Chefs Share Top Tips For A Flawless Thanksgiving

We asked the pros for advice.

Group of people eating thanksgiving dinner
Photo: Getty Images

Preparing Thanksgiving dinner is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires a lot of planning and strategy, or it can easily get overwhelming, even for seasoned cooks. There's all the grocery shopping , working around limited oven space, and then there's the dessert .

We asked a few professional chefs across the South for their advice on executing the big meal. These pros are accustomed to cooking in large volumes and do it regularly under a time crunch. We've collected their words of wisdom on everything from what you need to do ahead of time to how to use up leftovers.

Heed these chefs' advice for a stress-free, successful Thanksgiving—something everyone can be thankful for, right?

Plan Ahead

It's tempting to put off cooking until the day of, but it's likely to create more stress than anything else. Don't just take it from us, executive chef Shannon Williams of TENN at Holston House in Nashville wants you to get a jump on the prep, too.

"Start out a week before the holiday by planning your menu and making the grocery list. Then, start with baking and making sides—these can hold in your fridge three days before the holiday," she says.

Another pro move is to put your freezer to good use: "If you really want to get ahead, you can freeze your pies, cakes, etc., and pull them out of the freezer the day before," she says.

And while you probably know to allow ample time for your frozen turkey to thaw , Williams has a hack to make the most of that downtime, "When thawing your turkey, you can brine (with your favorite brine recipe ) your bird at the same time—killing two birds with one stone (pun intended)!"

Executive chef Thomas Tuggle at 1799 Kitchen & Cocktails in Franklin, Tenn., echoes Williams about preparation. "Spread out small tasks to alleviate any potential stress, and most importantly, have fun! Get the kids involved, have a glass of wine, and enjoy your loved one's company," he says.

Breaking It Down

Many of the chefs we spoke to advised against roasting a whole turkey. Executive chef James Nuetzi of Le Sel in Washington, D.C., breaks down both the bird and his cooking schedule to use as a day-by-day guide. While he debones the turkey himself, the butcher can do it for you.

Tuesday : "I debone and brine the turkey. Several reasons for this: I separate the breast from the legs and thighs because they cook quite differently. The legs and thighs require long slow cooking. The breast will come out better with a quicker dry heat (roasting). After I have separated the parts, I brine them. I use the same brine for both the legs and thighs and the breast. I reserve the additional bones for fresh stock," he says.

Wednesday : "Make fresh stock. This will make a huge difference in your stuffing and gravy. I also cut up the bread for stuffing in advance. It will need a day to dry out," Nuetzi says.

Thursday : "I will set about prepping the sides. Once the sides are prepped I will begin by braising the legs and thighs. The legs and thighs will take around 3 hours at 275℉. Once they are cooked through, remove them from the oven and keep them warm. Increase oven heat to 375℉, and roast the breast. The boneless brined breast will cook quickly, depending on the size around an hour. Check it after 45 minutes. While the breast is cooking you can prepare your sides, and rewarm the legs and thighs," he says.

Get Saucy

Thanksgiving isn't complete without cranberry sauce and gravy . Executive chef Ryan Pearson of Couvant in New Orleans has tips for making both from scratch.

"Don't cheap out and buy canned cranberry sauce . Cranberry sauce is just three to four ingredients and noticeably different if you do it yourself," says Pearson.

He suggests cooking fresh or frozen cranberries down with sugar and a little orange juice and peel. The citrus is the key to a delicious homemade sauce, and since satsumas are in season in New Orleans in November, he'll often use them.

Chef Pearson believes a good gravy will make or break your Thanksgiving feast, so he infuses his with a lot of flavor. He starts by sautéing shallot and garlic, before deglazing with brandy, and adding turkey stock. His secret ingredient? "Add a dark rue for a beautiful color," he says. Then steep fresh rosemary and thyme in the gravy for 10 minutes before straining and serving.

Easy As Pie

Megan Wilkes, CEO and co-founder of Emporium Pies in Dallas, knows a thing or two about baking pies. Homemade pie crust can be the trickiest part for a lot of home cooks, but Wilkes has a few helpful tips for perfecting your dough.

Skip the shortening

Looking for a butter alternative? Wilkes suggests using cold animal fat like duck fat for a super flaky and delicious pie crust. "Steer away from Crisco or shortening because it melts at a higher temperature in your mouth. It takes away that "melt in your mouth" crust feel that you want with a perfect pie," she says.

For a flaky crust, keep it cold

Temperature is very important in baking, and we're not just talking about what you set the oven to; for the best pies, you also need to keep an eye on the temperature of your ingredients.

"If you want a flaky pie crust, you want your butter to be as cold as possible throughout the mixing process and until it is put into the oven," Wilkes says.

Bake it right

If you have issues with your crust slouching as it bakes, Wilkes knows just what to do, "Be sure the oven is fully preheated and crank it 25 to 50 degrees hotter in the first five minutes to set the edges of the crust, then bring it down to cook the pie and the filling in accordance with the recipe."

It's also important to bake your pie on the right rack. "Bake your pies on the middle rack in the oven, and bake it on top of a sheet tray. This prevents the bottom from burning and catches any potential spills if the filling bubbles up," says Wilkes.

Her other big piece of advice? Practice! "You can always make a practice pie or two first to be sure you've got it just right before you serve it to guests," she says.

Prepare For Leftovers

Chances are you'll have tons of leftovers the next day, so you'll need a few recipes ready for the days following Thanksgiving to ensure nothing goes to waste. Here are a couple of ideas from the pros.

"Making a delicious soup is my favorite way to utilize Thanksgiving leftovers. You can make it creamy or brothy and add in any leftover vegetables and turkey or ham for a yummy bowl of Thanksgiving flavors. You can also make a frittata or quiche with leftover mushrooms, vegetables, or turkey/ham for the next morning!" says Williams.

Tuggle's favorite way to use leftovers is in a pot pie , "Some puff pastry dough, leftover gravy, veggies, and meat can transform leftovers into a whole new delicious dish."

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