How to Handle the Most Common Thanksgiving Disasters
When you’re cooking a meal that’s as big and as celebratory as Thanksgiving, you’re bound to run into a few hiccups along the way. It doesn’t matter how prepared you are, disaster could strike at any moment. I’ve hosted 12 Thanksgivings, and along the way I’ve dealt with a turkey that was too big to fit in the oven, burnt cranberries, and gravy that doesn’t thicken.
And that’s not even half of it: There was the time it took us two hours to figure out how to put together the deep fryer, so we didn’t end up eating until really late. Then one year, as I was straining a pot of homemade stock that had been simmering on the stove for hours, the contents fell and the fragrant broth tipped down the drain. Another November, my sister accidentally stepped on the chocolate pecan pie forgetting that it was on the floor of the back seat of the car as we transported it to my grandfather’s house!
However, it doesn’t matter what the crisis is, the show must go on. You’ve got to find a solution and deal with it as soon as possible. Here’s how to handle the most common Thanksgiving day disasters.
The majority of grocery store turkeys are sold frozen. A mistake that novice Thanksgiving hosts often make is not realizing that the turkey has to thaw out! The best way to thaw a turkey is to leave it in the refrigerator for several days. A large 20-pound turkey could take up to five days to thaw out, so if you don't plan ahead, you’ll have limited options.
Placing the bird in a cold water bath (in a cooler or large pot; the turkey should be fully submerged and kept in its packaging) will result in a faster thaw than leaving it in the fridge. It takes about 30 minutes to thaw one pound of turkey, so if your 16-pound bird is frozen it will take eight hours to thaw. The water should be changed every hour to ensure it remains cold.
If you've got a big bird and you realize it’s still frozen on Thanksgiving morning, put it in the freezer and serve it on Christmas. Run to the nearest store and pick up several turkey breasts or whole chickens. Roast them instead.
Another mistake novice Thanksgiving hosts make? Neglecting to think about the cook time of each dish. If you have one oven and you’re cooking a large turkey, there won’t be space in the oven to cook anything else. You will have a window of time—about 30 minutes—in which the turkey is done cooking and the meat is resting to roast vegetables or bake dinner rolls.
What happens when potatoes au gratin, sweet potato casserole, and roasted green beans are all on the menu? These three dishes require oven time, but can be cooked in other kitchen appliances. If you have a toaster oven, roast the vegetables in it. If you have a slow cooker, build the gratin inside and slow cook it.
Another option is to borrow a friend’s oven. Ask a neighbor or Thanksgiving guest who lives near you if you can use their oven to cook a few items.
Gravy is a hard dish to master when making it from scratch—especially if you’ve never done it before. I’ve made it countless times, but still get stressed when I’m standing over the stove whisking it together! You need the proper ratio of liquid, fat, and thickener, and if you screw it up by even a quarter of a cup, you could end up with gravy that is too thin or too lumpy.
If it’s too thin, mix a slurry of a tablespoon (or a few tablespoons—it depends on how much gravy you’re making) of cornstarch or flour with a tablespoon of water. Add that to the gravy and bring to a boil. The gravy will not thicken if it does not boil. Add another slurry, if necessary, until you reach the desired thickness.
If your gravy is too lumpy, this means that you didn’t properly combine the thickening agent with the fat. Strain the lumps out or use an immersion blender to puree it together.
Got lumpy mashed potatoes? You didn’t boil them long enough before beginning to mash. Add 3/4–1 cup of cream or milk to the lumpy potatoes and simmer for 7–10 minutes more until the potatoes break apart when pierced with a fork. Continue following your recipe to make mashed potatoes.
If your potatoes are gluey or gummy, you’ve overcooked them and probably didn’t drain them well enough. Put down the hand blender or food processor, as this will break down the cells, release the starch, and only make the potatoes more paste-like. Try adding a thickening flavor agent like goat cheese or sour cream. If that doesn’t work, spread the potatoes into a baking dish and sprinkle with cheese and breadcrumbs. Turn the dish into a gratin and serve with plenty of gravy.
Whenever I burn something, be it Brussels sprouts or cubes of butternut squash, I normally pull out the dish just in time to salvage some of it. When that happens, discard any pieces that are completely and totally burned to a crisp. Toss the rest of the veggies with mixed greens, a flavorful dressing, dried fruit, salty cheese, and nuts. Serve this salad as a side instead of the veggies. When layered into a beautiful fall salad, no one will notice that they are burnt!
Dry turkey can be moistened lightly with chicken broth. Dip the breast into a bath of hot broth, plate, and then cover with gravy.
Having hosted so many events, I almost always expect unexpected guests. However, if a few more people show up to your Thanksgiving meal than anticipated, don’t freak out. Add a couple more potatoes to the mashed potatoes, throw a few more handfuls of greens into the salad, and place another bottle of wine in the fridge.
If you’re really concerned you won’t have enough food on the Thanksgiving table, alert family members and trusted friends to a FHB (family hold back) situation. Ask them to plate smaller portions. Or raid your fridge for a few extra appetizers. Hummus and pita chips are fine! Serve more apps and your guests will eat less at dinner.
When someone with a special gluten- or dairy-free or vegan diet unexpectedly shows up, take a deep breath. Quickly examine your menu and see where you can cut out any gluten, dairy, or meat. For example, when making mashed potatoes, before adding any dairy, scoop a single portion of the cooked potatoes into a ramekin and set aside. Mix this small bowl of potatoes with herbs and olive oil and serve it to the dairy-free or vegan friend. If the green beans are tossed with a bacon vinaigrette, set aside a serving before adding the bacon. Serve these to the vegetarian. If you have time, look in your fridge. That leftover half of butternut squash can be roasted and served as a last minute main course for the vegan.
This always happens to me! Luckily, pumpkin pie tastes even better with whipped cream. Cover the crack with pillows of whipped cream or top with a meringue and broil until toasted. Remember: A cracked pumpkin pie is not the end of the world!
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What’s the biggest disaster you’ve had to deal with on Thanksgiving?