If you’re waking up at 4 a.m. to start Thanksgiving dinner just to end up serving dry meat and drama to your family — you’re probably doing it all wrong.
Some will say making a successful Thanksgiving dinner that your family will remember forever takes years of practice. While experience is a bonus, no one can write up in a few minutes, that statement may not be entirely true. The fact is the internet is a giant brain and the necessary information can be condensed into helpful books and articles, making it possible for even the most amateur Thanksgiving cook to deliver hot and juicy goods.
The problem is, we don’t all have time to become experts in the turkey culinary arts. Most of us do what we saw our mothers do, or we try tips we saw on TikTok. While these approaches can lead to delightful results, they can often turn frustrating, leaving us cranky and incapable of enjoying the holiday.
Of course, food isn’t the whole point of Thanksgiving, but it’s nice to feel accomplished. In the end, pulling off a Thanksgiving dinner is a lengthy process involving a lot of work, and it’s a shame to endure it all just to finish in perceived failure. There must be a way to win in the kitchen while also salvaging your state of mind and time with family.
We did some searching and put together a list of some of the most common mistakes people make when preparing for Turkey Day. We turned it into a sort of “dos and don’ts” format, not just telling you what most of us are doing wrong, but also going into some strongly recommended advice that could make life easier and the holiday more enjoyable. Some of these tips may seem like common sense, but some may just be the world’s best-kept secrets.
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Without further ado, here it is: The top do’s and don’ts for a successful (hopefully delectable) Thanksgiving dinner.
Thawing time – Probably the No. 1 cardinal mistake for most Thanksgiving Day cooks is buying the turkey just a day or two before the big day. Why? Because a bird that size (usually 10 to 16 pounds) takes time to thaw properly. Bringing the turkey down the day before (or Heaven help us, the morning of) Thanksgiving will not allow proper time to defrost it in full. The rule of thumbs says it takes about one day for every four pounds to thaw completely, which is why you’ll often hear turkey experts suggest beginning the process at least three to four days in advance. If you don’t do this, your bird will likely still be frozen on the inside when you put it in the oven, holding water, which will cause evaporation that will dry up the turkey meat. Pro tip: Pull the turkey out and let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before preparing it. Room temperature meat is the best and freshest to cook, experts say. Look out, though. A turkey sitting out that long may get little “sweat” beads on its skin; make sure to dry those off well by padding the bird with a clean paper towel. A dry raw turkey is a moist cooked turkey.
Washing the turkey – This is a tough one and heatedly debated within certain cultural circles, with some people vehemently believing that not washing the meat before cooking it is short of sin and others never giving it a second thought. Here’s the thing, though: The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service says this is a “don’t.” It’s true! The organization says the risk here is cross-contamination of other foods and surfaces. We know your grandmother always told your mom who told you to wash the meat, but our meats are no longer bought right off the farmer’s chopping block. Because meat sold in stores today has already been washed in the process, washing meat is actually considered to be riskier than not. It also adds water to your main entree, which (again) will steam up in the oven, drying up your meat. If you think this advice is downright disgusting, and you absolutely must somehow wash your meats, try filling a large bowl with lemon or vinegar water to dip and wash your meats in before carefully pulling them out without splashing and then setting them to dry thoroughly before cooking.
To brine or not to brine – That is the question and another heated debate. We might be about to lose the rest of our readers on this one, but the answer may surprise some people. Generally speaking, brining is another don’t. The reason here is not the risk of splashing bacteria around the kitchen but about convenience and getting it done right. The pros: Brining can indeed add moisture to your turkey. While you are still getting the bird in water, which evaporates, the obscene amount of salt that goes into the brine actually does help lock in moisture — and flavor — into the meat. The cons: When the water evaporates it will leave all that salt behind, leaving some folks experiencing a very salty turkey. Not only that, but brining a turkey properly involves submerging the entire bird in water for hours while keeping it cold. Finding a container that can fit a whole bird and can be kept in the fridge is not always plausible. You also have to be careful with timing. Over-brining can leave you again with oversalted and spongy meat, and that’s just wrong.
