Monday, November 24, 2014

Thanksgiving scheduling

I know a lot of you are preparing for the best holiday of the year next week. I love, love, love Thanksgiving and the planning is 2/3 of the battle here. A solid schedule will make things go pretty smoothly (although having an arsenal of recipes you trust is also helpful).

I approach every big project in life the same way. Identify the goals, figure out the steps to achieve them, decide what needs to happen when. Remember that you can't do everything at once, so you have to figure out what tasks must be completed at the last minute and which can be done ahead. Thanksgiving is no different.

the table, set

I save my schedules and notes each year and then just modify them accordingly. But somehow I completely lost all those papers when we moved the week after Thanksgiving last year. It's pretty heartbreaking, because setting up a new schedule feels intimidating. But it's not really that bad!

Assuming you've decided which dishes you're making and have the recipes handy, you can set up a schedule pretty quickly. Here is my earlier post about how I prep for this. Get your recipes ready, break them down into steps and make sure you include any baking times and temperatures. Now you're ready to schedule. Fill out a piece of paper with the time on one side, in half hour increments. The end time should be when you want to start eating, which I usually set for 30 minutes after I ask guests to arrive if it's family, an hour if it's friends and we're doing cocktails.

Oven space is at a premium. Start with the turkey and work backwards. I only ever use the Alton Brown roasting method, which is pretty quick. I set aside a total of 3 hours for roasting a 14 lb turkey and it often doesn't take that long. I aim to have the turkey coming out of the oven either when guests are scheduled to arrive or a half hour after, so I can tent it and just let it rest until we're ready to serve.

Everything else will need to get worked around the turkey. Rolls are usually best cooked last minute and they're quick, so I plan to do those while the turkey rests. If oven space permits, you can reheat a couple other dishes at the same time, or right after the rolls come out. I try to bake the dressing earlier in the morning and then just set it aside to get reheated right before serving. Ditto on the sweet potatoes except I usually do them the day before.

Do as much ahead of time as possible. That breakdown of steps you made? Go over it and figure out which recipes (or parts of recipes) can be done earlier in the week. I try to choose a few recipes that can be fully made ahead of time to ease up the crunch. Things that can be made a day ahead - these horseradish mashed potatoes, any cranberry sauce or relish, vegetarian gravy (I'll share my recipe tomorrow), sweet potatoes (I don't have a recipe but I roast them, chop them and then top them with a pecan crumble and bake it at 375 for about an hour - it can just get reheated later). I always, always, always make the pies a day or two before. Pumpkin pie in particular benefits from having a day for the flavors to meld, so it's win-win.

There are also pieces of recipes that can be done earlier. If you want freshly mashed potatoes, that's great. Wednesday night you can peel and chop the potatoes, cover them with water and leave them in their pot all ready to go on the counter. They'll be fine sitting like that at room temp for 24 hours, I promise, and then you just have to pop them on the stove when you're ready to boil them. I cube the bread for the dressing and dry it out in a low oven a few days before. I also sometimes wash and chop all the veg for the dressing so it's ready to saute. If you're planning on making gravy you can even just measure out your ingredients and have them waiting by the stove for you. I don't want to be hauling down the bin of flour in that last minute crunch time.

Build in a little more time than you think you need. I mean yes, I'm a huge advocate of scheduling but I want to enjoy the cooking, which means I don't expect myself to crank out dishes at warp speed. This is easier after you've hosted at least once and have an idea of how long things take. I wash my pots and pans as I go along, and then dry them and put them away. Along those lines, take the time to get yourself ready. People would rather show up and be greeted by a clean and pleasant host, even if it means waiting another 30 minutes to start eating, I'm almost positive.

Delegate specific dishes. I always ask people to bring veggie sides while I focus on the core dishes. But you can also delegate desserts, which can be a huge help. Whatever you do, make sure you let people know what to bring. Also, there is no shame in going store bought for things that are just cluttering up your schedule. Those brown and serve rolls will make everyone happy if you don't want to mess with yeasted dough along with everything else.

