Thanksgiving is the biggest dinner of the year for many households. This is also true for celebrity chefs. The difference being, of course, that chefs know all the best tips for saving time and making everything from prep to presentation a breeze.
Prep Like A Chef
Ever wonder how a complex restaurant meal comes together within several minutes of ordering – not to mention the fact that multiple dishes can be perfectly timed to hit the table simultaneously?
“It’s all about proper mise en place, or having everything ‘in place’ before the dishes are cooked and assembled,” said Michael Laiskonis, Creative Director at the Institute of Culinary Education who has been a judge on Food Network on shows such as Beat Bobby Flay and Money Hungry.
A large Thanksgiving feast can be daunting for even well-seasoned cooks, but planning ahead and breaking up the prep work into manageable tasks can make the day less stressful. “After planning the menu a few days prior, separate those parts of the meal that must be attended to on the big day, from those that can be started a day (or two) before. I like to do all of my knife work, for example, the night before – whatever it may be – chopping onions or mincing garlic or picking herbs,” said Laiskonis. This advance work means that when Laiskonis starts cooking in earnest on Thursday morning, everything is ready for its respective dish. “It helps keep the refrigerator (often overstuffed at this point) relatively clean and organized,” said Laiskonis.
Shop The Season
While every family has its own traditions and ‘must-have’ dishes on the Thanksgiving table, Laiskonis likes to expand the classic line-up by planning my menu at the market. “For me, the ritual of shopping for the meal is almost as important as the cooking (and eating) of it,” said Laiskonis.
The holiday is, in part, about celebrating the bounty of the harvest, so Laiskonis likes to start making the rounds of local farmer’s markets up to a week ahead of time to get inspired. “In addition to the usual suspects like squash, yams, and apples, I might discover something a bit more unconventional to include into menu planning – perhaps quince, celery root, or salsify. I’m lucky to live in New York City where, for example, a dynamic market like the one in Union Square offers practically everything one could need in one stop – from vegetables to local mushrooms and meats, breads, cheeses, and even table decorations. And I’d rather soak up the energy of a farmer’s market (and the opportunity to engage directly with producers) than wait in long checkout lines at a supermarket!” said Laiskonis.
‘Course’ The Meal
Everything does not have to be on the table at once. In fact, it’s a lot easier if it’s not! “Perhaps the most stressful aspect of preparing a big Thanksgiving meal is the timing of the centerpiece turkey with a variety of sides to hit the table at once,” said Laiskonis.
Big spreads are impressive, but also overwhelming. “When cooking for a crowd, I like to break a big meal into smaller parts; it keeps the kitchen more organized, the guests occupied, and slowing the pace and drawing out the feast into separate ‘courses’ can help stave off the overstuffed feeling of a ‘food coma,” said Laiskonis.
As guests arrive, Laiskonis. might have a small pre-prepped assortment of cold and room temperature snacks at the ready – simple salads, spreads, and charcuterie. “This takes some of the pressure off the main event – the bird of your choice and few simple sides – as does a simple cheese board (also prepped ahead). Cheese can leisurely transition to dessert, whether a classic slice of pumpkin pie or a few small format sweets perfect for grazing,” said Laiskonis.
“Every year, I have my entire family over for a Thanksgiving feast at my house upstate. It’s a collaborative effort in terms of the cooking but there is one thing we all do to make it a success every year – plan and prepare as much as possible beforehand. After you’ve decided what you’re going to be serving (turkey, sides, dessert), decide what you can do in advance – have your mise en place (everything in its place) . For example, if you’re using onions for your mirepoix, stuffing and turkey, peel 4 onions the day before. You can cut the squash, peel the potatoes and put them in water the day before, prepare all ingredients for the stuffing and any other dishes you are making. On Thanksgiving Day, when you pop your turkey in the oven it will take about 2 ½ to 3 hours then resting time. While the turkey is roasting you can prepare the rest of the meal and while it’s resting for 30-45 minutes you can use the oven to cook the sides, etc,” said Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Pick Up Some Parchment
When it comes to cleanup, you can use all the help you can get. “Lay a piece of parchment paper on your sheet tray before roasting veggies or baking cookies, so that when you’re done you can simply rinse and dry and not clutter your dish sink with a bunch of large baking sheets,” said Top Chef winner Brooke Williamson, of LA-based Playa Provisions.
