Preparing for Thanksgiving

Preparing for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, even though my chef/husband always has to work.  It’s a time to gather with family and friends, on the actual day or somewhere around then, and give thanks for everything we have been blessed with.

As far as how our family celebrates Thanksgiving, my chef/husband leaves the house early in the morning to cook for about 1,000 people in the restaurant.  (Most of the work is done ahead of time of course!)  The girls and I usually celebrate with friends or family and then we enjoy our family Thanksgiving meal (which I’ve prepped for all week long) the day after, usually while decorating for Christmas or watching a Christmas movie.  I’ve come to treasure the day after Thanksgiving far more than the actual day.  🙂  (You can read more about this here if you are interested.)

Because of my husband’s career as a chef, we get asked a lot of questions about preparing for Thanksgiving.  He’s written some tips (see below) and filmed a video on the Thanksgiving meal that many of our friends and family have found helpful and I hope you will too.  My chef/husband is a big believer in prepping as much of the Thanksgiving meal ahead of time to make the actual day more relaxing.

Preparing for Thanksgiving

By: Tom Small

I have to admit I am pretty excited for Thanksgiving to come.  There are lots of reasons to look forward to the day: an opportunity to catch up with family and friends, a few moments of being thankful for how fortunate we are, the start of the Christmas season, and of course Thanksgiving dinner.  I mentioned the dinner out of some felt need to minimize my excitement, but as a chef (and food lover) I have always considered Thanksgiving to be one of my favorite food experiences of the year.

I will also be the first to acknowledge that Thanksgiving is not the easiest meal of the year.  Many of us prepare meals at home for 2, 4 or 6 at least a few nights a week and those meals probably have a few components (i.e. meat, vegetable, potato).  Thanksgiving on the other hand is a completely different experience.  Suddenly we are cook for 10, 15, even 20 in a home kitchen that just isn’t designed for that quantity of food.  And it is not just a simple dinner but an elaborate display.  It is tough to pull out all the stops and execute this meal really well, even for the most experienced home cooks; we just don’t do it very often.  It is the same thing in the restaurant.  Instead of cooking several dozen of our most popular menu items a night we are preparing a much more elaborate meal for hundreds of people.

The food isn’t even the only challenge of the day…The house needs to be clean, there are often awkward dynamics with family, there aren’t enough chairs let alone space at the table.  Somehow the kitchen, despite all of this food and preparation needs to appear clean, organized and even a gathering place (seems like everyone always hangs out in there anyway).

Of course there is no shortage of advice…food magazines enjoy their best sales every year on their Thanksgiving issue.  Somehow every magazine I read (OK, there are a lot) manages to produce every year, “The Best Turkey Ever” article, shortly followed by, “19 Innovative Side Dishes”.  Even on the radio I was hearing discussion on brining turkeys and the perfect holiday cocktail.  The reality is we don’t really need any more inspiration new recipes or complex pairings; we need a plan to prepare all of the food we will serve with excellence, however simple or complex the recipes may be.

I am of the opinion that the flavors of Thanksgiving work naturally together (turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, etc.).   Each of those components can be very simply prepared (well until we talk turkey) and when they are eaten together it is their interaction that makes the meal so special.

So the following ramblings contain no recipes…I am not going to try and sell you on the perfect cocktail, side dish, or dessert.  I just wanted to share some simple ideas on how to pull off a great Thanksgiving meal, while actually having time to enjoy the holiday.

DO NOT WAIT UNTIL THANKSGIVING TO PREPARE EVERYTHING. Trying to get all your food to come out of the oven and off the stove at the perfect time so it is hot and ready at once is close to impossible, and completely unnecessary.  Most of the foods prepared on Thanksgiving do really well prepared in advanced and simply re-heated.  It’s not like serving leftovers; it is the basis for how food is prepared so quickly (usually…) in restaurants.  We make a timeline for Thanksgiving prep that starts the Monday of Thanksgiving week.  Monday is basic prep, chopping, cutting, peeling and cleaning.  Tuesday we start the pies, bake the cornbread for stuffing and start making the sides like cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, wild rice, etc.  Wednesday we get serious; it is our goal to have virtually everything completely before we turn off the lights that evening.  When we walk in Thursday morning, everything is ready to go…no mess, frustration, hurry or forgotten ingredients.  When I prepare Thanksgiving at home, I do the same thing.  Everything, turkey included, except the mashed potatoes are completely cooked, cooled and stored in the refrigerator the night before Thanksgiving.  Some things are stored in little Ziploc bags to combine just before dinner (like the components for the salad), but all the major sides are ready to re-heat.  The turkey is already sliced and topped with a little turkey stock to protect it during reheating.  All of these dishes can be reheated in a 300F oven and then held in a warm oven until dinner time.  I promise, if you re-heat carefully there is no loss of quality, it just makes good sense.  UPDATE:  Heating the food up with an Immersion Circulator is the best!!  Here’s a post with more details!

