Thanksgiving Survival Guide

By the editors of Cook's Illustrated

Got questions? We've got answers. Let the test kitchen help with any last-minute challenges that might come up on the big day.

Preparation

What’s the best way to store potatoes?

We stored all-purpose potatoes in a variety of environments. Two ideal locations were a cool, dark place, and the refrigerator. All of the potatoes stored in these places were firm and had not sprouted after four weeks. However, potatoes stored with an apple in a dry, dark, cool, well-ventilated spot stayed practically blemish-free for eight weeks.

How long can peeled potatoes stay in cold water before cooking?

To find out how long peeled potatoes could survive a stay in cold water, we peeled and sliced several batches for french fries, potato salad, and mashed potatoes and let them soak in the refrigerator for varying lengths of time. We learned that preparing potatoes ahead of time is fine, but not by more than 24 hours if you plan to mash them or make potato salad and not by more than 12 hours if you plan to fry them.

Can I make gravy in advance?

Preparing and freezing your gravy (like our All-Purpose Gravy) in advance is a great way to save time on the big day. We recommend doing so the weekend before Thanksgiving (see more details on our cooking timeline), but you can also complete this task as late as Wednesday morning using the turkey giblets and neck from your bird. Skip the freezing and leave it in the refrigerator until just before serving, when you should reheat the gravy in a medium saucepan over medium heat until hot.

Do I really need to cool casseroles completely before freezing them?

Casseroles put straight into the freezer while still warm will form a thick, fuzzy layer of frozen condensed steam on its surface. Once reheated, it has a soggy texture and an off-flavor. On the other hand, casseroles that have been completely cooled will have no condensation and taste fine. Our recommendation: Cool any casserole to room temperature (about two hours) before freezing.

Turkey

Can I rely on my supermarket bird’s preinserted thermometer, or should I use my own?

The technology behind this device is quite simple. A harmless compound with a known melting temperature is liquefied in the bottom of the timer device. A spring is compressed into the molten material as it cools and hardens. The timer is then inserted into the thickest part of the breast. When the material at the bottom of the timer melts again during cooking, the spring is free to expand, and the plastic stem pops up. Most of these timers are calibrated to “pop” at 178 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature chosen to make sure that the legs, which take more time to cook than the breast, will be completely cooked through. Unfortunately, this also guarantees that the breast meat will be thoroughly overcooked. Since we recommend that you remove the bird from the oven when the breast temperature reaches 165 degrees, the popper in your bird will never get hot enough to pop, so don’t rely on them for an accurate reading. Our recommendation? Keep your turkey meat moist and buy your own inexpensive thermometer.

How do I calibrate an instant-read thermometer?

Put a mixture of ice and cold tap water in a glass or bowl; allow this mixture to sit for several minutes to let the temperature stabilize. Put the probe in the slush, being careful not to touch the sides or bottom of the glass or bowl. On a digital thermometer, press the “calibrate” button to 32 degrees; on a dial-face thermometer, turn the dial to 32 degrees (the method differs from model to model; you may need pliers to turn a small knob on the back).

Is pinkish turkey safe to eat, even if it's fully cooked?

First off, always rely on an instant-read thermometer to ascertain doneness when roasting poultry. In the case of turkey, look for 165 degrees in the thickest portion of the breast and 170 to 175 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh. And just because a slice of turkey has a pinkish tint doesn't necessarily mean it’s underdone. In general, the red or pink color in meat is due to the red protein pigment called myoglobin in the muscle cells that store oxygen. Because the areas that tend to get the most exercise-the legs and thighs-require more oxygen, they contain more myoglobin (and are therefore darker in color) than the breasts. When oxygen is attached to myoglobin in the cells, it is bright red. As turkey (or chicken) roasts in the oven, the oxygen attached to the myoglobin is released, and the meat becomes lighter and browner in color. However, if there are trace amounts of other gases formed in a hot oven or grill, they may react to the myoglobin to produce a pink color, even if the turkey is fully cooked. As long as you've let your thermometer be your guide, the meat is perfectly safe to eat.

Do I need to truss my turkey?

To prevent the legs from splaying open, which could make them cook unevenly, we tuck them into the pocket of skin at the tail end. Not all turkeys have such a pocket. If yours doesn’t, tie the ankles together with kitchen twine. There’s no need to fuss with trussing.

Does the turkey really need to rest before I carve it?

Yes. Thirty minutes or so gives it time to reabsorb the juices; otherwise they’ll dribble out when you slice, and the meat will be dry.

Is basting the turkey really necessary?

Despite what you’ve been told, basting does nothing to moisten dry breast meat. The liquid simply runs off the turkey, at the same time turning the skin chewy and leathery. Basting also requires that you incessantly open and close the oven, which means you won’t be sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner anytime soon.

What are these things that come in my bird’s cavity? And what are they for?

The turkey's cavities contain the neck, heart, gizzard (part of the bird's stomach), and liver. Although it might look scary, conquer your fears—the heart, neck, and gizzard are flavor powerhouses that can greatly enhance gravy, like our Giblet Pan Gravy. We brown, then sweat and discard them to extract meaty flavor. The liver, however, has a potent, unpleasant flavor that can ruin a good gravy: Do not use it.

Sides

I don’t own a fat separator. How else can I skim fat from my pan drippings, gravies, stocks, and soups?

If you don’t have a fat separator, we advise using a 1- to 2-ounce cooking spoon to skim the fat from the surface after it’s settled. You can also use a baster. Plunge the tip beneath the fat and draw the liquid into the baster, then deposit the defatted liquid in another container. Both of these tedious methods work, but an inexpensive fat separator is the best tool for the job.

