Tips on how big a turkey to buy, how long to cook it, menu planning, keeping food warm, and much more.

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The first rule of Thanksgiving and your best guide to happiness in the coming days and weeks: radical acceptance. The holiday is coming and you know what will happen, one way or another, when the door swings open and Aunt Hildy glides in on a cloud of mall perfume. This year, embrace it with a full heart and open arms.

Do not despair that your sister just told you she doesn’t eat ingredients that are white anymore. You can make it happen for all who are coming, in all their guises, with all their needs: the newly gluten-free, the lifelong vegans, the traditionalists, the gastronauts, the no-carb bacon lovers, the diabetics, the white-knuckled teetotalers and bourbon-bingeing uncles alike.

From its very beginning in 1621, the notion of the feast was to gather many in the interest of sharing what we had and what we liked: some sea ducks, clams, a few gourds and piles of corn, the five deer that the Wampanoag harvested on the way to the party.

You can do that again, with hearty fall vegetables and crisp fruit softened in the oven, turkeys and grains and whatever we need to satisfy everyone, no matter their preferences or idiosyncrasies.

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Yes, there will be a turkey and probably there ought to be a turkey. Turkeys are central to how many of us view the feast. This year’s turkey can be the very best you have ever made — whether you cook it whole or in parts, after brining or not brining, in the heat of an oven, in a caldron of searing oil, in a smoker, on a grill.

But there need not be simply turkey. You could stuff a squash and roast it in a similar manner, with a similarly spectacular result. There can be potatoes treated with the respect generally accorded roasts, accompanied by relishes, gravies, dressings, salads, pies.

If dietary restrictions are plentiful, don’t assume that just because you have some lactose-intolerant, gluten-avoiding or Paleo-dieting guests, you must cook separate meals. Nor are you required to match the usual feast, dish for dish, with special substitutions.

What you want to do is bring unity to the table and offer as many dishes as possible that everyone can eat and (this is crucial) enjoy.

Whatever you do, try to avoid any truly arcane ingredients, or foods you’re uncomfortable cooking with (perhaps tempeh, textured vegetable protein or xanthan gum). Pretty much everyone can eat roasted autumn vegetables with garlic and herbs, and will be pleased to do so.

And chances are that that vegan-gravy recipe with nutritional yeast, mushroom powder and Marmite isn’t half as good as a simple version you can easily make yourself.


Menu planning

Planning a great menu is the stealth approach to being a great cook. What leaves an impression is not only the dishes you can make, but also how they taste, look and feel when assembled into a meal.

The pitfall to avoid is repeating ingredients: If you are serving pecan pie for dessert, don’t put out spiced pecans as an hors d’oeuvre. Both may be delicious, but the pie just won’t be as appealing by the time dessert rolls around. Variety is especially important at Thanksgiving, when you are likely to be serving guests with different tastes, allergies and aversions.

If you’re unsure how to start, think about colors. The basic palette for Thanksgiving is heavy on dishes that are white (mashed potatoes, creamed onions) and brown (turkey, stuffing, gravy). It needs the ruby red of cranberry sauce, the warm orange of pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes, to make it interesting. Add something green and snappy.

Next, think about texture: If you already have a creamy vegetable-side dish, add one that’s roasted or caramelized. Finally, throw in a surprising flavor. Be truly daring and add a seriously spicy dish. Pickles and relishes like piccalilli or chutney add a puckery, traditional note.

And if you’re a novice, stick to the essentials: turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, potatoes, gravy and a vegetable. To tamp down any anxiety about multitasking, think of yourself as making a simple roast chicken dinner with a couple of extra sides.

If you are new to this, there is no need to bake a pie. Ask someone to bring one, or buy a good one the day before the feast. (If you feel the need to make one, though, ask a guest to bring a side dish of some sort, making sure that it fits into your overall menu.)


Shopping list

A serious shopping list is the most crucial tool for jump-starting your planning.