Second, take some extra time on the turkey.  Making great turkey is a real challenge!  It’s not you, it’s the turkey.   Turkey isn’t just white meat and dark meat; it’s really white meat and really dark meat.  They just don’t cook the same way.  The breasts on our contemporary turkey breeds are really big (don’t laugh, it’s cross breeding to get more meat), they take forever to cook and dry out long before the thighs are done.  There is a lot of talk of brining, but obviously not everyone really understands what the brining process is all about (referencing the very frustrating and incorrect radio show information above…featuring chefs no less…).  So, I have created a somewhat elaborate process to get great turkey.  I use it in the restaurant and I think it is practical to do a pretty similar method at home. (See video below on how to break down a turkey.)   If it is essential that you present a whole turkey at the table, ready to carve…proceed to the next paragraph.  OK, now that they have moved on, here’s the process starting Monday:

  1. Cut the breast meat off the turkey.  Just cut right along each side of the breast bone and follow the ribs until the breast meat falls off.  I put those in weak brine (1 gallon cool water, ½ cup granulated sugar, ½ cup Diamond Crystal kosher salt) until Wednesday morning.  If you are using Morton’s kosher salt use a ¼ cup instead of a half, it’s much denser.  Wednesday morning they get roasted in a 325F oven until 160F internal temperature then cooled completely before slicing.  Cooling at room temperature will bring them up to 165F to finish cooking.
  2. Cut the legs off and put them in the same brine.  We smoke these at the restaurant on Wednesday and the brine really helps.  Since you only have 2 legs on your home turkey, smoking is probably too much work so you can add them to the thigh meat preparation below.
  3. Cut the wings off and put them in a large pot for stock.
  4. Cut the thighs off.  We will braise these with carrots, onion, celery, thyme, rosemary and Marsala for about 4 hours.  The meat will be fall off the bone tender.  The braising liquid gets strained and combined with the turkey stock.
  5. Take the bones that are left and add them to the stock pot.  Add about a gallon of water, some carrots, onions, celery, rosemary & thyme and cook the stock for about 3 hours on a low simmer.  Strain and cool.  You will use the stock (combined with the braising liquid above) to make the most flavorful gravy you have ever made.

It may sound like a lot of work, but the difference in the finished turkey is dramatic.  Note, if your turkey is still frozen, time to get it thawed out!!!  I do prefer the free range turkeys (they just have more flavor), but the standard grocery store turkey can be pretty good too.  Just make sure they aren’t pumping it full of weird chemicals.  If you do want the carve at the table turkey I would recommend brining the entire turkey in the weak brine above for a couple days then cooking the turkey upside-down for 2/3rds of the cooking time (to protect the breasts).  If you want more color on the skin, turn the broiler on low for a few minutes and watch carefully; the skin will brown up very quickly.

I hope these ideas are helpful to you as you prepare and enjoy Thanksgiving with family and friends.  I could probably ramble on forever.  Let me know if you have any specific questions…I will check the comments and respond if anything comes up.




  1. Marisa Mangani

    Years ago my husband and I were BOTH chef’s with a young daughter and would celebrate Thanksgiving after our shifts with leftovers taken from the restaurants with a gang of our cooks. We called ourselves Thanksgiving orphans and I’d make something so it wasn’t all rehashed buffet stuffing etc. Like shrimp creole.

    • Jennifer

      I’m sure everyone enjoyed having something different than they had just been working with in the kitchen all day! What a great idea! 🙂

  2. Jon

    Great stuff Tom- just pulled the dark meat out of the braising liquid… I’ll have to hide it from the kids until Thursday.

    How long on the breasts? I’m going to start checking temp at an hour.

    I love not having to cook everything on Thursday! Hope you guys are well.


    • Jennifer

      It really depends on the size of the turkey. Tom said a good rule is about 15 minutes a pound when cooking the breast meat. Better to check early then to over cook it! So glad you are trying this! Let us know how it turns out Jon! 🙂


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