Whether this is your first Thanksgiving dinner or your 40th, our Test Kitchen experts have some ideas to take out stress and add more flavor. Print this at-a-glance list of quick tips and post it on your refrigerator to help your Turkey Day go as smoothly as possible.
Well in advance, write down your entire menu and post it somewhere in your kitchen so you don't remember midway through dinner that the mashed potatoes are still in the refrigerator.
Prepare a cooking schedule and timetable based on your recipes and write it down. Post it in a visible place in your kitchen.
Clean out your refrigerator a few days before you begin cooking to make room for make-ahead dishes.
Set your Thanksgiving table the night before -- or earlier, if you don't use your dining room every night.
Assemble and organize your serving dishes and utensils a few days before. Pair them up and put a sticky note on each serving dish that tells you what's going in it so that in the last-minute frenzy of getting dinner on the table, you don't forget.
Defrosting a turkey: Defrosting time for your turkey depends on how big your bird is. Use these figures as a guide -- and always defrost a frozen turkey in its original wrapping in a pan in the refrigerator (don't count the day of roasting):
10- to 12-pound bird: 2 days 12- to 14-pound bird: 3 days 14- to 18-pound bird: 4 days 18-pound-plus bird: 5 days
Consider grilling your bird: Free up oven space for side dishes by cooking your turkey (unstuffed!) in a covered grill. (Although this can be done with a charcoal grill, a gas or propane model will be much less work.) An 8- to 12-pound turkey will take between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 hours to grill over medium coals. Be sure to grill indirectly (with the heat source coming from under each side of the bird rather than directly under it). You can bake your stuffing in the oven with the rest of the sides.
Turkey for a smaller crowd: Unless you really relish lots of leftovers, consider roasting a turkey breast rather than a whole bird if you're having six or fewer guests.
Herbs for stuffing: The best herbs for your stuffing are the ones you enjoy the most, though you may want to consider some of the sturdier, highly aromatic ones such as sage, thyme, lemon thyme, rosemary, and flat-leaf Italian parsley.
For the shortest cooking time: Keep the oven door shut as much as possible. Slow, steady heat coaxes maximum flavor from the bird and produces a golden, crackly skin. Basting is not necessary, and may lengthen the cooking time.
How to tell if your turkey is done: A meat thermometer inserted into the thigh (but not touching bone) should read 180 degrees F and the stuffing should be 165 degrees F. The drumsticks should move very easily in their sockets and juices from the thigh will run clear when the thigh is pierced with a long-tined fork.
Instant appetizers: Need something for guests to nibble on while the turkey finishes roasting? Try these:
Thawed, frozen puff pastry dough cut into strips, twisted and sprinkled with any of the following toppings, and then baked: sesame seeds or fennel seeds, dried herbs, finely grated cheese, smoked paprika, sea salt and black pepper.
Purchased seeded-top rolls or bread cut into pieces and served with flavored dipping oils such as basil, roasted garlic, lemon, or orange.
Roasted almonds or pistachios.
A blend of blue cheese and cream cheese spread on a dried apricot and topped with a pecan half.
Dress up your vegetables: A simple, slightly fancied-up roasted or steamed vegetable dish is a welcome addition to the Thanksgiving table. Toss hot cooked vegetables with one (or more!) of the following:
Homemade herb butter (your favorite fresh herb blended with softened butter)
Chopped, toasted nuts
Chopped, sauteed caramelized garlic, shallots, or onions
Finely zested lemon peel and coarsely ground black pepper
Toasted, buttered bread crumbs
Diced bits of prosciutto or crumbled, crisp-cooked bacon
Finely chopped fresh chives or green onions
Any finely grated grana-style (grating) cheese, such as Parmesan, Romano, or Asiago
Butter's better: For basting a turkey and making crust for pumpkin pie, use butter; nothing beats its flavor and richness. If you do decide to use margarine instead of butter, use only a stick margarine that contains at least 80 percent vegetable oil.
How to tell if your pumpkin pie is done: Insert a table knife near the center of the pie. If it comes out clean, the pie is done. (The knife test may cause the pumpkin filling to crack as it cools.) You can also shake the pie gently on the oven rack; when the filling is set, the pie is done.
Shortcut piecrust: If the thought of making homemade piecrust is overwhelming, take one of these shortcuts: Frozen unbaked pastry shells, which come in regular or deep-dish foil pans; folded refrigerated unbaked crusts (a 15-ounce package contains two 9-inch piecrusts); pie sticks, each of which can be combined with water and rolled into a 9-inch single-crust pie (they come in packages of two or four sticks); or a package of piecrust mix, which -- when combined with water -- yields enough pastry for a 9-inch double-crust pie.