Thanksgiving is often cited as the favorite of the winter holidays, perhaps due to the lack of stress over gifts. However, that doesn’t mean Turkey Day is without its stressors.
Are you the lucky host or hostess of this year’s Thanksgiving Day celebration? Cooking a large bird is no easy feat, and timing all the sides around it can be quite tricky. Add in hungry kids and adults and the intensity grows while everyone is waiting to sit down at the table.
Thank the stars for wine (you remembered the wine, right?).
Take a tip from the best chefs and cooks, and adopt the philosophy of mise-en-place, a French culinary phrase which translates to “put in place” or “everything in its place.” Practicing mise-en-place means setting up and organizing ingredients and tools before the cooking gets underway. With thoughtful preparations, you can ensure your Thanksgiving meal goes off without a hitch, at least when it comes to the fare.
First things first
Decide on the menu you’ll serve, and determine how many guests you’ll be feeding. Be sure to check with guests about any food allergies well in advance.
Read through tried and true recipes or research new ones, giving yourself plenty of time to test tricky recipes, just in case. For example, instead of standing over a boiling pot or sizzling skillet while you could be tending to other dishes, try making your mashed potatoes or homemade cranberry sauce using one of the popular crock pot recipes. Trying any new methods in advance will allow you to make corrections prior to crunch time.
Create your shopping list, organizing first by needed ingredients for each dish, then rewriting the list based on the layout of your favorite grocery store for streamlined, stress-free shopping.
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, clean out your refrigerator to make room for the holiday groceries as well as prepared dishes. While this is never a fun task, you’ll be happy to have the free space in the heat of the moment.
Also, plan to start Thanksgiving Day with an empty dishwasher so that as you dirty dishes and utensils during the cooking process, they can be loaded right into the appliance, instead of piling up in the sink. Then, just before you sit down to eat, if the dishwasher is already full, start it so after the meal, it can be emptied and reloaded with the now dirty plates. While you may run the dishwasher multiple times throughout the festivities, you won’t encounter an Everest-like mountain of dishes in your kitchen at the end of the day.
Sharpen your knives, polish your silver and make sure table linens are clean and pressed. Ensure you have a healthy amount of ice, not just for beverages but also for preparing to-go bags and boxes of leftovers at the end of the day. Storage baggies and plastic containers you don’t care about being returned for said leftovers is key, unless you don’t want to give out leftovers. After all your hard work, you might just want to keep those delicious leftovers for yourself.
The work begins
Work ahead and complete as much as possible in advance of the big day. Advance preparation will cut down on so much stress, you’ll actually be able to enjoy the day, too! Determine what you’ll need for the preparation and serving of each item of food — such as small appliances, slotted spoons, tongs, carving knives, roasting pan and rack, thermometer, baster, fat separator, gravy boat — so you’re not left scrambling to find the items you don’t use regularly.
Start setting the table a day or two before, which will allow time to check inventory of serving dishes, place settings, water and wine glasses, pitchers and utensils. Set out all the other elements such as centerpieces, candles, place cards and the like so you can focus simply on cooking day of. If you need help remembering what goes where, visit EmilyPost.com for guidance. Stick notes to each serving piece to designate which vessel will be used for each menu element so as each of them are ready to be transferred, helpers (if you have any) will know where they go without having to take you off task.
Strategy for the day itself
Plan to use the mise-en-place method to set up a self-serve beverage station and/or bar, depending on the crowd, so it’s easy for guests to make their own drinks without interrupting the kitchen operations. Make cocktail napkins, glasses and goblets, an ice bucket with tongs and stirrers handy. Stock the bar with standard liquors (gin, vodka, rum, etc.) as well as a few mixers, such as club soda, tonic and juices, that can easily be used for non-alcoholic drinks as well. Open bottles of both red and white wine, with reserves and a corkscrew nearby. Slice lemons, limes and arrange other fun garnishes, such as skewered cranberries or a dish of cherries, so guests can customize their drinks.
The day or night before, (re)familiarize yourself with all planned recipes and then prep as many of the ingredients as possible. Vegetables can be washed, peeled and cut, garlic can be peeled and chopped or minced, then measured and properly stored. Measure dry ingredients such as spices, herbs and breadcrumbs, storing them in labeled, lidded containers, plastic baggies or prep bowls covered with cling wrap. Prepare and then store broths, salad dressings and sauces. If you plan to set out appetizers for guests to tide them over before the main event, prepare the platters, cover with cling wrap and refrigerate overnight. Baked goods such as cookies, pumpkin rolls, pies, fresh breads or muffins are easily completed in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, allowing you to simply warm them in the oven before serving, if necessary or desired. With all this prep work, and the dirty measuring cups and spoons, cutlery, etc., out of the way before the day even begins, there’ll be nothing left for you to do but cook! Practicing mise-en-place will severely cut down on the typical disarray of Thanksgiving Day.
An extra step that will save precious time and turmoil is to write down a cooking timeline for the entire menu. Each individual dish will generally have its own cook time, so by planning ahead you’ll know when to start on each element. This goal is more simply achieved by working backwards from the estimated start time of the meal so that everything will be complete around the same time, ensuring each element is hot as it’s being served. Post your timeline in a central location so that all kitchen helpers have access to the plan.
Before the cooking begins, set up stations or areas for each dish. Stock the area with the pots or pans needed as well as the appropriate utensils, cutting boards, trivets, oven mitts and so on. Post the recipe on the wall or cabinet above the workspace for easy reference as well as its pre-planned, desired start time. Then, set out each individual, pre-measured, pre-chopped ingredient, in the order in which they’ll be used, and let the games begin!
A version of this story first appeared in the Journal-Gazette on November 20th, 2016.