11 Secret Weapons for Your Thanksgiving Meal

November 19, 2012

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. Today, more than a few tricks you'll want to have up your sleeves for the big day. 

If you think about it, each Thanksgiving meal is like a play. It’s acted out in scenes: each scene is a new course, and each course brings new characters, who, if all goes as planned, give applause-worthy performances. 

Shop the Story

You’ve already selected most of the cast: a roast bird may take the lead role, the stuffing right there next to it, fighting for the spotlight. You may even be sure of your staging. (Haven’t yet figured out how to arrange everything? Take your pick.)

But like all of us, you’re saving your secret weapons for last. They are the supporting roles of your meal -- the ingredients and secret techniques that never quite get the glory, but who protect the whole show from being lackluster, one-dimensional. Maybe they exist to be pulled out at the last second, but this year, let’s start early, shall we? 

First Course
Your soups and salads are key for setting the stage for the rest of the meal. How do you make that happen? If it’s a roasted root vegetable soup, fold in some brown butter right at the end of cooking. If a salad, drizzle it with an interesting oil (like pumpkinseed, hazelnut, or walnut). Your guests will be impressed, and the rest of the meal will follow suit. 

The Mash
This is perhaps the most popular side on the Thanksgiving table, so tread lightly: you want to enhance just enough so it becomes more special than before, but not so much that your guests can’t recognize it anymore. Try adding one big celeriac root per five pounds of potatoes, or make like the Canal House ladies, and slip little pieces of butter in. This way, guests will run into melted pockets. Watch from the other side of the table -- this will be entertaining. 

The Main 
For a lot of us, the bird will be the height of your Thanksgiving play -- so we’re giving you three tricks to have up your sleeves. Use them separately, if you like, or for extra security (read: a really delicious turkey), combine their forces. 

• Two words: dry-brining. You can dry-brine frozen, you can dry-brine fresh -- however you do it, you won’t believe how perfectly juicy your turkey will come out. 

• If you can let go of traditional presentation, spatchcocking will be your best friend. Also known as butterflying, your spatchcocked bird will cook quickly, evenly, and leave much more room in your oven for more beloved sides. 

• A genius tip from our developer Amanda Li: put water, mixed with just a bit of honey, on the bottom of the roasting pan, so the bird steams as it roasts. It will stay as moist as can be. 

The Sauce
The secret to mastering Thanksgiving’s most famous condiment is mastering more than one. Our developer Michael reminds us that making multiple relishes will have a big impact. Clearly, you can’t forego the cranberry, but go a little wild on the second. (Or to Tuscany, the choice is yours.) 

It’s Pie Time
Saving room for pie will be even more important this year: instead of sprinkling just sugar on your apple pie, mix it with equal parts salt. Then bake, and watch it disappear. 

Before you set off to prep, there are two more things you need to keep in mind for the big day. First, share the workload. Let a friend bring a pie, hand gravy duty over to whoever you make your loyal sous this Thursday. And last (but certainly not least), make enough food for leftovers. These are going to be the best sandwiches of your lives, people, and it happens once a year. 

What are your go-to holiday tricks? If you’re willing to share your secrets, let us know in the comments! 

52 Days of Thanksgiving
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52 Days of Thanksgiving

Top-notch recipes, expert tips, and all the tools to pull off the year’s most memorable feast.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Marc Osten - Marc's Culinary Compass
    Marc Osten - Marc's Culinary Compass
  • Kenzi Wilbur
    Kenzi Wilbur
  • drbabs
  • AntoniaJames
  • CarlaCooks
Kenzi Wilbur

Written by: Kenzi Wilbur

I have a thing for most foods topped with a fried egg, a strange disdain for overly soupy tomato sauce, and I can never make it home without ripping off the end of a newly-bought baguette. I like spoons very much.


Marc O. November 21, 2012
Kenzi - Thank you SO much for bringing the spatchcock method to the table. (Pun intended!) I've been spatchcocking for a long time and it speeds things up and better yet I find that breast and thigh are both done perfectly AT THE SAME TIME! Last year I even combined the spatchcock method with smoking the turkey. Here's how I combine the spatchcock method with smoking the turkey. If you are interested here is the link to that video.
Kenzi W. November 21, 2012
I wish I could take the credit, but this is a tip that's been long circulating Food52. It's quite magical though, I will say that.
Marc O. November 21, 2012
I know but it still amazes me how scared people are, even foodies, are to try. When it shows up in a 'tips' post like yours it actually carries more weight and is strategically better because it is not a 'recipe' but a nudge to find a recipe. Far less threatening for folks. :)
Kenzi W. November 19, 2012
Both such great tips! Thanks, all.
drbabs November 19, 2012
Whatever happens, don't forget the most important ingredient: gratitude. And while I'm on the subject, thank you, Food52 community, for adding so much pleasure to my life. XO
AntoniaJames November 26, 2013
Hear, hear. ;o)
AntoniaJames November 19, 2012
Work up a great appetite before the meal by taking a good long, challenging hike, preferably up a mountain. Spectacular views at the top are optional. (Actually, they're a bonus in November, when you're likely to be looking down on fog and clouds.) Make sure to take a great, season-appropriate snack to enjoy at the top, e.g., pumpkin bread, apple hand-pies, etc. And being primarily, if not solely, responsible for serving the meal is no reason not to take a great hike on T-Day. It can be done. (I've done it for 20 years, including with babies and toddlers in backpacks.) ;o)
CarlaCooks November 20, 2012
You put a toddler in a backpack? How do you get him to fit?!? ;) This Christmas, my husband and I plan on taking a nice, long bike ride through a Danish forest. I can't wait!