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The last-minute guide to cooking and hosting Thanksgiving

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

For many people, Thanksgiving is the most ambitious cooking project of the year — the one meal where you're making a lot of food for a lot of people.

Some people are organized and already have their cranberry jelly chilling and their sweet potatoes roasted. Some people still don't know where to start. Thankfully, there are guides on guides on guides out there on the Internet to help you. There are entire cookbooks dedicated to Thanksgiving. And when our resources ran out, we turned to advice from a pro: Nate Waugaman, head chef of America Eats Tavern in Washington, D.C.

Don't let Thanksgiving intimidate you!

1. What can I do right now?

Raw turkey


Thanksgiving dinner is a mere two days away. So if you bought a frozen turkey, it should already be thawing. A 16- to 20-pound turkey will take up to five days to thaw in the refrigerator. But if you're just reading this now, don't panic. You can still thaw it in a sink filled with cold water on Thanksgiving day, when it will take up to 10 hours to fully thaw.

If you bought a fresh turkey, it's time to start brining it. Serious Eats has the definitive guide to brining.

And don't stop there: many Thanksgiving dishes can be made, or at least started, in advance. Cranberry sauce will keep for days, and pastry dough often has to rest. Roasting sweet potatoes in advance makes them easier to peel. You can even turn mashed potatoes into a reheatable casserole if you add sour cream or cream cheese. And pumpkin pie (or pumpkin cheesecake) is generally just fine made a day or more in advance, or the morning of Thanksgiving. You can even make gravy in advance.

You'll still be shuffling things in and out of the oven the day of the meal, but it cuts down on the more hectic parts of Thanksgiving day. The Associated Press has a guide to what you should and shouldn't make ahead. And here are some more recipes for a make-ahead Thanksgiving from Martha Stewart and Buzzfeed.

2. I haven't planned at all and I don't know what side dishes to make!

Good news, says Waugaman, of America Eats: Thanksgiving is a great time to use seasonal vegetables. Thanksgiving side dishes are a good chance to use vegetables that are in season while still tasting traditional. This is a good time of year for root vegetables — carrots, beats, parsnips, and so on. Brussels sprouts are also in season, and so is a wide variety of squash. Chop as much as you can the day before, so all you have to do on Thanksgiving Day is put it in the oven.

3. I am completely intimidated by the idea of cooking an entire turkey. Isn't there another option?

Turkey breast


Consider separating the breasts from the legs and cooking them separately. "If you roast the turkey whole, either the breast isn’t as juicy as you want, or the legs aren’t as tender or falling apart as you want," Waugaman says.

Once you've broken down the bird — which you can do yourself if you're feeling ambitious, or you can just buy turkey parts separately at the store if you're a normal person — there are new possibilities for what to do with it. You can roast the breast and braise the thighs and legs. Or you can confit the thighs and legs in fat (which can be done a few days in advance). You can even turn the turkey breast into a porchetta.

4. I have a tiny kitchen and I have no idea how to make everything come out at the same time!

The experts are unanimous here: make as much as you can in advance, and when you can use something other than your oven, do it. The Kitchn has a compilation of recipes you can make in your slow cooker. Serious Eats suggests warming up roasted vegetables in a toaster oven. Roasting your turkey in parts will also be faster, meaning that the oven will be free for other dishes.

If you make or assemble your casseroles in advance, you can heat it all up together at 350° F (or in the microwave, if you must), along with the stuffing, while your turkey is resting once you take it out of the oven.

5. I don't know how to carve a turkey.

YouTube is here to help.

6. What do I do if my turkey is too dry to eat?

All is not lost! If it's not too dry, you might just be able to slosh on a lot of gravy. If the situation is really dire, Waugaman recommends this chef's trick. First, carve the turkey. Then thin out your gravy with some additional chicken stock, and slowly warm up the turkey meat in the gravy. It'll moisten it more than simply adding gravy at the table.

7. How do I win all of my family's Thanksgiving arguments?

We've got you covered on that, too, with our Thanksgiving argument survival guide.

8. What should I serve my vegetarian guests?

Not Tofurky.

9. What do I do with all the leftovers?

Turkey gumbo. Turkey enchiladas. Cranberry cocktails. Turkey salad sandwiches. Sweet potato croquettes. Thanksgiving empanadas. A stuffing strata. Turkey noodle casserole. Here are 10 more recipes. And 36 more. And a few dozen more. Of course, if the dinner was a success, you can always pile it on a platter and reheat it a second time.

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