Thanksgiving Troubleshooting: 10 Ways to Avoid Disaster

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You Forgot to Defrost the Turkey

Defrosting the turkey in the refrigerator is safe and practically effortless, but it's also a super-slow process—you need to allow about 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds, so a 13- to 16-pound turkey takes three days. If you're short on time, a water bath is your best bet. It's more labor-intensive but fast, cutting the defrosting time down to 6 to 8 hours for a 13- to 16-pound bird. Make sure the turkey's wrapper is watertight, with no holes or tears, then place the bird in a large sink or basin filled with cold (below 40°F) water. As the bird thaws, drain and replace the water every 30 minutes, making sure the water temperature stays below 40°F. If you live in a chilly climate, set the water bath outside to help keep it cold. Once the turkey is defrosted, thoroughly scrub the sink or basin to remove any bacteria.

Your Turkey Is Getting Sunburnt

Your turkey needs at least two more hours in the oven, but its skin is already looking mighty crisp. Thankfully there are two very easy ways to slow down your bird's browning exterior. If you're not already basting, start. Use a spoon or turkey baster to drizzle turkey stock all over your bird's crisping skin to help keep it moist. But be quick about it: Every time you open the door, your oven loses heat, slowing down the roasting process. Tenting is another option: Using a double-thick layer of buttered aluminum foil, loosely cover the turkey to protect its skin from the oven's heat.

The Instant-Read Thermometer Broke

Using an instant-read thermometer is the easiest and safest way to determine when your turkey is ready. But if your thermometer fails you or (gasp!) you don't have one, there are other options. A traditional meat thermometer—the type that stays in the turkey throughout roasting—is the second best option. After that you're left with counting on the juices to determine doneness. This isn't the most reliable technique, but if you prick both thighs and the juices run clear, your turkey is most likely ready. However, we'd recommend trying to borrow a thermometer—either an instant-read or a traditional meat thermometer—from a neighbor before resorting to the clear-juices test, especially if roasting a heritage bird, which may never lose its pink juices. In short: Testing with an instant-read thermometer is so much safer than other methods that several staffers keep an extra one as a backup.

Your Stuffing or Dressing Is Dry

If you stuff your turkey, dryness is unlikely to be a problem, as the bird's juices naturally moisten the bread or rice. But if you prefer to bake this savory dish—whether you call it stuffing or dressing—casserole-style, it may suffer from a lack of moisture. The solution is easy: Before the dressing goes in the oven, drizzle it with a rich, delicious turkey stock (about to cup for 8 to 10 servings). To amp up the flavor, finely mince and sauté the giblets and add them to the stock. And if your dressing is vegetarian, use vegetable broth or, even better, a rich mushroom stock instead.

Your Stuffing Is Undercooked

When you check the internal temperature of the turkey, you should also check the temperature of the stuffing—both need to reach 165°F. But what happens when the turkey is cooked and the stuffing is not? Rather than overcooking your bird, spoon the stuffing into a dish and microwave it until it reaches 165°F. If you don't have a microwave, scoop the stuffing into an oven-safe dish and continue to roast it while the turkey rests.

The Gravy Is Lumpy

It's more than just a Thanksgiving joke—lumpy gravy happens, and it's not a pretty sight. The problem usually arises from whisking the turkey juices into the roux or other thickener too quickly, so preventing lumps is really just a matter of timing, and you will get better with practice. If you do end up with lumps, simply strain them out with a fine-mesh strainer. Gravy that is too thick or too thin is also a problem. Overly thick gravy can be thinned with water, or, to avoid diluting its flavor, stock. Thin gravy can be gently boiled down to reduce and thicken it. Or, simply add more of your chosen thickener, whether it's a flour-based roux or a cornstarch and water slurry. (To make a slurry, combine equal parts cold water and cornstarch, whisk them slowly into your gravy, and bring the mixture to a boil to thicken.)

Your Pie Shells Are Burnt or Broken

Burnt the pie shell while blind baking? Dropped it on the floor? Not a problem. If you're making a fruit pie, such as apple and pear, go ahead and make the filling and serve it as a lovely seasonal compote with ice cream; you can do the same with pecan pie filling. If you're dealing with pumpkin pie—or any custard-based pie—top the custard with whipped cream instead of ice cream. If any of your burnt or broken crust can be salvaged, break it up and use it as a topping. Another option is to turn your pie into a crisp: Spread the filling in an ovenproof dish, top with a crumble mixture of flour, chopped nuts, butter, and sugar, and bake until the filling is hot and the topping golden brown. If your pie did make it to the oven but cracked on top—a common problem with pumpkin pie—make an extra-large batch of whipped cream and spoon a fluffy layer across the pie's entire surface. Or, rather than setting the pie out on the buffet, cut it into slices and serve—no one will even notice the cracks.

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