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Side dish tips and turkey FAQs for the perfect Thanksgiving Fest

Written By | Nov 17, 2018

WASHINGTON: A traditional Thanksgiving menu means turkey with the trimmings – from stuffing to cranberry sauce. Whether a seasoned home chef or creating your first Thanksgiving feast, there are plenty of questions on how to make your holiday memorable.  From brining your bird to moist and flavorful stuffing, the following are frequently asked Thanksgiving questions, tips for traditional sides and the ‘how-to’ answers you need.

Turkey FAQS:
Fresh or frozen turkey?

If you buy a frozen turkey today it may take up to 3 days to thaw in your refrigerator.  It is important to know that a frozen turkey may have been in the deep freeze six months or more. You can always choose to buy a fresh turkey and though they will cost more (around $2.20 per lb), the flavor difference is well worth it. If you have not ordered a fresh turkey yet, do so today!

My turkey is frozen, what do I do?

Remove the turkey from the packaging and fill your sink with water (room temp) and let the bird soak. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. The water must stay cold to the touch and must be changed frequently to wash away bacteria.  Water must not be allowed to warm and the turkey must stay submerged.

A cooler filled with water and ice can leave your sink free, but beware, that bird will want to float.  You can create “ice saddle bags” by filling bread bags half full of water and freeze. Tie the bags together and place over the turkey to hold it down beneath the water. You can also take a couple of freezer blocks, in a clean plastic bag and insert it inside the cavity the hold it down.

My fresh turkey is slightly frozen what do I do?

Don’t panic, this is normal. Remove the turkey from the packaging and fill your sink with very cold water. Add the turkey to the water and soak it for half an hour, again changing the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed.

A secret to crisp turkey skin is that the bird must be 100% dry before you season and cook it.  Try to make sure your turkey is completely thawed 24 hours before it heads to the oven.  Wrap it, or place it in a large roaster bag without sealing it and place in your refrigerator where it can completely dry.

Should I brine my turkey?

YES, YES, YES, unless you have health issues. Turkeys are usually flavorless and tough without brining.  Visit CDN’s Fresh and Flavorful Turkey recipe for steps on how to brine and roast the perfect turkey.

Yes, you should baste your turkey, our trick is to keep a pot of stock, wine and aromatics on the stove top warmed so you can fill your baster and quickly squeeze it over the turkey without letting out too much heat.

How much turkey should I buy?

The rule of thumb is 1-1-1/2 pounds per person. Of course, take your guests into consideration, if you have big eaters you may want to up that number. Or if you are also serving a ham or roast.

There is never enough dark meat for my family, what should I do?

Buy two small turkeys and roast them both, so you have enough of everyone’s favorites.

Everyone wants white meat for sandwiches and there is never enough? 

Dukes Mayonnaise

The night before, roast a turkey breast, or two depending on the number of guests you plan to have and have it ready to slice for sandwiches. Turkey breast is more expensive than fresh turkey, but it is easier to cook and keeps everyone happy.

Don’t forget a quality, bakery bread for your sandwiches. To make those sandwiches more flavorful, our favorite is Duke’s mayonnaise.

What temperature should the thermometer reach to be done?

The temperature of the turkey when done should be 170 degrees and make sure to take the temperature in the inside thigh region and do not go all the way to the bone.  Remember, your turkey will continue to cook once you remove it from the oven, so do not let it heat beyond 170 degrees lest it dry out.

How do I slice a turkey?

The best way to slice turkey is to cut the meat from the bone. Remove the thighs and legs first then the wings, and lastly the white meat. The best way to do this is to run your knife along the bone freeing the meat.

After the meat is removed from the bone just slice everything across the grain into nice pieces. Whole Foods offers this easy to follow video for perfect slicing and presentation of your holiday platter.

Should I stuff the turkey the day before or right before cooking?

If you want to cook the stuffing in the bird, it is best to stuff the turkey right before cooking to ward against bacteria growing in the stuffing.  Before stuffing your turkey, make sure it is completely dry inside and out. A good rule of thumb is to let the bird sit, covered loosely in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours after brining or thawing.

However, our favorite way is to stuff the bird with aromatics –  oranges, onions, celery, carrots, bay leaf, thyme, sage and marjoram and cook the stuffing in a separate dish. It not only reduces the turkey cooking time, but it makes the whole house smell wonderful.

Cook your stuffing in a dish using turkey bone stock and butter for moisture and flavor.

Stuffing Questions:
What kind of bread should I use?

