Thanksgiving & Holiday Mistakes & How to Fix Them
Thanksgiving is a big day when it comes to turkey, veggies, potatoes, and family. Do you know what else happens at these big meals? Culinary disasters. If you need help with your holiday dinner, want to avoid potential problems, or just want to plan, check out this helpful guide about Thanksgiving and Holiday Food Mistakes and find out how to fix them here. Thankfully you can avoid one of the biggest pitfalls when it comes to big family meals, running out of oven space. Using your barbecue to cook a delicious Thanksgiving or other holiday meal is a great way to free up space in your kitchen for keeping things warm, baking, or just socializing.
Before you begin, we should probably talk turkey. As in, purchasing one. And, maybe the other ingredients too. Whether you are using your barbecue or the oven to cook an iconic holiday meal, you need to be ready.
Recipe + List
Make sure you are familiar with your recipes and have a complete shopping list. Knowing what you are making, the general way you are going to prepare it, and how long it takes is essential to ensuring that your turkey makes it onto the table along with everything else in good time.
Know where you are buying your turkey too. A fresh turkey from a farm is completely different than one from a big chain grocery store. Keep in mind that grocery turkeys, like the ones that start with a 'B' and end in 'ball' (we aren’t talking basketball here), can be injected with salt and water solutions which will affect the flavor of your bird if you plan to brine or use a recipe with a lot of salt.
Don’t forget when buying a turkey, you should plan for about 1½ pounds per person, with each guest consuming about 1 pound of meat at the meal itself. This ensures that anyone can have seconds AND that there are leftovers for delicious turkey sandwiches, pot pies, and soup.
Fill your Fuel
Before you go shopping, remember to check your fuel levels whether you use charcoal or propane. Us lucky natural gas users don’t need to worry about it, but I have had a few cooks where the temperature drops and suddenly, I have an empty tank or ran out of charcoal. Interrupting your cook to go out on Thanksgiving afternoon is not ideal.
Thawing out your Bird
Plan for 1 day for every 4 pounds of bird you have.
Simply put, that means a big turkey will take at least 4 days in the fridge to thaw. If you aren’t good about remembering to thaw the bird, set an alert on your phone or on your favorite device.
Thawing can get messy, so remember to catch the drips and any water by placing your turkey onto a sheet pan.
What do you do if the turkey isn’t thawed?
If you forgot or your bird is not thawed the day before the big day, or even the morning of, you can submerge the turkey in cold water. A small bird will be fine in a sink, but you will need something bigger for a large turkey. Swap the water out every hour to ensure that it remains cold. A 12-pound turkey will take about 6 hours.
You’ve got all of your ingredients, lots of fuel for cooking, now it is time to actually get down to business. Here are a few tips and pointers for cooking a turkey.
Dry the Skin
You have successfully remembered to pull out and thaw the turkey. Ensure you get extra delicious and crispy skin by drying it out. The day before, pat the turkey dry and salt the skin. You can season with other things when you are ready to cook. Place your salty skinned turkey onto a rack, in a baking sheet, in the fridge, uncovered for 24 hours. Before you cook, pat it dry again (just in case) and season to taste, remembering to omit the salt as you used it the day before.
Check for Giblets
Your turkey is all seasoned and ready to go. But did you check inside for the giblets? They are often in a plastic bag in the cavity. This baggie can burn and cause unpleasant flavors. However, if you remove it you can use the giblets and neck for a delightful stock, and amazing gravy!
Add the giblets and turkey neck into a pot with fresh water, salt, and anything else you like. (Carrot tops, onions, garlic, peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme, etc.) Bring the water to a gentle simmer for 30 minutes to 2 hours+. Strain the liquid and you have a great stock for later. *Leave the liver out or add it during the last 30 minutes of simmering*
Do Not Stuff it!
There is just something about the picturesque stuffed turkey isn’t there? But that is a big blunder that can get you in trouble on turkey-day. There are a few great reasons why you shouldn’t stuff your turkey.
