Tom's No-Sweat Rules of the Thanksgiving Road

November  8, 2012

This is the twenty-first installment of Sunday Dinners, a biweekly column from our own Tom Hirschfeld featuring his gorgeous photography, stunning Indiana farm, and mouthwatering family meals.

Today: Whether you're cooking for a few, or like Tom, for 100, here are 5 tips to make your Thanksgiving easier -- prep like mad, accept the right kind of help, and use that cooler to keep the turkey warm.

I have this brother-in-law who purposefully annoys everyone. If I didn't know what I was doing at Thanksgiving, if I hadn't made a plan and done my prep, there have been times when my anger might have shown. Inevitably, in the middle of everyone getting everything ready for Thanksgiving dinner -- during that big rush when everything is coming out of the oven hot, people are carving the turkeys, water glasses are being filled, hot rolls are going into cloth-lined baskets -- he will mill around, get in everyone's way, and start giving me a hard time about being hungry, asking "When is dinner going to be ready?" Or he might even look at a turkey leg and suggest that it is a little pink, when in fact it is nothing of the sort. But instead of blowing my top, I smile and suggest that if he can't wait, McDonald's is just down the road.

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In the past I might not have been so casual. Let me explain.

For years I didn't play well with others in the kitchen, especially on holidays. I thought of it as a break for my guests -- they shouldn't have to cook, I would tell myself, forgetting that in reality they might enjoy bringing a dish, and even helping out. But instead I would go into my one-man band mode: I became the guy with the big bass drum attached to his chest, a harmonica around his neck, a guitar dangling from his side, a cymbal or two tied around his knees and maybe even a maraca on his shoes. It was stressful, and more then a little ridiculous. Throw in a cocktail or two and it easily became like watching the Titanic.

And while I never sank the ship, I did learn from my past mistakes. I have reached an age when the food is important, but it is far from everything. I would rather spend quality time with my family and my in-need-of-a-place-to-go friends than I would in front of the stove.

1. Each year, I develop a plan.
I go so far as to write it out like I did my prep lists when I was a line cook. It works for me. Like a dog on a shock collar I have come to know my parameters, and as long as I don't cross them I have a perfectly wonderful, pain-free holiday. To do this, my cooking week starts on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Well, I take that back.

• Gravy. At some point during the previous week, I pick up five pounds of turkey legs or wings. Then on Sunday, before I sit down to make my prep list for the big day, I throw a pot on the stove and make turkey stock. That night, I use a little of the stock to make soup for dinner before straining and freezing the rest.
• Knifework. I don't want to have to chop anything on Thanksgiving day. So everything is cubed, diced, or minced on Wednesday. I even cut and peel the potatoes I will need and store them in a pot of water right in the fridge.
• Bread. I let my rolls take a rest in the fridge overnight. The first thing Thanksgiving morning, they get set on the counter for the final rise and baked early. Then I only have to warm them before dinner.
• Casseroles. Have all your casseroles made in advance, at least by the day before. Then simply pull all casseroles out of the refrigerator one hour before they are to go into the oven so they come to room temperature, then bake.

See, I have done this for ten-odd years now. I cook the same thing every year. My guests have an expectation of the familiar and, in fact, crave their favorite dishes. But I have one exception. Each year I rotate in a new dish, something I have made but not served to others. A dish I know works, tastes great, and has been road-tested by me. I cook nothing I haven't cooked before.

2. I know I have limited space.
Each of us only has so much room in the oven, only so much stovetop to work with. Whatever I decide to do, I do it with space requirements in mind.

I divide things up. I try to cook an equal number of dishes on the stove as I do in the oven. I only bake things that require the same oven temperature -- never something that needs 425º and another that needs 325º. There are so many different recipes out there that it is easy to find delicious things that require the same oven temperature. On the stovetop, I don't cook anything overly fussy. I look for recipes that can bubble gently on the back burner and be ignored for the most part.

3. Keep the turkey a cooler.
A few years back, I learned a valuable lesson. We had a large crowd, which meant two turkeys and a whole, brined venison ham to cook. Now, I used to be in the catering business, and we had these hot/cold do-hickies called Cambros, nothing more than fancy coolers. They kept things hot or cold for hours and what I decided (and it works great -- I mean really great) is to let the finished turkeys rest in a foil-lined cooler with the lid shut. If you are baking a Judy Bird and cook the turkey so it comes out of the oven an hour and fifteen minutes before you want to carve it, it will stay hot, juicy, and succulent beyond belief.

My only requirement for anyone needing to do this is to make sure ahead of time that the bird fits in the cooler -- don't wait 'til it comes out of the oven to see if it fits. Do this while the turkey is still in the bag, uncooked, and remember to try closing the lid, too. Don't expect the roasting pan to fit in there (it won't), hence lining with foil. If you didn't stuff the bird, be aware when you move the thing to the cooler that the cavity is full of juices. Best to drain it into the roasting pan first.

4. Accept time where it comes.
Think about it. If you throw in the turkey carving time, you now have a free and clear oven for an hour and a half. That's right, an hour and a half! And you've done your homework and know all your casseroles are going to fit into the oven. (Remember? You tested it last week by putting the empty casseroles into the oven to see if everything would easily fit.) It's showtime, and you are on easy street.

