When a professional chef says that Thanksgiving dinner is “the Olympics of cooking,” you know that shit is serious. But every year, millions of well-meaning amateurs try their best to prepare a Thanksgiving feast for their families and friends, following complex recipes that haven’t been attempted since the last Thanksgiving (who the hell roasts a turkey in May?), in quantities that far exceed their respective comfort zones and skill levels.
This isn’t just unrealistic, it’s unfair — especially to the poor men and women slaving over lumpy gravy in the kitchen.
While making a perfect Thanksgiving dinner is impossible (even professional chefs recognize the insane degree of difficulty), we’ve teamed up with Jason Quinn, the head chef/owner at Playground DTSA, winner of The Great Food Truck Race, and judge on MTV’s “Snack-Off,” to help identify some of the most common ways you “make Thanksgiving a shit show” (his words), along with some helpful hints on how to avoid these culinary disasters.
Jason isn’t just a culinary-world star, he’s a Thanksgiving dinner specialist. Every year, he closes down his restaurant for the day and cooks a full Thanksgiving feast for his closest family and friends (along with a few stragglers), so the man knows a thing or two about cranberry sauce and stuffing.
Mistake One: You’re Roasting Your Turkey Wrong… Trust Us.
It is tempting to say that roasting a turkey is the Rubik’s Cube of cooking, but that isn’t quite right; a Rubik’s Cube can be solved. Roasting a turkey correctly is about goddamn impossible, and there are there are a variety of reasons why. According to Jason:
Even if you do know what you’re doing, there’s a lot of problems [with roasting a turkey]. Turkeys range from 13 to 23 pounds, so anytime someone is giving you advice, how likely is it they’re talking about the size bird you have? It’s a one in ten chance. So, right off the bat, misinformation is a huge thing. Secondly, people always want to peek and look inside [lowering the oven temperature], and everyone wants to baste [drying out the turkey], and there’s so many different ways that people go about it that can yield an inferior product or undercooked or overcooked. How many people can really say they’ve had truly outstanding turkey on Thanksgiving?
How To Fix It: Because roasting a whole turkey to the proper temperature is extremely difficult, even for a skilled chef like Jason, he simplifies the problem by making that turkey considerably less whole:
Cooking the turkey is the hardest part of the whole day. There’s a million different ways to make mashed potatoes, and half a million of them are good. If you break down the turkey into smaller pieces and cook them separately, you’ll have a higher margin for success. Confiting the legs, covering them in some sort of fat and slowly baking them in the oven, no one’s gonna not like that. Roasting just a crown, just the two breasts, is much easier [than cooking the whole bird]. It’s easier to cook white meat perfectly than trying to cook white meat and dark meat perfectly at the same time.
And Jason isn’t the only chef who endorses this method. Everyone from Serious Eats to The New York Times have championed dissection roasting (not the actual name for the thing, but it should be). You may lose a few seconds of “wow” factor of carving the turkey at the table, but that process has its own pitfalls, and once your guests start eating a bird that is properly cooked (both white and dark meat), you won’t be hearing any complaints.
Need more convincing? According to Jason, when he was a kid and the turkey was roasted in the traditional way at Thanksgiving dinner, “no one ever ate the legs.” But the first time he confited the legs, “no one ate the breast.”