The Ultimate Guide To Your First Stress-free Thanksgiving

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Simple Roast Turkey With Simplest Gravy. CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.

Maybe it’s your first time cooking for Thanksgiving. Or maybe you’re hoping this is the first time you’ll prepare it without inviting stress into the kitchen, too. Whatever the case, I have just the meal for you – along with the strategies to back it up.

This lineup feels familiar but not jaded, and best of all, it’s simple to prepare. (No need to start a countdown 18 days in advance.) My menu offers all the flavors and memories of a traditional meal with recipes that are hard to mess up – and won’t crowd your oven. At the end of the day, Thanksgiving is not about winning awards for having tackled a complicated, intimidating set of recipes.

Worrying, particularly about something you can so easily control, is not the way anyone wants to spend Thanksgiving (or any day, for that matter). Instead, when you follow my advice, your mind-set will be calm and welcoming. That’s a godsend, because the most important part of the meal isn’t actually what’s on the table, but the chance to connect with the people sitting around it, and to reflect about gratitude.

Here’s how to set things on the right track from the beginning, starting with planning

  • Keep the scope of the meal small and manageable.

Choose carefully. You don’t have to tick off every box. Just because so-and-so grew up with two types of stuffing and another guest waxes poetic about three desserts doesn’t mean you have to make them. You can have all the nostalgic flavors in a handful of simple dishes. Besides, the fewer the dishes, the easier the calculations of how many servings to make. (My selection of recipes adds up to a plentiful meal for eight, and they’re all easily scalable.)

Skip prepared appetizers. They just fill everyone up before the meal, anyhow. Instead, serve drinks with bowls of peanuts or pistachios – or perhaps whole radishes, olives, cornichons or jarred marinated artichoke hearts.

Forget the cocktails (unless you can’t imagine Thanksgiving without one). Stick to beer, wine and such nonalcoholic beverages as apple cider and sparkling water. If you do want a cocktail, make one pitcher drink or punch so that you don’t have to play bartender.

  • Decide what to delegate. Some good candidates:

– Drinks and/or ice. (By the way, if you have a cold porch, that’s a great place to put drinks to make room in your fridge and kitchen.)
– The table setting. Ask someone to bring miniature pumpkins and/or clementines, and set them out before the rest of the guests arrive. (Or consider doing this a few days in advance, because both pumpkins and clementines can sit for days without wilting or needing more water.)
– Cranberry sauce. (Or buy the stuff in a can, which so many people love.)
– Dessert.
– Final prep help.

  • Cook everything but the turkey that day before. This renders moot the question of how to prepare multiple dishes so they’re all ready at the same time. Two of these side dishes and the dessert bake at the same temperature, for maximum timing flexibility:

– A simple bread stuffing, which can be reheated just before serving.
– Green beans, which can warm in nutty browned butter at mealtime.
– Roasted sweet potatoes, which can be rewarmed, then split, dolloped with sour cream and topped with crunchy pumpkin seeds. (This allows you to avoid the mashed-potato pitfalls of peeling, chopping and uneven reheating.)
– Apple gingerbread cake, which is just as good, if not better, after it sits for a day, and involves no rolling of pie dough, no mixer and no frosting.

  • Think of the turkey as a big chicken and skip all the fuss.

Don’t brine, baste, marinate or stuff. Simply season it generously with salt, add some water to the pan, and roast it for a couple of hours. I like to set it on a little rack made of celery, which helps to circulate air underneath it, plus it gives you yummy celery. But even this, you can skip.

Buy it at least five days in advance. If it’s fresh, it will last a week in the fridge. If it’s frozen, it can stay that way for months, but it needs 24 hours of defrosting in the refrigerator for every 4 pounds. So for the 12- to 14-pound bird I call for to feed eight people, start defrosting on Saturday to be safe. (You can defrost the same size bird in up to nine hours in a sink or other container filled with cold water, but you’ll have to change the water every half-hour.)

Once your turkey is defrosted, remove the giblets and neck if they’re included and save them for stock.

