5 Things You Should Absolutely Do Ahead for Thanksgiving
In the last few years, I've handled several Thanksgiving meals, and the biggest lesson I've taken away is that cooking as much as you can ahead of time is the key to a delicious and fun holiday. In fact, I strongly believe that Thanksgiving is a two-day holiday: Wednesday is for cooking, ideally surrounded by friends and family, getting everything as prepared as possible. Thursday, then, is for simply managing your oven and reheating schedule, drinking, and enjoying the day. But figuring out how to organize that preparation can be confusing, starting with the most important question: What can you cook ahead, and what should be left for the day-of? Here's your answer.
What to Do Ahead for Thanksgiving
You can go almost all the way with your stuffing the day before – toast the bread, sweat the aromatics, and put the whole thing together. Then, tightly wrap it in plastic and stow it in your fridge, where the flavors will meld and the whole thing will get even more delicious before you bake it off on the day-of.
The cliché is that pie is best when it's warm, but the truth is most pies are better once they've fully cooled to room temperature. Pies like pumpkin and pecan need to fully cool to set so they don't just become a sloppy mess when sliced. Even an apple pie, which is delicious warm, is better off fully cooled and then rewarmed. Fully cooling allows the juices in the pie to thicken and reabsorb, allowing you to cut tall, impressive slices rather than jumbled piles of warm apples. If you really must have your pie warm, make your pie the day before, then let it cool, uncovered. A few minutes before you want to serve it on Thanksgiving, put it back in a warm oven for 20 minutes or so. The juices will stay thickened, but the pie will be warm, giving you the best of both worlds.
It's going to sound crazy when I tell you this, but I'll tell you anyway. When I'm in charge of Thanksgiving, I make the gravy several weeks ahead of time. That's right, weeks. A few weeks before Thanksgiving, I make a big batch of very delicious, very rich turkey broth with wings, necks, and lots of aromatics in my Instant Pot — and then I freeze most of it, except for the portion I reduce and turn into gravy, which I also freeze. Doing it this way allows me to use an utterly scrumptious, homemade turkey stock in dishes like my stuffing and mashed potatoes, and it keeps me from having to stress out over making gravy in real time on the day of . Instead, I know that this key piece of the meal is already finished (and I can make an extra-large batch, because you never have enough gravy.)
Try This: Chef John's Make-Ahead Turkey Gravy
This one is easy: Mash and season your potatoes the day before, then stow them in a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. Reheat by putting them in a saucepan over low heat and mixing in more warm milk and butter — the added liquid will make them extra luscious, smooth, and flavorful.
Check out our collection of Mashed Potato Recipes to find the perfect recipe for your table.
Setting the table the day before Thanksgiving will save you a headache on the day-of. It pays off to go ahead and make sure you know what you'll be serving each dish in. (I've even gone so far as to use sticky notes to mark what goes where.) If you're worried about dust settling, you can always use a second tablecloth to go over the whole setting.
What You Definitely Shouldn't Make Ahead
You can wash your vegetables and cut them, and even make your salad dressing, but please don't dress your salad until the very last minute, otherwise the whole thing will turn into a soggy, unappetizing mess.
Related: 22 Simple Fall and Winter Salads
It's tough to reheat a roasted bird without drying it out, so I recommend letting the turkey be something you actually do day-of. The bonus here is that the aroma of the turkey will make your house truly smell like Thanksgiving, and there's no candle that can do that for you. Just make sure the turkey is seasoned and ready to go right into the oven first thing in the morning on Thanksgiving Day.
For more inspiration, explore our entire collection of Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Recipes.