Rocco DiSpirito weighs in on how to achieve a perfectly cooked turkey and reveals his recipes for quick sides to try in a pinch. 
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chef rocco dispirito head shot
Credit: Courtesy of Rocco DiSpirito, Author of Rocco’s Healthy + Delicious

Don’t panic, but Thanksgiving is next week. No, seriously, don’t panic. Yes, you might run into a last-minute emergency in the kitchen while you’re preparing your meal, and yes, in the moment, it might feel like a disaster, but there are tried-and-true ways to make sure you pull off a flawless dinner.

“The most common problem is the stress about performance anxiety,” Rocco DiSpirito, James Beard Award-winning chef and author of the forthcoming Rocco's Healthy & Delicious: More Than 200 (Mostly) Plant-Based Recipes for Everyday Life told me.The first mistake is getting worked up about Thanksgiving. It causes so much stress. It’s like the SATs. [But] it’s not that serious.”

No matter what problem you might encounter in the kitchen, DiSpirito reassures me that “there’s no thanksgiving issue you can’t solve in five minutes.” He’s also an advocate of using store-bought ingredients for everything from your stuffing to a pre-cooked turkey if you’re running low on time or energy, and jokes that the Thanksgiving table can sometimes be “a weapon of mass dysfunction,” where tiffs between family members can easily break out over the mashed potatoes. Given the amount of stress you might already be facing this Thanksgiving, he advocates trying to “chill out” and taking it easy on yourself in the kitchen.

But even after you’ve taken a deep breath, and resolved to take a more Zen approach to cooking Thanksgiving dinner, you will probably still run into some problems along the way. Here are five common Thanksgiving emergencies you might encounter this year, and how to solve them.

The turkey isn’t properly cooked

First of all, if you plan to cook a turkey that uses a pop-up timer, throw that timer away. Once the timer pops up at 165 degrees, the turkey is overcooked. Instead, use a thermometer “to measure the temperate at the thickest part of the thigh.” When it hits 155 degrees, “take [the turkey] out of the oven, tent it with foil, let it rest for an hour.” DiSpirito stresses that letting the turkey rest is one of the most important parts of the process. If you don’t let it rest after cooking, you’ll end up with “turkey broth on the cutting board and a lot of dry meat.” As an alternative method of cooking, DiSpirito says you can “remove the thigh with the backbone attached and put that in for an hour and then put the breast on top of that and let it cook.”

“Deep frying pretty much solves all the cooking problems,” he adds, although he clarifies that it also adds logistical and safety issues. Before attempting this method, which takes about 45 minutes total, he recommends buying a frying kit, like this one by Bayou Classic, which you can buy on Amazon for $110 dollars, before attempting this method.

If you do end up over or undercooking your turkey, DiSpirito is firm in his belief that there is no shame in stopping by a grocery store like Citarella and buying pre-cooked turkey (he jokes that he’d be “thrilled” to be served a Swanson’s frozen turkey dinner because it would take him back to the 1970s, as long as there’s good wine to go with it).

The skin won’t get crispy

The skin on your turkey should naturally get crisp; if it doesn’t that means it’s too wet (either from the brining process or because it wasn’t completely defrosted) or your oven isn’t hot enough. Always be sure to fully dry your turkey off, especially if you chose to brine it, or make sure it’s completely defrosted. Then, cover your turkey with a type of fat that doesn’t contain any moisture, like coconut or olive oil before cooking it. If all else fails, melt butter in a big pan and “constantly bast [the turkey] with brown butter until the skin is crispy.” While the turkey is cooking, DiSpirito recommends not covering the turkey with anything.

You don’t have time to bake dessert

With the pressure of a cooking a whole meal, spending time crafting the perfect dessert might seem like an insurmountable task (although hopefully, your relatives are helping out by bringing over baked goods on their own). If you need a simple idea for a dessert that will still satisfy your guests’ sweet tooth, DiSpirito has you covered.

The first recipe the chef recommends is an instant pumpkin mousse, made with pureed pumpkin from a can, pureed avocado, and agave nectar. Just three simple ingredients, which you can pour into a pre-made pie crust and top with whipped cream.

“Another great one is chocolate bark,” he says. “Buy dark chocolate bars like Lindt that are 60% [dark chocolate] or better, and let them melt (but not fully). Sprinkle in pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries, or almonds, and then place the chocolate in the fridge. You’ll end up with a sheet of chocolate, which you can break apart.”

If you’re feeling extra rushed, you can simply place the chocolate next to the stove on top of the paper it originally came in, until it melts. Once you stick it in the fridge, it should harden by the time you serve dessert.

The gravy won’t thicken

There are few different ways to thicken up your gravy, and most of them involve making a purée. You could, for instance, combine a sweet potato, some of the drippings from the turkey, and your original gravy, in a blender. Then you can strain it if you prefer a glossy sheen, but DiSpirito says he prefers a chunky sauce. He calls cornstarch a “cure all,” which you add to anything to achieve a thicker texture, as well as almond butter, regular butter or heavy cream. A quarter teaspoon of xanthan gum will also thicken an entire gallon of gravy.

If you’re really in a pinch, the chef’s go-to suggestion is Heinz pork gravy, blended with the dripping you already have from the turkey. Sure, it’s “low on the culinary totem pole,” but it works.

You're running low on sides

Running out of time before family arrives? You can quickly whip two sides if you’re in a time crunch. For the stuffing, simply moisten bread with boxed stock in a pan, season with Old Bay or another poultry seasoning, and stir. You’ll get instant stuffing. If you have no bread on hand, DiSpirito says to skip it altogether. Instead, mix Italian sausage with raw vegetables—he uses chestnut, acorns, and squash—and bake it like you would a meatloaf.

If your stuffing is soggy, you can always add more bread, or allow it to dry out on the bottom rack of your oven—just make sure you keep an eye on it, as it might burn.

To spice up canned cranberry sauce, all you have to do is mix the sauce with lemon or orange zest, clove, and agave nectar in a blender—the whole operation takes around three minutes. According to DiSpirito, this is the perfect make-ahead dish because the flavor of the cranberries will become even more distinct if left to sit for a day or two.