When it comes to cooking up the perfect Thanksgiving dinner, a little advice can go a long ways. For expert tips on orchestrating the meal—from brining the bird to choosing the perfect soundtrack—we turned to some of the country’s best-known chefs for their tried-and-true tricks for catering to a table full of hungry folks. Here are 50 of their best tips.
1. Have the table set days before. Decorate with baby pumpkins, fall leaves and non-scented candles. It’s a holiday. Do it up!
2. Have the wines selected for dinner, but have a cocktail and other bottles of wine ready for the pre-dinner cocktail hour. That means having a cocktail in mind to offer and extra glasses for wine set apart from the table. As we got older my family would say, ‘Use the same glass—don’t dirty another.’ It’s one holiday out of the year; wash some extra glasses. Get the family to help!
3. Never have dessert at the table where dinner was served. Always have pies and desserts in a separate area with plates and forks so that guests can help themselves.
—Casey Thompson, Executive Chef of Aveline and The European at the Warwick San Francisco Hotel
4. I would recommend pairing sake with roasted turkey. Fukuchitose Yamahai Junmai sake goes very well with the dish. It has pumpkin spice and kabocha squash notes, which makes it perfect to go with the roasted meat portion of dinner. Also, fuku means “happiness” while chitose means “forever,” which makes this the perfect sake for a family Thanksgiving dinner!
5. Switch up the typical Thanksgiving condiments and dressings and add soy sauce as a condiment. Wasabi and yuzu kosho makes a surprisingly great condiment for turkey, too.
6. Plan an activity for your family after dinner, so that the party doesn’t have to end. I would recommend family karaoke—it’s a fun, interactive way to have a good time and include everyone.
—Masaharu Morimoto, Executive Chef of Morimoto and star of Iron Chef
7. Always brine your turkey overnight. And don’t buy a large turkey—they are usually pumped with hormones. Buy a free-range or organic bird between eight and 14 pounds.
8. Make the stuffing separately; do not stuff the bird! This will help prevent salmonella and allow the bird to cook more evenly.
9. For homemade apple pie, use a combination of Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples.
—Hung Huynh, Executive Chef at The General and CATCH
10. Candles offer delicate and inviting light to any location. Place candles in unexpected places—the entryway, the bathroom, the hallway. There are so many aromatic candles available these days. Candlelight not only creates a warm ambience, but also will scent the room with luscious aromas.
11. Use your champagne bucket for a large flower arrangement. It will double as a vase. And instead of buying all flowers, supplement the vase with lots of greenery. Green is all the talk these days and using it will save you the expense of buying an abundance of flowers.
—Joanne Weir, James Beard Award-winning cookbook author, chef, cooking teacher & television personality
12. Make stuffing from scratch. At our home, we like to begin with our own bread, making sure it’s not too sweet and drying it just right so it doesn’t get mushy.
13. Don’t feel tied to the turkey. We’re never surprised to see a lobster at the Thanksgiving table. While there might not have been any potatoes (or even turkey) at the first Thanksgiving—records do show that there were lobsters and clams at the first harvest feast in 1621 at Plymouth.
—Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier, James Beard Award-winning chefs, M.C. Spiedo at Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel
14. Clean as you go; don’t let dishes pile up…It’s tough when you host a bunch of people and spend the whole night running around the kitchen, making a mess and having everyone ask you if you need help.
15. When recovering from a post-holiday eating overload, don’t do anything drastic. Just try to eat lighter meals and stay away from sugars and alcohol.
—Mike Armstrong, Executive Chef at Dream Downtown
16. Make a boozy punch to get everyone to loosen up! Plus, it’s easier than having to mix cocktails. To suit the region you live in, make recipes using the fresh fruits available. If you’re up North, trying making a post-dinner batch of a spiked hot chocolate and top it with fresh whipped cream.
17. Less is more. Don’t try to prepare 25 dishes. Stick to just a few and make them perfect.
—Paula DaSilva, Executive Chef at 3030 Ocean
18. Make an interesting side dish. I like to fry Brussels sprouts in either a balsamic, red wine or anchovy vinaigrette and toss in baby endives, squash, cabbages, candied walnuts, goat cheese and dried cranberries or apricots.
19. Use some unique ingredients. I’m really into dried fruits this fall… I’ll be infusing dried cherries, cranberries, apricots and plums with liquor, red wine or brandy. These will add flavor to a variety of dishes and brighten them up.
20. Stick with the true and tried classics. I disappointed my family the first time I cooked Thanksgiving dinner; I tried to do a traditional Native American dinner with cool re-created dishes—everyone was upset. So instead, have fun with the classics and remember that it is a retro-throwback kind of meal. Focus on making a great turkey and a couple of nice sides. You’ll survive as long as you don’t burn the turkey.
—Brian Malarkey, Executive Chef at Searsucker San Diego, Scottsdale, Austin, Del Mar; Gabardine; Herringbone La Jolla and soon-to-open Herringbone L.A.
21. Come up with a great chill playlist. I like to stick to the classics, because regardless of who is at dinner, everyone can enjoy some good Billy Joel, Elton John, etc. It’s timeless and mellow enough without putting your guests to sleep.
22. Buy several pumpkins in advance. Use a couple for your table’s centerpiece… It’s simple, rustic and screams Thanksgiving. Use the other pumpkins for cooking. You can make a great pumpkin bisque to start the meal and then roast the rest with pistachios or other nuts for a fantastic side dish.
—Sean Brasel, Executive Chef/Co-Owner of Meat Market
23. Moisture is key to a perfect turkey. Brine the bird beforehand or add a couple of cups of water in the roasting pan and baste often. I usually fill the neck cavity with apples and cover the breast with soft butter before placing in a medium, preheated oven.
