Thanksgiving is now 6 days away! If you haven’t done your planning, menu, and guest list yet, now is the time to start! Here is an awesome link to helping you plan the perfect Thanksgiving. https://cooking.nytimes.com/thanksgiving/dinner-ideas-tips
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A GUIDE BY THE NEW YORK TIMES
Plan and Cook Thanksgiving
BACK TO TOP
- How to Plan the Menu
- How to Shop
- What You Can Make Ahead
- Special Diets
- Turkey F.A.Q.
- Pie F.A.Q.
- How to Serve the Meal
- What to Drink
From turkey to the trimmings, Sam Sifton, Melissa Clark, Julia Moskin, Eric Asimov and the editors of NYT Cooking tell you everything you need to know to plan your Thanksgiving menu, prepare the food and serve it all with style and grace.
How to Plan the Menu
First things first: Who will be at your table, and what are you going to eat? Here are some suggestions on how to build a successful Thanksgiving plan, whether this is your first holiday as the cook or your 10th. Need recipe ideas? Visit our menu planner.
- HOW TO GET STARTED Planning a really good menu is the stealth approach to being a really good cook. What leaves an impression is not only the dishes you can make, but also how they taste, look and feel when assembled into a meal.• Avoid repeating ingredients. If you are serving pecan pie for dessert, don’t put out spiced pecans as an hors d’oeuvre. Both may be fabulously delicious, but the pie just won’t be as appealing by the time dessert rolls around.• Consider variety, especially as those at the table may have different tastes, allergies and aversions. If there are vegetarians and vegans present, you can and must plan for them, too.• If you’re unsure how to start, think about colors. Thanksgiving is heavy on dishes that are white (mashed potatoes, creamed onions) and brown (turkey, stuffing, gravy) dishes. It needs the ruby red of cranberry sauce, the warm orange of pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes, to make it interesting. Add something green and snappy.• Next, think about texture. If you already have a creamy vegetable side dish, add one that’s roasted or caramelized.• Finally, throw in a surprising flavor. Be truly daring and add a seriously spicy dish like our fiery sweet potatoes. Pickles and relishes like piccalilli or chutney add a puckery note.
- MAKE YOUR GUEST LIST• If you’re hosting a small group this year, you get to make a much more interesting meal. Since you don’t have to cook in bulk, try out recipes that are a little more creative than classic. Have a guest bring the mashed potatoes, so you can make a sweet potato gratin instead. Buy some puff pastry and play around with it to make cheese straws, pumpkin turnovers or an apple tarte Tatin.Roast a turkey breast and use the extra oven space to bake a dressing that’s new to you. (If you already have a signature dressing, make both — having two is a Thanksgiving dream.) Take the opportunity to fuss over the table and the guests a little more than usual. Get out the linen napkins, polish the candlesticks, dust off the ramekins and serve individual stuffing cups or vanilla custards to each guest.
- ASSESS YOUR SKILL SET• If you’re a novice, stick to the essentials: turkey, dressing, a cranberry sauce, potatoes, gravy and a vegetable of some kind. To tamp down any anxiety about multitasking, think of yourself as making a simple roast chicken dinner with a couple of extra sides. There is no need to bake a pie. Ask someone to bring one, or buy a good one the day before the feast. (If you feel the need to make one, though, ask a guest to bring a side dish of some sort, working with them fairly closely to make sure that it fits into your overall menu.)• The inexperienced cook should consider the casserole. Thanksgiving dinner can feel like a high-stakes race. In this sprint, the casserole is your greatest friend. It does not have to include cream soup or canned vegetables. It does not have to be layered or topped with a crust. It can be messy in the pan and still look and taste great on the plate. Just think of a casserole as a roasting pan where almost anything can be assembled and even cooked well in advance, then left in the refrigerator until you remember its existence about an hour before Thanksgiving dinner.Starchy vegetable purées (celery root, carrot, potatoes, squash) work especially well, but almost any baked or braised side dish can fit this model: mashed potatoes with plenty of butter and sour cream; red cabbage with apples, which can be braised in the oven instead of on the stove, then refrigerated; cubed squash with fresh rosemary and garlic (pictured above), which keep their pungency.Just leave plenty of time to reheat the casseroles at 400 degrees before the meal. Many casseroles (except very dense ones like mashed potatoes) can go into the oven when the turkey comes out. Remove them from the fridge first thing Thanksgiving morning so they are not completely chilled.• Seasoned cooks should pick a dish or two each year that will stretch their skills. The payoffs in terms of flavor and self-satisfaction are worth their weight in gold.The highest-impact change you can make to Thanksgiving dinner may be mastering a new recipe for turkey. But because smoking, spatchcocking and deep-frying all require at least one test run, and many cooks are already busy from now until Thanksgiving, here are some alternatives: a more sophisticated vegetable side, a fancier pie crust or a snappy modern touch like an herb salad.It’s fun to mess around with mashed potatoes, if your family will allow it. You can pipe them into puffs that can be baked at the last minute. Top them with whipped cream and broil to make pommes Chantilly, or make patties and pan-fry to make garlic-potato cakes, crisp rounds that taste like supersized Tater Tots.
