Everyone can use a little help when it comes to preparing Thanksgiving dinner — whether it's your first time or your 50th. So TODAY asked 31 of our favorite chefs and experts to share their secrets to Thanksgiving success.
Here, Sunny Anderson, Ryan Scott, Tom Colicchio, Lidia Bastianich and more pros reveal their tried and true tips and tricks for the juiciest turkey, creamiest mashed potatoes, most vibrant veggies, perfect pies and more.
To find more answers to your burning Thanksgiving questions — like how to jazz up store-bought stuffing and pie — head here.
Here's how to make a juicy bird with crispy skin — and how to know when it's done but not overdone!
1. Let the turkey sit overnight in the fridge uncovered.
Chef Geoffrey Zakarian says, the night before Thanksgiving, let the turkey sit overnight in the fridge, uncovered. This allows the skin to dry out, which makes for crispier skin when it's cooked. Zakarian also recommends removing the wishbone from the turkey before cooking to make it easier to carve the breast meat.
2. Spatchcock your turkey to cut cooking time in half.
For poultry that cooks quickly and evenly, chef Jet Tila recommends spatchcocking. To do this, use a chef's knife and poultry shears to remove the back bone, then flatten the bird on a sheet pan and rub it with butter, salt and pepper. This technique helps to cut cooking time in half and results in a juicier bird.
This recipe goes into more detail on how to spatchcock your bird:
3. Roast your spices before rubbing them on your turkey.
To get the most out of peppercorns and other whole spices, Padma Lakshmi recommends roasting them in a sauté pan and then crushing them with a mortar and pestle to bring out the flavors before using in a turkey brine. The spice blend she uses consists of black pepper, cinnamon sticks and star anise. They can all be whole seeds or dry powder. She then lines the inside of the bird (not the outside — or else it would burn!) with the blend.
4. Use citrus to brighten the flavor of your turkey.
Chef Tim Love likes to "wake up" the flavor of his turkey by including citrus, such as lemon, limes and oranges, in a seasoning rub: Coat the turkey in peanut oil and season with salt, pepper, smoked paprika and freshly chopped garlic. Then add enough lemon and orange zest to cover the bird. Save the fruit itself for your cocktails later! When you roast (or grill) the bird with citrus zest the skin gets nice and crispy and it also adds the much needed acidity to really elevate the flavor of the dish. Hint: When zesting citrus, be sure to stop zesting before you get to the bitter white pith below the colorful skin. A Microplane is useful for this.
5. Spread mayo under your turkey's skin to get it crispy.
You may have heard of rubbing seasoned butter under the skin of the turkey before cooking it to impart moisture and flavor, but chef Roxanne Spruance suggests a different spread: mayonnaise. She seasons mayo with lemon and herbs, roasted garlic or even bacon, then pipes it between the skin and meat. This adds flavor, locks in moisture and helps to crisp the skin, she says.
Roxanne Spruance's Shallot & Herb Mayo
Makes 2 quarts
14 egg yolks
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
42 ounces grapeseed oil
1/4 cups water
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoon shallots, chopped
2 tablespoon chives and parsley, chopped
Place yolks, Dijon and salt in a food processor. Turn on. Slowly pour in 1/4 of the oil. Slowly add red wine vinegar. Add another 1/4 of oil, slowly. You should start to see it thicken. Add half the water. Add another 1/4 of oil. Add the rest of the water. Add the rest of the oil. Fold in chopped shallots, chopped chives and parsley.
6. Rely on temperature rather than color to know when your turkey is done.
To be sure your turkey is done but not overdone, go by the reading on your meat thermometer (it should register 165°F in the thickest part of the thigh and breast), rather than the color of the meat. As long as the temperature is correct, Melissa Clark says not to worry if the leg meat is dark pink rather than brown, especially if you are cooking a heritage bird. "But you don't want to see red," she cautions.
7. Confit the dark meat.
Since the dark meat on a turkey takes longer to cook than the white meat, chef Matt Jennings likes to cook the breast and legs separately. He suggests a confit for the dark meat, which means cooking the meat in fat (traditionally its own fat, but you can use other fats, such as the mixture of olive and canola oils Ryan Scott uses in his recipe for Sunny Citrus Turkey Breast with Confit Legs and Wings).
8. Deep-fry individual portions of your turkey.
For faster and more even cooking, chef Judy Joo also likes to cook the different parts of the turkey separately. She recommends buying turkey parts rather than a whole bird and then deep-frying drumsticks, thighs, wings and breasts individually.
9. Make sure your knife is super sharp for carving.
Once you take that golden brown bird out of the oven, be sure to let it rest for at least 20 minutes before carving it so all those tasty juices don't run out when you cut it, instructs chef Bobby Flay.