A mixture of cornbread and white bread is best.  You can chop up the birds gizzards, after roasting or boiling, and use in the stuffing.  Common stuffing additions include stuffing, savory spices, and sausage.  A great basic recipe can be found on Serious Eats.

How should I cut up the bread for the stuffing?

The best way is to cut it into small cubes. After multiple different tests the best way was always with a small dice.

Can I use store bought stuffing or is that cheating?

No it’s not cheating, my childhood favorite was always Stove Top Stuffing but you can also try Mrs. Cubbison’s. They also make a fantastic brining kit.

Mashed Potato Questions:
What kind of potatoes should I use?

Yukon golds are fantastic for mash potatoes but they can be more expensive.  You can always use the common russet potato or, for a healthy alternative, boil or steam cauliflower (just the florets, no stems) until very tender.  Drain until very dry.

For every two cups of florets add one cup of potato flakes, milk, and butter to consistency.  Season with salt and pepper.

My russet potato has large bruised spots, can I still use it?

Yes just cut off the bruises and it will work just fine.

Do I need to soak my potatoes in water before I cook them?

So this a great question, if you peel your potatoes the night before you can absolutely and should put them in water. However, do not use that water to cook them the next day. Thanksgiving day you should use fresh new water to lightly boil your potatoes until very fork tender. If you peel them right before cooking them you do not have to soak them in water however you should rinse them well to remove starch.

How do you get the lumps out of potatoes?

Use a ricer, which pushes the cooked potato through small holes breaking up all lumps. You can also use knives to cross hatch and then get out the blender.  If you over mix them so they are shiny and pasty, add potatoe flakes, butter and cream to improve the consistency.

I’ve heard you should heat butter and milk before adding them to potatoes, is that true?

Yes, you should absolutely heat your milk, cream, and butter before adding them to mashed potatoes. The potato will absorb the warm liquid which will help make your potatoes light, fluffy and delicious.

Sweet potato questions:
How do I fix over cooked sweet potatoes?

Sadly you can’t fix them. Once they are overcooked they won’t look very pretty but the good news is they will still taste great so you can whip them like mashed, spoon them into a dish and top them with mini-marshmallows and a drizzle of real maple syrup.

Heat until the marshmallows melt, and slightly brown.  Don’t let them burn, but if they do, scrape them off and try again.

Should I soak sweet potatoes before I cook them?

You don’t have to soak them if you are cooking them immediately, but if you are peeling them the day before then yes you should store them in cold water.


Cranberry sauce questions:

Cranberry sauce is the easiest dishes you will make for Thanksgiving. It seriously needs only 3 ingredients to be good – cranberries, organic cane sugar, and water. There are more elaborate recipes, but you can make it the easy way the first time.

You can flavor your cranberry with slices of oranges or orange juice.

Can I make cranberry sauce ahead of time?

Yes and please do. Cranberry sauce is even better the second day. So make it, label and store it until you need it. Cranberry sauce lasts up 4- 5 days.

Cranberry Sauce

2 cups fresh cranberries

1 cup water

¾ cup sugar

Zest from 1 orange


Add the water, sugar, cranberries and orange zest to a pot. Bring everything to a boil and then reduce it to a simmer. Simmer it for 10 minutes. Serve when you are ready.  The sauce will just get better if left to sit in the refrigerator for up to two days.

Green bean questions:

Fresh green beans that are not over cooked are delicious. Clean the ends of stems, brining them to a uniform length. Cover with water and salt and cook (do not boil, you will make them tough) until crisp, but tender.  Remove water, adding cubes of a good fat like bacon or pancetta to the pot, salt and butter. A little water will keep them from burning.  Cook over a low heat until the bacon is completely cooked.

How do I cook green beans to al dente and should I put them into cold water?

Typically green beans cooked to al dente is around 8-10 minutes depending on the temperature you cook them to, and yes if you want them to stay that nice green beans then definitely shock them in a cold ice bath. However do not leave them in there for a long period of time or they will turn into mush.

Do I need to remove both ends of the green bean?

The general rule is to remove just the stem end, but if you’re looking for consistency or the other end looks bad than just cut both of them off. This is a great time to get your kitchen scissors out.


Lead Image: Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want (Public Domain) with Fall Foliage background Photo by Vali S. from Pexels

Jacquie Kubin

Jacquie Kubin is an award-winning writer and wanderer. She turns her thoughts to an eclectic mix of stories - from politics to sports. Restless by nature and anxious to experience new things, both in the real world and online, Jacquie mostly shares travel and culinary highlights, introduces readers to the chefs and creative people she meets and shares the tips, life and travel information people want to read.