Thanksgiving is the most difficult holiday for cooks. There’s nothing to distract everyone from the food (unless you’re from a big football family) and the outcome of the whole holiday experience rests on your abilities. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first time cooking Thanksgiving or your 31st: the pressure is on to make everyone’s holiday perfect.
So what should you do when something goes wrong, as it inevitably will? In some cases, you’ll just have to fess up and make tuna sandwiches, but for most cooking disasters there are remedies! Here are few I’ve encountered in my 17 years of acting as Thanksgiving emergency counselor for the Davis Food Co-op:
The turkey is still frozen
This happens a lot. (In fact, go check your turkey right now — if it’s still hard as a rock right now, you have time to take emergency action! I’ll wait.)
Little bits of ice are fine, but your turkey is really ready to cook when you can remove the innards packaged inside, when the flesh yields when you poke it with a finger and when the leg can be moved.
Fully frozen turkeys take 30 hours to thaw in the refrigerator, for every 5 pounds of turkey. That means you’re looking at almost five days for your 18-pound hard-as-a-bowling-ball turkey.
Fresh turkeys are, by law, chilled as cold as possible without actually freezing before delivery to retailers. This results in a firm, cold turkey “crusted” in ice, but the flesh will still give a bit when you poke it. Fresh turkeys over 16 pounds need at least 48 hours in the home refrigerator to be oven-ready.
If you realize the night before that your turkey is only partially thawed, brining it will speed the thawing and make a better bird. Our favorite brine recipe is below.
If you realize your turkey is still too frozen to cook on Thanksgiving morning, a cold water bath may still save the day — submerge the wrapped turkey in a sink of cold water. Turn frequently and change water often, or rig the sink to let water escape slowly and leave the tap on a trickle. Either way, it will still take about 30 minutes a pound to go from frozen solid to ready to cook.
Basic Brine for Turkey
1 cup kosher salt
½ cup brown sugar
about 40 sage leaves
4 quarts water
Putting it together:
Mix all ingredients together in a large pot. Bring to a boil and stir until everything is dissolved. Cool. Add 16 cups of cold water. Submerge turkey in brine in a non-reactive (plastic) container in the refrigerator for about an hour per pound. Before cooking, rinse turkey well under running water and pat dry. (Be sure to clean the sink carefully afterwards.)
My turkey has extra parts
Yay! You’ve found the turkey neck, which is inside the main cavity of the turkey. Use it to make the stock for your gravy. You should also look for the giblets (the heart, liver and gizzard), which are usually in a little bag tucked into the neck skin (the other end of the turkey). You can cook and mince these to use in your gravy or stuffing, or cook them for the kitty.
If the extra bits aren’t made of turkey, you’re still OK — Diestel Turkeys have a nylon ring set into the main cavity to use as a truss for the legs. Butterball turkeys may have a pop-up timer — it looks like a little button, and is heat-activated, so will, in fact, pop right up when your turkey reaches the right temperature.
The gravy is … so not right.
Bad gravy will earn you worse reviews than dry turkey. There are many ways to made bad gravy. A few possibilities:
* Gravy that won’t thicken can be helped with the addition of a cornstarch slurry: for every cup of gravy, stir one tablespoon (that’s the big one) cornstarch into two tablespoons cold broth or water. Add half of the mixture to the hot gravy, stirring constantly, then simmer (that’s not quite boiling, but you should see tiny bubbles forming) for a minute. If it’s not thick enough, repeat with the other half if the mixture.
* Greasy gravy isn’t nice. Pour the gravy into a measuring cup or gravy boat. Put it in the fridge for 5 minutes, which lets some of the grease rise to the top. Float a slice of bread on top to soak up the grease. Repeat as needed.
* Lumpy gravy is a cinch: pour it through a strainer. You could spend forever trying to smash up the lumps, but it won’t really help.
* It just doesn’t taste good. The high point of my co-op family Thanksgiving last year was a voice mail from our friend Lis, who was visiting relatives for the holiday. She called to recount her triumph in turning someone else’s horrible potion into delicious gravy. You can too!
With gravy, it’s all about umami, that rich, savory flavor found in meat, but also in mushrooms, tomatoes and soy sauce. If your gravy is weak-tasting, let it gently reduce while you sauté a handful of minced mushrooms and any kind of finely chopped onion until they turn a deep brown. Add a clove or two of chopped garlic, then toss in a couple of tablespoons of wine and let it cook down. Finally, add a shot or two of soy sauce and stir your now-concentrated gravy into the pan.
Quick, vegetarian gravy? This one is a winner.
