Top 6 Tips to Avoid a Thanksgiving Dinner Meltdown

By Elaine Corn

In a perfect world, we would start making food for Thanksgiving on Halloween. In reality, even experienced cooks don't do this. Most of us cook the whole meal on Thanksgiving Day. Ever been in a grocery store on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving? Point proved.

Completing an entire Thanksgiving meal the day of is certainly reasonable and achievable, even for beginners. Here are six tips to get you going. Some are sure to horrify purists. But heat is heat and flesh is flesh. When they meet in an oven, the bird will cook.

1. Go over your recipes the night before.

Know your plan of action. If there's time and you're not too tired, chop onions, celery, and carrots and hold them in the refrigerator in zip bags. Get out the turkey's roasting pan and any baking dishes you haven't used all year. Check them because they might need washing.

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2. Start with a fully defrosted turkey.

None of the information here applies if you've forgotten to defrost your turkey. If you've bought a frozen one the night before, you are in trouble. Yes, you can try sticking a blow dryer up the turkey's cavity, but you will not only create a heated incubator for bacteria in the cavity, you will end up with a gross blow dryer you'll never want to touch again.

If caught short the night before, buy a fresh turkey. If you're so unlucky that fresh turkeys are sold out, but a smallish frozen one -- 10 to 12 pounds. You can defrost it safely -- still wrapped -- in a sink filled with cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes, calibrating one 30-minute soak per pound of turkey. A 10-pound turkey will take about five to six hours to defrost.

Extra tip, just for planners: When do I set the table? When should I serve? Should I brine?

3. Tackle the clamp.

Fresh or frozen, the turkey's drumsticks are constrained for shipping by the meanest thing in cooking -- the clamp. Whether metal or plastic, the bird comes with no directions on how to free the drumsticks. You've got to open the cavity to remove the giblets. In my struggles to remove the clamp, I've drawn blood. That's because, at least with the metal ones, the maneuver is counter-intuitive.

Metal clamp: With a towel, pull the upside-down "U" toward you. With your other hand, find the strength to lift the loosest drumstick up, over and out of the clamp. Once the first drumstick is free, the second one will come over and out easily. But the clamp is still in the bird! Squeeze its sides in, and push it away from you. It will slide out.

Plastic clamp: Snip it with scissors, free the drumsticks, reach in and remove the bag of giblets.

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4. Always use a meat thermometer.

Turkeys are tricky. The breast meat cooks first, but it's still attached to the bird while it waits for the dark meat to finish. White meat is ready at 170 F, dark meat at 175 to 180 F. To take a reading, insert it in the dark meat, which takes the longest to cook. Newer digital thermometers stay in the turkey for the entire roasting time and beep when the set temperature is reached.

A 10- to 14-pound turkey should be cooked at 350 F for 2 to 2½ hours. A 14- to 18-pound bird should cook at 325 F for 2½ to 3½ hours.

If you don't have a meat thermometer, here's the old-fashioned method. Gently pull a drumstick (use a towel to hold on) away from the body. Where the skin has stretched, use a small knife to make a cut to expose the meat. Take a look. If you see red juices or pink meat, keep roasting. Check for doneness at 15-minute intervals until juices run clear. I like this method because no one will see the cut.

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5. After the turkey has roasted an hour, add about 2 cups of water to the bottom of the pan.

This is the beginning of your gravy or natural pan juices.

6. If, after carving, parts are undercooked, microwave them for a minute or two.

No one will know.

Final extra tip: A stylish next-day party recipe: Turkey Soup With Gruyère-Stuffed Crêpes

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