Stuffing the turkey – Another controversial one. (Promise, we’re not trying to start any fights here. We’ll leave that to Grandpa Joe and your teenage TikToker.) But this tip has been catching on with a lot of folks recently. Turns out, stuffing the turkey with the stuffing that will be served to the guests is a don’t. Overstuffing the inside of the turkey with such dense and wet food actually slows down the cooking process and can even throw it all off, preventing an even cook on the inside while the turkey overcooks on the outside. Not only that, but keeping that in mind, throwing off the cooking process on the inside can mean Salmonella joins the dinner party, and that is one unwanted guest. If the turkey doesn’t cook properly on the inside, the stuffing you serve later could be infused with dangerous bacteria. Pros say to cook it as a side in its own pan for better results. If you would still like to stuff your turkey for flavor, it is recommended to use fresh lemon and onion wedges, also celery, garlic cloves, fresh herbs, and even salt, pepper and butter can be used to infuse the turkey with flavor and aroma.
Keep it moist – It’s true, most of us expect dry turkey meat when Thanksgiving comes around. We’ve learned to accept it as standard. No reason for this, there are ways to easily prevent this and serve our loved ones the juicy meat they deserve. One little-known “do” is to add butter between the skin and the meat. To do this, don’t use a knife, you could pierce the skin. Simply use your hands and take your time separating the turkey skin from the breast meat until you have a good flap. Then, either spread around some sliced butter cubes in there or stuff in some of your favorite herb butter and massage it evenly. The butter, like oil, will help lock in moisture and add flavor to your turkey meat, not to mention it helps with the browning of the skin. If butter isn’t your thing, simply make sure to cover the entire turkey, inside and out, with oil all over, for a crispy skin and juicer meat. Lastly, expert tip: For the first 45 minutes, cook your turkey breast side down. This will make the juices drip down into the breast before you flip it over to finish cooking and browning the meat. Trust the process. It makes a big difference.
Cooking the turkey – Every oven is different and certain recipes can call for different times, but here are a few rules of thumb you may not know about that are total “do’s” when it comes to roasting your holiday bird. - Tuck the wings: Tucking the wings underneath the turkey not only make for a prettier presentation, but it keeps the thin, flappy boys from crisping or even burning before the rest of the turkey cooks. - Use a meat thermometer: No, not overrated; necessary. According to experts, the thermometer is to be stuck deep within the thickest part of the turkey after it has cooked for three to four hours. The turkey is done to perfection (and safe to eat) once it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees. - Time it out: Stop opening the oven and letting the heat out. Experts say you shouldn’t mess with the turkey too much while it’s cooking. Set the timer to about 13 minutes per pound, as a rule, and at 325 to 350 degrees, depending on your bird’s size. - Elevate the turkey: This is a do and, some would argue, a must! If you don’t have one of those fancy turkey racks to fit in your pans, coarsely chopped vegetables, such as carrots, onions and celery, can be scattered evenly across the bottom of the pan to have the turkey neatly placed on top. This avoids that unappealing soggy turkey bottom and allows for more evenly distributed heat. - Basting the turkey: There are two schools of thought on this, one says don’t, the other says to do. Don’t do it because letting heat out of the oven every few minutes to baste the turkey lets out a lot of heat, throwing off the cooking time and, we now know, not ultimately adding actual flavor or moisture to the bird. Or do it but wait until the last 30 to 45 minutes to do so. - Lastly, remember that cooked meat should “rest” for about 10-20 minutes before being served. This goes for turkey as well. While it rests, the heat inside actually continues to cook your meat for a while. This is why expert turkey makers suggest pulling the bird out when it’s at around 160 degrees, not the full 165. As your cooked bird rests outside, the inner temperature will continue to rise, reaching its peak of perfect 165 outside of the oven. If you wait until 165 to pull it out, the bird will likely overcook while resting.
