A serious shopping list is the most crucial tool for jump-starting your planning.
Some items on it are obvious: turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes. But there are several other ingredients that will prove invaluable to have on hand. (Buy them early if you can. Running out to the supermarket the night before Thanksgiving is the last thing any cook, novice or experienced, will want to do.)
Butter, lots of it — Choose European-style high-fat butter for pie crusts, and regular unsalted butter for everything else.
Stock — If you haven’t made your own (and you can do that on Thanksgiving, with Sam Sifton’s advice, see below), look for homemade stock at the same butcher shop where you buy your turkey, or in the freezer section of your supermarket. The canned and boxed stuff should be a last resort. Buy at least three or four quarts. You’ll need it for gravy and deglazing your roasting pan, and also for braising vegetables. Make sure to get some good vegetarian stock for anyone who isn’t eating meat. Leftover stock freezes perfectly.
Fresh herbs — Not only do they add freshness and flavor across your Thanksgiving table, but they’re also pretty, lending a touch of green to a meal heavy on earth tones. Choose soft herbs (parsley, dill, basil, mint) for garnish, and sturdy, branchy herbs (thyme, rosemary, bay leaves) to throw into your roasting pans, stocks and gravies.
Garlic, onions, leeks, fresh ginger, shallots — An assortment of aromatics keeps your cooking lively and interesting. You’ll need them for the stuffing, for stock and gravy, and for many side dishes. Grated fresh ginger and sautéed shallots are a nice and unexpected addition to cranberry sauce; simply stir them in with the berries while simmering. And you can perk up plain mashed potatoes by folding in sautéed garlic and leeks with the butter.
Fresh citrus — Lemon, lime and orange juice and zest contribute brightness to countless Thanksgiving dishes, from the turkey to the gravy to the cranberry sauce to the whipped cream for pie.
White wine/vermouth/beer — Even if you’re not drinking any of these spirits before or during the meal, they can be splashed into gravy or vegetable dishes, or used to deglaze the turkey roasting pan. (Bourbon and brandy work well as deglazes, too.)
Fresh spices — If you can’t remember when you bought your spices, now is a good time to replace them.
Light brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup — These sweeteners are more profoundly flavored than white sugar, and they have an autumnal richness. Try using them to sweeten whipped cream, your coffee-based beverages and pies.
Nuts — These go a long way to give crunch to otherwise texturally boring dishes. (I’m looking at you, sweet-potato casserole.) Keep a variety on hand to throw into salads and side dishes, or simply to offer to your guests with drinks before the meal. They can also help bulk out your meatless offerings.
Heavy cream, sour cream, crème fraîche, ice cream — You’ll need these for topping pies and cakes.
A pint of good sorbet — Just in case you end up with a gluten-intolerant or vegan guest you didn’t expect. Coconut sorbet is particularly creamy and lush, but any flavor works well. — MELISSA CLARK
Getting a late start? Never fear. Consider buying the smallest turkey you can find for the number of people you’re serving and spatchcocking it, so you can roast it fast and free the oven for other cooking. Cutting up the turkey before it goes in the oven will also leave space for roasting vegetables in a separate pan above or below it, perhaps alongside a simple dressing.
Make a fast cranberry sauce on the stove while the turkey cooks, then get it into the fridge to set. Make gravy from the pan drippings, and serve it with the bird, the vegetables and the cranberry sauce. Buy a pie, or outsource it to a guest. — SAM SIFTON
Make stock. This should be your first cooking task, whether you begin your preparations weeks early or the day of the feast.
Turkey is great, but chicken will do. You’ll need a lot of stock, all day long: for gravy, for warming the sliced turkey, for refreshing dressings, for deglazing pans. If you’re jammed for time, simply make a fast broth: Put the neck of the turkey, an onion and a carrot or two into a pot and bring to a simmer. You can start to use it as stock after about an hour, and it’ll only improve over the course of the day. — SAM SIFTON
Cook ahead of time as much as possible. So many of the savory dishes on the Thanksgiving table lend themselves to advance work: casseroles, bread dough, cranberry sauce, gravy.
Granted, most cooks agree that for best results, the turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing must be started from scratch on the day itself. Even for these outliers, though, some tasks can be done beforehand to ease the last-minute work.
Free the turkey from its packaging and plastic a day or two in advance, and use a simple dry brine so it can go straight into the roasting pan on Thanksgiving morning. Mashed potatoes, like any cooked potatoes, don’t usually refrigerate well, but they will if you mix them with chives, butter and sour cream, and bake them like a casserole. You will hear no complaints. (The texture will be smooth and dense, not fluffy.)
Most stuffings and dressings can be assembled in advance. If your stuffing is moist enough, it can even be cooked ahead of time and reheated like any other casserole without compromising flavor. Cover tightly when reheating, and add tablespoons of stock as needed to keep the dish soft and fragrant.
(Drier stuffings and dressings should not be cooked in advance; they will dry out even more during reheating.)
Desserts are ideal for making ahead. The key is to seek out recipes that benefit from being made in advance, dishes that taste as good or better a few days later as they do on the day they were made.
Chocolate cakes and tortes hold up well, as do cheesecakes, flans, puddings, ice cream, parfaits, mousses and sticky gingerbread cakes. A general rule of thumb is that if your dessert needs thorough chilling before you serve it, it can probably sit for a day or two in the freezer or refrigerator.
As for cakes, denser, heavier specimens hold up better than lighter, fluffier ones, which are prone to drying out. Frosting, fondant or any kind of syrupy glaze acts as a preservative, keeping the cake fresher longer.
The one traditional Thanksgiving dessert that will suffer if made more than 24 hours ahead is pie. But you can make the dough up to a month ahead and store it in the freezer.
Sticky Cranberry Gingerbread
From Melissa Clark
Time: 1 1/2 hours plus cooling
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
2 cups/8 ounces/266 grams fresh or frozen cranberries
1 cup/200 grams granulated sugar
1 stick/4 ounces/113 grams unsalted butter
2/3 cup/133 grams dark brown sugar
1/2 cup/120 milliliters whole milk
1/2 cup/120 milliliters maple syrup
1/4 cup/60 milliliters molasses
1 1/2 cups/185 grams all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon/5 grams ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon/1 gram ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon/3 grams baking powder
1/2 teaspoon/3 grams kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon/1 gram baking soda
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon/14 grams grated fresh ginger (from 1-inch piece)
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees and line a 9-inch square or round baking pan with parchment.
2. In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, stir together cranberries, granulated sugar and 1 tablespoon water. Stir the cranberries over medium heat until the sugar is completely dissolved and cranberries form a sauce that is syrupy and bubbling thickly, about 10 minutes. Aim to have about half the cranberries broken down, with the remainder more or less whole.
3. In a separate saucepan, stir together the butter, brown sugar, milk, maple syrup and molasses over medium heat. Bring it to just barely a simmer and then remove it from the heat. Do not let it come to a boil, or the mixture may curdle.
4. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking powder, salt, baking soda and black pepper. Beat in the butter-maple syrup mixture and then beat in the eggs. Stir in the ginger.
5. Scrape the batter into the pan. Drop fat dollops of cranberry sauce onto the surface of the cake batter. Drag a long, slender knife through the batter in a swirly design, as if you are marbling a cake. Transfer the cake to the oven and bake it until the top is firm and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire baking rack and let the cake cool completely before eating it.