potato masher and that will separate the skins for you. I also feel a ricer creates a smoother texture to the finished product. When you peel and cut your potatoes into pieces then cook them in water, all the flavor goes down the drain. I prefer steaming smaller sized (skin-on) potatoes rather than boiling as it affords a better texture along with a richer potato flavor. You can use a steamer pot or a steamer insert. One thing to note, we never use an electric hand or stand mixer, it can wreak havoc on the texture of your mashed potatoes.
Tip Number Two. Make sure that after ricing or mashing the cooked potatoes the FIRST ingredient you add is always BUTTER! Not just because we love butter, and we do, because adding butter before any other ingredient helps to prevent a gummy mess of your mash by coating the starchy potato molecules with fat. Trust me, it works. If you like using a ton of butter but don't want the mashed potatoes to become too salty, use unsalted butter.
After you've followed the first two tips you can stir up a little fun of your own! Add milk, half and half, cream, whatever you like followed by salt & pepper to taste. Add roasted garlic, sautéed leeks, minced chives, I could go on and on.
I would however, be remiss if I did not mention an unusual mashed potato ingredient that my mom swore by...READY? Mayonnaise. Yes really. A couple of heaping tablespoons of mayo always found their way into her pot of mashed spuds. No idea where she got the idea, but this family of potato farmers loved them! It most likely has something to do with the fat and starch like the butter-in-first trick. Google it, or you could always ask Alton Brown.
Finally, there is no better way to serve your smooth, creamy and full of potato-ey flavor deliciousness than in this beautiful Covered Oval Casserole Dish from Sophie Conran for Portmeirion.
Homemade Turkey Gravy. Your gravy is only as good as the stock and the pan drippings you use. Pan drippings are best when you keep a bit of stock or other liquid in the bottom of the pan while roasting. Doing this will prevent burnt bits from making your gravy bitter. You can also add cut up veggies like onions, carrots, or celery to the liquid to add further depth of flavor. Since they'll be in the oven for a while, chop up larger chunks of veggies instead dicing.
When you’re not making your own poultry stock, Swanson Chicken Stock is my go-to supermarket brand. It’s widely available and makes a fine gravy when added to good pan drippings.
Before adding in the thickener it’s time to get rid of all the grease. Fat separators make it easy to get rid of all the unwanted fat while not wasting a drop of all that the savory goodness. Here are two of our favorites.
OXO 4-Cup Trigger Fat Separator is quite simple to use, pour your pan liquids through the strainer lid and allow fats to separate. A soft grip handle with trigger lets you pour your stocks and gravies from the bottom, leaving the fat behind!
OXO's Traditional 4-Cup Fat Separator features a spout with a unique stopper that prevents unwanted fat and grease from entering the spout, so when you pour you get all the flavor and richness without any grease.
When it comes time to add the thickener, another supermarket staple works very well: Wondra. This superfine, quick-mixing flour will reduce the chance you’ll develop lumps and as the label says, your gravy will be “deliciously smooth every time!”
Carving the Turkey.
A sharp knife is always a safer knife, so let’s start there. Take a close look at your carving and kitchen prep knives well before Thanksgiving week so you have ample time to sharpen them. All eight Kitchen Kapers stores offer professional kitchen knife sharpening. If you aren’t lucky enough to live near a Kitchen Kapers, you CAN successfully sharpen your own knives. We carry an array of electric and hand-held manual sharpeners online that will get the job done. If you’re lacking a quality carving knife set or it’s just time to update or replace them, we also offer a full-range of carving knives and carving sets. You'll find a variety of price-points to fit everyone's budget online and in our stores.
Are My Knives Sharp? To tell whether your knives are sharp you can use any type of citrus you have on hand. If your knife won’t cut cleanly through an orange, lemon, or lime like it was butter, your edge needs to be sharpened. Here are a few of our most popular knife sharpeners.
Our Knife Sharpener Recommendations.