…And Also Some Citrus
“Use the peel for zest or a twist in your pre-dinner cocktail, and then reserve the rest for that last minute squeeze over your green beans or even the touch of acid in your gravy,” said Williamson. A little squeeze of fresh citrus goes a long way to brighten up what is generally a very rich and heavy meal. Also: “Before cutting into your lemon/lime, give it a firm roll on the counter with the palm of your hand to loosen up the pulp and make extracting the juice easier,” said Williamson.
Gather Your Cutting Boards
Keep a couple of easy to clean plastic cutting boards handy. “I use a wooden board most of the time for everyday cutting of fruits and veggies, but for when it’s time to cut onions or mince garlic, or butcher turkey or any other raw meat, I like to have an extra board handy to place over my wooden one for easy cleanup and to avoid any cross contamination of bacteria or flavors,” said Williamson.
…And Chicken Stock
“Keep some chicken stock handy in the cabinet or freezer… for stretching a gravy or reheating your stuffing so that it doesn’t dry out, or even for adding to your mashed potatoes to loosen them or reheat them if they already have enough butter and cream in them,” said WIlliamson. “I often even cook my rice with broth instead of water just to give it a warm and comforting boost of flavor. But make sure it’s either low sodium or unseasoned… that way you can season as you like without the broth adding salt,” said Williamson.
Put Your Friends To Work
“Know the talents of the family and friends who are coming to your home for Thanksgiving and give them an assignment. If one, for example, has an eye for flowers, have them make bouquets. If someone has a talent for pastry, put them on pie duty. And so on. And that doesn’t just go for Thanksgiving. This applies to all of my house parties. Fortunately, I am surrounded by a lot of gifted people!” said legendary celebrity chef Nancy Silverton, who recently opened Mozza Baja at Costa Palmas on the East Cape in Mexico.
Give Turkey Time To Thaw
Thaw your turkey at least three days before Thanksgiving “My number one Thanksgiving prep tip is to thaw your Turkey for at least three days in the refrigerator before Thanksgiving, because of its large size,” said Iron Chef Cat Cora.
While you can thaw chicken breasts in just a few hours, turkeys take a lot longer to defrost. “It’s very important to make sure that the center of the turkey is fully thawed out. That way you’ll know that all parts of the turkey cook evenly. I also encourage you to purchase an instant read thermometer. When the thickest part of the turkey registers 175-180 degrees, you’ll know your turkey is cooked to perfection,” said Cora.
Nuke Those Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are a big part of holiday dinners, but they can take a long time to make. One quick hack is to use the microwave. “Wash your sweet potatoes and wrap them in a damp paper towel. Microwave the sweet potatoes for 6 – 8 minutes, or until soft. After being microwaved, cut off the ends of the potatoes and halve them, placing them in a baking dish. Season all of your potatoes with Kosher salt, 5-Spice Powder (or just cinnamon), black pepper, lots of butter chunks, and drizzle with honey. Cook your sweet and salty sweet potatoes under a low broil until the top is bubbling and golden brown. These delicious 5- Spice Honey Glazed Sweet Potatoes only take 3-5 minutes!” said Iron Chef Ming Tsai, founder of MingsBings.
You Don’t Have To Bake It
Baking is not the only way to cook a turkey, it’s just the most popular one. “You can also smoke it, deep fry it or grill it. Out of these three alternative methods, I prefer grilling since I can do it right in my own backyard. I first section the turkey into smaller pieces. That’ll help cut my cooking time way down. I then lightly season the pieces before placing it on the grill and start basting it 30 mins later. If you want to grill a turkey for your Thanksgiving dinner, check out my recipe for Pomegranate Glazed Grilled Turkey,” said Cora.
You’ll Need Some Reheating Containers
“It’s so important to me that I spend less time in the kitchen and more time with family and friends on this special day. That being said, prep in advance, do not leave anything for the day off and be sure to have a lot of reheating containers on hand so you can just throw them into the oven when people arrive. Disposable containers also make for easy cleaning! Another tip? Semi-prepared foods can be super helpful in saving time and you can always put your own signature twist to really make them your own,” said celebrity chef and restaurant owner Maneet Chauhan.