24. Teach your children to help and ask family members to make sides or dessert.
25. Get organized early. This is the most important thing to a successful large meal. Write your menu out and stick to it. From there you can break down your grocery lists, recipes, etc. Once you have this you can plan out all your timing.
26. Prepare ahead. Once you get organized, you can start to make any long lead-time items a day or two ahead. Make your stuffing and get it oven-ready, make your cranberry relish, so on and so forth… The more you can knock out ahead of time, the more time you can spend with your guests.
27. Brine, brine, brine! Get a high-quality fresh turkey a few days ahead and get it into a brine at least 24 hours ahead of cooking. Brining adds flavor as well as moisture and helps keep that turkey juicy. Do some research online and find a brine that sounds good to you.
—Anthony Meidenbauer, Corporate Executive Chef at Block 16 Hospitality
28. Make your gravy ahead of time by buying a bit of turkey bones and making a stock. You can always put the turkey drippings in it after the bird is done cooking, but this way you don’t have to try to whip up the gravy while the bird’s getting cold.
29. If you have a sous vide supreme you can sous vide the turkey breast and have it done days ahead of time. The day of, just put some nice herb oil on the breast and roast in a hot oven for one hour.
—Eric Bauer, Executive Chef at Rancho Valencia
30. Break out the sage, cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s Thanksgiving, for crying out loud! I love to cook “outside the box,” but when it comes to Thanksgiving, I say stick to the norm… Making food that people are all familiar with helps draw up nostalgia, which I believe definitely has a place on this holiday.
31. Don’t be afraid to play with ingredients. Add herbs, citrus and even a little brandy to enhance the flavor of your Thanksgiving Day turkey.
—Venoy Rogers III, Chef at W San Diego
32. Puree traditional yams. Puree them smooth with cream, vanilla bean, butter and black pepper. The pepper and vanilla bean are a great unlikely combination.
33. Make sure you have plenty of good wine. Plus an extra bottle to drink while preparing the meal.
—Jamie Prouten, Executive Chef at Tiburon Tavern
34. Cook the turkey breast side down after browning it for the first hour. This will make the white meat very moist and delicious.
35. Pour pan juices from the turkey over your stuffing as it’s baking in the oven. This makes the stuffing taste like it was baked inside the turkey.
—Michael DeGeorgio, Chef at Vetro Restaurant
36. Try new things—like adding chipotle chile to the brine for a smoky flavor.
37. Choose dishes that can be made in advance and simply reheated so you can drink with your guests.
—Akhtar Nawab, Executive Chef at La Cenita
38. Bake your pies on a sheet pan with a cooling rack. This keeps the pies elevated and creates a better crust. It also keeps any drippings off your oven.
39. Prep ahead for sweets. Lots of things can be done even a week before Thanksgiving—you can make your pie dough, line pie molds with it and keep it frozen until you’re ready to fill and bake. Make cookie doughs and keep them in the freezer until you’re ready to bake fresh.
40. Make both crunchy and soft cookies! Since lots of people are coming over, why not please both preferences? By adjusting the temperature, you can achieve both textures with one recipe. Bake cookies at 275°F until golden for crunchy cookies, and bake at 375°F until golden for soft cookies. Just keep in mind that the soft cookies will be in the oven for a short time, possibly five to eight minutes depending on recipe.
—Thiago Silva, Corporate Executive Pastry Chef at EMM Group
41. Get two big ice chests: One for all your beverages and one for the turkey. The turkey takes up the most space in the fridge, so moving it to an ice chest will free up a lot of space. I like to brine my turkey in a garbage bag, put it in the ice chest, cover it with ice and let it sit like that for 24 hours.
42. Make a four-hour long playlist. There are bound to be awkward moments when multiple family members get together and you don’t want the sudden absence of music to enhance that.
43. Set up the bar outside of the kitchen. This will create a better flow for the guests and will get people out of your way while you are putting the finishing touches on your dishes.
—Kyle Itani, Executive Chef/Owner at Hopscotch
44. For a smaller group, cook something that is more appropriate for the size of the party. It doesn’t have to be turkey or whole turkey—try duck breasts, quail, guinea hen or pheasant.
45. Use edibles like persimmons, pears, apples, etc. to make your table look great.
—Staffan Terje, Chef/Owner at Perbacco
46. I always order a classic cheesecake from Junior’s. I know everything is supposed to be homemade, but why not order the best?
47. Create a five-dish family style menu for Thanksgiving. I usually do a bird (which is always roasted goose or duck), stuffing (oyster stuffing with celery and chestnuts), a soup (like pumpkin soup with brown butter), a potato dish (potato gratin or sweet potatoes with cardamom pods) and another salad or vegetable dish (like a root vegetable salad). Sometimes I’ll throw a lobster into the mix or one of my favorite braised rabbit dishes.
48. Pick the best products you can buy, from a farmer’s market or even directly from a farm. Thanksgiving is all about being thankful, including to all the people who work hard year round to produce our food. Thank the farmer who took time and care raising the bird you will share with your family. It will taste that much better!
49. Use fresh cranberries for cranberry sauce. That’s the simplest recipe and makes such a statement on the dinner table compared to the canned stuff. Bring the cranberries to a boil with a little water, sugar to taste and anything you like to spice it up with: any citrus—like orange peel or blood orange—and other seasonal fruits like pears, apple, quince and spices like cinnamon or cardamom spice.
50. Make a Reservation! If you don’t want to have to deal with all the cooking, cleaning and all the mess afterward, make a reservation at your favorite restaurant. Us chefs are going all out to make sure you have the best family time on Thanksgiving!
— Florian Wehrli, Executive Chef at Triomphe