If you’re in the market for an electric sharpener, the new Wusthof Easy Edge Electric Knife Sharpener won’t disappoint. It features a belt-grinder design inspired by commercial sharpening equipment. The Easy Edge is created for Wusthof PET blades but is suitable for most high-carbon stainless steel edges. Two easy to use guides position blades perfectly for a precise 15 edge, while an integrated timing system ensures safe sharpening.
Don’t discount the effectiveness of a good hand-held sharpener. My personal favorite is the Chef's Choice 4643 ProntoPro Diamond Hone Manual Knife Sharpener. This professional three stage sharpener will give a sharp edge to all your kitchen and household knives. It even sharpens serrated blades! It can easily restore the 20˚ edge common to Western knives, as well as recreating a perfect 15˚ edge for Asian knives. I keep it in my knife drawer and use it often to keep my knives in tip-top condition.
Another hand-held choice that is very affordable is Wusthof’s Two-Stage Hand-Held Knife Sharpener. This easy-to-use dual stage sharpener features a soft grip handle and is ideal for keeping a fine edge on all your knives and it's around $20. It features two stages, a coarse carbide stage to sharpen dull knives and a fine ceramic stage to give you a polished, razor sharp edge.
Our Carving Knife Recommendations.
Consider a Carving Knife Set and you’ll always have what you need. Our favorite set is the Wusthof Classic 2-Piece Carving Set which includes two essential carving pieces: an 8" Carving Knife with a Hollow Ground Edge and a 6" Straight Meat Fork. The Hollow Edge Carving Knife is ideal for cleanly slicing through larger cuts of meat, fruits or vegetables, and its unique edge helps prevent foods from sticking to the blade as you slice. The Straight Meat Fork is perfect for holding the roast as you carve and transporting meat slices from the carving board to a serving platter. It's also on SALE through 12/31/2019. And, at a nickel under 100 bucks it's a great deal.
If you're looking for just a carving knife, we love this top-of-the-line Classic 8" Carving Knife from Shun. It is unabashedly American in profile. Its contoured edge and fine upturned tip create the unique "up-down-up" line that helps it slice cleanly through boneless sections and maneuver nimbly around joints. There is no better choice for the Thanksgiving turkey (or any other roasted bird), leg of lamb, rib roasts, or even a delicate poached side of salmon.
Carving Boards — Your Knife’s Best Friend. To keep from damaging your kitchen knives always use wooden, food-grade polyethylene or polypropylene, bamboo, or some wood fiber boards. Never use your knives directly on hard surfaces like marble, granite, quartz, or stainless countertops. It’s a big no-no. Glass boards are also not suitable for cutting but can make nice serving boards.
Our Carving & Prep Board Recommendations.
Carve up that gorgeous turkey on an equally gorgeous board, the J.K. Adams Farmhouse Carver Board. This generously sized (20” x 14”) cutting board is perfect for any carving or chopping job. Made from maple with a mineral oil finish, it features channels carved along the sides of the board to catch juices and to help keep your counter top clean.
This Set of 2 Bamboo Boards from Totally Bamboo is made from finely-crafted 100% Moso bamboo. Each board is lightweight for comfortable use, but also exceptionally durable. Perfect for everyday kitchen prep.
Joseph Joseph’s Set of 3 Pop Chopping Mats makes food prep so much easier and safer. The color-coded set helps you prevent cross contamination by keeping your meat, poultry, and vegetable prep separate. The flexible, lightweight mats can be lifted and bent, to direct food into pans and pots and food waste right into the trash. Each board features a 'hole' detail in the corner which allows you to join the boards together and hang them for easy storage.
Keep your wooden cutting and carving boards in peak condition with these Wood Oils & Creams.
Homemade Pie. I come from a family of unabashed pie lovers. A homemade pie was always preferred to cake for birthdays and such, and we never missed a strawberry-rhubarb, cherry, blueberry, or peach season, without a good fruit pie on the table after dinner. When the snap of fall came calling, apple pie took center stage in our home. Mom’s apple pie was truly other-worldly, but so was she. With winter came even more pie in the form of silky custards and heavenly cream varieties.
