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There are, of course, an infinite number of ways to screw up Thanksgiving. You can bring your biological parents unannounced; you can make inappropriate jokes about the recently deceased; you can look bad, smell funny, or take all the scalloped potato crust, leaving just white mush for everybody else. But this being Food & Wine, I will stick to cooking mishaps. Any of these can easily happen, even to an experienced cook, and most of them have at one time or another. So be vigilant!
1. Overcooking. And undercooking. I mean, it’s not as if it will be good anyway; it is turkey, after all. But overcooking, which is by far the more prevalent error, only makes the bad things about turkey even worse. It doesn’t take much: Even if you are slavishly following a good recipe, like this one, all you have to do is have an oven that’s hotter than it says it is. Or put the thermometer in so far that it registers the breastbone temperature rather than the breast meat temperature. Of course, even an overcooked turkey is preferable to the unspeakable gore of an undercooked bird. That is the stuff of childhood trauma.
Solution: Cook the turkey until the legs move freely and the breast feels firm but not hard. Temp it on the cutting board from multiple points. Ideally, the meat right next to the breastbone should be a little underdone; you leave it behind when carving.
2. Failure to plan. I would say that 80 percent of the abject, panicked failures I have experienced in the kitchen don’t come from any catastrophic cooking error. They came from not planning. Thanksgiving is the biggest, most complicated meal most people make all year. They need to make seven or eight separate dishes, all of which have their own cooking times, cooking methods, cooking vessels, serving vessels and resting requirements. (Room-temperature turkey is OK; room-temperature gravy isn’t.) And don’t forget, a lot of these dishes need the same real estate: Try cooking five things on four burners sometime. And that’s not even getting into the statistical improbability of you having eight clean forks, five big platters, six big spoons, ladles, serving forks....
Solution: Think about everything you are going to do, in what order you are going to do it and what that will need. Write it all down. Then look at what you’ve written and think it all through again. Try running around the kitchen with greasy hands looking for a can opener you haven’t seen in weeks.
3. Botched Butchery. The most intimidating part of the entire ludicrous Thanksgiving ritual has to be the carving. It’s just a nightmare. You are performing surgery with unwieldy tools on an odd-shaped cadaver while everyone is watching you. If you don’t cut your hand off you are doing well; the chances are far better that you will drop the turkey, shred its skin and jaggedly butcher the thing in every direction.
Solution: Unless you are a catering professional with a tall hat and are manning a banquet carving station, do all your cutting in the kitchen where you can be messy, take your time and think about what you are doing.
4. Experimenting with unfamiliar birds. One of the many misfortunes visited on progressive households has been the invasion around this time of year of heritage turkeys at the table. You may have read about these birds. They live happily, look beautiful and lack the Barbie-like proportions of today’s genetically engineered turkeys. There’s a reason Thanksgiving birds look so weird though: They are bred to be eaten. Heritage breeds like the Bourbon Red aren’t. They don’t cook the way the birds you are used to do; they don’t taste the way the birds you are used to do; and their thin, stringy breasts are a surefire recipe for leaving everybody hungry.
5. The “From Scratch” Fallacy. Similar in spirit to the Heritage Turkey Fallacy is the “from scratch” fallacy, which holds that, at least on this one occasion, people should make all of their dishes the old-fashioned way: through excruciating, endless labor. I am calling BS on this one for a couple of reasons. First of all, many of the things we love at Thanksgiving—and God knows, there are enough of them—are very hard to make. Are you really going to start boiling turkey carcasses to make stock? Or busting out the mixer to do your own cakes and pies? Will you cook down cranberries? If the answer is yes, why? Because—and here is the second part—the premade versions of those things are better. Stove Top Stuffing is so good you could eat it as a dessert itself. What cake is better than the one from a good bakery that only requires you to take it out of the box, and in my case not even that?
Thanksgiving is hard enough. Bad things can happen on their own. You don’t need to ask for trouble.