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Thanksgiving Simplified: 9 Pro Tips from the Betty Crocker Test Kitchens

Created October 16, 2018
thanksgiving simplified
Even culinary pros know that Thanksgiving is a hectic holiday. But when your life’s work is in the kitchen, finding shortcuts, timesavers and ingenious fixes is second nature. Maggie Lyon, a professional chef who works in the Betty Crocker Kitchens, is sharing her secrets and solutions for pulling off the feast with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of efficiency.

As a professional chef and recipe developer in the Betty Crocker Kitchens, Maggie Lyon knows a thing or two about testing things out to find the ideal solution. When it comes to Thanksgiving, Lyon brings serious expertise to her kitchen—and with her the nine tips she’s sharing below, you can bring it to yours, too. Her advice covers it all, from the big things—like grocery shopping and properly carving the bird—all the way down to the little things you might not even think of, like food storage and how to get that finicky whipped cream just right. Read on and get ready for a hitch-free feast!

1. The Golden Rule: Read Your Recipes

First things first, read your recipes before doing anything else. There may be a tool, ingredient or step included in your recipes that requires you to plan ahead—whether that means borrowing a slow cooker or preparing a brine for your turkey 24 hours in advance. If you’re already familiar with what you need to do, you’ll be cool as a cucumber when making the meal. (And this advice is not just for novice cooks, failing to read a recipe before making it for the first time can ruffle the feathers of even the most experienced chef.)

2. Shop Smart: 3 Tips to Streamline Your Trip

Don’t get tripped up with big decisions at the grocery store. Here’s what you need to know about buying Thanksgiving’s essential ingredients. .

  • What’s the Deal with “Heritage” Breed Turkeys? Selecting Your Bird Frozen turkeys are just fine and what most Americans purchase. But fresh turkeys have become more popular in recent years. Often, fresh birds must be ordered in advance and picked up a few days before Thanksgiving. If you’re buying a fresh, heritage-breed bird, be aware that the meat will be more flavorful, but less fatty, and therefore less juicy and tender. This is because these types of birds get a lot more exercise than the standard frozen turkeys for sale at the grocery store. Because of the difference in fat content, it’s even more important not to overcook heritage breeds. Additionally, their bones are denser, so they can be considerably more difficult to carve. It’s still doable—just take your time and be patient.
  • Do the Type of Potatoes Really Matter? Short Answer: Yes The best potatoes for Do-Ahead Mashed Potatoes, our crowd-favorite holiday casserole, are Russets or Idahos. (Most Idaho potatoes are Russets, but labeled with the state’s name, while potatoes labeled “Russets” are grown in many different states.) For traditional mashed potatoes that will please the masses, Russets are your top tater. They’re easy to peel, light and starchy. Slightly sweet Yukon Golds are just slightly waxy, and do well in many different dishes. They will also stand up to mashing without getting pasty. Waxy potatoes like red potatoes and fingerling potatoes are great for potato salads but pass on them for mashed recipes.
  • Yams? Sweet Potatoes? How to Buy the Right Spud. This recipe for Classic Candied Sweet Potatoes, another favorite among our home cooks, uses orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. If you have trouble identifying them at the store, use your thumbnail to scratch a bit of the skin off to reveal the color of the flesh. Some grocery stores now carry light-fleshed sweet potatoes which are not the right pick for this recipe.

3. Make Way for the Bird (and the cranberries and pumpkin pie, and … )

Clean out the fridge the week before. Can you take out anything that will survive at room temperature? Apples, oranges, lemons, limes, shelf-stable sauces and condiments that last longer refrigerated but technically don’t have to be to remain safe are all great candidates. Can anything living in your fridge move to your freezer?