Some items on it are obvious: turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes. But there are several other ingredients that will prove invaluable to have on hand. (Buy them early if you can. Running out to the supermarket the night before Thanksgiving is the last thing any cook, novice or experienced, will want to do.)

Butter, lots of it: Choose European-style high-fat butter for pie crusts, and regular unsalted butter for everything else.

Stock: If you haven’t made your own, look for homemade stock at the same butcher shop where you buy your turkey, or in the freezer section of your supermarket. The canned and boxed stuff should be a last resort. Buy at least three or four quarts. You’ll need it for gravy and deglazing your roasting pan, and also for braising vegetables.

Make sure to get some good vegetarian stock for anyone who isn’t eating meat. Leftover stock freezes perfectly.

Fresh herbs: Not only do they add freshness and flavor across your Thanksgiving table, but they’re also pretty, lending a touch of green to a meal heavy on earth tones. Choose soft herbs (parsley, dill, basil, mint) for garnish, and sturdy, branchy herbs (thyme, rosemary, bay leaves) to throw into your roasting pans, stocks and gravies.

Garlic, onions, leeks, fresh ginger, shallots: An assortment of aromatics keeps your cooking lively and interesting. You’ll need them for the stuffing, for stock and gravy, and for many side dishes.

Grated fresh ginger and sautéed shallots are a nice and unexpected addition to cranberry sauce; simply stir them in with the berries while simmering. And you can perk up plain mashed potatoes by folding in sautéed garlic and leeks with the butter.

Fresh citrus: Lemon, lime and orange juice and zest contribute brightness to countless Thanksgiving dishes, from the turkey to the gravy to the cranberry sauce to the whipped cream for pie.

White wine/vermouth/beer: Even if you’re not drinking any of these spirits before or during the meal, they can be splashed into gravy or vegetable dishes, or used to deglaze the turkey roasting pan. (Bourbon and brandy work well as deglazes, too.)

Fresh spices: If you can’t remember when you bought your spices, now is a good time to replace them.

Light brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup: These sweeteners are more profoundly flavored than white sugar, and they have an autumnal richness. Try using them to sweeten whipped cream, your coffee-based beverages and pies.

Nuts: These go a long way to give crunch to otherwise texturally boring dishes. (I’m looking at you, sweet-potato casserole.) Keep a variety on hand to throw into salads and side dishes, or simply to offer to your guests with drinks before the meal. They can also help bulk out your meatless offerings.

Heavy cream, sour cream, crème fraîche, ice cream: You’ll need these for topping pies and cakes.

A pint of good sorbet: Just in case you end up with a gluten-intolerant or vegan guest you didn’t expect.


Make the stock

This should be your first cooking task, whether you begin your preparations weeks early or the day of the feast.

Turkey is great, but chicken will do. You’ll need a lot of stock, all day long: for gravy, for warming the sliced turkey, for refreshing dressings, for deglazing pans.

If you’re jammed for time, simply make a fast broth: Put the neck of the turkey, an onion and a carrot or two into a pot and bring to a simmer. You can start to use it as stock after about an hour, and it’ll only improve over the course of the day.


What to make ahead of time

Cook ahead of time as much as possible. So many of the savory dishes on the Thanksgiving table lend themselves to advance work: casseroles, bread dough, cranberry sauce, gravy.

Granted, most cooks agree that for best results, the turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing must be started from scratch on the day itself. Even for these outliers, though, some tasks can be done beforehand to ease the last-minute work.

• Free the turkey from its packaging and plastic a day or two in advance, and use a simple dry brine so it can go straight into the roasting pan on Thanksgiving morning. Mashed potatoes, like any cooked potatoes, don’t usually refrigerate well, but they will if you mix them with chives, butter and sour cream, and bake them like a casserole. You will hear no complaints. (The texture will be smooth and dense, not fluffy.)

• Most stuffings and dressings can be assembled in advance. If your stuffing is moist enough, it can even be cooked ahead of time and reheated like any other casserole without compromising flavor.

