Cooking

A Thanksgiving Feast That’s Less Stressful and Just as Delicious

Prioritize what you’re cooking from scratch and what you’re leaving to the grocery pros.

9 min read
11/9/2023
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Welcome to Make/Buy/Zhuzh, a series where we plan a dinner party with three components: one thing you make from scratch, one thing you buy straight off the shelf, and one thing you accessorize to completion.

I cooked my first Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago, and I started prepping weeks before, stashing things like pie dough and cranberry sauce in the freezer. The hope was to get ahead, yet I still woke up before dawn the day of to tackle more than a dozen dishes. My efforts resulted in a memorable and tasty meal, but I was exhausted after the leftovers were packed away and the last of the dirty dishes were loaded into the dishwasher.

I realized that, as corny as it may sound, Thanksgiving isn’t as much about the food itself as it is about sharing that food with family and friends. And when you’re making every single dish from scratch, you’re not all that present. So I’ve decided to embrace store-bought conveniences for the sake of my stress level — and so I can actually spend time with the people sitting around the table. 

I develop recipes for a living, but the truth is that there are plenty of great options to buy and zhuzh, allowing you to prioritize and focus on a few from-scratch dishes rather than the entire spread. Here’s my game plan for a Thanksgiving that’s low stress yet highly delicious.

​​Make

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The Turkey: It’s the centerpiece of the feast, so it’s worth giving it the majority of your attention. There are endless ways to prepare the bird, whether you choose to brine or baste, and whether you opt to smoke, grill, or fry. The simplest approach, however, hasn’t failed me yet (see recipe at bottom). 

Your Favorite Side Dish: Classics like green bean casserole and corn pudding always taste better fresh-made. They can get mushy and overcooked when reheated, and no one likes a grayish green bean. Making your favorites yourself also gives you a chance to indulge in your family’s traditions, whether it’s reviving your aunt’s iconic sweet potatoes with torched marshmallows or roasting the Brussels sprouts that have made you famous in your own circle.   

Buy

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(Instant) Mashed Potatoes: Don’t knock them until you’ve tried them. Sometimes called potato flakes, they’re a pantry staple for many, thanks to their affordability (usually around $3 a box), shelf stability, and ease. Instant mashed potatoes are made from dehydrated potatoes and cook in minutes, and they are arguably smoother and creamier than from-scratch mashed potatoes. All brands of instant mashed potatoes aren’t created equally, however. My go-to: Bob’s Red Mill Potato Flakes. While a couple dollars more than other brands, this one has the best flavor and texture I have tried — and doesn’t contain any additives or salt, so you can season them to your liking.

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Pies: While baking a pie from scratch is nothing short of a culinary accomplishment, it’s okay to save it for another time. Skip the labor of making the dough and filling, crimping the edges to perfection, and finding precious oven space. Instead, get a pie or two delivered from a local restaurant or bakery. Warm up apple pie in the oven and serve pumpkin and pecan pie at room temperature. Just don’t forget to pick up vanilla ice cream or whipped cream — or delegate that task to a guest!

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Rolls: Baking bread is an endeavor no matter how easy a recipe claims to be. Good rolls from a local bakery or frozen ones from the grocery store (I like Pepperidge Farm Stone Baked Artisan French Rolls) can taste pretty great when served warm with plenty of butter.

Zhuzh

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Stuffing: My sister insists on a box of Stove Top stuffing every year because it tastes like our childhood. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with it as is, I’ve never been able to not play around with it. Follow the instructions for that or another boxed stuffing, and add in any combination of cooked and crumbled sausage, sautéed mushrooms, chopped fresh herbs such as sage or parsley, and grated Parmesan cheese. Or add a touch of sweetness by mixing in chopped dried figs or sautéed diced apple. For a standard 6-ounce box, use about a cup of mix-ins.

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Cranberry Sauce: This ever-present Thanksgiving condiment is actually quite simple to make, but in the name of saving you time, lean into the convenience of a can. Buy the whole-berry sauce, which is more sweet-tart rather than just sweet like the jellied sauce. It's also easier to dress up. Give it your own spin by stirring in the freshly grated zest of one orange, about a tablespoon of orange juice, a pinch or two of ground cinnamon, and a handful of toasted chopped walnuts.

Gravy: Of all the dishes that are required on Thanksgiving, I find gravy to be the most stressful — not because it’s hard to make, but because it can’t be made until the very last moment. That’s when the turkey is out of the oven and hungry guests are congregating in the kitchen, and gravy-making feels like one thing too many. Instead, whisk up a gravy mix packet and stir in about two tablespoons of the pan drippings from your roast turkey per cup of gravy as it’s heating up. If the gravy is still missing some depth, add finely chopped fresh herbs like thyme or rosemary, plus a splash of soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce for a savory boost. 

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Recipe: A Simple Roast Turkey

Ingredients 

  • 1 10-to-12-pound whole turkey, thawed if frozen

  • Olive oil

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

Directions 

Take the turkey out of the refrigerator an hour before roasting and place it breast-side up on a rack set inside a roasting pan. Preheat the oven to 450°F and set an oven rack in the bottom third of the oven, removing any racks above it.

Rub the turkey all over with olive oil and season generously with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pour chicken broth into the bottom of the roasting pan. 

Transfer the turkey to the oven and lower the oven temperature to 350°F. Roast 13 minutes per pound, about 2 hours and 10 minutes to 2 hours and 35 minutes for a 10-to-12-pound turkey, until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of a thigh reaches a temperature of 165°F. 

Remove the turkey from the oven, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for at least 30 minutes before carving.

PHOTO CREDIT:

  • Photographer: Paul Quitoriano

  • Food Styling: Lena Abraham

  • Art Direction: Sarah Ceniceros Gomez