Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How to Cook Thanksgiving Dinner, if You've Never Done it Before

          Although I often prefer cooking from scratch, this post is not about cooking a gourmet Thanksgiving dinner, where everything is made from scratch and takes days to prepare. This is a post about how to make a tasty dinner relatively easily even if you're hosting for the first time and have no idea what you're doing!

         I'll teach you how to make a really juicy turkey, which should really be your focal point, five easy sides, bread, and two desserts.


          Size: A good rule of thumb is to buy one pound per person. If you buy the turkey more than a day or two in advance, make sure you freeze it. Plan to thaw it for about 2 days in the fridge in advance (maybe longer if it's a really big turkey)

          Prep: Before you prepare your turkey, check to make sure the innards have been removed. They are in a plastic bag, and it will be obvious whether they are there or not. 

          There are a couple of easy tricks to make sure your turkey stays really juicy - one requires more planning than the other. If you plan ahead, you can make a simple salt brine (approximately 1 cup of table salt per gallon of water) and let the turkey sit in this in the fridge overnight. If you don't plan ahead you can rub butter all over the outside of the turkey, and underneath the skin.

          Seasoning: Generously season the turkey with salt, pepper, thyme, and rosemary (you can be less generous with the salt if you've already used a brine)

          Cooking: The FDA guidelines for cooking a turkey to a safe internal temperature are "To check a turkey for safety, insert a food thermometer into the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. The turkey is safe when the temperature reaches 165ºF. If the turkey is stuffed, the temperature of the stuffing should be 165ºF."

          The turkey should have instructions on it or you can generally use the following guide for roasting an unstuffed turkey at 325 degrees (stuffing adds a bit more cooking time)
  • 5-10 lbs 2 - 2.5 hours
  • 10-18 lbs 3 - 3.5 hours
  • 18-22 lbs 3.5 - 4 hours
          Place the turkey in a roasting pan breast side up, cover with foil, and place in a preheated oven. Remove foil about an hour before the end of the cooking time to allow the skin to brown, at the halfway point after removing the foil baste turkey with juices from the bottom of the pan

          Once the turkey is done cooking, let sit for 20 minutes before carving (this will help the juices lock in and keep the turkey moist)


          I prefer cooking the stuffing separately, it saves time (you can cook the stuffing while the turkey's roasting) and helps the turkey to cook faster. There are some tricks you can use to make boxed stuffing taste better and taste like it was cooked in the turkey.

          I buy a couple of packages of Stovetop, and prepare according to the instructions substituting chicken broth for water. I add browned and crumbled italian sausage (two links per package) plus a large can of French's fried onions. If you do decide to cook the stuffing in the turkey, mix all of the onion rings in the stuffing. If you bake it separately, save a few to sprinkle over the top and then bake the whole thing for about 20-25 minutes until the onion rings brown.

           Tip: Start the stuffing about 10-15 minutes before the turkey is done. You can bake the stuffing for the 20 minutes the turkey is setting.


          The rule of thumb for potatoes is generally cook one per person, and I find out they come out much better (and cook faster) if you steam rather than boil them.

          Tip: If you don't have a steamer, you can make one with a large pot and a colander. 

          Peel and cut up potatoes into quarters, bring water to a boil in a large pot, place potatoes in the steaming basket and let cook until soft (about 20-25 minutes). Warm about 1/2 a cup and 2-4 tablespoons of butter in the microwave and mix with the potatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Don't turn off your steamer just yet!


          You can keep the water from the potatoes boiling and use the same technique to make mashed butternut squash. Add  roughly the same amount of milk and butter for a whole squash, plus some cinnamon and brown sugar to taste.

          I also buy a package of green giant frozen broccoli steamers . You can cook these in the bag, in the microwave for 4-6 minutes. I haven't tried all of the steamers varieties, but I've found the broccoli tastes great and you can't tell it's frozen!

          Pacific Foods makes a great whole cranberry sauce, and it comes in a box so it won't have the telltale mold and ridges you find with canned cranberry sauce!

           Pillsbury Dough Boy crescent rolls have been a staple in my family for years. These are super easy and amazing, trust me NO ONE will care that they aren't made from scratch!


           You can make these two super easy pies a day in advance. Don't even try to make pie crusts from scratch - seriously, don't do it. I've tried it once, and it's definitely not for a beginner! You can buy graham cracker crust or pre-made crusts that taste great! I prefer the graham cracker, and buy two to make a Chocolate Cream and pumpkin pie. 

          Pumpkin Pie: Buy one can of pureed pumpkin, which usually has the pie ingredients and recipe right on the can. The recipe may vary depending on the brand of pumpkin, but generally will include one can of condensed milk, 2 eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ground ginger. Follow the instructions on the can, which will generally be:

          1. Combine ingredients in a large bowl and mix with a hand mixer
          2. Pour into the graham cracker crust
          3. Bake at 425 for 35-40 minutes or until crust has browned

          Chocolate Cream Pie: Buy two packages of chocolate jello pudding mix. Prepare according to the instructions on the package (this involves adding milk and chilling), serve in the baked and cooled graham cracker crust. Top with whipped cream.

Tip: You can substitute just about any pudding flavor for chocolate including banana, lemon, vanilla, and more!

          Do you have any easy Thanksgiving recipes you love? Leave your suggestions in the comments section!

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