Cover tightly when reheating, and add tablespoons of stock as needed to keep the dish soft and fragrant. (Drier stuffings and dressings should not be cooked in advance; they will dry out even more during reheating.)

• Desserts are ideal for making ahead. The key is to seek out recipes that benefit from being made in advance, dishes that taste as good or better a few days later as they do on the day they were made.

Chocolate cakes and tortes hold up well, as do cheesecakes, flans, puddings, ice cream, parfaits, mousses and sticky gingerbread cakes. A general rule of thumb is that if your dessert needs thorough chilling before you serve it, it can probably sit for a day or two in the freezer or refrigerator.

As for cakes, denser, heavier specimens hold up better than lighter, fluffier ones, which are prone to drying out. Frosting, fondant or any kind of syrupy glaze acts as a preservative, keeping the cake fresher longer.

The one traditional Thanksgiving dessert that will suffer if made more than 24 hours ahead is pie. But you can make the dough up to a month ahead and store it in the freezer.


Turkey basics

How big? For turkeys less than 16 pounds, estimate 1 pound per serving (this accounts for bone weight). For larger birds, a bit less is fine; they have a higher meat-to-bone ratio. But if your goal is to have very ample leftovers, aim for 1½ pounds per person no matter how big the turkey is.

• For 8 people, buy a 12-pound turkey

• For 10 people, buy a 15-pound turkey

• For 12 people, buy an 18-pound turkey

• For 14 people, buy a 20-pound turkey

The big thaw: The safest way to thaw a frozen turkey is in the refrigerator. You’ll need about 24 hours per 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. For speedier thawing, put the turkey (still in its wrapper) in a sink of cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes, and plan for about 30 minutes per pound.

The brine: A good brine uses kosher salt and sugar in a 1-to-1 ratio, and usually no more than 1 cup of each. Feel free to add any other seasonings. Brines typically are made by heating the salt, sugar and seasonings with a bit of water until dissolved.

This mixture then is diluted with additional cold water (volume will vary depending on the size of your bird) and ice. Be certain the brine is completely cooled before using it.

Turkeys should be brined for at least eight to 10 hours, but can go as long as 72 hours. A good rule of thumb is, the longer the brine, the weaker the brine. So for a 10-hour soak, use 1 cup each of salt and sugar. For a longer one, consider backing down to ¾ cup each. Always keep the bird refrigerated during brining. If the turkey is too big, an ice-filled cooler stored outside works, too.

Don’t have the time or patience to brine? Try salting instead. In fact, plenty of folks say salting a turkey produces meat with far better flavor than brining. To do it, set the turkey on a platter, then rub a generous amount of kosher salt on all surfaces. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. When you’re ready to roast, rinse the salt from the turkey, pat it dry and pop it in the oven.

Roasting: Roasting temperatures vary widely by recipe. Some go at a slow and steady 325 F. Others crank the heat to 400 F or 425 F for the first hour, then drop it down for the rest of the time.

However you roast, use an instant thermometer inserted at the innermost part of the thigh (without touching bone) to determine when your turkey is done. The meat needs to hit 165 F for safe eating, though some people say thigh meat tastes better at 170 F.

If the outside of the bird gets too dark before the center reaches the proper temperature, cover it with foil.

The following roasting time estimates are based on a stuffed turkey cooked at 325 F. Reduce cooking time by 20 to 40 minutes for turkeys that are not stuffed (estimate total roasting times at 15 minutes per pound for unstuffed birds). And remember, a crowded oven cooks more slowly, so plan ahead if your bird needs to share the space.

Using a convection oven? They are great at browning, but require heating or timing adjustments. Either cut the temperature by about 25 F from what is called for by the recipe and cook for the time directed, or roast at the suggested temperature, but reduce the cooking time by about 25 percent.

The following times are for a standard oven:

• 12-pound turkey: 3 to 4 hours at 325 F

• 15-pound turkey: 4 to 4½ hours at 325 F

• 18-pound turkey: 4½ to 5 hours at 325 F

• 20-pound turkey: 5 to 6 hours at 325 F

Basting: Basting the bird with its juices helps crisp the skin and flavor the meat. Do it every 30 minutes, but no more. Opening the oven door too frequently lets heat escape and can significantly slow the cooking.