Let the turkey rest after it roasts for at least 20 minutes. Really: It makes such a difference in the bird’s juiciness. Make an easy gravy that doesn’t require an intimidating roux or run the risk of getting lumpy. While the turkey rests, whisk some sour cream into the pan juices. It couldn’t be easier, and the result tastes like pure Thanksgiving.

Learn to carve it by watching online videos. Again, remember: It’s just a big chicken.
Get a head start on leftovers. After you carve the bird, if you’d like, throw the carcass – along with the saved giblets and neck – into a large pot, cover with cold water and let it simmer while you’re eating (at least two hours, and ideally up to four). Later, strain the stock and use it for soup the next day. Add whatever turkey is leftover plus some cooked rice or barley and eat topped with grated cheese and parsley.

  • Remember your simple timeline.

Saturday: Begin to defrost the turkey in the refrigerator if frozen.

Wednesday: Make the stuffing, blanch the green beans, bake the cake, roast the sweet potatoes.

Thursday: Roast the turkey and make the easy gravy. While the turkey rests, heat up the sweet potatoes and stuffing in the oven and warm the green beans on the stovetop in the brown butter. If you’d like, assign a guest the green beans so that you don’t have to be at the stove and at the cutting board at the same time. Have that same person or someone else top the sweet potatoes (you can’t mess that up) and serve.

  • Think beyond your kitchen.

– Guest list: Try to make it a group you will enjoy being around. If that’s not something you can control and there are some potentially bad actors in the bunch, invite more people. Not only is the more the merrier, but folks seem to have better behavior when they’re around people they don’t know.

– Music: Pick a streaming station or create a playlist well in advance and be sure to include fun music for when you’re cooking. When Thanksgiving comes, just press play.

– Charity: Reflect on the abundance on your table and consider extending it to others in your community. Find out what donations your local food pantry might benefit from, or bring your whole crew to a soup kitchen before you sit down. Or, given the history of Thanksgiving, consider giving to organizations that support indigenous communities (such as Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations).

The following recipes are from cookbook author Julia Turshen:

Brown Butter Green Beans. CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.

Brown Butter Green Beans8 servings, Healthy

These are basic – no muss, almost no fuss.

For a twist: Add a bag of frozen peas to the green beans right at the end of their cooking/blanching time; top with toasted nuts (chopped or sliced almonds work well); and/or add herbs or spices to the butter while it’s browning (fresh sage or thyme leaves, mustard seed or cumin seed are all great options).

MAKE AHEAD: The cooked/blanched beans can be refrigerated up to 3 days in advance.

Ingredients:
• Kosher salt
• 2 pounds green beans, stem ends trimmed
• 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

Steps:

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Salt it generously (as though you were cooking pasta). Add the green beans and cook for about 2 minutes – just until they’re bright green and barely tender.

Drain the green beans in a colander, then transfer them to a kitchen towel to dry off a bit. (At this point, they can be cooled to room temperature, then refrigerated in a sealed ziptop bag for up to 3 days).

Place the butter in the largest skillet you have and set it over medium heat. Cook the butter until its foam subsides and the butter just begins to brown and smell like (and look like) a toasted hazelnut; this will take about 4 minutes. Watch closely, because the milk solids can burn very quickly.

Add the green beans and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring, until they are warmed through and evenly coated. Taste, and lightly season them with salt.

Transfer to a bowl for the table and serve right away.

Nutrition | Per serving (using 1 teaspoon kosher salt): 90 calories, 2 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

Roasted Sweet Potatoes With Sour Cream + Toasted Pumpkin Seeds. CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes With Sour Cream + Toasted Pumpkin Seeds8 servings, Healthy

Jacket-roasted and naturally sweet, these potatoes need little adornment. For best/even roasting, choose sweet potatoes that are all about the same size.

For a twist: Mix a few shakes of hot sauce or chile paste into the sour cream to make it spicy; drizzle the sweet potatoes with maple syrup to make them sweet; feel free to use a different crunchy topping, such as chopped nuts or toasted unsweetened coconut flakes.