2 tablespoons minced carrot
2 tablespoons minced celery
2 tablespoons minced onion
4 white mushrooms, minced
1 teaspoon olive oil
4 cups broth
½ teaspoon dried thyme
3 tablespoons cornstarch
salt and pepper to taste
Putting it together:
Sauté minced vegetables in oil until soft; add thyme. Mix cornstarch with ¼ cup cold broth. Add remaining broth to vegetables and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in cornstarch mixture. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly, and cook until thick, about 1 minute. Add salt and pepper to taste. Can be made up to 1 hour ahead of time and kept warm until needed. Stir in more broth if it thickens up too much. Makes 4 cups.
The dog stole the turkey
My friend Art reports: “Gathering the guests for appetizers and drinks in front of the giant picture window … as if on cue the dog runs by … with our dinner turkey in his mouth.” If the turkey is uncooked, rinse it off, cut off any gnawed bits and cook it. (Keep an eye on the dog — not only can uncooked poultry harbor bacteria, but he may have eaten part of the wrapper.)
If the turkey is already cooked, I genuinely can’t, from a food safety perspective, recommend eating it. Side dishes and laughter will make a good substitute!
I have more dishes than will fit in the oven/The oven is broken.
First, seriously, Facebook about it — a nearby friend may be out of town, house-sitting or otherwise have extra oven space. Failing that, you’ll have to improvise.
Some dishes, like scalloped potatoes, can be cooked early and reheated in the microwave. An electric skillet actually does a fair job of baking things like biscuits — set it 25 degrees lower and keep a close eye on the bottoms. The grill and the slow cooker also are possibilities. Be inventive!
As a last resort, reconcile yourself to Thanksgiving being eaten over the course of several hours as things come out of the oven — which, incidentally, will allow you to eat more! A special note from my friend Scott: If you (or your spouse) decides to take the oven apart in an attempt to fix it, photos at every stage will greatly assist you in putting it back together.
Everyone deserves a nice meal! If you know vegetarians are coming to your traditional dinner, it’s pretty easy to plan a nice vegetarian entrée. If they show up at the last minute, after the sausage is already in the stuffing and the bacon in the Brussels sprouts, it can get tricky. Don’t panic!
Salad, rolls, and mashed potatoes with butter are a cinch. A little dish of vegetarian stuffing is usually doable, even if the bread part is hamburger buns from the freezer. And if you have eggs, cheese, quick whole grains, nuts or even a can of chickpeas in the house, you can put together a simple main dish in no time; a frittata with frozen veggies, curried chickpeas or a quinoa and vegetable dish. Here’s our favorite recipe, ready in just 20 minutes:
1 cup sliced almonds
1 tablespoon olive oil or butter
1 cup sliced shallots
2 teaspoon chopped fresh sage
1 cup dried cranberries
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups uncooked quinoa
4 cups vegetable broth
Putting it together:
Rinse quinoa well. Let drain.
Toast the almonds in a dry pan until golden brown. Reserve. In the same pan, cook shallots in olive oil until soft and starting to color, about 5 minutes. Add sage, salt and cranberries.
Add quinoa and broth and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to medium, cover and let cook 15 minutes, until liquid is absorbed and grain is tender. Fluff with a fork, stir in almonds and serve.
The pumpkin pie is still jiggly
That’s un-good in any custard-based dessert. We’ve had some success at the annual Holiday Meal with putting the jiggly one back in a 350-degree oven until it sets, or reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Chances are that the crust on an underbaked pie also is underdone, but if you notice the edges getting too browned before the pie sets, use foil to make a collar to cover just the edges.
The gelatin dessert hasn’t set
If it’s been four hours in a cold fridge and the wiggly, wobbly dessert is still soup, you’re in trouble. If you have fresh pineapple in there, you won’t be able to save it. Otherwise, you have a fair chance of rescuing it by simply adding more jelling agent — follow the directions on the package, using the existing soup in place of the water called for. Strain out any fruit/nuts/marshmallows first, and add them back in when appropriate.
The mashed potatoes are lumpy
If you have a ricer, a quick squeeze through there should solve the problem. In a pinch, you can even force them through a colander with the back of a ladle. This will cool them down quite a bit, so you’ll have to decide if the lumps are really that bad.
The rolls are burned
If they’re just a little burned, flip them over, slice off the bottoms and butter the exposed insides as if you meant it to be that way. If they’re inedible, you can get drop biscuits on the table in under 20 minutes. Put them in the oven, start serving, and pull them out hot and delicious just as everyone sits down to eat.
4 tablespoons cold butter
1¾ cup flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¾–1 cup milk
Putting it together:
Preheat oven to 350. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt together. Cut the butter into the flour until it has the consistency of cornmeal. Add the smaller amount of milk and stir; add more milk if needed to get a wet dough, spoonable.
Drop the dough out by the tablespoon onto a greased cookie sheet, and bake about 12 minutes. Makes about 16.