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How To Prepare The Perfect Thanksgiving Dinner Menu

Updated on May 20, 2022

The Perfect Thanksgiving Dinner Menu

For most of my life, Thanksgiving was never a big deal. My family is very close, and we all see each other regularly, so the idea of the whole family getting together for a meal was something we did throughout the year! And as for the Thanksgiving dinner menu, dry turkey and pasty mashed potatoes covered with jarred gravy from the supermarket wasn't all that appealing.

But then a few years back I bought my first house and decided that I would host my first Thanksgiving dinner for the family. There would be about a dozen people, and I had never even attempted to prepare a meal for a group that large.

I started scouring through cookbooks and watched the food channel obsessively for months in advance. I tried my hand at all the side dishes - mashed potatoes, stuffing, even some desserts - and soon got a handle on those. But learning how to cook a turkey seemed like an insurmountable challenge, and I wasn't really prepared to buy and cook a "practice" turkey the way I had done with the side dishes.

Then one day I stumbled across an episode of "Good Eats" on the food channel, and it all clicked! The host, Alton Brown, is great at explaining the details behind all of his recipes, and when he walked step-by-step through the process preparing and cooking a turkey, I knew that I could meet the challenge. I had already learned a ton from watching his show, and I was confident that I could pull this off...

How To Cook A Turkey For Thanksgiving

The first obstacle in a great Thanksgiving dinner menu is the main dish - the turkey. Choosing the right turkey is the first step. I always go for a frozen organic turkey from the supermarket. I've tried fresh a few times, but the way I've learned to prepare the bird makes even a plain frozen turkey juicy and flavorful.

The secret trick to the perfect roast turkey is brining it. "Brining", for those who aren't familiar, involves soaking meat in salted water to impregnate the cells of the meat with extra flavor through osmosis. A soak in some flavored, salted water is a great way to introduce extra juiciness and flavor into any piece of poultry or pork. It's sort of the "white meat" equivalent of marinating, but you use salt instead of the acid that makes marinated beef so tender and tasty.

Learn how to cook The Perfect Roast Turkey!

Side Dish #1 - Mashed Potatoes

When I was a kid, I wasn't a big fan of mashed potatoes. They were usually gluey and bland, and I would have rather had french fries! That all changed when I learned from a chef friend the keys to perfect mashed potatoes.

First, choose the right potato! Many people just grab a sack of the same big Russet Potatoes that they would use to make baked potatoes, but these spuds have a texture that makes them fall apart when boiled. They are also very starchy, and that leads to a gluey texture when they're mashed.

Instead, use Yukon Gold Potatoes. They are less starchy and have a smooth, buttery texture that can't be beat!

Good mashed potatoes, in my book, come in two varieties - smooth and silky, or smooth and chunky. I prefer mine with some chunks of not-completely mashed potatoes, so when it comes time for the mashing I use a standard potato masher. If you prefer yours smooth and silky, then a potato ricer or food mill will do the trick! You can also use a standing mixer, but you have to be careful not to over-mash them - even Yukon Golds will get gluey if you mash them too much.

Finally, I like to add some sliced garlic to boiling water with the potatoes. The garlic ends up being mashed together with the spuds in the end for a smooth and non-bitter hint of garlicky goodness! You can go to the extra trouble of pre-roasting the garlic, but I prefer the simpler method of boiling the garlic with the potatoes.

Learn How To Make Delicious Garlic Mashed Potatoes!

Side Dish #2 - Stuffing

I suspect that one of the reasons why most holiday turkeys came out so dry when I was a kid was that my mother usually stuffed the turkey before cooking it. We all know that under-cooked poultry poses a health risk, so it is imperative that the bird is fully cooked. But when you fill that big empty cavity with dense stuffing, you have to increase the amount of time the bird spends in the oven to ensure it done all the way through. Plus, all of the juice that is inside the meat drips down and ends up in the stuffing - it acts like a big sponge sucking up all those tasty juices! That all adds up to a dry turkey.

If you cook your stuffing outside the bird, you not only reduce the cooking time for the turkey, you also eliminate the risk of under-cooked turkey juices and the nasty bacteria they may carry from taking up residence in the stuffing. So, technically I guess calling it "stuffing" is a misnomer in this case, but I prefer that term over "dressing", which to me is the stuff your put on top of a salad!

So, now that we'll be cooking the "stuffing" outside the turkey, we need a recipe that creates a moist and tasty side dish without the benefit of the turkey drippings we would have gotten from cooking it inside the bird. A sausage and apple stuffing makes a great addition to your Thanksgiving dinner menus. It takes a little bit of work, but most of it can be done the day before.

I like to use unsliced, fresh bread for my stuffing - that way I can control both the size of the bread crumbs and the herbs and spices. Most pre-packaged stuffing cubes are pre-flavored and too small for my taste! My stuffing recipe also uses lots of veggies and chicken stock to keep it moist, and all that vegetable prep can be done the day before. The end result is a stuffing that's crispy on top and moist in the middle.

Learn to Make Delicious Sage Sausage And Apple Stuffing!

Gotta Have Gravy!

For years I was stumped by the process of making gravy. I had never seen anyone make any kind of sauce from scratch, but once I did I found out that basic sauces and gravies are just about the easiest thing to make. And once you have the basic skills down, you can use them to make everything from gravy to macaroni and cheese to rich, thick stews.

The gravy recipe I follow uses the giblets from the turkey as a flavor base. A properly cooked brined turkey will give scant drippings, because all those wonderful juices stay inside the bird! This recipe is based on a simple roux technique, and the results always end up being my favorite part of the meal!

Learn how to make Amazing Turkey Giblet Gravy!

Finish Off With A Great Dessert

Now that we know how to cook a turkey that is juicy and packed with flavor and we have two great side dishes with plenty of gravy, let's add some decadent desserts to complete the Thanksgiving dinner menu!

How about a Luscious Cheesecake that's so rich I only recommend making it once a year?

Or maybe some Dangerously Fudgy Chocolate Brownies?


I used to think Thanksgiving was no big deal, but since I took the time to learn how to cook these dishes, Thanksgiving is now my favorite meal of the year!


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