When it comes to preparing for a feast, it’s all about understanding what dishes you can make ahead of time, and which ones are best prepared the day-of your dinner party. To help you make an unforgettable meal without breaking a major sweat, we’ve chatted with some experts to learn what they tend to prepare in advance versus what they leave until Thanksgiving Day to tackle.
Before the day
Mise en place
Even if you’re not going to do a whole lot of actual cooking ahead of your guests’ arrival, you can do the vast majority of your preparation—or as chefs say, your mise en place—well before their presence is felt. Executive chef John Melfi of Modena in Washington, D.C., says this is the biggest key to cooking for groups. “Dicing all the vegetables ahead of time, starting a turkey stock to bulk up your gravy, and cutting bread to make breadcrumbs are all things you can do a day or two beforehand to save yourself time and effort on Thanksgiving,” he says.
Something else you can get a head start on? The salad, like this fall recipe from Fred Scarpulla, chief culinary officer of the frozen foods brand Amy’s Kitchen. “I’ll prep my lettuce, candy pecans, prepare cranberries or pomegranate, and make my dressing the day before,” he says. “You can also prep veggies, like cauliflower or brussels sprouts, and then roast them day of so they’re fresh out of the oven.”
While they leave the roasting of the actual turkey for the day of Thanksgiving, several chefs told us that they prefer to do the hard work of brining their birds by letting them sit in a salt bath at least a day or two in advance. “The process imparts flavor and helps keep the turkey moist during the cooking process, just be sure to pat the skin dry before cooking for maximum crispiness,” says chef Rachel Diener of Heirloom, a James Beard-semifinalist restaurant located in Lewes, Deleware. “I recommend brining for 8 to 18 hours depending on the size of the bird.”
Cranberry sauce or chutney
For executive chef Jay Rohlfing of Perennial in Baltimore, Maryland, dishes you can easily reheat are perfect for early preparation, and that includes the cranberry sauce. “I like making my cranberry chutney a few days before serving it because it gets better with age,” he says.
If you always have a casserole on hand, rest assured that this is one critical side dish that can be made in advance. The key is reheating these oven-baked offerings in such a way so that they still taste fresh, and to do so, pastry chef Rachel King of Kaneh Co. in California recommends a 400 degree oven for about 15 minutes.
While dessert is typically the last thing served on Thanksgiving, it can be one of the first things you make in the days leading up to your dinner, says chef Kevin Tien of D.C.’s acclaimed Moon Rabbit restaurant who is making a purple sweet potato pie, made with Japanese sweet potatoes that lend the unique coloring to the baked good.
On the day
While chef Melfi will brine his turkey ahead of time, he recommends cooking it the day of in order to retain moisture and tenderness.
“You lose flavor and consistency when you reheat them, and the sides make all the difference for a delicious meal,” says chef Melfi.
If there’s one dish all the chefs agreed should be made the day of, it’s this. “Whipped potatoes should be done and held warm,” says chef Rohlfing. “Making ahead and reheating can overwork the potato starch and carry the risk of breaking the emulsion of butter and cream.”
Gravy, giblets, and stuffing
Since you’re not going to cook your turkey until the big day, it makes since that any other dishes made from it or its juices should wait till then, too.
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