Spatchcook Your Turkey
“My tip is to spatchcock your turkey. Removing the back bone allows the turkey to cook in half the time which gives you more time to focus on side dishes that will wow your guests!” said Chef Kardea Brown, host of Food Network’s Delicious Miss Brown.
Divide and Conquer
“Farm out the duties, dishes, beverages, etc. Everyone who struggles to cook several dishes on a Saturday night tries to take on 3 times that load on Thanksgiving. Ask for help!” said Chef Andrew Zimmern, James Beard Award-winning TV personality, chef, and host of the Outdoor Channel’s Andrew Zimmern’s Wild Game Kitchen.
Gravy Can Be Made Ahead Of Time
“Make gravy ahead of time with poultry necks/backs/wings and freeze it. This ensures you aren’t struggling with drippings and gravy making when the bird is resting which gives you 30-45 minutes to get organized, reheat some dishes, and get everyone to the table,” said Zimmern.
Don’t Try To Do All The Cooking At Once
“The simplest fix for Thanksgiving stress is to start early – a lot earlier than you might think. I always recommend spreading out the cooking and preparations over the week leading up to Thanksgiving. Many side dishes can be prepared days in advance and refrigerated, so they are ready to heat and serve. That week, I recommend making the cranberry sauce on Sunday, stuffing on Monday, pies or other desserts on Tuesday and vegetable sides on Wednesday. You can prepare a few items to be quickly finished on the day of, but of course your main focus on Thanksgiving Day should be the turkey. If you are able to grab some friends and family members throughout the week who can help you prepare, you’ll really be able to enjoy your holiday!” said Beauty & Essex Las Vegas Co-Founder and Executive Chef Chris Santos.
Try The Semi-Homemade Approach
“My #1 tip for saving time on your Thanksgiving prep is to take the “semi-homemade” approach for your “Turkey Day ” feast. After creating your menu, narrow down the longer prep items and don’t be afraid to switch them up for other crowd pleasing favorites that you can prep in advance with help from a local vendor. Charcuterie boards are a great example as about 99% of it can be done by a local deli or supermarket—of even a local charcuterie service—and picked up (or delivered) in advance to alleviate prep time stress. You can then finish garnishing it at home and put your special spin on it. They’re great for dinner sides or for the appetizer portion as the group gathers. Many of the items pair well with a number of wines, a Thanksgiving day bar staple. And, they can really include everything from olives to cheeses and of course cured meats, dipping sauces, crackers and breads, fruit and veggies—literally something for everyone—helping you save time to focus on other menu items,” said celebrity chef Jeremy Ford, winner of Top Chef season 13 and co-host of TruTv’s Fast Foodies of The Butcher’s Club at PGA National Resort.
“I always cook too much….always. This year, I’m limiting my courses and doing a bit more volume of the traditional sides because that’s ultimately what people want to eat. Additionally, I always bring one or two guests into the kitchen with me to have some fun and let them help me finish things up. Of course I give them wine or their drink of choice, so they can feel relaxed and part of the process. Be sure to have a few pre-thought-out options for allergies and dietary restrictions. Even if it’s one dish that they can all eat and share to be thoughtful towards all guests,” said celebrity chef Scott Conant. “Prep ahead as much as possible. Cook that turkey 12-15 minutes per pound. I like to finish mine at a high temp the last 20/30 minutes. Basting with a deeply reduced chicken or turkey sauce so it gets an incredible glaze,” said Conant.
Setting Your Table
Chef and beloved TV personality Ina Garten collaborated with Williams Sonoma this year on the Perfect Thanksgiving Menu. “When setting up your Thanksgiving table, I like to choose one color for flowers and decor and follow through with that. Otherwise, it will get too busy, too complicated and will take too much time,” said Garten.
Don’t use Thanksgiving as the time to try out new recipes. “Stick to what you know how to make really well,” said Garten.
Make Ahead and Freeze All You Can
“My number one tip is to get going on the prep NOW! Homemade stock, homemade pie dough, homemade bread for stuffing, even casserole sides like mac and cheese can be made now and frozen until the big day. It would be way better to have homemade stock and bread in the stuffing then to scramble at the last minute and use store bought!” said Molly Yeh, cookbook author of Home is Where the Eggs Are, host of Food Network’s Girl Meets Farm.