Thanksgiving Secret: Make It Ahead Roast Turkey

Thanksgiving Secret: Make It Ahead Roast Turkey
Ina Garten's secret to a less stressful Thanksgiving. Photo: Quentin Bacon

Is it too early to start preparing Thanksgiving dinner? With the big day only three weeks from tomorrow, the answer is NO. It is not too early to get cooking.

Getting everything organized and done in time for Thanksgiving can be daunting and stressful to say the least. But it doesn’t have to be.

Ina enjoying a stress-free Thanksgiving

Ina enjoying a stress-free Thanksgiving

According to Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, you can start preparing for Thanksgiving dinner as early as three weeks ahead. Her book, MAKE IT AHEAD: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook (Clarkson Potter/Publishers; $35)—her ninth, makes it easy for you, me and practically everyone to get a jump-start on the holiday. You can even prepare the turkey ahead of time and no one will be the wiser.

Since Thanksgiving dinner has always been my domain, I decided to try things Ina’s way last Thanksgiving just after her Make It Ahead cookbook was released.

I literally started preparing dishes three weeks before Thanksgiving according to her directions. With a big crowd coming and some vegetarians in the mix, I knew that there was a lot to do.

I started with her Roasted Vegetable Lasagna, three weeks out. It was a lot of work but I was able to make it on an evening when I was home while watching television–no stress–just a lot of prep time. When I was finished, I popped it into the freezer with no worries until I would take it out and bake it on Thanksgiving.

There’s no way I could have made this on Thanksgiving day along with the turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, and all the other traditional dishes that are part of our Thanksgiving menu.

I continued making other dishes ahead according to the easy to follow instructions in her book. At the bottom of each recipe is the Make It Ahead times.

I was a little nervous about the Make-Ahead Roast Turkey but decided to go for it anyway. I couldn’t have been happier with the results. I definitely will be making my turkey that way from now on. Most outstanding–the turkey held the heat better and was more moist when  prepared Ina’s way than my old way. Not to mention no last minute trying to find someone to carve the bird while trying to keep the gravy warm.

When I asked the publishers for permission to share Ina’s Make-Ahead Roast Turkey recipe with “Chicago Eats” readers, they sent me the recipe and instructions below–straight from the book.

Make-Ahead Roast Turkey
Serves 8

“Recipe reprinted from MAKE IT AHEAD by Ina Garten. Copyright ©2014 by Ina Garten. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

The most stressful things about Thanksgiving are carving the turkey at the last minute and keeping it hot on the buffet. What I discovered is that I could carve the turkey in advance, arrange it on an ovenproof platter over a layer of gravy, and then reheat it all together. Not only was the turkey moist and delicious, but it stayed hot longer.

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 (12- to 14-pound) fresh turkey
1 large yellow onion, unpeeled and cut in eighths
1 lemon, quartered
8 sprigs fresh thyme
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted
Make-Ahead Turkey Gravy

Two or three days before you plan to roast the turkey, combine 3 tablespoons of salt, the minced thyme, and lemon zest. Wash the turkey inside and out, drain it well, and pat it all over with paper towels. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the salt mixture in the cavity of the turkey and rub the rest on the skin, including under the wings and legs. Place the turkey in a shallow dish just large enough to hold it and wrap it tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for one or two days. The day before you plan to roast theturkey, remove the plastic wrap and leave the turkey in the fridge. The skin will dry out and turn a little translucent.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Put the turkey in a large roasting pan, discarding any juices in the dish. Place the onion, lemon, and thyme sprigs in the cavity. With kitchen string, tie the legs together and the wings close to the body. Brush the turkey with the butter and sprinkle it generously with salt and pepper.

Roast the turkey for 2 to 2¼ hours, until the breast meat registers 165 degrees (put the thermometer in sideways) on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from the oven and place the turkey on a platter. Cut off the legs and thighs and put them back into the roasting pan, covering the breast and carcass tightly with aluminum foil. Place the roasting pan back in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until the dark meat registers 180 degrees. Remove the dark meat to the platter with the turkey, cover it tightly with aluminum foil, and allow it to rest at room temperature for 15 minutes. Pour a ¼-inch layer of the gravy into a large (12 × 16-inch), ovenproof serving platter (make sure it’s ovenproof!). Carve the turkey and arrange it artfully on top of the gravy. Place the platter uncovered into the oven for 15 to 30 minutes, until the turkey is very hot. Serve hot with extra gravy on the side.

Make It Ahead: Roast and slice the turkey and assemble it on the gravy. Cover and allow to sit at room temperature.

Click here for recipes that I made from Ina’s book for last Thanksgiving.

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