Thanksgiving for the Novice

If you're hosting your first Thanksgiving dinner, here's a traditional menu with tips to make everything easy.

Turkey Tips

We recommend fresh turkey for superior flavor and texture, but frozen turkey is fine. Make sure you leave enough time and room to thaw it in the refrigerator. It takes about 24 hours for every 5 pounds―that's at least 2 1/2 days for the 12-pounder used in this menu. If you start to cut it close on time, submerge the frozen turkey in cold water in the sink, and change the water frequently. It will take about 30 minutes per pound.

To prepare the turkey for roasting, take it out of the plastic bag. Remove the neck and giblets (the heart, liver, and gizzard) from the neck and body cavities. Use the neck, heart, and gizzard for Homemade Turkey Stock. Rinse the turkey thoroughly with cold water; pat dry with paper towels. If a metal clip secures the drumsticks, you won't have to tie them with cotton kitchen twine.

The roasting rack is essential to keep the turkey from sticking to the bottom of the pan. A relatively deep (2 to 3 inches) roasting pan is also important so you can make gravy without splashing over the edge. Disposable aluminum pans make terrible gravy and are so high-sided they inhibit browning of the skin. Plus, they're flimsy and can be dangerous if overloaded with a heavy, hot turkey.

The milk solids in the butter help brown the skin, and the butter enhances the flavor of the drippings, so it's better than vegetable oil for rubbing on the skin.

Cover the breast with foil during most of the roasting to protect lean meat from drying out. The aluminum foil should be wrapped-not tented-around the entire breast. This traps steam that rises during cooking and forces it back into the breast meat. Remove the foil for the last hour or so of cooking to allow the skin to brown.

Many thermometers can check for doneness. The disposable pop-up thermometer that comes in most packaged turkeys works, but basting can prevent it from popping up. Perhaps the best option is a remote display thermometer with a probe to insert in the turkey. It can alert you when the bird is done. Because the monitor display sits on the counter, you don't have to open the door to check the turkey's progress.

Get started with these six tips for a no-fail first Thanksgiving.

1. Make minitrips to avoid one huge, exhausting shopping trip. Create three shopping lists―one for nonperishables that can be purchased well ahead (such as beverages, sugar, flour, camera film, guest towels and soap, and candles); another for specific menu needs to buy a week or so ahead and to slip into everyday shopping (such as the canned pumpkin and crystallized ginger for this menu); and a final list for a couple of days before the holiday (fresh produce, the turkey, and other perishables).

2. Lists save the day. Don't wait until the last minute to locate the gravy boat. Make a list of serving bowls, utensils, and even cookware to be sure you have everything you need. Also, make a complete menu to hang in the kitchen so you don't forget to serve something.

3. Helping hands sometimes need guidance. Ask friends to contribute dishes, but be prepared for problems if they don't bring what you expected. Ask them to make a specific dish (say "broccoli," not "a side dish"); send the recipe with an explanation that this will help you keep the menu balanced. Enlist noncooks to come early to help set the table and stay late to help with dishes.

4. Watch for kitchen traffic jams. Don't crowd the oven with lots of baked side dishes. Choose some recipes to prepare on top of the stove (for example, our fresh-tasting and colorful Broccoli and Carrots with Toasted Almonds, as opposed to green bean casserole).

5. Let the roast turkey stand before carving. This is one of the great secrets of a holiday meal. For maximum juiciness and flavor, the turkey must stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes to an hour. This rest allows the juices to relax and helps the cook relax, too. Make the gravy (first-timers will need to concentrate on this job), finish the side dishes, and reheat make-ahead dishes in the now-empty oven while the turkey rests.

6. Convenience foods will lessen your stress. This is not the time to make your first piecrust or homemade dinner rolls. On the other hand, guests will appreciate homemade cranberry sauce and fresh bread stuffing, which are easy ways to impress.

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