This article has been updated.
When a professional chef says that Thanksgiving dinner is “the Olympics of cooking,” you know that shit is serious. But every year, millions of well-meaning amateurs try their best to prepare a Thanksgiving feast for their families and friends, following complex recipes that haven’t been attempted since the last Thanksgiving (who the hell roasts a turkey in May?), in quantities that far exceed their respective comfort zones and skill levels.
This isn’t just unrealistic, it’s unfair. Especially to the poor men and women slaving over lumpy gravy in the kitchen.
While making a perfect Thanksgiving dinner is impossible (even professional chefs recognize the insane degree of difficulty), we’ve teamed up with Jason Quinn, the head chef/owner at Playground DTSA, winner of The Great Food Truck Race, and judge on MTV’s “Snack-Off,” to help identify some of the most common ways you “make Thanksgiving a shit show” (his words), along with some helpful hints on how to avoid these culinary disasters.
Jason isn’t just a culinary-world star, he’s a Thanksgiving dinner specialist. Every year, he closes down his restaurant for the day and cooks a full Thanksgiving feast for his closest family and friends (along with a few stragglers), so the man knows a thing or two about cranberry sauce and stuffing.
Mistake One: You’re Roasting Your Turkey Wrong… Trust Us.
It is tempting to say that roasting a turkey is the Rubik’s Cube of cooking, but that isn’t quite right; a Rubik’s Cube can be solved. Roasting a turkey correctly is about goddamn impossible, and there are a variety of reasons why.
According to Jason:
Even if you do know what you’re doing, there’s a lot of problems [with roasting a turkey]. Turkeys range from 13 to 23 pounds, so anytime someone is giving you advice, how likely is it they’re talking about the size bird you have? It’s a one in ten chance. So, right off the bat, misinformation is a huge thing. Secondly, people always want to peek and look inside [lowering the oven temperature], and everyone wants to baste [drying out the turkey], and there’s so many different ways that people go about it that can yield an inferior product or undercooked or overcooked. How many people can really say they’ve had truly outstanding turkey on Thanksgiving?
How To Fix It:
Because roasting a whole turkey to the proper temperature is extremely difficult, even for a skilled chef like Jason, he simplifies the problem by making that turkey considerably less whole:
Cooking the turkey is the hardest part of the whole day. There’s a million different ways to make mashed potatoes, and half a million of them are good. If you break down the turkey into smaller pieces and cook them separately, you’ll have a higher margin for success. Confiting the legs, covering them in some sort of fat and slowly baking them in the oven, no one’s gonna not like that. Roasting just a crown, just the two breasts, is much easier [than cooking the whole bird]. It’s easier to cook white meat perfectly than trying to cook white meat and dark meat perfectly at the same time.
And Jason isn’t the only chef who endorses this method. Everyone from Serious Eats to The New York Times have championed dissection roasting (not the actual name for the thing, but it should be). You may lose a few seconds of “wow” factor of carving the turkey at the table, but that process has its own pitfalls, and once your guests start eating a bird that is properly cooked (both white and dark meat), you won’t be hearing any complaints.
Need more convincing? According to Jason, when he was a kid and the turkey was roasted in the traditional way at Thanksgiving dinner, “no one ever ate the legs.” But the first time he confited the legs, “no one ate the breast.”
Mistake Two: Your Stuffing Is Boring
In America, we love carbs so much that we jam them into the body cavities of birds. And while the germ theory has taken the fun out this method, stuffing remains one of the most popular side dishes at Thanksgiving. Many amateur chefs embrace stuffing for the culinary canvas that it can be and insert delicious touches like cornbread and chorizo into the mix. But sadly, far too many families are stuck with the most basic of moist breadcrumbs and seasonings.
How To Fix It:
Jason not only sees the stuffing as a chance to showcase some of his favorite ingredients (he’s a big fan of a cornbread base), but he also considers it a perfect opportunity to fill in any missing gaps in the dinner’s flavor profile:
Everyone has family recipes. If at your family Thanksgiving there’s always green bean casserole, putting green beans in the stuffing is out of the question. But if there’s no mushroom dish at your Thanksgiving, then maybe a mushroom and Italian sausage and cornbread stuffing would be really killer. It really comes down to filling in the gaps of what’s not already being made at the dinner. Stuffing is a great vessel for whatever else isn’t being served.