Not everything needs to be done at once – If you’re not cooking some of your dishes the night before, you’re doing it wrong. Pies, stuffing and cranberry sauce can all be done the day prior without sacrificing quality. Also, not everything needs to go in the oven. Plenty of Thanksgiving dishes can be made stovetop, or in crockpots, toaster ovens, even air fryers. Most homes don’t enjoy more than one oven, and the green beans and yams don’t always have to fight for space in the oven. Don’t underestimate your old cooking gear. Make your life easier and time these dishes out, so that all can come out at the same time, and you don’t end up serving some cold and some hot dishes. The three to four hours it takes to cook the turkey are the perfect time to get started on some of these, but it is still not enough time to do it all. Prepare as much as you can the day before, even having the table set the night prior before going to bed. Pro tip: Make the rolls and gravy last while the turkey rests to make sure they are served hot and fresh with the rest of the meal. 😊
Don’t diss no-cook recipes – Not everything needs to be hot. There are loads of cold Thanksgiving recipes that require no cook time and can make for a delicious way to add variety (and a breather) to your routine. The best part is that family can help with these without getting in the way! Tossing a tasty salad of veggies, chopped fruit, nuts and cheeses can add a healthy and colorful side dish that makes the kids feel like they helped. Check out no-bake dessert recipes as an option, too.
Take inventory, make a shopping list – Don’t assume you have all the stuff you need without checking. You think you saw nutmeg in your cabinet last week, and you think you know exactly where it is, but you didn’t, and you don’t. (Go get some.) And, no, you never got that fancy serving spoon back from your sister. Taking inventory of everything you already have in your kitchen a few days prior to the big day can make a world of difference. You won’t end up with a third can of pumpkin pie filling to save for another year, and you won’t be without key ingredients when the time comes. This inventory list goes for any cook wear and the serving dishes, too! Don’t send your partner rushing out on a relaxing Thanksgiving morning to the one open store in town to get a black eye over the last gravy bowl. Take inventory of all your food, cooking utensils and serving dishes, and make a shopping list by Monday or Tuesday. Pro tip: Don’t go do the shopping until Wednesday, though. This will ensure your fresh items stay freshest for the next day.
Follow recipes – If you have handwritten recipes on old paper, passed down from generation to generation in your family, this part may not be for you. But if you’re like the rest of us, you’re on cooking websites trying to find five-star “best and easy” recipes for Thanksgiving. While some people have the skills, intimately know food and just know what they’re doing, most of us need recipes, and this is okay. In fact, following recipes is a big “do” on this list and a smart way to cook successfully. However, be careful. Don’t skim the recipe, and don’t jump ahead. Read it thoroughly, carefully. Note the ingredients list, the amounts you’ll need, the prep and cook times … Was it stir or fold in the egg whites? Was it 350 or 365 degrees? Was it a teaspoon or a tablespoon? Don’t assume reading it once locks it into memory. Recipes can be a wonderful way to make your day a lot easier, but their whole point is to be followed exactly and step by step.
Ask for help – There is zero shame in it. This is a big, elaborate meal. If you don’t cook every day, chances are this will be a challenging and overwhelming day for you. Remember that it should be fun, and you can only do what you can do. Putting too much on yourself could make it so that something small goes wrong, and what should have been a day of cooking can turn into a big disappointment. Don’t be afraid to call in the reinforcements. Some options include doing Thanksgiving potluck-style, going over your cooking schedule with your family the day before, having your family help you prep the day prior, as well as having them set a beautiful table, and identifying early on what will likely be the toughest parts of the day, so you can prepare ahead of time. Play out the day in your head and make sure to have your bases covered. Don’t forget: “The best laid schemes of mice and men. Gang aft agley.” Don’t expect perfection, and don’t be afraid to call in the recruits when necessary!
Enjoying yourself – Too often we become obsessed over the small details and lose sight of why we’re cooking, to begin with. Breathe. Remember the reason for the season and take a moment to feel grateful and focus on family and togetherness. Sometimes we make ourselves miserable with the preparations, stressing over what went wrong and looking only at the negative, which can leave us feeling sad or bitter, sometimes even bringing down the mood for everyone else. Remember to enjoy yourself, the day off, the chance to cook for loved ones, to experiment with new flavors and styles in the kitchen and remember to make memories and the most out of your holiday. After all, this is not just about food and family; it can and should be about you, too.