- STRIKE A BALANCEIt is possible for one cook to satisfy both Thanksgiving traditionalists and progressives, but it requires some ingenuity. Adding new ingredients to the old favorites is not the way; instead, add one or more new dishes to perennials on the table, and make sure they have modern, fresh flavors. Here’s how to proceed.• Some things should not be messed with. Glazing a turkey with pomegranate or rubbing it with chipotle won’t change anyone’s mind; people either like turkey or they don’t. Adding celery root, Cheddar and the like to the classic mashed potatoes is risky. These days, plain, buttery, homemade mashed potatoes are a treat that everyone seems to look forward to at the holiday.• Make sure there’s a creamed vegetable on the table. It doesn’t have to be onions. Also have a jellied cranberry sauce (canned is fine), so the reactionaries will be happy.• For the neophiles, add a sprightly green vegetable, whether raw, roasted or blanched. A little salad of fresh herbs, pictured above, is very refreshing, but broccoli, string beans or spinach can also nestle in nicely on the table.• Prowl for recipes that use ingredients from different culinary traditions: Asian condiments, Moroccan spices, Middle Eastern syrups. These can add a welcome note of surprise to an all-too-familiar menu.Want more recipe suggestions? Visit our Thanksgiving menu planner.
How to Shop
To jump-start your planning, make a good shopping list, the most critical tool for the forward-looking cook.
- Some items on the Thanksgiving shopping list are obvious: turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes. (About that turkey: Buy one pound per person, or a pound and a half per person if you’d like to have leftovers.)But there are several other ingredients that will prove invaluable to have on hand. Buy them early if you can. Running out to the supermarket the night before Thanksgiving is the last thing any cook, novice or experienced, will want to do.Butter, lots of it. Choose European-style high-fat butter for pie crusts, and regular unsalted butter for everything else.Stock. If you haven’t made your own, look for homemade stock at the same butcher shop where you buy your turkey, or in the freezer section of your supermarket. The canned and boxed stuff should be a last resort. Buy at least three or four quarts. You’ll need it not only for gravy and deglazing your roasting pan; it’s also good to have on hand for braising vegetables. Make sure to get some good vegetarian stock for anyone who isn’t eating meat. Leftover stock freezes perfectly.Fresh herbs. Not only do they add freshness and flavor across your Thanksgiving table, but they’re also pretty, lending a touch of green to a meal heavy on earth tones. Choose soft herbs (parsley, dill, basil, mint) for garnish, and sturdy, branchy herbs (thyme, rosemary, bay leaves) to throw into your roasting pans, stocks and gravies.Garlic, onions, leeks, fresh ginger, shallots. An assortment of aromatics keeps your cooking lively and interesting. You’ll need them for the stuffing, for stock and gravy, and for many side dishes. Grated fresh ginger and sautéed shallots are a nice and unexpected addition to cranberry sauce; simply stir them in with the berries while simmering. And you can perk up plain mashed potatoes by folding in sautéed garlic and leeks with the butter.Fresh citrus. Lemon, lime and orange juice and zest contribute brightness to countless Thanksgiving dishes, from the turkey to the gravy to the cranberry sauce to the whipped cream for pie.Nuts. These go a long way to give crunch to otherwise texturally boring dishes. (Ahem, sweet potato casserole.) Keep a variety on hand to throw into salads and side dishes, or simply to offer before the meal begins. They can also help bulk out your meatless offerings.White wine/vermouth/beer. Even if you’re not drinking any of these spirits before or during the meal, they can be splashed into gravy or vegetable dishes, or used to deglaze the turkey roasting pan. (Bourbon and brandy work well as deglazers, too.)Fresh spices. If you can’t remember when you bought your spices, now is a good time to replace them.Light brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup. These sweeteners are more profoundly flavored than white sugar, and they have an autumnal richness. Try using them to sweeten whipped cream, your coffee-based beverages and pies.Heavy cream, sour cream, crème fraîche, ice cream. You’ll need these for topping pies and cakes.A pint of good sorbet. Just in case you end up with a gluten-intolerant or vegan guest you didn’t expect. Coconut sorbet is particularly creamy and lush, but any flavor works well.
