In the countless Thanksgiving cooking classes I’ve taught at Sur La Table, the number-one question I get is not “What is the perfect turkey recipe?” or even “How do I keep my mashed potatoes fluffy?” No, the number-one question I get is “How do I time time everything so it all hits the table hot and perfectly cooked?” A big fear Thanksgiving hosts have is that family and friends will show up hungry but the casserole needs another 45 minutes in the oven, or the sides are ready to eat but the turkey is nowhere near done.
Don’t fear—here are three helpful strategies chefs use to perfectly time big meals. They’ve been tested and proven with restaurant meals that feed 500-1,000 people and they’ll work on a much smaller scale too—your Thanksgiving dinner. Keep these simple rules in mind and the big day will be that much easier this year!
THE 90% RULE
90% of everything on your menu should always be done half an hour before the meal. In a restaurant, if there’s an element of a dish (sauce, garnish, etc.) that takes longer than 15 minutes to cook, you can bet it will be done before the rush. We need to take this same approach in our home kitchens. If Thanksgiving dinner is at 6:00, use these guidelines to know where you should be with your meal prep at 5:30.
- Turkey: Resting and tented on a board, ready to be carved. (Don’t worry, it will stay warm for at least an hour.)
- Mashed potatoes: Finished and warming over low heat or in a water bath (read more about water baths below).
- Gravy: Finished and in a water bath.
- Green bean casserole: Out of the fridge and ready to be heated in the oven.
- Stuffing: Out of the fridge and on deck for warming in the oven.
- Cranberry sauce: On the table.
- Roasted vegetables: Out of the fridge, par-cooked and waiting to be popped in the oven.
WARM WITH A WATER BATH
I like to use my roasting pan as a big water bath. It’s easy to do as soon as the turkey is out of the oven and you’ve made your gravy—just quickly rinse your pan and you’re ready to go. Fill the pan about half way with water and place a clean kitchen towel in the bottom to make sure nothing slides around during warming. Place the pan over two burners and heat the bath to medium low. Now you can place any heat-safe container in the bath. It’s perfect for keeping gravy, mashed potatoes or small side dishes warm. The bath provides gentle heat that lets you leave food for long periods at a safe temperature without scorching anything.
No recipe will ever tell you to cook something 90% of the way, but for certain dishes, it’s my secret to perfect results. Shaving a few minutes off the time stated in the recipe means active cooking stops just a bit early. This way, you can finish a dish just before the meal so it’ll be hot and perfectly cooked. This method is genius for dishes like roasted vegetables (shave off about five minutes).
Other dishes that are great for par-cooking:
- Roasted Brussels sprouts
- Crispy roasted potatoes
- Biscuits and dinner rolls
When the last guest walks in the door—that is when I start rewarming and finishing everything. It takes about 30 minutes for everything to come together. I’ve found 30 minutes is just about right for everyone to say hello, grab a drink and settle in. By the time people sit, the food is piping hot and perfectly cooked!
I hope this helps with your timing. Happy Thanksgiving!
Joel Gamoran, Sur La Table National Chef