It’s been more than 20 years since Stephanie Herrington has been a Thanksgiving newbie, but as a culinary teacher at Austin Community College, she teaches plenty of them.
The graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park has seen it all during her teaching career: dry turkey, soggy stuffing, kitchen towels catching on fire.
But there’s no need to let fear of failure stop you from trying, even if this is your first year to make a semblance of a Thanksgiving dinner at home.
Herrington’s biggest tip for cooks this Thanksgiving is to focus on making fewer dishes but finding ways to make them special. So, for mashed potatoes, add bacon bits and scallions to make them loaded mashed potatoes. On the stuffing, consider adding sausage or nuts or a big handful of fresh parsley. Using shallots instead of onions will make everything feel special, even a simple dish such as sauteed green beans.
"Don’t think you have to go over the top," she says. "Make things you enjoy and put that on the table."
Herrington says that one of the biggest mistakes that new cooks in her kitchens make is not tasting as they go, so they end up over- or under-seasoning food without realizing it.
In some dishes, if you accidentally add too much salt, you can add a squeeze of lemon to help balance it out. "You can also add half of a potato to over-salted gravy, which will draw out some of the excess," she says, but your best option when it comes to oversalting is to undersalt everything else on the table.
Herrington suggests that newbies cook their turkey in a roasting bag, which you can find near the aluminum foil or kitchen equipment in almost every supermarket. "That will keep it from being dry," she says. "Cook it low and slow, and it turns out every single time."
If you don’t have a roasting bag, you can roast the bird in a large pan and cover it with aluminum foil to help keep it moist. Start at a high temperature (425 degrees) and finish at a lower temp (around 350).
Don’t bother with basting, she says. Opening and closing the oven door so frequently will interrupt the cooking and let out any moisture that’s building up inside the oven or under the aluminum foil.
To season the turkey, Herrington uses fresh or dry herbs rubbed on the outside of the turkey with olive oil. Make sure your turkey (or chicken, if you’re cooking a smaller dinner this year) is fully thawed before seasoning it, she says.
Herrington likes to stuff the turkey with stuffing, but she recommends cooking it outside of the bird for first-time cooks. "Saute all of your aromatics (such as onion or shallot and celery) and warm up the broth on the side," she says. "Mix in the cubes of bread or cornbread last and then pour over the broth or stock." (She prefers to use a vegetable broth.)
Many cooks accidentally keep the stuffing in the oven a little too long because they are taking care of other last-minute dishes, so if your stuffing dries out while it’s in there, drizzle warm broth on top to remoisten. You also can cover it with aluminum foil to keep it from drying out.
Many Thanksgiving side dishes can be made vegetarian or vegan easily, including the gravy. Herrington likes to make a savory mushroom gravy, which is full of umami and can be used by both meat-eaters and vegans. Start by sauteing shallots and garlic and then add a mix of fresh mushrooms until they soften. Deglaze the pan with a splash of red or white wine, vegetable stock and fresh thyme.
Thickening a gravy can intimidate new cooks, and you have two options: Flour or cornstarch. She prefers using cornstarch because then you don’t have to cook the flour in butter to make a roux, which is a little complicated for beginners.
Add about a tablespoon of cornstarch to about 1/2 cup cold water to make what is called a slurry. Add that slurry to the gravy base (aromatics and stock) and bring to a simmer.
If you’re about ready to serve Thanksgiving dinner and realize you don’t have cornstarch, rather than try to make it work with flour, which will likely make a clumpy mess, use a sprinkle of masa harina, which you might have on hand from last year’s tamales. Or simply simmer the broth until it reduces into a slightly thicker consistency.
Make the cranberry sauce ahead of time, she suggests. Canned cranberry sauce is nostalgic for some, but homemade sauce from whole cranberries is easy. "You don’t have to cook them for 10 hours like you’re making jelly," she says. "I use orange juice, a little sugar and cinnamon. Keep it simple. Once the cranberries pop, it’s done."
Herrington says that with all those marshmallows and brown sugar, it’s easy to make sweet potatoes too sweet. She prefers to make a small batch of pureed sweet potatoes on the side, almost like a cranberry sauce.
"A lot of people make the mistake of boiling sweet potatoes like regular sweet potatoes, but what I think comes out better is roasting them whole in the skin," she says. "Roasting caramelizes the sugars in the sweet potato, and it’ll pop open when it’s ready. Do that the day before. Cool, peel and scoop into a food processor."
A small scoop of this sweet potato puree complements everything on the plate, as well as those post-Thanksgiving sandwiches. (You also could make it with acorn squash or butternut squash.)