I like to have a clean sink, with the exception of one or two pots, before we sit down to dinner. Cookware and utensils get washed as I go. Dishwasher will be empty too. Clean as you go.

5. Accept help where it comes.
One last thing: I assign desserts, salads, and cold appetizers to those who want to pitch in. I do this so I know what needs to be done at the stove, and so I am not worried about ruining someone else's dish by not browning it enough or, worse, burning it. It also keeps anyone else from getting in and out of the oven, or stirring the pot. And really, if you let others help they feel needed, and you will find your job much less hectic. Let people help, but know who you're dealing with and don't let them get in above their heads. Assign the right tasks to the right people.

"Kids, make yourselves useful, do the damn dishes!"

And everyone will have a happy Thanksgiving.

52 Days of Thanksgiving
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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Marshacb
  • Charlotte Woodhouse
    Charlotte Woodhouse
  • KOH
  • cookinalong
  • grosenb562
Father, husband, writer, photojournalist and not always in that order.


Marshacb December 8, 2013
Thanks Tom for the great "turkey warmer" tip. This was the most stress-reducing factor I've ever encountered. Not only did I not have to plan exactly when the bird should be finished and then worry when it cooked faster or slower than planned, and not only was the oven free for an hour afterwards, but that entire hectic of making the gravy from the pan drippings at the same time as trying to cook other things on the stove was alleviated. This was by far the most stress-free Thanksgiving I've ever gotten on the table – all due to your Turkey Warmer tip! Thanks again every so much!
Charlotte W. November 12, 2013
Tom,enjoyed your article. What's your recipe for those buns?
KOH November 11, 2013
Thanks so much for the great ideas! I do Thanksgiving for approx 30 people every year! Advance prep work is essential. I did 2 "Judy Birds" last year (about 16 pounds each); had plenty of turkey and lots of leftovers. Smaller birds also cook more quickly than larger birds. Using the cooler to keep the birds hot is tip I've had in years. I do make my mashed potatoes the day before; found Martha Stewarts mashed potato recipe years ago and it's terrific. Lots of butter, half and half; requires a food mill. I make the potatoes the morning before Thanksgiving; let the potatoes cool; put them in different containers. The next morning I get the potatoes out at 6am...when I usually get up. Put the potatoes in crock pots on low; stir periodically and by the time dinnner is served they are piping hot. If they heat up too quickly just turn off the crock pots. Don't turn on high...don't want the potatoes to burn. Saves a huge amount of time.
cookinalong November 11, 2013
Tom, thanks for such practical and timely advice! The cooler idea is inspired! That's always the turkey day logjam. Timing everything around when the bird comes out of the oven, etc...Now a whole hour of free oven time! Heaven! Now going out to look for a cooler big enough for a 20 lb. bird. Do you think it would be weird to take the turkey shopping with me to test the cooler size?! :-)
grosenb562 November 11, 2012
Brilliant idea about the cooler. Thanks Tom. May your feast be eaten with gratitude and merriment.
pierino November 9, 2012
Great column Tom. Best wishes for the holiday.
thirschfeld November 9, 2012
Thanks pierino and best wishes to you too. I hope all is well.
EatArt November 8, 2012
While I am an omnivore, and the photo of the live turkey is very beautiful, I had trouble with seeing it as part of this article about Thanksgiving food. Clicking from live bird to roasted bird emphasized my discomfort. I realize it is somewhat hypocritical since I roast turkeys too, and I do appreciate the farm-to-table thing, but somehow, this really bothered me. Enjoyed your article though :)
Merrill S. November 8, 2012
Love the turkey/cooler idea. May try it this year!
thirschfeld November 8, 2012
It does work really well Merrill. The cooler I used held it at near temperature(165) for about an hour and forty five minutes.
Amanda H. November 8, 2012
Nice buns, Tom!
sexyLAMBCHOPx November 8, 2012
sexyLAMBCHOPx November 8, 2012
thirschfeld November 8, 2012
Thanks, even I have to control the urge to give them a squeeze when walking by.
MrsWheelbarrow November 8, 2012
Terrific advice, Tom. I would add that anyone who is making dessert... esp. pie... crusts can be made weeks ahead, rolled out, layered between sheets of wax or parchment paper, and stored flat in the freezer. Defrost as needed, just enough to soften, then press into your pie pan and you're ready to fill. I make six or more pies, and do all the baking at breakfast time, to keep the oven free later. I also use my gas grill like an extra oven, and roast my turkey, in a roasting pan, on the grill. We all need more oven space.
thirschfeld November 8, 2012
Absolutely! I do everything I can ahead of time so that come Turkey day I have nothing to worry about
nannydeb November 8, 2012
Great advise! I'll try the ice chest (turkey warmer) trick this year. Having a restaurant and catering background definitely helps, especially with the prep and organization. We are lucky that our next door neighbors visit family in Colorado every Thanksgiving and let us use their kitchen. Happy Thanksgiving!
thirschfeld November 8, 2012
You are very lucky to have such nice neighbors!