MAKE AHEAD: The roasted sweet potatoes can be cooled, sealed in a zip-top bag and refrigerated for up to 3 days; reheat in a 400-degree oven for about 15 minutes, until heated through.

Ingredients:
• 8 medium sweet potatoes (see headnote)
• 3/4 cup sour cream
• 1/4 cup salted pumpkin seeds, toasted (pepitas; see NOTE)

Steps:

Lay a large piece of aluminum foil on your middle oven rack; preheat to 375 degrees.
Use a fork or paring knife to prick each sweet potato in a couple spots. Once the oven is hot, place the sweet potatoes directly on the foil; roast for about 45 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a paring knife.

Split the sweet potatoes lengthwise and divide the sour cream among them. Sprinkle each with pumpkin seeds, and serve right away.

NOTE: Toast the pumpkin seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat for about 6 minutes, or until fragrant, popping slightly and lightly browned, shaking the pan to prevent scorching.

Nutrition | Per serving: 180 calories, 4 g protein, 28 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 90 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar

Easy Bread Stuffing. CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.

Easy Bread Stuffing8 servings

The chunky, rustic texture of the bread makes for a range of crisped and tender bits.

For a twist: Use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth if you want the stuffing to be vegetarian; switch up the type of bread (corn bread and challah are both great options); add sausage (brown 1 pound of crumbled sausage in the pan before adding the onions and celery); or add dried fruit (1/2 cup unsweetened dried cranberries are nice).

MAKE AHEAD: The stuffing can be reheated, covered, in a 300-degree oven until warmed through; uncover for the last 10 minutes of oven time.

Ingredients:
• 1 pound white bread, torn into bitesize pieces (about 10 cups)
• 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
• 2 large yellow onions, cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 3 cups)
• 4 ribs celery, cut into 1/2-inch dice (3/4 to 1 cup)
• 2 teaspoons kosher salt
• 2 tablespoons minced fresh sage (may substitute 1 tablespoon dried sage)
• 1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
• 2 cups good-quality homemade or nosalt-added chicken stock or broth
• 2 large eggs, lightly beaten

Steps:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Arrange the bread pieces in a large baking dish; toast (middle rack) for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they look dried and crisped. Cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, melt half of the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Stir in the onions and celery; cook for about 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they are just softened. Turn off the heat and stir in the salt, sage, parsley and the toasted bread pieces. Pour in the stock or broth and the eggs, then stir to incorporate and evenly moisten the mix.

Coat the now-empty baking dish with 2 tablespoons of the butter, then pack the stuffing mixture in it. Dot the top with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.Bake the stuffing (middle rack) for about 45 minutes, until it is firm to the touch and the top is browned and crisp. Serve hot.

Nutrition | Per serving: 280 calories, 8 g protein, 34 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 640 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

Apple Gingerbread Cake. CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.

Apple Gingerbread Cake8 servings

This no-mixer cake is so moist, no one would fault you for not making pie. For a twist: Swap the apples for pears; use fresh ginger instead of dried spices; and/or replace half of the flour for wholewheat flour.

Serve with softly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

MAKE AHEAD: The cake can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature (or wrapped in plastic wrap) for up to 3 days. You may want to apply a fresh sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar just before serving.

Ingredients:
• 2 cups flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
• 1 tablespoon ground ginger
• 1 teaspoon kosher salt
• 1 large egg
• 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
• 1/2 cup neutral-flavored oil, such as canola, grapeseed or vegetable
• 1/2 cup molasses
• 1/2 cup unsweetened apple cider
• 1 pound crisp apples, such as Honeycrisp, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
• Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Steps:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 9-inch, tall-sided cake pan with baking spray, line the bottom with a circle of parchment, and then spray the parchment, just to be safe.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger and salt in a medium bowl.

Whisk the egg in a mixing bowl, then add the brown sugar, oil, molasses and apple cider; whisk until smooth. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and stir until thoroughly combined. Fold in the apples.