How do you make lumpy gravy smooth?

Trying to thicken gravy by sprinkling in flour often results in unsightly lumps and a consistency that is still too thin because the starch is not dispersed. Solve the problem by using the following technique: Fill a blender no more than half full with the lumpy gravy and process until the gravy is smooth, about 30 seconds. To thicken the gravy, pour it back into a saucepan and bring it to a simmer. Any remaining small lumps can be strained out with a fine-mesh strainer.

What should I use—and not use—to mash my potatoes?

The equipment you use to mash your potatoes will have a big effect on their texture. An electric mixer is a real no-no, unless you like gluey potatoes. A masher is okay, as long as you don’t mind some lumps. Our preferred method produces almost perfect potatoes, with just the occasional lump.

Is there a way to keep my mashed potatoes warm while leaving the stovetop available for other last-minute needs?

Free up some of those precious few last minutes (and some valuable stovetop space) by making your mashed potatoes a couple of hours ahead of time and keeping them warm in a slow cooker on the low setting. Just adjust the consistency with hot cream or milk as needed before serving.

My mashed potatoes always get soggy when I keep them covered on the stovetop until they’re ready to eat. How do I prevent this?

The solution is easy: Simply place a dishtowel between the pan and the lid. The towel absorbs the excess moisture created by the steam, preventing it from condensing on the pot lid and dripping down into the potatoes.

Trimming fresh green beans is tedious and time-consuming, while convenience versions are major time-savers. Are they just as good?

For those of us without a willing partner (or sous chef) to trim and cut 2 pounds of fresh green beans for our green bean casserole, a package of trimmed and cut beans can look pretty enticing. But how do they taste? We went out and bought eight types of convenience green beans: three canned, four frozen, and one brand that offered packages of trimmed fresh green beans. Here's what we found.

I’m always looking for shortcuts to use on the big day. Is pre-peeled, pre-cut squash an acceptable substitute for fresh?

There's no question that cutting, peeling, and seeding a winter squash can be a bit intimidating. We wondered if we could use use supermarket packages of peeled and sliced squash. In a word, no. Whole squash you peel and cube yourself can’t be beat in terms of flavor and texture. If you are truly strapped for time, we have found the peeled and halved squash is fine. We don’t like the butternut squash sold in chunks; while it’s a timesaver, the flavor is wan and the texture stringy.

Desserts

When do I risk having a baking dish explode? Can I put a frozen glass pie plate directly from the freezer into the oven?

This explosion, called “down-shock,” can happen if any flaws, such as scratches, are present when rapid cooling occurs. Prevent it by avoiding the problem of contact with a hard, cold, and/or wet surface by placing the hot dish on a clean, dry dish towel. Also, avoid using even slightly damp potholders to remove a hot Pyrex dish from the oven; they, too, can cause the dish to break, right in your hands. Additionally, our Pyrex pie-baking protocol—avoiding putting a room-temperature pie plate on a preheated baking sheet—is designed with safety in mind.

Does the kind of rolling pin used really make a difference?

Pins too lightweight are ineffective, too heavy means less maneuverability, and handled pins spin in place instead of rolling over parchment-covered cookie dough. We tested nine rolling pins and found to our surprise that our three favorite rolling pins are all made by the same maker. These pins, each in a different style, had the same slightly rough texture to their maple surfaces. Each offered enough flat surface area for efficient rolling and fell within the weight range that worked best for us. It’s old-fashioned, relying on no new technology, but it works.

How do I unstick sticky pie dough?

Few things are more frustrating than having a rolled dough stick to the work surface. In the test kitchen, we have a multi-purpose tool that we use to slide underneath the sticky edges. And the best part is that our favorite model is only $8.

Can I use disposable baking pans to save on clean-up?

To see how disposable aluminum baking pans would perform, we made a batch of our New York-Style Crumb Cake in a disposable aluminum 8-inch square pan and our Sticky Buns with Pecans in a disposable aluminum 13- by 9-inch pan. When compared to batches made in traditional metal pans, there was a clear difference. The cake and buns made in the disposable pans had not browned and were unevenly cooked, and the caramel on the sticky buns was a lighter shade. Another drawback of the disposable pans was that they were hard to transfer out of the oven, since they tended to be wobbly. We next put the filled disposable pans directly on a preheated baking sheet. This solved both problems. The baked goods now browned evenly, and the baking sheet made it easy to transfer the pans out of the oven.

Is it OK to replace unsalted butter with salted butter if I adjust the total amount of salt in the recipe?

We advise against cooking with salted butter for three reasons. First, the amount of salt in salted butter varies from brand to brand, making it impossible to offer conversion amounts that will work with all brands. Second, because salt masks some of the flavor nuances found in butter, salted butter tastes different from unsalted butter. Finally, salted butter almost always contains more water than unsalted butter. The water in butter ranges from 10 to 18 percent. In baking, butter with a low water content is preferred, since excess water can interfere with the development of gluten. In fact, when we used the same brand of both salted and unsalted butter to make brownies and drop biscuits, tasters noticed that samples made with salted butter were a little mushy and pasty; they preferred the texture of baked goods made with unsalted butter.

How do I know when my pies, pastries, and cheesecakes are done?

For pies and pastries, it's all about color. A well-browned crust is more flavorful than a blond one, and it won't be doughy in the middle. We bake all pies in glass pie plates so we can examine the bottom of the crust to determine doneness. When working with puff pastry or other flaky doughs, lift up the bottom of individual pieces and look for even browning. A cheesecake is done when the center just barely jiggles. Since this can be difficult to judge, try this tip.

Explore more of the Cook's Illustrated Thanksgiving Guide

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