It’s finally happening. Either through some twisted dare or out of the goodness of your own heart, you’ve agreed to host Thanksgiving this year. Soon, one lucky group of humans will be counting on you to kick off the official start of holiday food season, aka the blessed time to eat all the dishes that make us feel warm and cozy until spring decides to show up.
Planning is key, of course, but this doesn’t mean working under pressure to deliver every single dish at every optimal temperature. “The night before, pour yourself half a glass of wine, turn on some nice music, and calmly allow yourself to watch the meal come together,” says pastry chef and restaurateur Joanne Chang of Boston’s Flour Bakery + Café and Myers + Chang. “Take some notes. See the sequence in advance. Your guests want you to have a good time, too! When you’re comfortable visualizing the day, from beginning to end, pour yourself the other half of that glass.”
Food Network star Molly Yeh, who has three seasons (and counting) of Girl Meets Farm under her belt, also suggests doing some light reading if you have time to spare before the big event. Her go-to? “My biggest advice is to read Sam Sifton’s Thanksgiving book! It’s a delight.”
With the right tools and attitude (and maybe a reasonable amount of liquid courage), hosting one of the biggest feasts of the year can feel like a breezy, refreshing post-Thanksgiving walk in the park, minus the heavy dose of tryptophan. The items listed here are by no means part of a game plan that you must follow down to the wire. Instead, think of it as a stripped-down guide to everything a Thanksgiving newbie needs in the kitchen, or a handy refresher for the seasoned host.
Tools to tackle turkey
For Portland chef and 2016 Eater Young Gun Maya Lovelace, a successful Thanksgiving means keeping things simple. “Try to take it easy on yourself, don’t go for the classic, all-American giant turkey,” she says. “It’s much easier and honestly much more delicious to spatchcock the bird. That’s what I would recommend for a first-timer.”
Spatchcocking, or butterflying, the turkey — taking out the backbone, flattening the bird, and tucking the wings, is something you can do at home, and there are many, many tutorial videos out there to help you along. With this method, it doesn’t take much effort to get an evenly cooked bird with crispy skin you’ll think about for days. For starters, Lovelace suggests buying a really good, sharp pair of kitchen shears, to cut out the backbone (save this for your gravy stock). “It makes things a lot easier for any cook. In our restaurants, we [spatchcock chicken] too. It makes more sense,” she says.
Brine (wet or dry) or no brine, the turkey is treated the same way in the oven: spread out flat on a standard half sheet tray with a rack, which allows for plenty of air circulation. You’ll also have the option to place aromatics (like thyme, lemon slices, rosemary, and sage) underneath the bird. “As the turkey roasts, the drippings will fall into that tray and continue to mingle with those aromatics and give you an awesome base for your gravy,” says Lovelace.
Cooking the turkey this way skips the need for a turkey baster and complicated twine work, but Lovelace does encourage picking up an instant read thermometer, like the Javelin. “It’s what we use in the restaurant to temp every single piece of fried chicken we make,” she says. “It’s so quick, it’s so reliable, [and] comes in a bunch of cute colors.”
A good chef’s knife, like the Misono UX 10-inch, is also worth looking into, but Lovelace says all you need is something with a thin blade that can handle both big winter squashes and poultry with precision. “You don’t need a fancy slicer, and you especially don’t need an electric turkey slicer, though I do adore those things because I think they’re hilarious.”
Kitchen staples for making crowd-pleasing sides
The supporting cast of Thanksgiving deserves as much love and attention as the turkey, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and whatever football score your guests care about. However, Chang encourages paring down your menu. “Don’t overreach,” she says. “Four or five great dishes that you’re comfortable making will make for a better meal than 10 that you’re trying for the first time.”
The tools you’ll need to master the sides need not be complicated or fancy. Take roasted vegetables, for example. Chang loves using a small paring knife for basic kitchen prep, like this Victorinox Classic, and a half sheet baking tray. “You’ll use this for veggies and then later again for baking cookies,” she says. Depending on the size of your oven, you might opt for a standard half sheet (13x18) or two quarter sheet trays (9x13).
Sides like stuffing and candied yams will likely call for a casserole dish, like this basic Pyrex one (9x13) that Chang uses for “literally everything — baking cakes, roasting birds, making lasagna… it’s perfect for a green bean casserole or to hold mashed potatoes while you are preparing the rest of the meal.” Speaking of which, do not embark on the mashed potato journey without owning a Y-peeler, like this simple and inexpensive one from Kuhn Rikon, first. For the actual mashing, Chang prefers a masher over a ricer (“I love little bits of potato in my mashed potatoes”). OXO makes one with a cushioned handle, which is great since you’ll want to take care of your hands during all those hours in the kitchen.
If you’re making your own cranberry sauce (ie., with fresh cranberries, spices, and other ingredients), size matters, and Chang suggests using a medium saucepan to bring everything together. “Don’t use too small of a pan or the cranberries will sputter and pop and make a mess of your stove,” she says.
For those aiming to go beyond the bare bones minimum to impress guests this Thanksgiving, without adding too much work, try serving butter the Joanne Chang way. “I whip the heck out of room temperature butter with a wooden spoon and fill the butter bowl (like these Lifver porcelain ramekins) with the whipped butter,” she says. “It’s easier to spread on rolls and melts more smoothly into mashed potatoes.”
Baking supplies for perfecting pies
For those making pie from scratch, freezer space is your best friend (right up there with cold butter). According to Yeh, “A few minutes (or even up to a few weeks) in a freezer pre-bake helps a pie keep itself together when baked.” Also important: a small tapered rolling pin, like the one from Vermont Farm Table, for more control of your dough; an accordion pastry cutter, if your pie skills include latticing; and a pie dish with a big rim, “because thick crimped crust is the best,” says Yeh, who recommends dishes from Emile Henry and Farmhouse Pottery. She’s also a fan of baking pies on a pizza stone, like the one from Baking Steel, to prevent every pie lover’s worst nightmare: a soggy bottom. (Take note, future Great British Bake Off contestants!)
If a recipe calls for a dusting of powdered sugar on your sweet presentation, Yeh recommends using a fine mesh sieve, which can also come in handy for dessert glazes. “When strained cranberry sauce mixes with powdered sugar, it makes the most beautiful naturally hot pink glaze,” she notes.
Finally, before you get busy in the kitchen, make sure you have a long-lasting, sturdy apron, like one from Hedley and Bennet or Tilit, both of which are Chang favorites. And that’s it! You’re ready for the big bird show. The crispy skin club. The no soggy bottom zone. All of which you’ll be extremely thankful for. Isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about?