Here’s how to nail your Thanksgiving bird, plus one insanely delicious hack for perfect pies and desserts.
This year, I have the distinct honor of roasting a 16 lb. turkey for a gaggle of extended family—seven people in total, which is six more than I've ever been responsible for feeding. I've never made anything for a Thanksgiving spread beyond a single green bean casserole that I've spent years perfecting, so the thought of nailing an entire turkey alone (!) has been haunting me since Halloween. When I heard that Sur La Table was holding a class for home cooks hoping to master a full Thanksgiving menu, I was all ears.
I headed to our local Sur La Table in Birmingham, Alabama this week to learn from Chef Tenita Paster, who has been teaching classes for several years and has been working in kitchens for 25 years. Chef “Ten” also trained formally as an apprentice at Colonial Williamsburg in historic Virginia (where she made her fair share of grandiose turkeys, I'm sure).
Chef Ten walked us through four classic elements of a classic Thanksgiving menu: delicious whipped mashed potatoes, an easy-to-make wild mushroom gravy, no-bake pumpkin mousse, and, of course, a dry-brined turkey dressed in herb butter.
While Chef Ten completely revolutionized how I'll approach Thanksgiving this year, she had a few expert tips for anyone tackling the daunting task of a full Thanksgiving menu at home, whether you're a bonafide turkey master or, like me, have never touched a raw turkey in your life. I'll walk you through five easy tips to help you avoid any common Thanksgiving mishaps in your kitchen below.
Here are five tips for avoiding common Thanksgiving pitfalls:
1) Make Your Stuffing Separately
Chef Ten shocked me when the first thing she told the class was to roast a turkey on its own—if you're anything like me, you've probably grown up cooking your stuffing inside of the turkey's cavity. But Chef Ten says choosing to cook your stuff inside the turkey is the quickest way to dry the bird out, as both the turkey and the stuffing needs to reach a proper interior temperature of 165 °F (especially if you want to avoid any foodborne illnesses this year).
There's a good chance your turkey will roast evenly and reach this temperature before the stuffing inside the bird's cavity. Translation: you'll either end up leaving it in the oven longer than necessary (leading to dry meat), or end up with lukewarm, undercooked stuffing. The good news? Any of Cooking Light's top-rated stuffing recipes can be made in your kitchen ahead of time, which can save you crucial oven space.
2) Martha Stewart Can Teach Anyone How to Truss
Chef Ten walked the entire class at Sur La Table through trussing a turkey—which, as I learned, is actually surprisingly easy. But the very first thing she said? "Martha Stewart can teach anyone how to truss, and it's her technique we're using tonight."
Our friends at Martha Stewart Living have a very easy how-to guide for trussing any bird, which is a must before roasting—whether it's a chicken or a Thanksgiving turkey. Trussing your turkey is the second way to prevent overheating and dry meat, which is a common issue for any home cook at Thanksgiving.
More essential tips for winning Thanksgiving this year:
- Our 10 Best Tips for a Stress-Free Thanksgiving
- These Are Ina Garten's 8 Essential Tips for Nailing Thanksgiving
- This Affordable Tool Is Here to Save Your Thanksgiving
3) Get Turkey to Room Temp Before Roasting
You clearly know to preheat your oven—but Chef Ten says you should also be "preheating" your turkey, too. While it's totally acceptable to refrigerate a turkey or a chicken for up to four days, sticking a cold bird straight out of the refrigerator into a preheated oven can actually lower the temperature in the oven itself. Multiple temperatures in different areas of your oven can spell disaster for cooking times, and whether or not the meat will remain moist.
Another important reason why you should let your turkey thaw out—Chef Ten says miniature ice crystals can form inside the turkey's cavity due to moisture in the refrigerator. Cooking an icy bird will also mean dry meat, as moisture should be allowed to return to the meat before it’s roasted.
4) Use This Appliance for Perfect Mashed Potatoes
You can make perfectly acceptable mashed potatoes by, well, mashing them. But Chef Ten had a trick up her sleeve for making silky smooth potatoes with minimal effort, all thanks to a her handy handheld ricer.
She's not alone—many Cooking Light editors swear by a ricer as a way to elevate mashed potatoes into a silky-smooth side. Whipping potatoes into submission is so much easier when your potatoes have been riced, and you’ll avoid any unwanted lumps and clumps.
5) Ditch Store-Bought Desserts and Whipped Cream
Thinking about all of the effort that goes into cooking Thanksgiving dinner is overwhelming, and buying store-bought desserts is very tempting. But one of the most important lessons that Chef Ten taught me is that you can make desserts and everything else—if you make it ahead of time.
"If you spend your time wisely in the week leading up to Thanksgiving, you can avoid all kinds of headaches on the day of, right?" Chef Ten told our class. "It could be a side dish or your dessert, which can remain in the fridge for up to three days without showing their age."
Cooking Light has more than a fair share of recipes for classic Thanksgiving desserts that can be made on the Monday or Tuesday before your feast. But the best part of Sur La Table's Thanksgiving class, by far, was learning how easy it is to make whipped cream at home.
It only takes three ingredients—sugar, heavy whipping cream, and vanilla paste. (Side note: Chef Ten says you can use vanilla extract in its place, but vanilla extract is made with alcohol and isn't as naturally sweet and flavorful as paste.)
Delicious whipped cream is ready in less than three minutes: add 1/2 teaspoon of granulated sugar, 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla paste, and 1 cup of cold whipping cream to a large mixing bowl, and stir the mixture to dissolve the sugar. Then just whisk vigorously for approximately 90 seconds, or until medium peaks form. And that's it!
It's the final touch on any autumnal pie that you may have already made in advance—and it makes it taste so much more special than anything you’d pick up at the store.