Once you're ready to carve, use a carving fork to hold the bird in place and be sure to use a very sharp knife (dull knives make for messy looking slices and are also prone to slipping so they are much more dangerous than sharp ones). Carve the drumsticks off first and leave them whole, then the thighs, then the wings. Cut the breast thick; carve half-inch slices and arrange on a platter.
10. Add some sweetness to your turkey with a jam glaze.
Give your turkey a sweet and savory spin with an easy glaze made with jam, says chef Sunny Anderson: Combine 2 parts jam to 2 parts stock and then add your favorite fresh herbs (such as rosemary, sage and thyme). Then brush it all over your bird for an easy sweet and oh-so-savory glaze!
11. No more room in the fridge? Brine your turkey in a cooler.
If you can't find a brining bag and/or your fridge is not large enough to fit the whole turkey, says Anderson, just brine it in a cooler. Just be sure to replenish the cooler with ice as it melts, making sure to keep the turkey at or below 40 degrees. A clean, dry cooler is also useful for keeping turkey and side dishes warm in transit.
Sunny Anderson's Turkey Brine
6 quarts water
1 bunch sage
1 bunch thyme
1 lemon, halved
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
Combine all ingredients in a large pot and simmer until the salt is dissolved and the water is fragrant. Cool the mixture, pour it into a large container or brining bag, add the turkey and brine, refrigerated, for 24 hours.
12. Ice your turkey before it goes in the oven so it doesn't dry out.
Are you always drying out the turkey? This year, try chef Ryan Scott's tip: throw an ice bag on your raw turkey for 15 minutes before it goes into the oven.
13. Make a DIY roasting rack with aluminum foil.
No roasting rack, no problem: Just DIY it with aluminum foil. Ryan Scott explains how: Take a large piece of heavy-duty foil, crunch it into a long tube and press it into a ring with about the diameter of two fists. This lets hot air circulate around the bird for a faster and more even roast. It takes less than a minute to construct, and could save major minutes on turkey day!
TIPS FOR SIDES AND GRAVY
Make silky gravy, creamy mashed potatoes and perfect individual stuffing servings.
1. Use tapioca starch instead of flour to thicken your gravy.
Instead of thickening your gravy with flour, chef Bryan Voltaggio uses tapioca starch, which he says gives gravy a nice consistency — not too thick or thin and not gelatinous — plus it's gluten-free!
2. Rice your Yukon Golds for the creamiest mashed potatoes.
The creamiest mashed potatoes start with the kind of potatoes you choose: Chef Michael Chernow says to select Yukon Gold potatoes, which have a naturally creamier consistency than other potatoes. Bonus: The creamy nature of the potato allows you to use half of the amount of milk and butter as you'd use for other potatoes. Boil the potatoes whole with the skin, quarter them, and pass them through a potato ricer (the ricer will separate the skins from the flesh). Discard the skins, then fold warm milk and melted butter into the riced potatoes for the perfect mash.
3. Store your gravy in a Thermos to keep it hot.
Instead of subjecting your guests (and yourself) to cold gravy, keep it hot using a Thermos, suggests chef Ryan Scott. It will stay hot for hours so you won't have to keep returning it to the stove to warm it back up.
4. Make your cranberry sauce in the toaster.
For a fun twist on cranberry sauce, chef Andrew Carmellini says to "brûlée" it in your toaster oven: Spoon sauce into a ramekin, add sugar, orange and spices, then warm it in the oven.
Andrew Carmellini's Toaster Oven Cranberry Blitz
Makes 2 cups
2 cups fresh cranberries
1/2 cup cranberry juice
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon orange marmalade
Zest of 1 orange
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Set your toaster oven on broil. Put all wet ingredients in a microwave-safe dish and cook for 1.5 minutes on high. Place cranberries on the toaster oven baking tray. Pour liquid over top and shake. Broil until cranberries pop and soak up liquid, approximately 3-5 minutes. Stir and put aside in serving bowl.
5. Use your butter wrappers to keep your mashed potatoes warm.
Don't toss out the wrappers from all those sticks of butter you use making Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, suggests chef Michael White, place them buttery side down over your serving dish of mashed potatoes to keep a skin from forming over the spuds and to enhance their flavor. Remove the wrappers just before you take the potatoes to the table.
6. Make muffins out of your stuffing.
For perfect individual servings of stuffing, chef Aarti Sequeira makes "stuffins" aka stuffing muffins: Make a big batch of your favorite stuffing, then bake it in mini muffin tins.
7. Jazz up your vegetables with a balsamic glaze.
A balsamic glaze is the perfect way to jazz up boring veggies, says Lidia Bastianich. She especially likes a balsamic glaze with honey and bay leaves on Brussels sprouts and carrots.
8. Turn pan sauce into turkey gravy without using flour or starch.
This is how you do it, according to Bastianich: Put the strained and reduced sauce in a pan or skillet set over medium heat and whisk in fine dry bread crumbs — about 1 teaspoon for each cup of sauce. You'll have a delicious and natural-tasting gravy in no time — and it will be LUMP-FREE!