The rest: The turkey never should go directly from the oven to the table. Like most meat, it needs to rest before serving for the juices to redistribute. Cover the turkey with foil and a few bath towels layered over that (to keep it warm), then let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes before carving.

The gear: You don’t need to drop a load of cash on special equipment to be thankful this Thanksgiving, but there are some tools that make life easier (and the food safer). A digital instant thermometer or wired probe (that remains in the turkey during roasting) is the most critical. Cheap thermometers will set you back no more than $20.

A heavy-duty roasting pan is a worthwhile investment, but only if you make gravy from the drippings (the pan can be set on the stovetop after roasting) and if you roast other critters during the rest of the year. Otherwise, do yourself a favor and spend a few bucks on a disposable-foil-roasting pan (get a sturdy one). This makes cleanup a whole lot easier.

Speaking of foil, get the good stuff. Skip the wimpy 12-inch rolls and grab the heavy duty 18-inch stuff. It costs a few dollars more, but makes it easier to line pans, cover birds browning too quickly and wrap leftovers.


The sides

• Carrots: a 1-pound bag makes 4 to 5 servings

• Cranberry sauce: a 12-ounce package of fresh cranberries makes about 2¼ cups of sauce; a 16-ounce can has 6 servings

• Gravy: plan for 1/3 cup of gravy per person

• Green beans: 1½ pounds of beans makes 6 to 8 servings

• Mashed potatoes: a 5-pound bag of potatoes makes 10 servings

• Stuffing: a 14-ounce bag of stuffing makes about 11 servings


Managing your ovens

Are you lucky enough to be blessed with two ovens? Your Thanksgiving prep just got easier. Here’s how to make the most of the extra roasting space.

• Dedicate one oven (if one is larger, use the larger) to the turkey. Place one rack on the oven’s lowest shelf and remove all others. When the bird goes in the oven, it goes on that bottom rack.

Now see if you have room to add another rack over it. If so, this is the ideal place to cook your stuffing (assuming it isn’t in the bird), au gratin potatoes and green bean casseroles, which can cook at the same temperature at the bird.

• Early in the day, use the second oven to cook anything that can be done ahead. Pies and rolls are good. Closer to the time you will serve the meal, use the second oven to cook things that need a higher temperature than the turkey, such as roasted root vegetables and pies.

As the turkey is being carved, use both ovens to reheat items (such as those rolls) or keep things warm; 150 F to 200 F is about right for both tasks.


Keeping it warm

No matter how many you’re feeding, Thanksgiving requires you to serve many dishes at the same time. A pressing concern is how to keep them all hot.

Food need not be piping hot, particularly when the table is large, but it should never be cold. Here are some tricks for keeping everything warm.

Heat plates and platters before putting food on them. Stack them in a low-temperature oven for a few minutes, or on a shelf above the stove if you have one. Some dishwashers have a plate-warming function. In a pinch, run hot water from the sink over them to heat, then towel them dry.

Keep a quantity of hot turkey stock going on the stove. Use a ladleful of it to refresh and reheat sliced turkey on a warmed platter before sending it out to the table. You can do the same with dressing.

Put that slow cooker to work! There is no better ersatz chafing dish for mashed vegetables or dressing. Set it on “warm” and forget it.



• Pie: a 9-inch pie can be cut into eight modest slices.

• Whipped cream: Dolloping whipped cream on those eight modest slices will require 1 cup of heavy cream beaten with 2 tablespoons powdered sugar (a splash of vanilla extract is nice, too)

• Ice cream: a la mode doesn’t require much — one pint per pie should suffice



For food-safety reasons, leftovers should be cleared from the table and refrigerated within two hours of being served. Once refrigerated, they should be consumed within three to four days. Leftovers can be frozen for three to four months. Though safe to consume after four months, they will start to taste off.