Thanksgiving dinner is probably the biggest meal most of us prepare. The number of guests goes up, the amount of food exponentially increases, and suddenly the math starts to not make sense, especially since we’re stuck with the exact number of ovens in which to cook: one.
“If you only have one oven, it’s a bit of an acrobatic dance,” says Susan Westmoreland, culinary director at Good Housekeeping.
Here’s how to make the most of that single, most important appliance when the big day arrives.
Have a plan. “Winging it doesn’t even work for experts,” says Susan Gage, who runs Susan Gage Caterers but still has a single oven at her house. “It’s all about planning.” So don’t start timing things out the day of. Get all your recipes in one place. Decide when you’re going to eat and then work backward, grouping dishes that can cook or reheat at the same time.
Start cooking early. The best way to maximize your oven on Thanksgiving is to not have to cook everything on Thanksgiving. That means making dishes in advance and reheating them, if needed. Pies are a no-brainer — in fact, you want them made ahead, because many of them need to cool to room temperature, which can take several hours. Almost all the traditional sides needing the oven can be done ahead, too. Don’t discount your microwave for reheating, either. Stuffing will dry out, but your sweet potato casserole can be nuked until warmed through before being topped with marshmallows and quickly run under the broiler.
“Things do not have to go into the oven straight from the refrigerator,” Westmoreland says. Let your (meatless) dishes lose their chill on the counter, which will cut the reheating time, too. The best time to reheat in the oven is while the turkey rests, which takes at least 30 minutes. Gage pushes it to up to 2 hours by covering the bird in foil and then a towel to create a type of “insulated womb” to keep it warm. In 30 minutes, you can do a lot. Recrisp stuffing. Warm the rolls (covered until about the last five minutes, Westmoreland advises). Refresh the roasted vegetables. Without a hulking turkey, you’ll be able to fit plenty in the oven.
Play oven Tetris. A turkey is going to take up the most oven time and space on Thanksgiving. You’re probably not going to be able to cram too much else on the same shelf (my family has been known to shoehorn a beef tenderloin next to the turkey breast, AMA). But if you put the turkey on the lowest rack, you can slide something else — a tray of stuffing or vegetables perhaps — above it.
Whether it’s during turkey time or not, feel free to fit as much as you can in the oven at once, within reason (no stacking, please!), “as long as you don’t mind the flavors marrying slightly,” Gage says. Turkey and pie? Not so much. Westmoreland recommends leaving at least two inches of clearance around the oven walls. Rotate dishes between shelves and from front to back. And if you have a convection feature on your oven, now’s the time to use it, because the fan will help to evenly circulate the warm air.
Adjust temperatures as needed. You do have some wiggle room here. If you’re baking two things at once that are supposed to be at different temperatures, feel free to pick one in the middle. Just adjust the cook time accordingly depending on whether you’re increasing or decreasing the temperature. For dishes going in at a higher temperature, there’s always the option of covering to keep them from burning, though Gage prefers to adjust down and cook longer, because you can’t turn back once you’ve gone too hot.
The surest way to know you’ve cooked a temperature-adjusted dish? Check it. “I’m a huge believer in thermometers,” Gage says. “I never cook without a thermometer.” Check out this chart of minimum food-safe temperatures from Foodsafety.gov for more guidance.
Look to your other appliances. “There are ways to navigate out of your oven,” Westmoreland says. You can really free up the oven space by doing your turkey elsewhere, including the grill, the deep fryer (stay safe, friends) or the Instant Pot. Or use your slow cooker or multicooker to make, reheat or keep warm your other dishes. Cook what you can on the stove top, too.
Now that you know how to squeeze every last minute and inch out of your oven, you may just have to start adding more dishes to your Thanksgiving dinner.
A bigger table to hold it all, though — that’s another story.
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