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Essential Thanksgiving cooking hacks so you can focus on the wine

Simple tips to save your sanity.

This story is part of 2019 Holiday Survival Guide, featuring tips on the best ways to manage the holiday season.

Let me guess. Mom made one snide comment about your not having "backup linens," so you volunteered to host Thanksgiving and prove what an adult you are. Didn't think she'd call your bluff, and now you've got 11 people to cook for and almost no time or idea how to do it.

Deep breath. You can do this, but you're going to need some Thanksgiving dinner cooking hacks… and lots of them. From ways to keep yourself organized to faster cooking methods that give you back precious minutes on the big day, we've plumbed the depths to bring you the best cooking tips and hosting tricks designed to conserve what little time and sanity remains, aaand deliver a Thanksgiving for the ages.

Make a detailed list and plan of attack

Maybe not a hack, per se, but this is the best way to insulate against a true disaster. (This, and Aunt Janet-proofing the liquor cabinet.) Map out what exactly you have to do, what you need to do it, approximately how long it will take and how much oven and stovetop space it'll require (often overlooked).

Next, type it up neatly in a list or spreadsheet (seriously, you'll feel better) or plug into a handy planning app like Big Oven to keep yourself organized and on track. Also, do your shopping -- especially for nonperishables -- a few days before to avoid supermarket stampedes. So, tonight.

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Let's go here next since this is probably the single most important, time-consuming and complicated item on the menu. Make your motto "high and dry" (don't worry, we'll explain) and you'll be in excellent shape no matter how much -- or little -- time you have.

Go dry

Brining, or the infusion of salt into the meat for flavor and moisture, has become a somewhat ubiquitous pretreatment for notoriously dry turkey and is highly recommended. A dry brine (vigorous salt rub) is a much simpler endeavor than the classic wet brine, requiring fewer steps, less time, space and equipment. Dry brines also result in a very salty, crispy skin, so yeah… go dry.

Get Chowhound's dry-brined roast turkey recipe here. There are still purists who swear by a no-brine bird, so don't stress if you must forego.

Get high

Much can be said for high-heat cooking with regard to crispy skin and moist meat and, naturally, it cuts cooking time down quite a bit. The below recipe calls for just a two-hour roast at a scalding hot 500-525 degrees Fahrenheit for a 16- to 18-pound bird. Be careful to adjust for time and weight and this should yield a juicy bird with extra crispy skin. To get the perfect temperature and ensure your turkey is done, make sure to get yourself a digital instant-read meat thermometer.  

Get the high-heat roast turkey recipe.

Spatch me if you can

Spatch cooking, an increasingly popular method by which the turkey's backbone is removed and breastbones are cracked so the bird cooks flat (and fast), is a no-brainer if time is of the essence.

Admittedly, you won't get that Norman Rockwell glamour shot for Instagram, but your turkey cooks in a fraction of the time and the risk of drying out decreases greatly. To save even more time, have your butcher spatch the turkey for you and remember, you can and should still brine it. 

Get Chowhound's butterflied ('spatched') roasted turkey recipe.

The make-aheads

If your turkey motto is "high and dry," make your motto for everything else, "What can be done before, should be done before." Catchy, right?

Read more: The ultimate guide to perfect mashed potatoes

Mashed potatoes

Though technically simple to make, this side dish hall-of-famer is a sneaky time-suck on Thanksgiving with all its scrubbing, peeling, chopping, boiling and mashing. The good news is you can make them up to two days ahead, and reheat without losing any of the fluffy, creamy goodness. So do exactly that. 

Use this make-ahead mashed potatoes recipe.

Save even more time (and confuse anyone who lives with you) by washing your potatoes in the dishwasher. (Without soap!)

More make-aheads

This Chowhound list of make-ahead recipes will be your best friend for an easy day-of. There are some classics you may not have considered good make-ahead candidates, so take a look through and find a few favorites below to get started.

  • Gravy can be refrigerated or frozen ahead of time and whisked back to life in a saucepan before serving. Get Chowhound's make-ahead turkey gravy recipe.
  • Stuffing will need to be popped back in the oven or under the broil to recrisp the top, but with all the chopping and mixing involved, you're well advised to pre-prepare. Get our make-ahead apple and sage stuffing recipe.
  • Making desserts ahead of time is a no-brainer since they keep well. Fruit pies are OK, but can occasionally suffer from soggy-crust syndrome. This pumpkin swirl cheesecake, however, will thrive. Even overnight. Get Chowhound's make-ahead pumpkin swirl cheesecake recipe.
  • Somehow lost in the shuffle, this is arguably the best part of Thanksgiving, or any holiday: The booze! Throw together a fun and fabulous large-batch cocktail, like this hot spiked wassail, and watch Aunt Janet go! Get Chowhound's make-ahead hot spiked wassail recipe.

Prechop and prep

Chopping vegetables is proven to be therapeutic, but not when you've got 427 other things to do: The dog just swallowed the elf off the shelf and your sister showed up early with her "free-spirited" twins. Do yourself a favor: Chop, peel and wash as much as you can the night before and seal it all in plastic bags or other storage containers. You'll be so glad you did. 

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Be a boss

Don't be afraid to delegate dishes and tasks to guests, but be smart and gauge their strengths and capabilities in advance. Don't put your sophomore-at-Michigan State nephew in charge of the bar, for instance. You'll end up with an ice luge and 30-pack of Busch Light.

Some people love cooking and will be delighted to pitch in, but give options like a dessert or simple side dish. If you are going to ask for help, do it passively and make sure they really have the time. They may genuinely be too busy, and nobody wants Grudge Judy at the holiday table.

OK, I think my work here is done. Get out there and hack your way to a Thanksgiving so delicious and stress-free, you might just volunteer to host Christmas.

Just kidding. Don't do that. Put down the wine.

For more Thanksgiving tips, hacks and recipes, check out Chowhound's Ultimate Thanksgiving guide and Ultimate guide to Friendsgiving.