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thanksgiving table

Ramona King

A low-stress Thanksgiving is within reach for all home cooks.


You'll be all smiles on Thanksgiving when you follow our turkey day timeline

In my mind, there are just two things you need to do in order to keep your sanity come Thanksgiving: First, make as much as you can ahead of time. Second, plot out a cooking timeline. No matter how much you may despise writing out schedules and details (or maybe you're like me and you live for this), there are few things that make a large meal easier to pull off than a solid plan.

So with those items in mind, I'm going to let you in on my Thanksgiving plans with a full breakdown on my menu, schedule and shopping strategies. 

I'll be bringing in some key family members to help me chop, cook and set the table day-of, but I'll be able to get most of these tasks done myself because I'm kind of a maniac and I'm also blessed to be able to work from home. If that's not the case for you, I encourage you to ask for assistance and to farm out as many tasks as possible.

Now, on to the schedule:

Today: Finalize your guest list ... or get a good estimate
If you haven't done so already, figure out the number of guests you'll have at your dinner. This is only really important at the moment because it'll determine how big of a turkey you're going to need to buy. Only serving a group of four? Opt for a bone-in turkey breast. Hosting the entire extended family of 25? You will probably want two small- to medium-sized birds, or one gigantic one. If you can only get a confirmation from about three-quarters of your prospective guests, that's okay, too — just round up. Leftovers are always welcome.

Tomorrow: Order your turkey!
Sure, you can certainly pick up a frozen Butterball the weekend before the big feast, but — personally? — I like the peace of mind that comes from reserving my bird in advance. I get to choose any size and type bird I'd like without worrying about a mad dash to beat that other last-minute shopper to the only 12-pounder left at Publix. Sprouts and Whole Foods offer both natural and organic birds for in-store pick-up, and if you're looking for a heritage breed and/or free range bird, D'Artagnan and Willie Bird are both excellent choices. (Whole Foods also offers a more affordable "bronze" heirloom bird that is a step-up, animal welfare-wise, from organic.) Have you already done this? Congrats — you're ahead of the game.

Sometime over the next week: Write out your menu and make shopping lists
Over the next several days, consult with your guests (or not) and co-hosts about your menu. Read through our menu guides (they're good!) and browse your cookbooks. Or don't do any of these and write out the dishes that are 100-percent required each and every Thanksgiving.

For my dinner, I'm planning to make a modified version of our Low Country Thanksgiving menu, with a full turkey cooked the way I like it (butterflied like a chicken and roasted in a very hot oven) and mashed potatoes instead of roasted sweet potatoes (because ... family). For my appetizer course, I'll serve those crab deviled eggs, but I'll put them out with a cheese board instead of grilled oysters. I'm also throwing in a couple of pies because I can't have Thanksgiving without pie, and I'm guessing some of you feel the same way.

Once you've got your menu down pat, assign out any dishes that you'd like your guests to make and bring and then get to work on your shopping lists. I like to divide up my Thanksgiving groceries into at least two lists: one that can get done as far in advance as I'd like (non-perishables and the ingredients for any make-ahead dishes) and one that needs to be completed last-minute. In an ideal world, that last-minute list is short; you know how miserable shopping the day before Thanksgiving can be.

Next week: Shopping, round one, and make-ahead items
Whenever you've got some free time next week, or even next weekend, pull out that non-perishables list and head to the store. Make sure to pick up any ingredients you'll need for dishes you can make ahead, as well as things like flour, sugar, eggs and potatoes. This is also a wonderful time to shop for wine, beer and whatever other drinks you're serving with dinner. Once you've got the bulk of your shopping done, you can sneak in little projects here and there throughout the week: make candied nuts here, mix and chill pie dough there. Here's a list of the items I'll be making ahead of time and how I'll store them:

Candied pecans for the cheese board: Airtight container in the pantry.
Apple cider bourbon jelly for the cheese board: Airtight container in the refrigerator.
Cranberry Sauce: Airtight container in the refrigerator.
Blanched broccoli and simmered Sea Island red peas for purloo: Zipper-lock bags in the refrigerator.
Blanched green beans for side dish with clams and bacon: Zipper-lock bag in the refrigerator.
Cornbread for oyster cornbread dressing: Zipper-lock bag on the counter.
Pie dough for pecan and sweet potato pie (I'm skipping the toppings on this one): Wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and frozen.
Cake and filling for Lady Baltimore Cake: Cake wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and frozen; filling in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

November 18 to 20: Pick up your turkey and defrost
If you're purchasing a turkey that is frozen, you'll want to make sure to allow plenty of time for it to defrost and for you to brine or season it ahead of cooking. I always make sure to allow at least three days, if not four or five, between turkey pick-up and Thanksgiving. The safest way to defrost a turkey is to simply place in in a rimmed baking dish and let it sit in the refrigerator.

Tuesday, November 20: Make turkey stock and set the table
The actual play-by-play of this day will depend on whether or not you've got to go to work today. If you don't, you've got a little more leisure time and choice in your stock-making vessel. I always butterfly my turkey because it makes the actual cooking go ultra fast. It also gives me extra goodies (a.k.a. the backbone) with which to make stock. But even if you're planning to cook your turkey whole, you've still got some stock supplies to work with: the neck bone and giblets. Put these guys in a pot, slow cooker or Instant Pot, along with an onion, a few carrots and celery stalks, some bay leaves, and salt. Add water and let your cooking vessel do its thing. If you do have to head to the office, use a slow cooker to simmer your stock during the day or put it all in the Instant Pot when you get home. 

You'll also want to find some time to pull out all of your serving platters and place settings this evening. Label everything and take note of any dishes, flatware or stemware you'll need to borrow. Do you need to iron a tablecloth and/or napkins? It'd be great to get that done tonight. Same with any cleaning of fancy dishes or refilling of pepper shakers. If it can get done, get it done.

