The 8 biggest Thanksgiving mistakes and how to avoid them
I look forward to a big festive Thanksgiving with lots of family and friends every year. I love the food and (no surprise since I’m the food editor of EatingWell Magazine) the cooking too. All this worry that Americans have over the meal seems just plain silly to me. Why does roasting a turkey inspire endless debate about how to keep the meat moist and how to know when it’s done?
I’m not saying everything about my Thanksgiving meal is always perfect. In fact, one year I sloshed half the pan-drippings from the turkey onto the brown suede boots I was wearing as I pulled the bird out of my dad’s tiny oven. But what’s the big deal if your turkey gets a little dry or the carver cuts a few ragged edges into your perfectly roasted bird? If you’re sitting down to a Thanksgiving meal with friends and family then you have plenty to be happy and thankful for.
So whether you’re like me and look forward to Thanksgiving all year or you’ve got the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line programmed into your speed dial, take a few deep breaths and get ready for a simple, beautiful and enjoyable Thanksgiving. Here I’ve come up with easy solutions for 8 common Thanksgiving mistakes, so you can avoid them:
Mistake 1: Getting started without a game plan. For me, the more dishes at Thanksgiving, the better. And the same goes for guests. But it can all go awry if you haven’t thought through a real plan. You don’t want to be stuck with an overly ambitious plan of cooking 8 different dishes with only 24 hours to pull it all off. So plan in advance. Sit down, write out your guest list and your menu. Find the recipes you’re going to cook and figure out what can be done in advance. Write a day-by-day plan of what you’ll do on each day. Want some ideas to get started? Check out our Easy Thanksgiving Menu and Planner, with delicious recipes and detailed instructions of what to make when, starting 3 days before the big meal.
Mistake 2: Trying to do everything yourself. Because Thanksgiving often means many dishes and much coordination, enlist help. Otherwise you risk ending up stressed out and busy when you should be enjoying a day with family and friends.
Recipes to Try and Share: Easy Thanksgiving Side Dishes
Mistake 3: Ending up with too many dishes that need to be heated up in the oven at the same time. This goes back to making your game plan and is something we consider when we plan a Thanksgiving menu in the EatingWell Test Kitchen. How will all those dishes be cooked or reheated if you only have one oven and that oven is full of a big old bird? The solution is to make sure you incorporate dishes that can be done on the stovetop and ones that can be cooked in advance and reheated in the microwave. Also keep in mind that, after the turkey comes out of the oven, you will have about 30+ minutes while it rests—in that time you can use the oven space to reheat stuffing or rolls for example. Another way to avoid this: try cooking a whole turkey breast on the grill and using the oven for everything else. Get our recipes for Smoked Turkey Breast on the Grill and 9 More of Our Best Roast Turkey Recipes.
Mistake 4: Undercooking your bird. Nobody wants to sit down to bloody-looking Thanksgiving turkey. So have patience and let your bird cook until it’s done! Now the only real secret here is that you must, and I mean must, invest in a meat thermometer. They are inexpensive and you can find them at the supermarket. Forget jiggling the leg around or piercing with a fork until the juices run clear. Just get the thermometer! To properly use it, insert it into the deepest part of several areas of the bird. I temp both the breasts and thighs. And make sure not to let the thermometer touch bone. Leave it in the bird for about 20 seconds, and voilà. If you want to get fancy, try a remote digital thermometer. You can put the sensor in the bird and then read the temp from outside the oven. High-tech, convenient and nice to have…but not necessary.
Mistake 5: Overcooking your bird. All that worry about dry meat on Thanksgiving is just about overcooking it. If it’s done right, which is to 165 degrees F (considered safe by the USDA), then it should stay juicy and moist. Keep in mind if you want your meat to end up at 165, then you’ll need to pull the bird out of the oven when it hits between 155 and 160. The temperature will continue to rise 5 to 10 degrees as the bird rests (that’s called “carryover cooking.”) The complicating factor here is that the breast tends to cook faster than the thighs and legs, and also will naturally dry out more because it’s leaner. I like this turkey-roasting technique of protecting the breast meat with a foil deflector; the foil slows down how fast the breast cooks, so that it reaches the proper temp at the same time that the thigh meat does.
Mistake 6: Getting the skin too dark. If you ever take a look at food-magazine covers at this time of year, you know the allure of the perfectly browned roast turkey. But honestly it’s quite easy to take it too far and end up with a bird that looks more charred than golden and succulent. Check the turkey often and as soon as it starts to look nice and brown, tent it with foil. Another way to slow the browning: baste the bird every hour or so. The liquid reduces the external temp of the bird, thus slowing the browning.
Mistake 7: Not using your pan drippings! Besides carving the turkey and worrying about dry meat, gravy is the other area that less-experienced Thanksgiving cooks are afraid of. But that’s nonsense! I grew up watching my mom make a simple pan gravy every single Thanksgiving and I never once even saw her consult a recipe or use a measuring cup. It’s just that simple. Sure, you can make something fancy or sophisticated with added booze, wine, herbs, seasonings and what not. But the secret to any really good gravy is those fabulous pan drippings. This is where all the flavor comes from. (There’s absolutely no need for bottled gravy, Kitchen Bouquet or any other trick.) At its most basic, here’s the formula: scrape everything out of your pan, let the fat separate, pour off the fat, and return the now-defatted pan drippings to the pan. Now heat the roasting pan on your burners, add a couple cups of turkey or chicken stock, let it come to a boil, slowly drizzle in a slurry of water (or broth) and flour as you whisk. My mom used to just throw a bunch of water and flour into a jar, shake it up, then add a little bit at a time, whisking and letting it bubble until it was the right consistency. Here’s a step-by-step gravy-making technique and delicious gravy recipes to get you started.
Mistake 8: Not learning how to carve a turkey. As much as I encourage cooks to delegate tasks at Thanksgiving, I must say that carving is one that I like too much to give up. It’s just so darned satisfying to cut up a big bird and produce a beautiful platter of turkey. The easiest way to learn: follow a step-by-step photo guide, like our 6 Steps to Perfectly Carve a Turkey.