Stressing over Thanksgiving is as much a time-honored tradition as Thanksgiving itself. What size turkey should I buy? Oh, wait, it’s frozen! Who’s got the one copy of that must-have family recipe? Why are the mashed potatoes gluey?! On it goes, every single year, the holiday equivalent of “Groundhog Day.” So it makes sense that we field a lot of repeat questions year after year. If you’ve found yourself wondering the same things, you’re not alone, not by a long shot. Consider this guide a resource for your most pressing queries.
Feel free to ask for more help in the special two-hour edition of our online chat Nov. 21 (we also answered lots of questions on Nov. 14)— we’ll have the usual WaPo Food suspects on deck, plus a few special guests, to guide you through all your Thanksgiving preparation needs. We’re also available via Twitter, Instagram and good old fashioned email via email@example.com.
Above all, don’t stress! Know that you are perfectly capable of making a dynamite Thanksgiving meal.
Click on the questions below to jump straight to each topic, many of which are linked to our more-fleshed-out explainer posts. This rundown will be updated with more tips and recipes as the big day approaches.
• It’s Thanksgiving day and my turkey is frozen, help! • How big should my turkey be? •
• When to buy and how to store your turkey • Should I brine the turkey? •
• Should I make an extra turkey breast? What if I like dark meat better? • Should I roast a turkey breast for two people? • How do I carve the turkey? •
The other stuff
It’s Thanksgiving day and my turkey is frozen, help!
Did you know you can put a solidly frozen 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.
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 one 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 indicates 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, deputy Food editor 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 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.
Either choice 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.
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 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. 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.
How can I make gravy in advance?
Easy, peasy: Roast extra turkey wings until deeply browned and crisped. Toss them into a pot of at least four cups of 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 or 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, 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.
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 do I make the best, fluffiest, creamiest mashed potatoes?
Watch and learn:
Now put your skills to use with these mashed masterpiece recipes.
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.)
If pie crust stresses you out, then don’t make it! Try apple crumb bars, pear tarte tatin made with purchased puff pastry dough, or pumpkin pie made with a (very easy) gingersnap crust. Leave crust out altogether with a Maple and Pumpkin Custard.
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. (Check out eight of our best turkey recipes to suit a crowd of any size.)
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. (A few handy make-ahead and last-minute gravy recipes for all.)
Cranberry sauce. A simple airtight container or zip-top bag will do, along with a serving container. (Classic and creative cranberry sauce recipes.)
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. (Recipes for the best part of the meal, some say.)
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. (Dessert recipes for any taste.)
What can I make ahead?
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. (Recipes to help you think outside the box.)
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!
What can I do with leftovers?
Send home extras with your friends and family. Make a Thanksgiving hash. Use vegetables as a taco or sandwich filling, or blend them into purée for soup. Turn bread into croutons or bread crumbs or strata. Eat pie for breakfast. Make breakfast cookies. We could go on.