Thanksgiving is the Super Bowl of cooking days, the day when humble home cooks take on roasting a 15-pound turkey while simultaneously making pies and sides from scratch, waking up at the crack of dawn and chaotically swirling around like the Tasmanian Devil, the day passing by in a blur and ending with a sink piled high with dishes.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. You can wake up at a reasonable time, catch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (and even the Purina Dog Show) and enjoy a blissful day off surrounded by loved ones with a manageable to-do list in the kitchen. We’ve tapped the expertise of professional chefs from around the country to share their tried-and-true tips for getting Thanksgiving dinner on the table easier and faster.
Plan and delegate before the big day
Let’s get the most obvious hack out of the way first: Thanksgiving dinner is a marathon, not a sprint, and there’s no shame in getting some help. Planning ahead and making dishes in the days leading up to Thanksgiving is the best way to ensure you’re not spending the entire day cooking instead of enjoying time with your family. Reheating food on Thanksgiving Day is much easier and faster than making it from scratch.
Planning ahead and delegating “is how chefs think about and plan for event days,” said Brian Bornemann, chef and co-owner of Crudo e Nudo in Santa Monica, California. “Make cranberry sauce on Sunday, stuffing on Monday, green bean casserole on Wednesday, and then deep fry the turkey and warm your prepared dishes on Thursday. Save yourself on the dish duty and invite others to bring pumpkin pie and additional sides. Instead of constructing the day around kitchen masochism, have some bubbly rosé at 10 a.m. and pick one fun project (i.e., deep frying, smoking or grilling the bird) knowing full well that the rest is already done or delegated out.”
Don’t peel your potatoes
Shave some time off your prep work and avoid unnecessary peeling accidents (which you’re at higher risk for if you’re stressed and rushing) by boiling your potatoes with the skins on and shocking them in an ice bath when they’re cooked through. “The skins will come right off,” said Craig Cochran, chef and owner of NuLeaf in New York City. “It’s a major timesaver.”
Spatchcock, don’t roast
Waiting for tukey to finish cooking while the rest of your meal is ready to go and your guests are waiting is no fun. This year, consider spatchcocking to get that beautifully cooked turkey on your table faster.
“Rather than going the traditional roasting route that takes forever, try spatchcock cooking!” said Jennifer Toomey, executive chef and partner of Huckleberry Bakery and Café in Santa Monica, California. “Remove the back bone, flatten out the bird and roast it skin side up. It cooks in less than half the time, and you still get that juicy meat and crispy skin.” (Check out our guide to spatchcocking here.)
Rob Sonderman, executive chef at Federalist Pig and Honeymoon Chicken, added that this technique allows for more even cooking. “Pull your turkey out of the oven when the breast hits 155 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit and the legs are a little over 165, and let it rest for at least 30 minutes and up to an hour or more before cutting into it.”
Skip the whole turkey
Speaking of time-saving turkey hacks, opting to not cook a whole bird saves time and is ideal for smaller gatherings. “Instead of trying to negotiate with a whole bird, I like to purchase turkey breasts and drums!” said Heather Ashby, executive sous chef of DiAnoia’s Eatery in Pittsburgh. “Turkey breasts can be stuffed with whatever you like, cook faster and retain more natural juices. Drums can be roasted, smoked, deep fried; the possibilities are endless!” (Check out our favorite turkey breast recipes.)
Preheat your roasting pans
As your oven is preheating, put the pans you’ll be using to roast your vegetables inside so they heat up with it. Bonnie Shuman, executive chef of Weavers Way Co-Op in Pennsylvania, explained that doing so will help your potatoes, squash and Brussels sprouts (or whatever you’re cooking) roast faster and more evenly. Preheating pans “is a must in an industrial kitchen as a timesaver and it also helps immensely at home because it lends itself to multitasking which is so important when cooking a full Thanksgiving meal,” she said.
Make gravy in a blender
Skip the stirring and simmering and let your blender do all the work of thickening and getting the lumps out. “When I roast my turkey, I put herbs and butter up under the skin, then add the mirepoix about an hour before the bird is done,” said Todd Rogers, director of culinary operations at The Pearl Hotel in Florida. “Then, when I’m making my gravy, I deglaze my pan, with all the drippings and the stock and the mirepoix, and I put it in a KitchenAid or a blender. I add the stock and the giblets and trimmings from the bird to that, then add heavy cream, and that makes the gravy thicken itself — making a coulis, so you don’t necessarily have to make a roux. Some people want to make a roux and add the stock and then the giblets, but you can do it all in a blender and it cuts down on the process, making it quick and easy.”
Use store-bought ingredients to your advantage
Going the semi-homemade route rather than making every component of every dish from scratch is an easy way to cut corners while still making delicious food.
Adam Raksin, executive chef of The Grid in New York City, is all about store-bought crispy fried onions. “Growing up, my favorite side was the string bean casserole,” he said. “My mother and I would always take freshly blanched green beans and make the creamy cheesy sauce from scratch but you can’t beat the ease and simplicity of the already crispy, salted, fried onions.”
Eric Miller, executive chef of Rita Cantina in East Hampton, New York, buys Italian canned or frozen chestnuts to add nutty flavor to his vegetable stuffing rather than roast the chestnuts himself. “This saves me some spare time, which I use to root for the New York Giants with my son and partner, Adam Miller,” he said.
Use your freezer for prep (not just for pie)
“Professional chefs love the freezer,” said Caroline Schiff, executive pastry chef of Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn, New York, and executive chef of Slow Up. “It’s great for the obvious, like pie crusts shaped ahead of time, but think beyond dessert. In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving I’ll make and freeze stocks, soup, caramelized onions, raw portioned biscuits, shucked fresh sweet corn, logs of shortbread, scooped cookie dough and more.”
If you go this route, Schiff notes that things usually take a day to thaw in the fridge, but baked goods can go straight from the freezer to the oven: “This will take a ton of stress off of making everything on Wednesday and Thursday, and save you time, so you can enjoy the holiday.”
Prep vegetables ahead of time
Be your own prep cook and peel, chop and dice your ingredients a day or two before Thanksgiving so you don’t have to do it the day of. It’s the three magic words: mise en place.
“At the restaurant, it’s common practice to chop all the onions, peel and trim the carrots, chop mushrooms, etc. the day before we need them so we’re always a few steps ahead,” Schiff said. “Most raw produce will be fine pre-cut in the fridge for two or three days, and since cleaning, trimming and chopping is time-consuming, it’s a great way to keep work to a minimum on Thursday when you’d rather be having wine and cheese.”
John Adler, vice president of culinary at Blue Apron, recommends cutting your vegetables into the size you need and storing them in an airtight container with a paper towel on top of the vegetables. “The paper towel prevents condensation buildup, which could make your veggies slimy,” he said.