It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without a heaping side of stress. What size turkey should I buy? Oh, wait, it's still frozen! Who has the one copy of Grandma's legendary stuffing? Why does this homemade pie crust keep falling apart? Why are the mashed potatoes gluey?!
Every year it's something new at your holiday gathering, but by now, we've just about heard them all. We field many of the same questions year after year, so if you're wondering the same things as Nov. 28 creeps closer, trust us, you're not alone. Consider this guide your resource for the answers to your most pressing Thanksgiving questions.
But above all: Don't stress out! Know that you are perfectly capable of making a dynamite Thanksgiving meal.
How big should my turkey be?
The Agriculture Department suggests 1 pound of turkey per person. We've previously suggested about 1 1/2 pounds for each diner to allow for leftovers. One of our staple resources in the Washington Post Food section is the "Chef's Book of Formulas, Yields & Sizes," by Arno Schmidt. The book says a 22-pound turkey will yield 12 pounds of roasted meat, including scraps, which equates to 22 servings, which lines up perfectly with USDA guidance. "Chef's Book" also suggests you can stretch that 22-pound bird to 40 servings "on a buffet when served with other meats and salads."
When do I buy the turkey and how do I store it?
When you buy the bird depends on whether you're going with fresh or frozen. A raw, fresh turkey should be stored for no longer than two days in the refrigerator. In theory, a frozen turkey can last indefinitely. But for the best quality, use it within a year.
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Should I brine the turkey?
Brining helps poultry stay moist and tasty. (Kosher or self-basting birds should not be brined.) Some people choose to dry brine their turkey by simply rubbing it with salt. In that situation, salt draws the meat's juices to the surface of the bird. The juices then mix with the salt, forming a brine that is then reabsorbed by the meat. A few years ago, Bonnie S. Benwick tried both methods and decided she preferred a wet brine, which required less effort and resulted in more uniformly moist and seasoned meat. When you remove the turkey from the brine, make sure you pat it thoroughly dry to get crisp skin. But consider this: You can also achieve a moist, flavorful turkey without brining at all.
Should I roast a turkey breast for two people?
Size-wise, a turkey breast is definitely a good fit for a small crowd, though for a pair, you'll probably want to aim for something close to 6 pounds. Even then, you'll have some extra for subsequent meals. To satisfy those who go for dark meat, consider getting a small whole turkey. You might have especially good luck with a local farmer. If the ideas of a white-meat-only breast or too-big whole turkey don't appeal to you, there are other options. You might consider a duck breast or whole duck, which is smaller, with rich, gamey flavor. Or go the ultimate route for single- or small-serving poultry and cook Cornish hens.
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How can I make gravy in advance?
Easy: Roast extra turkey wings until deeply browned and crisped. Toss them into a pot of at least 4 cups of water or store-bought broth with your favorite aromatics: celery, onion, fresh herbs, a bay leaf, whole black peppercorns. For a flavor boost, add 1/2 cup of dry red wine, Madeira or unsweetened apple cider. Cook, strain and discard the solids. Then melt 8 tablespoons of unsalted butter in a separate saucepan and whisk in 1/2 cup of low-protein flour, like Wondra or pastry flour, to form a smooth roux; it needs to be cooked over medium heat for a few minutes to lose its floury taste. Whisk in your enriched stock and cook until thickened, which should take no more than 20 minutes. Season, cool, refrigerate or freeze. Once the bird comes out of the oven, you might want to whisk strained pan drippings into the reheated gravy, then season with salt and pepper.
How do I make a perfect pie crust?
A few pointers: Keep things cool. Rotate the crust 90 degrees periodically as you're rolling it. Make your crusts in advance. And if something does go wrong, roll with it.
What can I make ahead?
Almost everything. Really. If you're brining a turkey, start brining the day before. You can roast the turkey ahead of time, but if you do, go ahead and slice the meat and place it in a casserole dish. Pour some of the drippings on top, cover with foil and store in the fridge until you’re ready to reheat it, with the foil on.
Most cranberry relishes and sauces can be refrigerated for up to a week. You can make your gravy (or most of it, minus the drippings) a few days early. Most pies can be made two or more days in advance. Or make a cake or cookies.
Bake your bread or rolls a day or two in advance; wrap in foil and warm in the oven before serving. You can also bake several days in advance and freeze — just set your bread out to defrost at room temperature on Wednesday.
Advance stuffing work depends on the recipe. Some stuffings can be made wholly in advance; others should be made up to the point of adding the liquid. Reheat or finish baking on Thursday.
For side dishes that you can make ahead, shred radicchio and slice radishes for a slaw, or roast some squash for a hearty salad; blanch or steam green beans or Brussels sprouts. Think about elements that can be prepped or finished ahead of time, then do it!
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How do I pack food to bring to Friendsgiving?
If your celebration is done potluck-style, it's important to effectively pack your dish to avoid spillage. This is a nice meal, though, so showing up with a few takeout containers' worth of Brussels sprouts won't cut it. Bring a serving dish and serving utensils; if you've got something that needs to be reheated, tell your host so you can coordinate stove or oven space; you can usually pack the item right in its cooking dish for easy reheating.
Turkey: To avoid spills, pour the pan drippings into a lidded container. Transport the turkey on its baking pan or sheet, tented with aluminum foil. There is no need to reheat the turkey (it might overcook the bird). Reheat the drippings on the stove for gravy or stuffing. Bring a carving board, carving tools and a serving platter.
Mashed potatoes: Bring the mashed potatoes in a pot for reheating (you may need to add some extra milk); if your pot is pretty, serve them straight from there. The residual heat will help to keep the potatoes warm at the table.
Gravy: Pack it in a Thermos or other insulated container.
Cranberry sauce: A simple airtight container or zip-top bag will do, along with a serving container.
Soup: Bring it in a pot to reheat on the stove, with a ladle for serving.
Rolls or biscuits: Pack in a serving basket and cover with nice napkins or a towel.
Sides: Many can be packed in airtight containers or zip-top bags tucked right into their serving containers; just check with the host about what you'll reheat it in, if needed. Casseroles, dressings and the like can transition easily from oven to table.
Pie: If you're without a dedicated pie box, small shipping boxes make for useful and discardable pie containers. You might set the pie on a bed of crumbled tissue paper or newspaper for added cushion.
What should I do with leftovers?
For some of us, this is really the best part of Thanksgiving. After you've sent home some of the extras with your friends and family, the options are endless. Make a Thanksgiving hash or stuffing waffles for Friday breakfast. Use your vegetables to fill tacos or sandwiches, or blend them into puree for soup. Turn bread into croutons or breadcrumbs.