9. Potatoes can double as a roasting rack for your turkey.
Skip the roasting rack and use a layer of potatoes (large potatoes cut into chunks or whole baby potatoes) under the turkey instead, says chef Alex Guarnaschelli. The potatoes will get a wonderful flavor from the turkey drippings and you'll save oven space.
10. Pack your mise-en-place in advance.
To cut down on last-minute work, chef Tom Colicchio suggests creating a make-ahead mise en place. Buy a bunch of pint containers and prep and pre-measure all the ingredients you need to make the meal. (Some ingredients can be prepped several days in advance.) When it's time to make the meal, you can just grab and go.
Here are some of Colicchio's time-saving meal-prep tips:
- Roast bacon and onions ahead of time to toss with your roasted Brussels sprouts.
- Make chicken stock ahead of time, freeze it, and then warm it up when you need it.
- For stuffing, do leeks, onions, celery, sage and breakfast sausage two days ahead of time (sweat everything and then mix with bread before stuffing the bird).
11. Nuts are a great vegetarian alternative for bacon.
Instead of having to make separate stuffings for your vegetarian and meat-eating guests, chef Damaris Phillips suggests swapping out bacon for nuts. To mimic the fat and crunch of bacon, sauté nuts in a little oil until they are toasted and crispy and add to roasted vegetables — they are a welcome delight.
DESSERT AND DÉCOR TIPS
Set the table in style and nail it when it comes to the sweet stuff.
1. Here's where to store the desserts you made in advance.
You're baking today to save time tomorrow, but what to do with those desserts tonight? It depends, says TODAY Tastemaker Alejandra Ramos. Anything with dairy like buttercream or cream cheese, has to go in the fridge but take it out two hours before serving to take off the chill for the best flavor. The same goes for pumpkin pie because of the eggs in the custard. Apple and other fruit pies will keep at room temp overnight — just cover with a clean dish cloth and keep in a cool spot. Cookies and brownies can stay on the counter in an air-tight container (just keep out of sight from hungry family members!).
2. Lighten up whipped cream by using coconut milk.
For a vegan take on whipped cream, chef Chloe Coscarelli subs in coconut milk. Canned coconut milk is nature's substitute for sweet heavy cream! Chocolate mousse, ganache and whipped cream can all be made vegan with this simple replacement. A light dairy-free whipped topping is a refreshing alternative to a can of whipped cream on the table. Just be sure to work quickly: The colder your kitchen and equipment are, the better your whipped cream will hold up.
3. Use childhood photos on your table instead of name cards.
Chef J.J. Johnson has a fun way of putting a personal touch on telling friends and family where to sit: Instead of using name cards for place settings, put a childhood photo of each guest at his or place at the table. Everybody uses their childhood memories and the food on the table as the common ground to get the conversations flowing! It's always a big hit!
4. Forget flowers: Set your table with fresh fall ingredients.
"I'm personally not a fan of big, over-the-top centerpieces; they take too much valuable space and usually the size causes issues trying to have a conversation with someone at the opposite side of the table," says Laura Vitale. "I love adorning my table with bits and pieces of real ingredients that not only look festive, but are also really inexpensive. Small round shallow vases filled with fresh cranberries and unscented votive candles are so beautiful, mini gourds and pumpkins all throughout the table scattered between platters of food is just so festive and a sprig of fresh rosemary and sage at each table setting sets the mood for a delicious meal from their wonderful autumn scent. This is my kind of table setting."
5. Have extra cranberry sauce? Make cranberry parfaits.
You're going to want to make extra cranberry sauce for Lucinda Scala Quinn's cranberry parfaits. All you need is some whipped cream and granola.
Lucinda Scala Quinn's Cranberry Parfaits
Sweetened cold cranberry sauce
1. Fold together cream and cranberry sauce to blend.
2. Dollop into parfait glasses. Sprinkle over granola. Repeat to make a few layers.
6. Use dental floss to cut perfect slices of cake.
Just be sure it's waxed but not flavored, says Adam Richman.
7. For a last-minute dessert, make a crisp or a cake roll.
No time to make a pie? Chef Matt Abdoo suggests making an apple crisp or pumpkin cake roll instead (no dough!).
8. Make two pies in one.
Why settle for one kind of pie when you can have two pies in one? Chef Ed Brown suggests filling a pie shell halfway with pumpkin pie mixture, bake, cool, then fill the rest of the way with pecan pie, and bake again.
9. Have leftover wine? Make Thanksgiving sangria!
Got a lot of extra wine you received as gifts? Make Donatella Arpaia's easy Thanksgiving sangria:
10. Use a cooling rack to easily make lattice strips for your pie.
Instead of trying to freehand lattice strips for a lattice-top pie, use Jocelyn Delk Adams' hack: Press a cooling rack into a sheet of rolled out pie dough; then use a pizza cutter to cut along the indentations for uniform strips.