Do you remember the name of that movie where Andie MacDowell sings a lovely little ballad about pie? “...my, my, me oh my, I love pie!” I think an angel had a starring role in that story too!
Mom’s success started with a great crust. Some folks swear by lard or vegetable shortening while others prefer butter as the chosen fat for their dough. Mom used both. Shortening for flakiness and butter for flavor. She never wrote down her recipe and unfortunately she is no longer a phone call away. But she taught me that making homemade pie doesn’t have to be intimidating. And, that anyone can make pie crust from scratch. It really isn't that hard or mysterious. The ingredients are few and the technique is simple. Where do you think the expression, “easy as pie” comes from.
The Crust. Making a good pie crust starts with a capable recipe and a few pastry tools. You can blend the dough with a few quick pulses in a food processor or use a hand-held pastry blender to cut shortening/butter into the flour until it forms small pea-sized pieces before you add the liquid. I’ve seen recipes where vodka is used in place of some of the water. It reduces the formation of gluten in the flour, giving the pastry a more tender texture. While I’ve never gotten around to trying this out, it may be worth a Google search.
Next up you’ll need a rolling pin, a pastry board or pastry mat to roll out your pie dough. This wooden pin from J.K. Adams, (The Lovely Rolling Pin) is my new favorite. One look and you'll see why. I also prefer a pastry mat over a board as it takes up much less room in my crowded cupboards. Roll up your mat, slip a rubber band around it and it takes up no more room than that "lovely" rolling pin.
Pie Dishes. The pie dish you use is important. There are ceramic, stoneware, and glass pie dishes along with metal pie tins, with or without nonstick. Metal heats up too quickly which can cook the crust faster than the filling, especially custard-based pies. The goal is to achieve a browned crust, with no soggy bottom and a perfectly baked filling. Mom had half a dozen or so old-time glass pie dishes that she swore by. Her favorites had handles on either side. I still use and recommend this classic Pyrex Glass Pie Dish, because Mothers know best, I was raised right, and it's under ten bucks.
Don't forget the pie crust shield because inevitably the top edges of your crust are going to cook and brown faster than the rest of your pie.
Two (mom-approved) Fall Classics. Pumpkin pie and pecan pie are the quintessential Thanksgiving pies. They are delicious and lucky for you, QUICK and EASY to make. While you can find all sorts of recipes with all sorts of fancy added ingredients, like bourbon or chocolate, you don't have to complicate things if you don't want to.
Easy Pumpkin Pie. Use the recipe straight off a can of Libby's 100% Pure Pumpkin (NOT Pie Mix!). I omit the clove and add a 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg instead. Other than that, this recipe is a winner every time.
Easy Pecan Pie. My favorite pecan pie recipe uses a classic American brand for this classic American pie. With only 6 ingredients and a prep time of 5 minutes for the filling, Karo Syrup's recipe found on the back of their label is a win-win.
A couple of things to note: I use light corn syrup, not the dark. I know, I know, but if you don't want to put corn syrup in your body, make a different pie! Pecan Pie is a sugar bomb, best tempered with lightly or non-sweetened whipped cream, to be enjoyed once or twice a year!
Chopped pecan pieces work best for this filling. You can use a few whole pecans for decoration, but the smaller bits of nuts make for a much better ratio of gooey sweetness to crunchy nuttiness. You want a piece right now, don't you?
In conclusion. I hope we've given you ample inspiration to make your own pies and pie crusts this Thanksgiving BUT, if you really can't, there is a cheat. It's not homemade but it makes for a much better pie than you can buy from most stores. You'll find it in the refrigerator section of the supermarket. Just look for the popping fresh dough-boy! Yes, Pillsbury's Pie Crusts are a good stand-in when a homemade crust isn't in the cards. You get two already rolled out, then rolled up, pie crusts in each box. They are widely available and beat the frozen pre-made crusts by a mile.
Here's a little something to consider that will help keep your guests happy before Thanksgiving Dinner hits the table! Apple Cider Sangria created by our resident food writer, Morgan from our blog Host the Toast.