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Genius Hacks for Perfectly Timing Thanksgiving Dinner

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Hosting Thanksgiving this year? Other brave souls who’ve done it in the past agree on one thing: Executing the meal can feel like a Navy SEALs mission—without the manpower. A host has only two hands, one oven, and just a few hours to prep and cook and serve a bunch of sides alongside a 15- to 25-pound turkey that requires precise roasting, smoking, or deep frying—all of which make proper Thanksgiving timing essential. Here are nine maneuvers to keep every Williams Sonoma–outfitted host from becoming a stressed-out kitchen monster. They’re key for perfectly timing Thanksgiving dinner.

1. Make a Master Plan 3 Days or More in Advance

Rule of thumb: If it can be done ahead of time, do it ahead of time. If you haven’t already, write out the menu, delegate sides to guests, make a grocery list, or order food from the caterer. Include extra plans if out-of-towners are staying with you, like picking them up from the airport and cooking extra meals. Visualize the day of Thanksgiving: Decide where you’ll stash coats. Buy ice and a bucket for chilling extra beverages. Clear out the fridge and freezer, freeing up space. Set the table(s) the day before, and empty the kitchen trash in the morning. Completing small tasks ahead makes the day way less hectic.

2. Calculate Timing the Meal Itself

Working backward from the time you intend to serve dinner, write a step-by-step plan for cooking the meal. Factor in preheating the oven, plating, and garnishing. Do this for every dish, timing each one as it overlaps the next, until you have a full “run of production plan.” You may need to enlist extra hands during the last 45 minutes, so decide ahead of time which one or two guests will be calm and competent kitchen helpers. This will make timing Thanksgiving dinner more seamless.

Thanksgiving pumpkin and apple various pies
Oksana Mizina / Shutterstock

3. Delegate Some of the Sides and Dessert

If trusted cooks are on your guest list, recruit them to bring side dishes. Stuffing, green beans, sweet potatoes, soup, stuffed acorn squash, and pie can all be cooked Thanksgiving morning in bakeware that’ll stay warm in transit, wrapped in tinfoil and a blanket. Green side salads travel well and can be easily assembled on site, too.

carving the turkey
Elena Veselova / Shutterstock

4. Free (the) Bird

The only person who ever fantasized about a golden-brown turkey being carved at the table was Norman Rockwell. The best chefs will tell you that cooking a whole turkey is impractical: The body takes so long to cook that the breasts dry out and the wings burn before the dark meat is safe to eat. The wise move is to kick the whole-bird concept and embrace deconstruction. Buy separate turkey breasts, thighs, and drumsticks. It takes up less oven space, and you can pop the sections into the oven based on their individual cook times. Brining is a lot easier too, since you can use multiple vessels rather than a giant pan or bucket. Bonus: It’s half-carved before you even roast it.

5. Mash, Then Crock

Potatoes can be peeled a day (24 hours max) ahead of time and sit in a covered container, submerged in cold water, in the fridge or somewhere cold, but not freezing. Thanksgiving morning, just boil and mash as per your recipe. Transfer potatoes to a preheated slow cooker, set to low (200 degrees), which will keep them warm for up to 4 hours.

Thanksgiving turkey gravy
Brent Hofacker / Shutterstock

6. Don’t Overthink the Gravy

Turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing are just delivery systems for gravy. You have two choices: Make it from scratch a week or two ahead of time (fair warning: takes 9 hours) and freeze it—or order a quart from the most expensive gourmet food shop in your city. Do not attempt to make gravy with the pan juices, day of, no matter what anyone tells you. It’s not worth the incredible mess, stress, and trauma to be frantically stirring flour into a greasy roasting pan while the rest of the meal gets cold.

7. Ready the Grill

Perfectly timing Thanksgiving dinner means keeping side dishes warm (or heating them up if you pre-made the day before). A grill doubles as an oven. Roast vegetables on a sheet pan and serve them hot or cold. Any side dish that’s in an oven-safe container can be warmed up on the grill, as can pies, but keep the temp low and guard them carefully.

8. Just Buy the Pie

Unless you’re an accomplished pastry chef, the pies from that fancy bakery in town are the way to go. Just make fresh whipped cream. In a freezing-cold metal bowl (make sure it’s deep), pour in heavy cream, a bit of vanilla extract, and a tablespoon of granulated sugar. Whip with an electric hand mixer or stand mixer until fluffy.

mission failure; pizza order / Shutterstock

9. Mission Failure

In the unlikely event of an emergency that would require ordering out, try humor. Guests will follow your lead, so just stay positive and upbeat. Laugh and they will join you. Freak out and you’ve lost everything. Disastrous outcomes make the most entertaining stories years later, and everyone loves pizza.

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