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Finally: A Genius, Fully Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Turkey

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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.)

Paul Virant’s Make-Ahead Roasted Turkey With Smothered Gravy
Paul Virant’s Make-Ahead Roasted Turkey With Smothered Gravy

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.

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“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.

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.)

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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.”

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Paul Virant’s Make-Ahead Roasted Turkey With Smothered Gravy

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Serves 6 to 8

To break down the turkey and make the stock:

  • One 15-pound turkey
  • Turkey backbone, neck and wings (from above)
  • 2 onions, roughly chopped
  • 2 carrots, roughly chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
  • 1 gallon water
  • 4 sprigs thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 5 black peppercorns

To brine and roast the breast and braise the legs ahead (and finish day-of):

  • 2 tablespoons grapeseed or other neutral oil
  • Turkey drumsticks and thighs (from above)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to season
  • Gizzards (from above, optional)
  • 1 onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 carrot, roughly chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
  • 5 to 7 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 8 cups turkey stock (from above)
  • 1 gallon water
  • 1/2 cup kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup Herbes de Provence
  • 2 heads garlic, halved crosswise (but left unpeeled)
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • Bone-in, skin-on turkey breasts (from above)
  • 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
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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!

Automagic Thanksgiving Menu Maker!
Automagic Thanksgiving Menu Maker!