Here’s how you can make your own cornbread stuffing.
Mistake Three: Your Potatoes Are A Mess
Though roast turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce are mainly seen as holiday foods, mashed potatoes are a year-round staple. But despite our familiarity with this dish, mashed potatoes are often still a culinary dumpster fire of gummy paste and/or bland lumps.
How To Fix It:
For Jason, tasty mashed potatoes start with the right equipment:
Mashed potatoes are probably one of the things that are the easiest to mess up. You have to use the right potatoes, a Yukon gold or a new potato, something that’s nice and waxy, so not a russet potato. I peel them and boil them in nicely salted water. Don’t skimp on the salt; that’s the best opportunity to flavor the potatoes. I would invest in a potato ricer or a food mill. These will make the potatoes into these nice, small, broken up pieces that mix really well into dairy.
My favorite method is to taking a little bit of room temperature butter — and when I say a little bit, I mean ‘a lot’ — and some cream that has been warmed up with garlic, and a little bit of Boursin cheese would be killer, and I put all that in a bowl. Then once my potatoes are boiled, I put them through the ricer or the food mill right over the dairy mixture, so as the hot potato hits it, it starts to melt even more. Then I mix it up with a rubber spatula, and it’s the silkiest, creamiest potato puree. It’s really easy, but just delicious.”
Here’s how you can make mashed potatoes with a ricer.
Mistake Four: Your Cranberry Sauce Comes From A Can
Though we spend the other 364 days of the year actively avoiding gelatinous, cylindrical foods, some people think that serving canned cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving is somehow acceptable.
For reasons that are difficult to fathom (though probably involve Stockholm syndrome), some people even claim to like canned cranberry sauce. Some of these poor misguided souls even prefer it over cranberry sauce that is actually a sauce. So, if you are hosting a Thanksgiving dinner, please keep several cans of the stuff on hand for these finicky guests. Then please throw those cans at them until they agree to leave.
How To Fix It:
According to Jason, cranberry sauce is one of his favorite foods to make for Thanksgiving. Not just because the tart cranberry sauce balances the other dishes, but also because it is one of the easiest components to prepare:
For me, [cranberry sauce] is one of the easiest things in the whole making of Thanksgiving dinner. It doesn’t have to be served hot and it can totally be made ahead of time. Also, fresh cranberries are readily available, so there’s no reason to use anything out of a can or a jar or anything like that. I’ll usually take whole cranberries and cook them with orange juice and brown sugar or maple and some cinnamon sticks. I’ll cook them until the berries start to pop a little bit and make sure that it’s the right kind of sweet, tangy balance. That’s it; super easy. You can do it in an hour, you can do it in 15 minutes if you need to rush it. Or you could stew it all day if you like your texture a little bit softer with no bite on the cranberries at all.
Here’s how you can make your own cranberry sauce.
Mistake Five: Your Desserts Are Too Heavy
As much as most people love pumpkin pie and expect it during Thanksgiving dinner, Jason brings up a simple, but thought-provoking observation: Why in the hell do we eat this stuff after Thanksgiving dinner? After all, we just finished stuffing ourselves with turkey and potatoes and dinner rolls and a food that is a literally called stuffing, and then how do we put a topper on that sweaty cavern rave of carbs and lard and sugar? With several more slices of carbs and lard and sugar.
Thanksgiving is supposed to be a feast, and it should be, but it doesn’t necessarily have to end with us passed out on the couch, with our belts unbuckled, and our guts bubbling, and family political arguments only a faint buzz in our ears.
[Author’s note: Faking a nap is a stellar way to avoid family arguments both political and otherwise. Consider that a bonus Thanksgiving tip.]
How To Fix It:
After courses of roast turkey, mashed potatoes, homemade cranberry sauce, stuffing croquettes, and other amazing dishes, Jason serves his guests something entirely unconventional, but entirely delicious for dessert:
Lately, I’ve been using persimmons and marinating them with a sweetened lemon juice and serving them with a Kurdish yogurt cheese called labneh. I mix cinnamon and brown sugar into that, and serve it with the persimmons. And that’s a pretty awesome light dessert for after Thanksgiving.
Here’s how you can make a light dessert of your own. But maybe keep a pumpkin pie (or two) around just in case you have a few traditionalists at the table.