For mashed potatoes, a common mistake is mashing them when they are still steaming hot and adding the milk or butter right away. Drain the potatoes and then put them back in the hot pot. Squish them enough to break them open and let them sit for about 10 minutes to release excess moisture. During that time, you can heat up a little milk (or half-and-half) and butter to add to the potatoes.
Herrington suggests boiling the potatoes earlier in the week because they can take up a lot of stovetop space on the big day. Cool them and store in a zip-top plastic bag, and when you’re ready to cook, place the potatoes in a pot over low heat. Heat up the milk and butter (start with less milk than you think you’ll need, so about 1 cup) in a separate saucepan and add, slowly mashing. Taste the potatoes as you go so you don’t accidentally overseason them. (If you do, you could add some instant mashed potatoes from the pantry to stretch them out.)
Add the liquid a little at a time because it’s easy to make them soupy. If this happens, keep the potatoes over low heat and they’ll thicken as the liquid evaporates.
Make your desserts ahead of time so you’re not under pressure on the morning of the holiday, Herrington says. Store-bought pie crusts are a shortcut worth taking if you’ve never attempted a homemade pastry before, but if you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and pull out the rolling pin, make a pate brisee.
"Use your food processor and put your flour, cold butter, salt and sugar," she says. "Pulse it a couple of times and then use equal parts water and egg, so usually one egg with a few splashes of water."
Butternut Squash and Apple Bake
Warm, perfectly sweet bites of apples and butternut squash with cinnamon and spice don’t need to be reserved for special occasions. I prescribe this recipe to my stressed-out clients, due to its therapeutic aroma and no-fuss directions. This dish is easily scaled up or down, and it’s no hassle to portion out for a distanced Thanksgiving or one where you’re delivering side dishes to several people. You also can eat it warm, at room temperature or chilled, and leftovers are great for breakfast the next day. To add a fiber boost, add a tablespoon of chia seeds or ground flaxseed just before serving.
— Rachel Beller
2 large apples, such as golden or Fuji, cored and cut into 1- to 2-inch cubes
1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cubed (about 4 cups)
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil or avocado oil
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
Sea salt to taste
1/4 cup slivered almonds or chopped pecans (optional)
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. In a medium baking dish, combine the apples, squash, oil, cinnamon, allspice and ginger, tossing with your hands or a large spoon to ensure everything is evenly coated. Cover with a sheet of parchment paper and a layer of aluminum foil to seal the edges of the baking dish.
Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until the squash is tender and can easily be pierced with a fork.
Remove the dish from the oven and sprinkle with sea salt. Stir before serving and top with nuts, if using. Serves 4.
— From "Power Spicing: 60 Simple Recipes for Antioxidant-Fueled Meals and a Healthy Body" by Rachel Beller (Clarkson Potter, $16.99)
This vegan and gluten-free stuffing from local meal delivery service Prep to Your Door combines maple-sweetened cornbread with the chewier texture of a cubed baguette. Gluten-free baguettes aren’t always readily available, so use another type of gluten-free bread if you can’t find it, or if it’s OK to have gluten, use a regular baguette. Having two types of bread adds complexity to the texture, and the aquafaba — or the soaking water from chickpeas — helps thicken the dish without any eggs.
— Addie Broyles
For the cornbread:
1 1/4 cup almond flour
1 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
2/3 cup maple syrup
1 1/4 cup oat milk
1/3 cup sunflower oil
For the stuffing:
1 1/2 cup aquafaba
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon rosemary
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon sage
1 gluten-free baguette, cubed
1 cup small diced yellow onion
1 cup small diced celery
2 teaspoons sage
4 cups veggie stock
To make the cornbread: Heat oven to 325 degrees. Mix together the almond flour, cornmeal, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. In a small bowl or glass measuring cup, mix together the maple syrup, oat milk and sunflower oil. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix well. Pour in an 8-inch-by-8-inch baking dish and bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool.
To make the stuffing: Place the aquafaba in a casserole dish and add thyme, rosemary, onion powder and sage. Add the cubed baguette. When cornbread is cool, crumble on the soaked baguette mixture.
In a large skillet, saute the onion, celery and sage until softened and then add stock. Add sautéed mix to pan with crumbled cornbread and baguette pieces. Stir to combine and then bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or preferred moisture.
— From Prep To Your Door
Roast Pumpkin Ginger Mash
Kabocha, pumpkin, has a naturally sweet taste, which is further enhanced by roasting. This side dish goes particularly well with rich roast meats, such as a Thanksgiving turkey.
— Kimiko Barber
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 small or medium skin-on pumpkin, quartered and deseeded
2 tablespoons unsalted vegan butter, softened (1 ounce)
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
Salt and ground white pepper, to taste
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Mix vegetable oil with toasted sesame oil. Brush the inside of the pumpkin with the oil mixture, then sprinkle sea salt over it. Place the pumpkin, skin-side down, in a roasting tray and roast for 50 to 60 minutes or until very tender.
