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Thanksgiving Troubleshooting: 10 Ways to Avoid Disaster

Published in Gourmet Live 11.07.12
Bad things can happen to even the most seasoned cooks on Turkey Day. We've got easy solutions for your kitchen conundrums, including lumpy gravy, dry stuffing, last-minute guests, and burnt pie crust

By Lauren Salkeld
Thanksgiving Troubleshooting: 10 Ways to Avoid Disaster

Planning ahead might be the secret to a stress-free Thanksgiving, but sometimes, no matter how organized you are, you still run into Turkey Day trouble. We rounded up 10 of the most common Thanksgiving mishaps—from forgetting to defrost the turkey to burning the pie crust—and then racked our collective brain for the best last-minute solutions. Follow our advice to keep your Thanksgiving dilemmas from turning into Thanksgiving disasters.

You've Got Last-Minute Guests

It's 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving eve and your sister calls to say she's bringing her new boyfriend—plus his parents and younger brother, the one who plays college football and eats about three times as much as the average person. Before you succumb to a panic attack, relax and focus on hors d'oeuvres. At parties, people have a tendency to fill their bellies with whatever nuts, cheese, dips, and crackers you put in front of them, and while that habit can be irksome if you're serving an elaborate meal, in this case you can use it to your advantage. Start by offering more of your planned hors d'oeuvres, then figure out what you can add to your roster of appetizers. Scout the fridge, freezer, and pantry for supplies, and get ready to improvise: Frozen pizza can be cut into small hors d'oeuvre–size pieces; a jar of olives or a can of white beans can be puréed with garlic and olive oil to make an easy spread; and goat cheese can be scooped into balls and rolled in herbs, spices, or crushed nuts.

For your main course, bread is a lifesaver: Defrost and toast that baguette sitting in your freezer and pair it with an irresistible homemade spread—blend softened butter with either maple syrup or fresh herbs. Bread can also be combined with one or more vegetables plus some eggs and cream and baked into a savory bread pudding. Also check to see if you can double or stretch any of your recipes using what you already have on hand—and don't be afraid to be creative. You might not have more green beans but you do have some red onions, so why not caramelize those and make the dish more interesting and larger. Potato recipes tend to be flexible, making them great candidates for stretching. Try adding pure canned pumpkin and cubed Fontina to puréed potatoes for a cheesy, seasonal—and more substantial—dish. Or, turn mashed potatoes into an enticing gratin by adding puréed cauliflower and garlic.

These menu adjustments might all seem minor, but making several small upgrades is much easier than adding an entirely new dish to your menu—or getting a larger turkey at the last minute, for that matter. It's an excellent way to make your overall feast more substantial.

You've Got Vegetarian Guests

In your effort to expunge last year's unfortunate Tofurky incident from your brain, you also managed to forget that three of your cousins are vegetarians. No one expects an omnivore to prepare a turkey substitute on Thanksgiving, but it's a good idea to serve at least a couple of meat-free options so your veggie-loving guests aren't limited to crescent rolls and cranberry sauce. First, remove any unnecessary or garnish-y meat, such as the bacon topping on the Brussels sprouts or the sausage in the stuffing—if you can't part with the sausage, simply make a meat-free option in addition to the meat-ful version. And speaking of stuffing, don't stuff the turkey. Instead, bake your meat-free stuffing in a casserole dish and serve it as dressing, drizzled with mushroom stock or vegetable broth. Lastly, consider using what you have on hand to add an impromptu dish to the menu. A bag of spinach can easily be turned into creamed spinach with a little cream and nutmeg. Rice, couscous, or quinoa can be dressed up with chopped nuts or herbs, dried fruit, or spices. The goal is to create the illusion that rather than forgetting your relatives' dietary restrictions, you always planned on serving a vegetarian-friendly feast.

You Forgot to Order a Turkey

If it's Thanksgiving Day or even a couple days before and you don't already have a turkey in your refrigerator or on order at the market, the chances of finding one are slim. The good news is that there's an easy and superfast solution: Buy a mix of turkey breasts, drumsticks, and thighs (10 pounds will feed about 8 people), rub them with butter, salt, pepper, and fresh herbs, and roast for about an hour and 45 minutes. You can even use the pan drippings to make delicious gravy (the rule of thumb is 1 cup liquid to 1 tablespoon fat and 1 tablespoon flour).

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.