Spread the batter evenly in the pan. Bake (middle rack) for about 50 minutes, until firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out without any crumbs attached to it. Transfer to a wire rack to cool (in its pan) to room temperature.

Use a round-edged table knife to loosen the edges, then dislodge the cake and transfer it to a serving platter, discarding the parchment paper. Dust the top with confectioners’ sugar, cut into wedges and serve.

Nutrition | Per serving: 390 calories, 4 g protein, 62 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 310 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 35 g sugar

Simple Roast Turkey With Simplest Gravy. CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.

Simple Roast Turkey With Simplest Gravy8 servings

This is a salted, or dry-brined, bird, roasted in just a few hours, and its accompanying gravy is guaranteed smooth and lump-free – because it has no flour.

For a twist: Mix 2 tablespoons of minced sage, rosemary or thyme with the salt when you rub the turkey; and/or try stuffing the cavity of the turkey with a bunch of any of those herbs and a halved lemon; or add a tablespoon of ground cumin to the salt when you rub the turkey and stuff the cavity with a halved orange.
It’s helpful to have an instant-read thermometer for checking doneness.

MAKE AHEAD: The bird can be salted and stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days in advance. It needs to rest at room temperature for 1 hour before roasting.

Ingredients: 
• 2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more as needed
• One 12- to 14-pound turkey (fresh/defrosted; giblets removed), patted dry with paper towels
• 4 ribs celery
• 1/2 cup water
• 1/2 cup sour cream
• Freshly ground black pepper

Steps:

Sprinkle the salt evenly over the exterior of the turkey. If you have the time, refrigerate it for up to 2 days. This will allow the salt to really season the meat more thoroughly. You can either place it in a large zip-top bag or place it on something large like a platter and let it sit in the refrigerator with its skin exposed, which will help dry the skin and leave you with extra crispy skin after roasting.

Whether or not you have the time to refrigerate the salted turkey, let it sit out at room temperature for an hour before cooking it so that it’s not so cold. This will help it cook more evenly.

While the turkey is hanging out at room temperature, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Place the celery ribs on the bottom of a large roasting pan and set the salted bird on top of them (an edible rack!). This will allow some hot air to circulate under the turkey, which will help it cook more evenly. Pour the water around the base of the pan (be sure not to pour it directly on the turkey). If you’re using a disposable aluminum pan, be sure to set it on a sturdy baking sheet to facilitate moving it into and out of the oven.

Roast the turkey for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, depending on the size of your turkey, until it’s gorgeously browned, firm to the touch, the leg wiggles easily and the juice that comes out when you poke the thigh with a paring knife runs clear (not pink or red). Use an instant-read thermometer to make sure the internal temperature of the breast meat registers 170 degrees and the thigh meat (probed away from the bone) registers 180 degrees.

Let the turkey rest at room temperature for at least 20 minutes before transferring it to a large cutting board (it helps to lift it with a couple of clean kitchen towels that you immediately throw into the wash).

Transfer the celery to your serving platter if you would like to serve it (or just snack on it, or discard it). Pour the juices from the roasting pan through a fine-mesh strainer into deep bowl. Whisk in the sour cream to form a smooth gravy. Taste and add pepper, as needed.

To carve the turkey, start with the leg thigh joints. Detach them by holding a drumstick with one hand and cutting through the skin all the way through the thigh joint. It helps to wiggle the thigh so you can see where the joint is. Separate the legs and thighs at the joint and transfer them both to your serving platter.

Next, remove the wings in the same manner – by cutting through the joints – and set them on the platter with the dark meat. Now, onto the turkey breasts: Steady the top of the bird with tongs, a fork, or your hand (a bunched up paper towel makes a nice buffer between your hand and the hot bird). Working with one breast at a time, make a horizontal incision at the base of each breast and then make a vertical cut along the breastbone so that you can remove each breast in one large piece. Once both breasts are off the bone, place them on your cutting board skin side up and slice crosswise into slices that are as thick as you’d like them.

Serve the turkey with the gravy, passed at the table.

Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.