Scoop the pumpkin flesh from the skin and put in a bowl. Add the butter and mash until very smooth. Add soy sauce and the ginger, then season to taste with salt and ground white pepper. Serve warm. Serves 4.
— From "Japanese in 7: Delicious Japanese Recipes in 7 Ingredients or Fewer" by Kimiko Barber (Kyle Books, $24.99)
Sauteed Green Beans with Mustard Vinaigrette
A classic vegetable side, green beans pair well with meat, chicken and fish, so this is a great, simple recipe to have in your back pocket to whip up quickly. Green beans are low-carb, keto-friendly, and delicious when crunchy, but they run the risk of getting overcooked fast. We wanted fresh-tasting and flavorful green beans that stayed crisp-tender when cooked quickly. So we added some water directly to a covered skillet so the beans steamed gently for a few minutes. Then we simply uncovered the pan to brown them. A dressing made with whole-grain mustard and red wine vinegar highlighted their sweetness. We’ve also included recipes for chipotle-lime and sesame miso vinaigrettes, which also work well.
— America’s Test Kitchen
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 small shallot, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons whole-grain mustard
3/4 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1/8 teaspoon table salt
8 ounces green beans, trimmed
Whisk 2 tablespoons oil, shallot, mustard, vinegar, thyme, salt and pepper together in bowl; set aside.
Heat remaining oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add green beans and 2 tablespoons water. Cover and cook, without stirring, until green beans are bright green and almost tender, about 5 minutes.
Uncover and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until green beans are spotty brown, 3 to 4 minutes; transfer to serving platter. Whisk vinaigrette to recombine, then drizzle over green beans. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serves 2.
To make chipotle-lime vinaigrette: Omit thyme and pepper. Substitute 1 1/2 teaspoons minced canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce for mustard and lime juice for vinegar. Whisk 1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro into dressing.
To make sesame-miso vinaigrette: Omit shallot, thyme, salt and pepper. Substitute 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil for 1 tablespoon olive oil, white miso paste for mustard and 1 1/2 teaspoons rice vinegar for red wine vinegar.
— From "Easy Everyday Keto: Healthy Kitchen-Perfected Recipes" by America’s Test Kitchen (America’s Test Kitchen, $24.99)
Lemon-Garlic Smashed Potatoes
Baby red potatoes with a lemon-garlic flavor make a delicious companion to any dinner! The potatoes are cooked perfectly (and lightning fast) in the Instant Pot, then finished off in the oven to get that crispy texture.
— Amy Rains
1 1/2 pounds baby red potatoes
1 cup water
2 tablespoons avocado oil or extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Turn on the oven to broil.
Wash and dry the potatoes. Pour the water into the Instant Pot or multicooker and insert the steam trivet. Place the potatoes on the trivet.
Secure the lid with the steam vent in the sealed position. Select manual or pressure, and cook on high pressure for 6 minutes.
Use a quick release. Remove the potatoes and place on a large baking sheet. Using a glass or the back of a spoon, gently press down on the potatoes, or smash them.
In a small bowl, whisk together the oil and garlic. Brush over each of the potatoes, then sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Transfer the potatoes to the oven. Broil for 4 to 5 minutes, or until crispy.
Remove from the oven and drizzle with the lemon juice. Sprinkle with additional salt to taste. Serve hot. Serves 4.
— From "The Big Book of Instant Pot Recipes: 240 Must-Try Dishes for Your Multi-Function Cooker" by Kristy Bernardo, Emily Sunwell-Vidaurri, Amy Rains and Stefanie Bundalo (Page Street Publishing, $32)
Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Cranberries
Brussels sprouts are a classic side dish at Thanksgiving. When you roast them with a little oil and salt, they end up crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. This recipe brings bacon and cranberries to the mix, with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and honey as a finishing touch.
— Gretchen McKay
1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut in half through the core
4 slices bacon, cut into a small dice
1/4 cup olive oil
1/3 cup cranberries or golden raisins
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon honey or maple syrup
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Place Brussels sprouts on a sheet pan, including some of the loose leaves (they will crisp as they cook).
Add bacon, olive oil and dried cranberries, then season liberally with salt and pepper. Toss veggies with your hands to make sure they're coated in oil, then spread out in a single layer.
Roast Brussels sprouts for 20 to 30 minutes, until tender and golden and bacon is crispy. Drizzle balsamic vinegar and honey over the roasted sprouts, and toss to coat evenly with a spoon or tongs. Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary, then serve. Serves 4.
— Gretchen McKay