It increases the amount of time the turkey needs to cook.
If you want a perfectly cooked turkey the stuffing won’t reach a safe internal temperature inside the turkey. (The uncooked bird drippings are infusing the stuffing)
If you bake your stuffing instead, there are more crispy bits and fewer fights over them.
How Long does it take to Cook a Turkey?
Temperature + Time = Perfect Turkey.
15-minutes per pound at 325°F.
While the rule is to cook for about 15-minutes per pound of turkey, a good meat thermometer is going to be a boon when it comes to cooking your turkey, whether it’s on the grill or in the oven. Using a wireless or Bluetooth one that can stay in the bird the whole time is ideal. Wireless is best if you are using the rotisserie.
If you do not have a wireless meat thermometer, when you check with an instant-read or other type of thermometer, insert the probe into the thickest part of the thigh where it meets the breast. Make sure not to hit bone or the rotisserie rod/forks.
What's Cookin' Good Lookin'?
Besides a meat thermometer. You want to make sure you have the right equipment. If you are using the barbecue, the rotisserie is ideal.
You can still use a rotisserie if you don’t have a rear burner on your barbecue. Use the bottom burners and indirect heat, turning your Napoleon into an effective oven.
Racking it up
Speaking from experience, you may run into the problem that the turkey doesn’t fit on the rotisserie or the grill when it is on the rotisserie. If that is the case, you can still use your barbecue to roast the perfect turkey dinner. You can roast directly on the barbecue cooking grids. Remember to place a drip tray under your bird (below the cooking grids) to catch those valuable drippings for great gravy later.
You can use a roasting pan. If a roasting pan is chosen, remember that you should use a rack inside. There are a couple of reasons for this. It keeps the bird from sticking to the hot pan, allows the drippings to drip for delicious gravy, allows the bottom of the bird to cook without getting mushy, and prevents overcooked meat on the bottom.
When is the Turkey Done?
Your turkey is fully cooked or getting there. This is where people can really start running into trouble.
Breast meat is finished cooking at 155°F (held for 5 minutes) but it is not ready to serve.
Dark meat is done at 165°F but is not ready to serve.
This means that you should pull the meat when the breast reaches 155°F. Then it should rest. Rest the turkey undisturbed on a cutting board until the breast reaches 165°F. Then carve and serve.
Help the Turkey is Done too Early
If your turkey is done way too early, pull the meat out at 155°F and allow it to rest as per usual. Once it has rested and come up to finished temperature, cover it with foil, then some towels to keep the heat in until you are ready to carve.
Alternatively, and this is great if you used your barbecue to cook the turkey, rest the bird until finished, carve, and then cover the carved meat with foil. Before you are ready to serve, about 15 to 20 minutes, place the platter with the turkey into the oven at a low temperature, +/-300°F, until warmed through once more.
Help the Turkey isn't Done yet
Time has come and gone and your turkey hasn’t cooked to the temperature you want. Whether you are on the grill or in the oven with this bird, cover it with foil so that the outside doesn’t get too crispy, and crank up the heat – up to 425°F. Remember to add water to the drip pan or just remove it entirely so that your precious drippings don’t burn. If you are using the barbecue, turn off the rear burner and use the bottom burners to get that heat higher.
The Wings and Legs are Burning
If the wings and the legs of your turkey (or any other roasting poultry) are getting too dark, while the rest of it is still gaining color, cover them with foil and continue cooking as planned.
Help the Turkey is Dry
Things happen. Unfortunately, they happened to you and your turkey wound up dry. If this is the case, you can rescue a dry turkey by carving the slices thin and, like you would for a bird that was done too early, place those slices into a baking pan or roasting pan and spoon over with turkey stock. Then reheat it gently.
How to Slice a Turkey (or Poultry)
Slicing a turkey, or any other poultry for that matter, is easier than you think.
Slice off the breasts by running the knife to either side of the sternum (the bone that runs between the breasts). Remove the breasts. Place the breasts onto a board and slice them.