Wednesday, November 21: Last-minute shopping and as much prep as you can handle
As with Tuesday, much of what you'll be able to accomplish on Wednesday depends on your work schedule. If you're staying home today, get as much cooking done as you possibly can, in addition to picking up those last-minute items (flowers, green vegetables, salad greens, seafood, cheese for the cheese board). The one thing you must absolutely do? Get your turkey in a brine, whether wet or dry. I always choose the latter — it works even better for seasoning the meat and you don't need to find a free cooler in which to stash the giant bird and all that salty water. (Try this great recipe for a wet brine or this one for a dry brine.) My pecan pie is also far more successful if made a day in advance, as is the oyster dressing, so if you've got the time, make sure to make those today.

Here's what I'm planning to get done the day before and how I'm storing everything. I've listed mandatory items that need advanced assembly first, followed by the items that would be great to check off the list, but will be fine if made day-of.

Dry brine turkey: On a wire rack set on a baking sheet in the refrigerator, uncovered. (This is also the time to put your turkey in its wet brine if you choose to go that route.)
Assemble oyster cornbread dressing: In its baking dish, covered in plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator.
Bake pecan pie: Covered with plastic wrap on the counter.

Good to get done, but not necessary:
Boil eggs for crab deviled eggs and make the filling: Whites in an airtight container and filling in a zipper-lock bag; both stored in the refrigerator.
Make gravy with the turkey stock from yesterday: In an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Make mashed potatoes: In an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Make sweet potato pie filling: In an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Finally, if you've got the flexibility, today is a good day to finish setting the table. Enlist some helpers if you need to!

Thursday, November 22: The big day
This is it. When it comes to the day of Thanksgiving, the biggest thing to keep in mind is that this feast is just a meal. You'll get the cooking done eventually, so even if that turkey isn't finished cooking until 8 p.m., you'll still get to eat it! The best advise I can give, besides encouraging you to butterfly your turkey, is to spend some time plotting out a cooking schedule for the day. Work backwards from your desired serving time, adding in 15- to 30-minute buffers to allow for the inevitable mishap or two. Personally? I like to keep Thanksgiving firmly in dinner territory and serve around 6:00 or 6:30 p.m. It totally lowers the stress level and makes it so I don't have to get up before dawn to turn on the oven. So keeping that serving time in mind, here's how my day-of schedule will go:

8:00 a.m.: Roll out remaining pie crust and assemble and bake sweet potato pie. (If you haven't made the filling yet, start at 7:30 and use canned sweet potato puree.)
8:30 a.m.: Remove​ cake layers from the freezer; unwrap and let defrost on the counter.
8:45 a.m.: Make cake frosting​​​​​​.
9:00 a.m.: Sweet potato pie comes out of the oven. Let cool and keep at room temperature until serving time. You can turn the oven off for now.
9:15 a.m.: Assemble and frost cake; refrigerate, uncovered, until serving time.
9:45 a.m.: Assemble deviled eggs; refrigerate, covered, until serving time. (If you haven't boiled the eggs yet, plan for this task to take an hour.)
10:15 a.m.: Chop or prep any remaining vegetables. Now is a good time to make mashed potatoes if you haven't done so already. 
11:00 a.m.: Make gravy if you haven't done so already.
11:30 a.m.: Eat a snack/lunch and sit down for 30 minutes.
12:00 p.m.: Remove the cranberry sauce, gravy, jelly and blanched vegetables from the refrigerator.
12:15 p.m.: Make the vegetable purloo in a Dutch oven you'd want to serve out of. 
1:00 p.m.: Cook the bacon and aromatics for the green beans. Remove from the heat and leave in the skillet.
1:45 p.m.: Turn the oven on for the turkey. (If you're butterflying, wait until 4:15 p.m.)
2:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.: If you're roasting a whole turkey, you'll want to get it in the oven now. Figure 15 minutes per pound of roasting time.
4:00 p.m.: Assemble the cheese board using store-bought cheese, the apple cider jelly and the candied pecans.
4:30 p.m.: If you're roasting a butterflied turkey, put it in the oven now. It'll take about 90 minutes to cook.
4:45 p.m.: Finish setting the table. Put out any room temperature sides, like the cranberry sauce, butter, and the desserts.
5:30 p.m.: Put the dressing in the oven.
5:45 p.m.: Purge the clams for the green beans. Let sit in the salted water until you're ready to cook.
6:00 p.m.: Remove turkey from the oven and let rest on a carving board. (Note: Your turkey will stay plenty hot for a good hour after it comes out of the oven, so if you need more time to finish up your sides before serving, do so! Just make carving the turkey the last thing you do before serving.) Add any drippings to the gravy and reheat on a low burner. Reheat mashed potatoes in the microwave and transfer to a covered serving dish.
6:15 p.m.: Reheat purloo on the stove and finish the green beans by cooking the clams and tossing with the green beans. Bring in some help to move all of the side dishes to serving dishes and bring them to the table.
6:30 p.m.: Remove the dressing from the oven. Carve turkey. Eat!

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Kate Williams is the former editor-in-chief of Southern Kitchen. She was also the on-air personality on our podcast, Sunday Supper. She's worked in food since 2009, including a two-year stint at America’s Test Kitchen. Kate has been a personal chef, recipe developer, the food editor at a hyperlocal news site in Berkeley and a freelance writer for publications such as Serious Eats, Anova Culinary, The Cook’s Cook and Berkeleyside. Kate is also an avid rock climber and occasionally dabbles in long-distance running. She makes a mean peach pie and likes her bourbon neat.