Year after year, the same pesky issues seem to come up when you're preparing Thanksgiving dinner. (We're looking at you, turkey that won't thaw.)
So to ease your mind ahead of this year's celebration, here are some of the most common pitfalls—along with simple fixes to save the day.
Problem 1: Not enough white meat. Solution: Buy an additional breast to cook the day before. Slice and heat in a shallow pan with some chicken broth on Thanksgiving Day. Or, pop an extra breast in the slow cooker early Thanksgiving morning. Just rinse and pat dry your fresh or thawed turkey breast. Rub one envelope of dry onion soup mix over the turkey, and voila—prep is done. Place in slow cooker, cover and cook on high for one hour, then switch to low for seven hours.
Problem 2: Too much dark meat. Solution: It's an image straight out of Norman Rockwell—a golden brown, whole turkey as the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving meal. The problem is that many people aren't dark meat fans, and you feel like you've wasted a good portion of the bird. Not so fast— instead of pitching it, put the dark meat aside and freeze. It's terrific later on in soups, casseroles or a stir-fry, where the heartier flavor blends with other ingredients.
Problem: No matter how much you baste it, the turkey gets dried out. Solution: Brine the bird to ensure it stays extra juicy. To do: Mix one cup of sea salt with one gallon of water and boil to make sure the salt is dissolved. Toss in herbs and spices like rosemary, sage, bay leaves and thyme if you like. Rinse and dry your turkey and place it in a large container (a clean five-gallon bucket or cooler lined with an oven-roasting bag works well; add ice to surround it and keep it chilled). Let it soak overnight, submerged in the brine. Before you roast it, pat the bird dry inside and out. Be sure to let the turkey rest for about 20 minutes before carving, so the juices redistribute throughout the bird.
Problem: Not enough seating. Solution: Most families don't have enough extra chairs for a dozen guests, not to mention table space. So get creative in thinking about what surfaces constitute a table; a tablecloth tossed over a piano bench, with kid-sized chairs, may end up being the best kids' table ever. (Not to mention a favorite Thanksgiving memory, years later.) Also, plan ahead for seating; ask guests if they can each bring a few folding chairs, or borrow them from a local church or school.
Problem: The turkey isn't thawed, even after a couple days in the fridge. Solution: The rule of thumb is one day of thawing for every four pounds; so a 20-pound turkey would take five whole days to defrost in the fridge. If you didn't plan ahead, don't panic. Fill the sink with cold water and immerse the turkey to speed thawing – unwrapped, breast side down. (If your sink isn't big enough for the water to completely cover the bird, you'll need to flip it every half hour or so.) Also, change the water frequently as it warms up. Remove the giblets and neck and feel inside the turkey to see if it's thawed. Note: Depending how frozen your bird was, thawing in the sink can still take a few hours.
Problem: The dishes are piling up and meal prep isn't even halfway done. Solution: Delegate. If you're cooking, someone else can do dish duty—or vice versa. No need to wait till the end of dinner to tackle pots and pans that are in the way. Assign a few jobs at the beginning of the day—dishes, garbage duty, and setting the table are all simple tasks that can take a big burden off the chef.
Problem: You can't tell if the turkey is fully cooked. Solution: Use a meat thermometer. It's the only sure way to assure your bird is completely done. Look for temps of 160 to 165 degrees for turkey breast, 175 to 180 for the thigh.
Problem: Everyone is hanging out in the kitchen, getting in your way. Solution: Set out a beautiful tray of snacks in another room, along with a cooler of cold drinks and chilled wine. Ask an outgoing friend or relative to gently guide the traffic out of the kitchen. If all else fails, start giving guests small jobs to do; they'll either take the hint and pick up a potato peeler, or take the party to another room—and you'll be able to finish up a memorable Thanksgiving meal.