Remove the wings by bending them down under the bird until you feel the bone leave the socket, then use the knife to slice around the skin and meat to remove.
Remove the legs and thighs by slicing the skin and meat between the leg and the breast to expose the joint. Bend the leg downwards until the joint pops out and finish slicing through the rest of the thigh meat.
Separate the thigh from the drumstick by carefully cutting around the bone and popping the joint free.
Other Meal Pitfalls
We’ve discussed the meat of the issue, however, there’s a whole lot of meal other than just the main dish. You can run into trouble when you overcommit to side dishes. The problem could be space, though using your barbecue in tandem with the indoor kitchen will help with this. The issue could be time, it does take a while to prepare and cook a hundred dishes. And you don’t need to make beans four different ways, ten types of potatoes, and five different bespoke stuffings for an amazing meal. Remember, the best meals can be simple, a couple of easy veggies, some stuffing, and at least one potato dish is sufficient when the company is good.
There are other pitfalls when you cook Thanksgiving or any other holiday meal’s side dish.
Common Mistakes with Potatoes and How to Fix them
These tips will ensure your potatoes are perfect.
If mashing or roasting, use Yukon gold or russet, known starch heavy potatoes.
Always clean the potatoes and remove eyes, even if you are peeling for mash.
Try to slice the potatoes into uniform chunks so they cook at the same rate. This will avoid overcooked chunks and undercooked chunks and lead to a better mash.
Avoid salting the water for boiling, potatoes are like sponges and absorb, this could lead to seasoning challenges later.
Always start cooking your potatoes in cold water, then bring them to a gentle boil – more than a simmer, less than hardcore boiling.
Do not overwork or over-mash when using a potato masher. Lumps are good and the potatoes will remain rustic and fluffy. Use a ricer if you want a creamier mash.
If you are using a hand mixer to mash, mix on low until they are just mashed, or you will find yourself with gummy potatoes.
Warm your milk/cream and melt the butter before adding to potatoes to keep them warm before serving.
Common Mistakes with Gravy and How to Fix them
Gravy is the jewel in the crown of your holiday meal. No Thanksgiving meal is complete without it. These tips will help you make the best gravy, the real stuff, without too many issues.
Pan drippings are the king of flavor when it comes to making the best gravy. Collect the pan drippings from your bird. Separate the fat from the liquid as best as you can. Use the fat to start the gravy and save the liquid for the body.
Too little fat from the bird? Substitute a high-quality fat like butter, goose fat, or duck fat.
If there are some stuck-on bits in the pan drippings, while the pan is still hot (or put it over low heat) deglaze by pouring a little stock, wine, or water while scraping the bottom of the pan.
If your drippings are burnt, you can still make an amazing gravy with just butter, flour, and stock or broth. Try adding liquid from cooking vegetables too. They will help flavor and if you use potato water, this can help thicken the gravy.
Gravy should be made with a roux. This is a combination of equal parts fat (butter, goose, duck, or drippings) and flour or cornstarch.
Perfect gravy should just coat the back of the spoon.
If your gravy is the perfect flavor but too thin, add a mixture of equal parts broth and cornstarch – about 1 tbsp. of each for 2 cups of liquid in the pan. Then gently heat until thickened.
When the gravy is the right texture, season it. That avoids saltiness or flavorless gravy.
Big meals like Thanksgiving and other holidays are about the people that you spend them with. While food is of vital importance to this occasion, it isn’t the point. The point is to enjoy the time with others. Don’t let a crazy big meal get in the way of that. Plan, execute, barbecue, and revel in the time you have. A simple meal with a couple of sides is more than enough. Follow these tips to ensure that you don’t run into the most common pitfalls and mistakes that people make when cooking a holiday meal.
Have you ever had a Thanksgiving disaster? How did you overcome it? Share your big meal barbecuing stories, recipes, and tips with us. Don’t forget your photos too. Share them on our social pages like Instagram and Facebook using the hashtags #NapoleonMoment, #NapoleonGrills, and #NapoleonEats.