4. Save on Stress, Cook a Bird Ahead

Have a big crowd coming, or really enjoy leftovers? Consider making two smaller birds. Roast one the day before. Then, carve it and use the drippings to make the gravy, so all you have to do is reheat the carved bird in a warm oven and the gravy on the stovetop, or in the microwave – simply whisk until smooth. Make the second bird on Thanksgiving Day, so everyone can enjoy the beauty (and aroma) of a perfectly roasted turkey. This lets you skip the last-minute stress of carving a bird and making gravy. If you want to serve the second bird that day, you can carve while everyone is digging into the first one or wait and carve it a little later for leftovers.


5. Skip the Bird for Crispy Stuffing

While it’s technically safe to cook stuffing inside a turkey, it’s in no way ideal. You usually end up overcooking your meat while trying to get the stuffing to the safe internal temperature of 165F. Air circulation helps food crisp, brown and cook evenly. When you stuff a turkey, you’re taking away air circulation through the cavity for the bird, and you’re also taking it away from the stuffing, which will brown and crisp more beautifully in a casserole dish. So, we recommend cooking the stuffing separately, in a casserole dish, for ease and safety, but also for best results for both dishes.

6. How to Keep Your Turkey Warm

You will often read “loosely tent the cooked turkey with foil” to avoid steaming the turkey under the foil and softening the skin. Once it’s cooled, just enough to handle, you’ll want to go ahead and carve the turkey, then cover it loosely with foil until ready to serve. If you need to hold the finished turkey for considerably longer, a 200F oven is your best bet. You can hold it carved on an oven-safe platter, covered loosely with foil, or hold it whole on the roasting rack. If you’re already using the roasting pan to make the gravy, no problem, just transfer the turkey, rack and all, to a sheet pan big enough to accommodate the rack. Remember that there will be juices collected in the cavity of the bird, which can spill out and burn you when you’re moving the turkey.

7. Tips on Carving a Turkey

If possible, don’t carve the turkey at the table. It’s way harder to do, and it’s almost 100 percent guaranteed to muck up your tablecloth. Let everyone see the turkey, even take a selfie with it if they want, but leave that bird on a big cutting board, preferably with a groove, which I call the moat, to catch any drippings and keep them off your countertop and floor. Let it rest until it doesn’t burn your fingers. Wear disposable latex or nitrile gloves if you need to. Take your time carving. Plate it beautifully on an impressive platter. No one will think you didn’t actually cook it whole.


While an electric knife was popular at my parents’ house, I think they’re loud and a little over-the-top. You don’t need that much power. You don’t even need a long, unwieldy carving knife. You need a sturdy chef’s knife that’s comfortable to use and appropriate for the size of your hands, preferably of German origin. German-style knives make quick work of carving, cutting through light bones without issue. Japanese-style knives are great for intricate work with vegetables and fish but are generally too delicate for carving large pieces of meat. The breast skin often separates from the meat when slicing. That’s normal. Just go slowly and keep the skin and meat slices matched up so they still look nice when you plate them.

8. How to Keep Mashed Potatoes Warm

Mashed potatoes are notorious for cooling off too fast. If you’re worried about keeping the potatoes warm throughout the meal, you can transfer the hot potatoes to a 3-quart slow cooker and keep warm on “Low” heat setting for an hour or “Warm” heat setting for up to two hours. You can even skip the casserole step entirely by storing the cooked potatoes in microwaveable containers and microwaving, stirring often, until steaming. Then, transfer to the slow cooker.

9. How to Get Your Whipped Cream Just Right

If you have a hard time getting whipped cream just right, skip the stand mixer so you won’t forget about it and let it get too stiff. You want it transformed and thickened into a beautiful light and fluffy topping—you don’t want it so firm it could be mistaken for butter. A hand blender makes quick work of whipping the cream, and you can keep an eye on it to get the consistency just right.

Now that you’ve got all the tips from a pro, get started creating your own perfect menu. For a timeless option, check out the Essential Thanksgiving Menu, as Picked by You, or explore achievable updates on traditional dishes in our Modern Classic Menu. If you want every one of Betty’s Thanksgiving recipes in one place, visit our Thanksgiving Headquarters, where you’ll also find our Thanksgiving Cheat Sheet, which takes you through the 48 hours leading up to the big meal, step by step.