It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a heaping side of stress. What size turkey should I buy? Or is this the year to go with a turkey breast, or a roast chicken or duck instead? Who has the one copy of Grandma’s legendary stuffing recipe? 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. 26 creeps closer, trust us, you’re not alone.
Consider this guide your resource for the answers to your most pressing Thanksgiving questions.
Feel free to ask for more help in the special two-hour edition of our online chat Nov. 25 when we’ll have our full Food staff at the ready, plus a few special guests, to guide you through all your preparation needs. Bookmark it here and get your questions in early. We’re also available via Twitter, Instagram and good old fashioned email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
But above all: Don’t stress out! Know that you are perfectly capable of making a dynamite Thanksgiving meal, no matter the size of your gathering this year.
Click on the questions below to jump straight to each topic, many of which are linked to our more-fleshed-out guides and explainers. This rundown will be updated with more tips and recipes as the big day approaches.
The turkeyHow big should my turkey be? | When to buy and how to store my turkey | Should I brine the turkey? |
Should I roast a turkey breast for my smaller gathering? |
It’s Thanksgiving day and my turkey is frozen, help! |
Should I make an extra turkey breast? What if I like dark meat better? |
How do I carve my turkey? | What about turkey alternatives?
The trimmingsHow can I make gravy in advance? | I need a cocktail | How do I make the creamiest, fluffiest, best mashed potatoes ever? | I'm more of a sweet potato fan. What do you have for me? | How do I make the perfect pie crust? | What’s a pie recipe that’ll really wow my guests? | How do I fit all of this into my oven?
How big should my turkey be?
The Agriculture Department suggests one pound of turkey per person. We’ve previously suggested about 1½ pounds for each diner to allow for leftovers. One of our staple resources in the 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 — lining 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 to buy and how to store your turkey
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.
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 — rub it with salt, basically. 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 my smaller gathering?
Size-wise, a turkey breast is definitely a good fit for a small crowd, and with the right recipe, it can be a cinch to prepare. Try our reader favorite Extremely Slow-Roasted Turkey Breast. If there are just two of you for the meal, you’ll probably want to aim for something close to six 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 below.
It’s Thanksgiving day and my turkey is frozen, help!
Did you know you can put a frozen-solid bird in the oven, and in less than twice the time it would take to cook a fresh one, have a perfectly delicious roasted bird? It’s true! Roast turkey doesn’t get any simpler than this, so take heart, last-minute cooks. You’ll even be rewarded with lots of crisp skin and plenty of pan juices that will help season the meat after it has been sliced. Find the foolproof recipe here.
Should I make an extra turkey breast? What if I like dark meat better?
Even dark-meat fans can appreciate the moist, tender yield of a bone-in turkey breast. The key is in choosing your ideal cooking method: Check out our recipes for turkey breast done in a slow cooker; a foolproof low-and-slow roasting method; and turkey breast with a pear, hazelnut and fennel stuffing. And, yes, if you’re wondering, you can make a stellar turkey in a multicooker (i.e. Instant Pot), along with the rest of your meal, too.
For the uber dark-meat lovers, go for gold with Turkey Leg Confit. The method is flexible — poaching the legs in duck fat for even an extra hour won't hurt them. Plus, you can strain the cooking fat, freeze it for up to a year and use it as a substitute for other fats in potatoes, soup, pâté, braised cabbage and so on.
Want the legs without the work? How about a vibrant sheet pan of Harissa Turkey Legs With Sumac Sweet Potatoes? It’s an all-in-one meal that will substantially cut-down on cleanup.
Any of these choices can be just the ticket for a small group, as well as an alternative to roasting a second bird when you’re planning to feed a crowd. A real selling point: Both methods can be done in advance.
How do I carve the turkey?
Watch this video.
And then practice your newfound carving skills using our virtual turkey with this awesome augmented reality experience.
What about turkey alternatives?
So there’s no way your small gathering could put away a big ol’ turkey, or maybe turkey’s just not your thing but you still want a bird as your centerpiece. 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. For gatherings of 2 to 4, we’ve got full sheet-pan meals that still feature the best flavors of Thanksgiving. There’s Sheet Pan Chicken With Hasselback Potatoes and Brussels Sprouts, above; Duck With Orange-Sriracha Glaze, Figs, Grapes and Hand-Torn Croutons; Sheet Pan Harissa Turkey Legs With Sumac Sweet Potatoes; Sheet Pan Persian-Style Stuffed Delicata Squash With Broccolini and Carrots; and Sheet Pan Turkey Breast Roulade With Sweet Potatoes, Green Beans and Shallots.
I need a cocktail
How about three? Try our recipes for Cranberry-Ginger Punch, Thanksgiving Daiquiri and Crimson Crane. If none of those suit your fancy, go classic with one of the seven essential cocktails every drinker should know how to make. (We think a Negroni, for example, would be right at home during a Thanksgiving meal.)
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 four 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 ½ cup of dry red wine, madeira or unsweetened apple cider. Cook, strain and discard the solids. Then melt eight tablespoons of unsalted butter in a separate saucepan and whisk in ½ cup of low-protein flour, such as 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 the creamiest, fluffiest, best mashed potatoes ever?
Watch and learn:
I’m more of a sweet potato fan. What do you have for me?
We’ve got you, whether you want them in a classic streusel-topped casserole, cubed in a bright and zesty salad, roasted whole or revved up with cinnamon and pineapple for a little something extra. We won’t even ask where you stand on the marshmallow debate. We’ll just give you the option: With or without.
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. (Find a few more helpful tips from Voraciously here.) Check out Joy Wilson’s Apple Cranberry Crumb Pie recipe (pictured above) here, and sign up for our Baking Basics newsletter for more from-scratch sweets and breads.
Got it. Now, what’s a pie recipe that’ll really wow my guests?
You said the magic words. We built an entire pie generator so you can mix and match crusts, fillings and toppings to build the pie of your dreams. Check it out here. Or, just put your faith in us and go with one of these amazing combinations: Caramel Apple Pie With an All-Butter Crust and Painted Cutout Topping; Fall-Spice Pudding Pie With Whipped Cream and a Nut Crust, above; or Roasted Cranberry Pie With Meringue and a Press-In Cookie Crust.
How do I fit all of this stuff into my oven?
If you’re a lifelong Tetris fan, this is going to be a blast. For the rest of us, it pays to have a plan. Start early, lean on the other appliances in your kitchen for some back up and keep an eye on that oven temperature. Here’s our full guide to making it all come together in a single, standard-size oven.
What can I make ahead?
Almost everything. Really.
- Cranberry sauce. Most cranberry relishes and sauces can be refrigerated for up to a week.
- Gravy. You can make your gravy (or most of it, minus the drippings) a few days early.
- Bread. 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.
- Pies and other desserts. Most pies can be made two or more days in advance. Or make a cake or cookies.
- Turkey. If you’re brining, start brining the day before.
- Stuffing. Advance 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.
- Sides. 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!
I’m a procrastinator. What kind of meal can I make at the last minute?
How do I pack food to bring to Friendsgiving?
If your celebration is done potluck-style, think about safety first and try to keep your gathering small and outdoors. It’s also 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 or this strata. Eat Apple Cranberry Crumb Pie for breakfast. Make some cookies. We could go on, or you could click here for more great ideas.