What You Can Make Ahead
When you’re cooking Thanksgiving dinner, it is wise to prepare as much in advance as you can. Many of the dishes on the menu lend themselves to advance work — casseroles, cranberry sauce, gravy — and desserts can be ideal candidates too.
- TURKEY, GRAVY AND SIDESGranted, most cooks agree that for best results, the turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing must be started from scratch on the day itself. Even for these outliers, though, some tasks can be done beforehand to ease the last-minute work. (And aside from stock, avoid freezing Thanksgiving side dishes; it damages their texture.)• Your first cooking task is making stock. Turkey stock is great, but chicken will do. You’re going to need a lot of it: for gravy, for warming the sliced turkey, for refreshing dressings, for deglazing pans. Stock freezes exceptionally well.• Free the turkey from its packaging and plastic a day or two in advance, and use a simple dry brine so it can go straight into the roasting pan on Thanksgiving morning.• Mashed potatoes, like any cooked potatoes, don’t usually refrigerate well. But they will if you mix them with chives, butter, and sour cream and bake them like a casserole (as in the video above). You will hear no complaints, though the texture will be smooth and dense, not fluffy.• Most stuffings and dressings can be assembled in advance. If your stuffing is moist enough, it can even be cooked in advance and reheated like any other casserole without compromising flavor. Cover tightly when reheating, and add tablespoons of stock as needed to keep the dish soft and fragrant. (Drier stuffings and dressings should not be cooked in advance; they will dry out even more during reheating.)• You can make traditional cranberry sauce up to a week ahead. Cover it well and store it in the fridge. Don’t be tempted to freeze cranberry sauce; the structure will break down, and you could lose the gelling. Raw cranberry sauce or relish can be made a day or two ahead. (Here’s everything you need to know to make cranberry sauce.)• Our make-ahead gravy recipe can be done five days ahead. (We also have a vegan version.)• Make vinaigrette and wash salad greens, if you’re serving salad, up to three days ahead. Wash the greens and dry them well, then wrap them loosely in paper towels, place in a plastic bag and put them in the crisper. If you’re serving butternut squash, peel, seed and cube it. You can also peel and cut up carrots, rutabaga and beets, and separate cauliflower florets.
- DESSERTSThe key to making desserts in advance is to seek out recipes that benefit from being made ahead, dishes that taste as good or better a few days later as they do on the day they were made.• Chocolate cakes and tortes hold up well. So do cheesecakes, flans, puddings, ice cream, parfaits, mousses and sticky gingerbread cakes (above). A general rule of thumb is that if your dessert needs thorough chilling before you serve it, it can probably sit for a day or two in the freezer or refrigerator.• Generally speaking, denser, heavier cakes hold up better than lighter, fluffier ones. (The latter are prone to dry out.) Frosting, fondant or any kind of syrupy glaze acts as a preservative, keeping the cake fresher longer.• The one traditional Thanksgiving dessert that will suffer if made more than 24 hours ahead is pie. But you can make the dough up to a month ahead and store it in the freezer, or store it in the refrigerator for up to three days. You can find more information on baking pies in advance in our Pie F.A.Q. section, or take a look at our guide to making pie crust.
For a group with many dietary restrictions, don’t assume that means having to cook separate meals. Nor must you match the usual feast, dish for dish, with special substitutions. What you want to do is bring unity to the table and offer as many dishes as possible that everyone can eat and — this is crucial — enjoy.
- • For vegetarians or vegans at the feast, optics can send a powerful message. If you’re not going to have a turkey on the table, or if the turkey on the table is just for those guests who have not yet seen the light of a plant-based Thanksgiving feast, take care to serve a main dish that has some of the visual and sensory firepower of a giant roast. Something demonstrably large and in charge, like a mushroom Wellington, or a whole roasted cauliflower or two, or a platter of stuffed squash.
- • Dressing is an easy way to provide visual appeal and flavor to the Thanksgiving menu. You can make a version with meat, and one with no meat. We also have an excellent gluten-free dressing made with wild rice, cranberries and sausage (pictured above), and another that’s entirely vegan. Melissa Clark’s recipe for stuffing with mushrooms and bacon can be adapted to use gluten-free cornbread. (If you leave out the bacon and use vegetable stock, that stuffing recipe can also be vegetarian.)• Whatever you do, try to avoid any truly arcane ingredients, or foods you’re uncomfortable cooking with. Some cooks just don’t want to use tempeh, textured vegetable protein or xanthan gum, and that’s O.K. Pretty much everyone can eat roasted autumn vegetables with garlic and herbs, and will be pleased to do so. And chances are that that vegan gravy recipe with nutritional yeast, mushroom powder and Marmite added isn’t half as good as a simple version you can easily make yourself.