6 must-know Thanksgiving cooking tips from professional chefs

With help from professional chefs, you can make your Thanksgiving stress-free.

Tamara Palmer Contributing writer
Tamara Palmer is a DJ, author and publisher of the small-batch print magazine California Eating.
Tamara Palmer
5 min read
Getty Images

Cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year? It can be a daunting task for even a seasoned home cook. 

But don't panic -- you're about to become armed with some tips from professional chefs that will save you time and perhaps even offer some assurance to your dinner guests that they can go ahead and relax because you know what you're doing and have it all under control.

Make dishes ahead of time

Don't attempt to roast a turkey and make all of the sides on Thanksgiving -- you'll burn out quickly and be exhausted by dinner.

A lot of foods can be made ahead of time, with no sacrifice to flavor or quality.


Kathy Fang, who is a recipe developer as well as the chef/owner of tech favorite Fang Restaurant in San Francisco, advises home cooks to consider preparing certain baked items such as macaroni and cheese, au gratin potatoes, candied yams and pies at least a few days in advance.

"That way, you free up the oven space for the turkey and will only need the oven to reheat the food," she explained. "For dishes that have a cheesy topping, leave off the cheese and add before reheating right before serving."

Sauces and stuffing

Fang also advises getting as much as a two-day head-start on making salad dressings, compotes, marinades, cranberry sauce and gravy to save lots of crucial time on Thanksgiving Day. The stuffing can technically be started as soon as you buy the bread that you'll want to be stale by the holiday.

"Thanksgiving stuffing is certainly something that actually improves when made in advance," said Christopher D'Ambrosio, executive chef at The Barn and The Farmhouse in Bedford, New York. "Take dried or stale bread -- preferably something with an assortment of nuts or raisins -- and soak it in milk and eggs, season with chopped sage and thyme, and top with Parmesan cheese. Bake it for an hour before dinner starts and then you're done."

"For me, the most under-recognized star of the Thanksgiving meal is the gravy," said Greg Biggers, executive chef of Margeaux Brasserie in Chicago. "Let's be honest: a good gravy gets poured on everything and often gets put off to the last minute, making it a huge time suck. I always like to start this a few days ahead of time so it has time to sit and all the flavors really come together as well as taking the stress out of making it day of."


Dessert is a course that you can jump on super early -- like, now, if you want?

"An easy one is pie crust," said Margeaux Brasserie's pastry chef Ashley Torto. "You can make dough in advance and freeze. You can even make the dough, crimp it in your pie plate and freeze it that way. You can bake the pie a day or two in advance as well. They keep well and it opens up space in your oven on Thanksgiving Day."

Watch this: This smart oven makes meal-kit cooking easier than ever

Prep your ingredients

Even dishes that need to be cooked the day of the meal can be started earlier in the week.

"You can prep and chop everything except fruit such as apples or pears, which oxidize," explained Fang. "So vegetables can all be prepped ahead of time. I like to wait to chop the herbs the day of to ensure they are fresh."

Buy your turkey now

"Firstly, I wouldn't buy a frozen bird; it should always be fresh," insisted D'Ambrosio. "Turkeys are already dry and lean as is, so buying frozen will certainly not help." The New York Times found that a fresh turkey can last three days in the refrigerator if it is vacuum-packed. 

If you do get a frozen turkey -- and most Americans do -- make sure it has enough time to defrost. In the fridge, that process will take around 24 hours per pound of turkey, according to the USDA.

Defrosting a 16-pound turkey will take around four days, and can stay in the refrigerator another two days before cooking. Buy your turkey this Saturday and it will have plenty of time to defrost. If you're getting a bigger bird, the sooner you buy it, the better.

Turkey still frozen on Thanksgiving? Here's how to quickly and safely defrost a frozen bird.

And decide how you'll cook it

Brining? Dry brining? Spatchcocking? There are numerous ways to prep and roast your turkey, and some require advanced preparation.

If you are brining, make a plan for when you'll start. If you are going the spatchcock route, be sure that the turkey will be defrosted by Wednesday so you can butterfly and dry-brine it overnight.

Read more on Chowhound: A beginner's guide to cooking Thanksgiving dinner.

10 Thanksgiving mistakes you don't want to make

See all photos

Cook different dishes in the same oven

"Using aluminum foil is a great way to cross-utilize the oven while things are dry roasting such as the turkey," revealed D'Ambrosio. "This allows side dishes to stay moist and cook gently as the foil protects and promotes a humid environment within the oven."

"The turkey takes the longest to cook, so that needs to go in first," instructed Fang. "Typically over four hours depending on the size of the bird, as mentioned." 

Place the turkey on the lowest rack to create space above it so you can bake, reheat and brown items on the top rack. Once the turkey is about one hour away from being done, that's when you can start heating up casseroles, like sweet potatoes, green beans and macaroni and cheese, which take about 30 minutes. Once those are done, put other items in and rotate them out as they are done.

When the turkey is done, it will need to rest at least 10 to 20 minutes before you carve it. During that time, you can toss anything else in the oven that needs reheating or cooking, such as roasted vegetables.

Remember: Semi-homemade and potluck are more than OK

Even if you've sold this holiday to everyone as a time when you'll be presenting a home-cooked meal, there is no shame in adopting the semi-homemade and/or potluck approaches with further shortcuts if you feel like they'll save you some time and stress, and allow you to enjoy the day a bit, too. 

This could mean serving a store-bought side dish or simply asking someone in advance to bring something easy, like a drink or a few packages of dinner rolls.

Shopping on Thanksgiving? Best Buy and Walmart have your back.

Top 10 Black Friday smart home deals: Our favorite bargains of 2018.