Genius Recipes

Finally: A Genius, Fully Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Turkey

November 15, 2017

What if you could wake up on Thanksgiving morning and not have to roast a turkey? (This isn’t a trick question—you still get to eat turkey.)

The oven would be free to churn through pies and stuffing and whatever unexpected casseroles might show up. You wouldn’t need to worry about maneuvering and babysitting a 15-pound roast beast while the kitchen is full of other bustle. And best of all, there would be no fear of the bird drying out, whether mistimed or forgotten—thanks to some very clever advance planning.

“I never wait for the big day to roast turkey,” chef Paul Virant writes with derring-do in his cookbook The Preservation Kitchen. Instead, he gets it over with early in the week, treating the white and dark meat with proper care so they won’t dry out on the reheat.

Virant braises the thighs and drumsticks before pulling the dark meat to make the rich, Southern-style smothered gravy with the braising liquid, meat, and all. He brines and roasts the breast, undercooking it slightly so that it will finish at a slower pace in a bubbling, forgiving bath of gravy*. All of this will make your home smell warm and soothing for days before the real festivities begin.

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The rest of the recipe is similarly well-planned, even brilliantly working in the flavorful fat that you scrape off the top of chilled stock and braising liquids to amp up the stuffing. (I didn’t include Virant's stuffing recipe because there was quite enough going on here, but you can add this scrap-turned-secret-ingredient into any stuffing—or roasted vegetables, or mash, for that matter—to feel like a genius. And impress your grandmother.)

Admittedly, the recipe is long, but it requires much more organization than active time. I added helpful timing cues at the start of each key step so you can plot out your week, and put in your turkey order with your butcher now (who can even help you knock out the first couple steps).

But here’s another hidden benefit of working ahead: There’s no better time to grab a loved one in the kitchen to help you keep it all straight—and you’ll have more fun tromping through it together. Much of the joy of Thanksgiving is in tackling a multi-step project with buddies (see also: my memorable DIY Turducken of ’05)—this one just happens to stretch the steps out to take the pressure off of the big day.

And when it’s all done—prep behind you and feast approaching—“don’t forget to break out the Champagne,” Virant told me. “It’s festive, delicious, and an excellent pairing.”

Plan the rest of your feast with our Automagic Thanksgiving Menu Maker!

*OK, you caught me: We didn't rewarm the turkey in the gravy for these photos, but this is another way you can serve it. For those details (and many more), head to the recipe!

p.s. Plan the rest of your feast with our Automagic Thanksgiving Menu Maker!

Photos by Rocky Luten

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thank you to Food52-er AntoniaJames for this one!

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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."

1 Comment

AntoniaJames November 15, 2017
So glad to see this, Virant's second Genius Thanksgiving recipe. Another advantage of this method is that during the non-active time while making these components, you can also be prepping / otherwise making whatever sides can be made ahead. The years that I've used this recipe, my Thanksgiving Day kitchen activities have been almost anti-climactic (but that's been a good thing, because we've been known to hike 11 or so miles up and over a small mountain that's over an hour drive away, before starting my day-of Thanksgiving dinner activities).

Also, a tip on the re-heating of the gravy with the meat, etc. I use a beautiful round copper gratin dish that goes directly from the stove to the table. Couldn't be easier! ;o)