Thanksgiving Cooking Timeline

By the editors of Cook's Illustrated

You’re a planner and you want to divide the work over several days. Here’s our schedule that shows you how to get as much done as early as possible.

Timeline Strategies

Once you have designed a menu, you should build a custom timeline. Figure out what you’re going to do when. What can be prepared in advance and refrigerated or frozen? What must be done the day of the holiday meal? Pay close attention to oven times and temperatures when making the timeline for the day of the meal. Several of our holiday recipes can be prepared up to a month in advance. We suggest starting your preparations as early as possible and breaking the work up into manageable chunks so you’re not overwhelmed when the house is filled with guests.

Want cooking inspiration? Take a look at our Thanksgiving menus.

Weekend Before Thanksgiving

DEFROST YOUR BIRD: Think your turkey only needs a day or two to defrost? Wrong. A 20-pound bird can take five days to thaw out in the refrigerator. Plan on one day for every 4 pounds of turkey, and finish defrosting the day before roasting.

SHOP AND STORE: Buy vegetables that store well: onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, root vegetables, and winter squash.

COOK AND FREEZE: There’s no reason to leave all the cooking to Thursday. Much of it can be done in advance.

  • Prepare and freeze any soups you might have on the menu. Most soups actually taste better made in advance, when their flavors have had a chance to meld.
  • You can also prepare pie dough and some types of pies.
  • Make and freeze gravy.

Tuesday

PREP GRAVY, SIDES, AND STUFFINGS: Get a head start on all those sides.

  • If you didn’t make and freeze gravy, remove the turkey giblets and neck and make gravy now. Refrigerate and just before serving, reheat in medium saucepan over medium heat until hot.
  • If you’re making homemade stuffing, set the bread out to stale.
  • Make any creamy dips, relishes, and salad dressings, as well as cranberry sauce. Refrigerate until Thursday.
  • Move any frozen pie dough to the refrigerator to defrost. If you don't already have pie dough in the freezer, make it now, placing wrapped disks of dough in the refrigerator.
  • Cook any casseroles using sweet potatoes or squash. Refrigerate until Thanksgiving.
  • Purchase, wash, and store your greens and delicate vegetables like green beans and asparagus.

Wednesday

BRINE AND ASSEMBLE: Finish as much cooking as possible the day before Thanksgiving. This minimizes stress and frees up your oven for the main event.

  • If you have room in your refrigerator, brine the turkey this afternoon.
  • If you don't have room in your fridge or a brining bucket, grab a cooler, fill it with ice, and use this method.
  • Oven-baked stuffing can be assembled ahead of time, put in a casserole dish, and refrigerated until it’s ready to be baked.
  • Blanch and shock any of the following vegetables for a quick final cooking: asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, green beans, snap peas, and/or snow peas.
  • Make and refrigerate pumpkin pie or other custard pies. Make maple pecan and apple pies and keep at room temperature.
  • Peel and store potatoes, covered in cold water, in the refrigerator.

Thanksgiving Thursday

ROAST AND REST: Follow your recipe for specifics, but as a general guideline, expect to roast your unstuffed bird anywhere from two to four hours. Check for doneness with an instant-read thermometer: The thickest part of the breast should register 165 degrees and the thickest part of the thigh 170-175 degrees. Once the bird is at temperature, plan on a 30-40 minute resting period to allow its juices to redistribute. Skip this step and you'll end up with a dry bird.

FINISH COOKING: Now is the time to finish cooking all the dishes you've prepped.

  • Bake the pies you prepped and froze.
  • Prepare any quick stovetop side dishes while the turkey's finishing cooking or resting.
  • If there is room in your oven, finish cooking dishes that cook at the same temperature as your turkey. Also remember your oven will be available as your bird is resting.


BEVERAGE SERVICE: Chill any wine or other beverages. If refrigerator space is at a premium, fill your washing machine with ice cubes and nestle the bottles in. Just run the spin cycle afterwards to drain the melted ice.

Explore more of the Cook's Illustrated Thanksgiving Guide

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