If there’s one rule that Thanksgiving experts agree on, it’s to plan ahead. Make lots of lists. Start cooking a week before. Even the late Anthony Bourdain’s No. 1 Thanksgiving ultimatum was to not start cooking on Thanksgiving Day.
But while most hosts have every intention of serving a well-thought-out, homemade Thanksgiving feast, that rarely becomes reality. So professional chefs and sommeliers are sharing their best tips for scrambling when key ingredients are not available, extra guests show up, the pie falls on the floor — or you’ve simply run out of time.
Buy time with safe snack starters: “Have a vegetable crudite platter ready before the meal,” said Katie Button, chef-owner of Curate in Asheville, North Carolina, and she encourages using whatever vegetables are on hand. “I serve it with horseradish dipping sauce. It buys you time if you’re running late with cooking but is also light and bright and not filling before the main event.”
Embrace casseroles — and cans: “They are super easy to reheat and always delicious,” said Aaron Bludorn, executive chef of Cafe Boulud in New York. “You can get creative with them and they still scream Thanksgiving. Canned green beans can be quickly and easily fashioned into a last-minute side with sherry bacon vinaigrette. White beans from the pantry can become a mini-cassoulet with bacon and sausage (left over from breakfast), layer breadcrumbs on top and then bake.”
Yes, that means canned cranberry, too: “No matter how many talented chefs you have in the kitchen, you can’t say ‘Thanksgiving’ better than a purchased can of cranberry sauce,” said Mario Carbone, chef/owner of The Grill in Manhattan.
Ramen-ize your turkey rub: Erik Bruner-Yang, chef at Brothers and Sisters in Washington, D.C., suggests using instant ramen spice packages. “Rub the outside of the turkey with the seasoning package mixture,” he said. “I love the flavor: garlic, ginger, onion, chili pepper, white pepper, sesame oil, chili oil, and dehydrated vegetables, already perfectly portioned so you don’t have to worry about measuring. Then save the juices from roasting to make turkey ramen noodle soup for leftovers.”
Cut down on roast times: “If you run out of time to roast a whole turkey,” suggests Craig Koketsu, chef and partner at New York’s Quality Meats, “take the legs and thighs off the bird and place them on top of a casserole of stuffing before baking. It cuts the roasting time way back, and allows you to cook the breast perfectly without worrying about whether the dark meat is cooked thoroughly. And it gives the stuffing in the casserole real roasted turkey juices to absorb, because there is never enough stuffing from the turkey cavity alone.”
Upgrade store-bought stuffing: “Pepperidge Farm stuffing is still my favorite, but I add homemade chicken stock and grate good Parmesan over the top,” said Caitlin McCormick, pastry chef of Fig in Charleston, South Carolina.
Use the outdoor grill — even if you’re not cooking with it: “If you have an outdoor grill, turn the heat on very low and use it as a hot box when preparing multiple dishes, McCormick said. “Just make sure your baking dish is cast iron or metal (not glass).” Bonus tip: “Set up a cooler with beverages to save as much refrigerator space as possible.”
Make good gravy simple: “Soy sauce is a secret weapon for my gravy,” Quality Meats’ Koketsu said. “It helps to round out its flavor while also adding a nice caramel color.”
Make butter punch above its weight: McCormick suggests buying bread or dinner rolls from your favorite local baker and then dressing up the butter — it’s minimum effort for a huge payoff. “An herb compound butter looks great rolled into a log and sliced. Or you can paddle room temp butter with a little honey and cinnamon, load it into a piping bag with an open star tip and pipe into individual dishes. This takes 10 minutes but looks so fancy on the table.”
Raid your freezer: “Don’t be afraid to use frozen vegetables,” said Ross Henke, executive chef of Quiote in Chicago. “Some, especially corn and peas, taste better than fresh at this time of the year. Microwave your frozen peas, add some butter, kosher salt, chives and tarragon, and it’s a light and refreshing but crave-able side dish.”
Make pie-making fast: “To make a fast pie, I process sweet potatoes with a food mill, and mix with a little sour cream, fill into a graham cracker shell, and top off with Marshmallow Fluff or marshmallows to sweeten it up,” said Pichet Ong, pastry director at Brothers and Sisters. “You can also make it a savory side dish with oven-dried turkey skin and thyme as a garnish. It’s an updated version of sweet potato casserole.”
Or just spike a milkshake instead: If you run out of time to bake a pie, Brian Christman, executive chef of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in San Diego, has a solution: ice cream drinks. “They are built to please. You can blend vanilla bean ice cream with pumpkin spice and brown sugar, and even add a little dark rum. Or, try vanilla bean with caramel and bourbon.”
Rescue a ruined pie: On the other hand, “if you made an apple pie and then dropped it — which happened to me — rescue the parts that you can, chop it up, and fold it into vanilla ice cream,” said Mindy Segal, owner of Hot Chocolate in Chicago. “Then sprinkle an eyedropper of CBD oil over the ice cream. Problem solved.”
Punch up your drinks: “If you don’t have enough bottles of wine to go around the table, stretch it out into something more festive (and Instagram-friendly) by making a Thanksgiving punch,” said Joe Campanale, owner and wine director of Fausto in Brooklyn. “Combine your red wine with orange slices, your favorite fall warming spices — cinnamon sticks, cloves, or star anise — along with a brown spirit. Cognac, whiskey, or rum will do. You can sweeten it with simple syrup or maple syrup to taste. Serve with ice on the side so it doesn’t get watered down.”
Salvage bad wine: “The Spanish classic of putting red wine in Coke is a good way to spruce up the bad wine your uncle brought with him,” said John deBary, spirits writer and former beverage director of Momofuku.
Cranberry your way to sparkling wine cocktails: “Everyone always has extra cranberry sauce left around,” observes Paul McGee, co-owner of Chicago’s tiki bar Lost Lake. “Typically guests will bring sparkling wine. To make it more festive, take 1 teaspoon of spiced cranberry sauce and add it to 5 ounces of sparkling wine in a coupe and you’ll have an easy, nice Champagne cocktail. Also 1 teaspoon of that spiced cranberry sauce can be added to gin and tonics, vodka tonics, or just tonic and soda, too.”
Fancy platters can make up for so-so servings: “Serve your Thanksgiving dishes on beautiful platters,” said Cafe Boulud’s Bludorn. “It’s an easy way to elevate the buffet line and take attention away from a dish that is not perfect.”