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Thanksgiving Make-Ahead Schedule

By Cook's Illustrated Published November 2009

The guide you need to prepare a stress-free Thanksgiving feast.

A little advance work makes cooking Thanksgiving dinner much easier. We've created a make-ahead schedule to help you avoid any last-minute disasters:

Up to 3 Weeks Before Thanksgiving: Order Your Turkey

It's Time to Choose the Turkey: Heirloom? Fresh? Frozen? What Size?

  • Choose the right size turkey. To serve 10 -12, choose a 12-15 pound bird; To serve 15-18, choose a 14-16 pound bird; To serve 20-22, choose an 18-22 pound bird.
  • For an heirloom or special farm turkey, order now. This is also the time to place any advance orders at your local market.
  • Make certain you have all the equipment you need (see our Thanksgiving-themed equipment reviews).
  • It’s also a good time to check your spices. If anything is older than one year, or you can't detect any aroma from the open jar, replace it.

Up to 2 Weeks Before Thanksgiving: Make and Freeze Pies and Gravy

Pies and gravy can require demanding, last-minute attention. Freezing them ahead of time is not only time-saving, but prevents last minute disasters.

  • Confirm your freezer is at 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Make enough pie dough for all the pies you’ll need. Pat each crust into a 4-inch disk, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and then foil, and freeze. Let the dough defrost overnight in the refrigerator before assembling and baking the pies.
  • Make All-Purpose Gravy. If you’re not planning on using giblets to make stock, you can prepare and freeze gravy well ahead of time. When you're ready to use it, place the gravy and a bit of water (as needed) in a saucepan over low heat and bring it slowly to a simmer.
  • This is also a good time to stock up on your canned goods such as chicken broth or canned pumpkin.

Weekend Before Thanksgiving: Defrost! And Finalize Your Plans

Many people don't realize that a 20-pound bird can take four days—not a mere 24 hours—to thaw out in the refrigerator.

  • Make certain you are giving the turkey ample time to defrost. Plan on one day for every 4 pounds of turkey, and finish defrosting the day before roasting.
  • Complete the bulk of your shopping. Buy vegetables that store well: onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, root vegetables, winter squash. (Wait until a few days before to buy more delicate vegetables such as green beans, asparagus, or Brussels sprouts.)
  • Wash and store your greens.
  • Start making extra ice.
  • Make and freeze any soups you might have on the menu. Now is also a good time to make fresh cranberry sauce.

Two Days Until Thanksgiving: Start Preparing Side Dishes, Gravy, and Stuffing

Leaving gravy to the last minute can be a recipe for disaster. Start it ahead of time⎯along with the vegetables⎯to prevent last-minute problems.

  • If you didn’t make and freeze the All-Purpose 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.
  • If you didn’t freeze your pie dough, make it now.
  • 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.
  • Most relishes and salad dressings can be prepared now.
  • Cook any casseroles using sweet potatoes or squash and refrigerate.
  • Finish shopping for your fresh vegetables. If you’ve ordered a fresh turkey, pick it up now.

The Day Before Thanksgiving: Final Countdown

The day before, you can finish almost all the cooking.

  • If you have room in your refrigerator, brine the turkey this afternoon, dry it off, and leave it uncovered in the refrigerator overnight (at least 8 hours). Roasting an air-dried turkey makes for exceptionally crisp skin.
  • Oven-baked stuffing can be assembled ahead of time, put in a casserole dish, and refrigerated until it's ready to be baked.
  • Make and refrigerate pumpkin or other custard pies.
  • Peel and store potatoes, covered in cold water, in the refrigerator.

Thanksgiving Day: Last-Minute Preparations

The final steps to a perfect meal.

  • To calculate roasting time for the (unstuffed) bird, count on 1¾ hours if the bird weighs 12-15 pounds, 2 hours for a bird weighing 15-18 pounds, and 3 hours for a bigger bird. Then add on an additional 30-minute resting period; 35 to 40 minutes for a bird over 18 pounds.
  • 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.
  • Bake the pies.
  • 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.
  • Carve the turkey.
  • Enjoy a perfect meal.