Remember that you are not a caterer! I have never managed to get everything piping hot and served at the same time. And that's fine. Your guests aren't there for a restaurant experience and you shouldn't feel pressured to provide one. Sure, I make every attempt to make the most delicious meal possible, but if things go wonky just open another bottle of champagne and take a deep breath.

This is just a theoretical example, because everyone will have a different schedule based on the recipes you're using and your start time, but this is an example of what my schedule usually looks like. This is for a late arrival time, so if we're doing a 2 pm dinner I bump it up by 2 hours.

TG schedule

The last half hour tends to be a bit of a flurry, especially if you're making gravy. There isn't really any way around this that I've discovered. You'll be pulling stuff out of the oven, whisking the gravy, hopefully delegating someone to carve the turkey. I just try to work quickly and stay relaxed.

Oddly enough, this is the first year in forever that I'm not doing Thanksgiving. We had some scheduling issues that were going to make it really difficult so I cried uncle. We had some friends over on Saturday so I got my hosting fix and I'm going to relax this year (but also look forward to next year!). I'll share a couple recipes tomorrow and Wednesday and live vicariously through you.


  1. As a fellow "numbers person" with a penchant for planning, I must say THANK YOU! This is my first year hosting a major holiday dinner and, despite many dinner parties under my belt, something about hosting a holiday seems daunting. I've bookmarked this blog post for future reference :)

  2. Just wanted to share something that helps with that frantic last half hour before everything needs to be served. Being British we don't celebrate Thanksgiving but I do use Jamie Oliver's 'get ahead gravy' recipe every year at Christmas. I swear it saves my sanity and stops me getting all flustered just before everything needs to be served. Basically, you make the gravy days (or even weeks) before out of chicken wings and veg and freeze it. You can then thaw it the day before you need it and finish it off with the juices from roasting the turkey. And no one can tell that it hasn't been made from scratch that day. It does mean buying some extra meat/veg and therefore works out a little more expensive and I guess it could be considered a little wasteful but as much as I dislike wasting food, I wouldn't ever consider making gravy any other way.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    D x

  3. I am not cooking Thanksgiving meal this year because we are in the UK this year where it is any other day. So we have work and I have my evening sewing class. However I love this schedule, and always create one like this for Passover which is often very stressful because I don't get the day off always and have to have a dinner for 16 ready in just a few hours after work. Only thing I would recommend is setting the table a few days ahead of time, to make sure you accidentally don't use the dishes you need for the table so you aren't washing dishes last minute, and to make sure all your linens are nicely ironed when you aren't stressed out.

    1. Yes, this is such a good idea! I can't always follow it because our tiny apartment means that setting up the table ahead of time leaves us no space to live! But if we were in a house, you can bet I would have the table set a couple days early.

  4. Since you don't brine, do you completly omit the brine ingredients when using Alton Brown's recipe? Or do you incorporate any of them into the aromatics?

    I want to try brining, but am concerned about over-salting. I have a frozen Butterball that's already been injected with a salt solution. Either way, I am using Alton's recipe. To brine or not to brine?

    1. Yes, I don't bother with any of the brining, I just follow the roasting instructions. I know people swear by brining but I haven't noticed a huge difference with brined turkeys and the risk is that the drippings are so crazy salty that it can be hard to make a decent gravy (if you were planning on gravy from the drippings).

      I mostly just don't like wrestling a turkey into a vat of water! I did dry brine one year, and liked that a lot, although you still have the issue with the drippings getting salty.

    2. I also don't add the aromatics, although there is solid evidence that this is good idea! Having a little something in the breast cavity (not stuffing, since it is SO dense) can help slow down the air flow and let the breasts cook more slowly, which is a good thing. Next year I plan to do the aromatics in the breast cavity but I haven't tried it so I can't vouch for it.

    3. I did the Alton Brown method, no brining, with the aromatics he listed when I hosted Thanksgiving last year. I even bought a thermometer for the occasion. Most people said it was the best turkey they'd ever had, so I doubt I'll ever do it any other way. I thought you could taste the flavor of some of the aromatics on the innermost pieces, but it's also somewhat likely there was some placebo effect involved. Who's to say....

      My only complaint is that I did have some smoking/fire alarm action during the high heat period, despite using peanut oil as recommended.


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