Pre-Thanksgiving Preparation Timeline

November 18, 2014

It snuck up on me, but the time has come. Thanksgiving preparations begin now. I need a full week to fully defrost my big turkey (plus a day or two to prepare it).

Planning for the Thanksgiving

Planning for the Thanksgiving

Wednesday or Thursday Before Thanksgiving: Buy and Defrost your Turkey

When planning on what size Turkey to buy, a general guideline is to plan for 1-1/2 pounds per person (assuming you want leftovers). Without leftovers you can get away with 1 pound of turkey per person.  I’m planning for a crowd of between 12 and 14. So I need approximately 20-pounds.

If you are buying a frozen Turkey, it is essential that plan ahead. A large turkey will take a full week prior to Thanksgiving. In my case, my refrigerator seems to run a little cold. Every year I need an extra day or two to fully thaw my turkey. Thaw your turkey by keeping it in its original wrapping, placed on a rimmed sheet pan on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator. Thawing guidelines are generally 5 hours per pound, but I haven’t found those guidelines are accurate for large turkeys. Cooks Illustrated cites 1 day for every 4 pounds of turkey.

Turkey Weight Approx Thaw Time
10 to 14 lbs 4 days
14 to 18 lbs 5 days
18 to 22 lbs 6 days
22 to 26 lbs 7 days

Saturday or Sunday Before Thanksgiving: Take Inventory

With about 5 days to go you should have your menu planned, and you should have selected which recipes you will use. Different recipes will require different slightly different ingredient lists.

This weekend is when most people do a majority of their Thanksgiving grocery shopping, so go early in the day to try to beat the crowds. Ultimately, patience will be required no matter what time you go. Hopefully you can finish most of your major shopping early on Saturday, as the availability of key items diminishes.  Especially prone to selling out are items for pumpkin pie and fresh spices; especially thyme and sage.

  1. Cranberries. Ocean Spray supplies 75% of the total world-wide market of cranberries, but has a 100% monopoly on the supermarket supply of cranberries in my area. The lack of competition has resulted in inferior berries. I usually have to throw away up to 1/4 of the bag, because they sell unripe berries intermixed with ripe one. The monopoly means that I have no alternative.
  2. Russet Potatoes, 6 or 7 onions, 1 bunch of celery, a few carrots, garlic, sage, thyme, maybe parsley (but you can usually find parsley).
  3. Canned pumpkin, evaporated milk, pie dough, ground cloves (you can substitute whole cloves and grind them yourself, using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle).
  4. Bread Cubes or high-quality sandwich bread. While Pepperidge farms stuffing is ubiquitous, it’s just as easy to make your own using high-quality sandwich bread. Arnold Country Classics White Bread (24oz) is Cook’s Illustrated choice, but Pepperidge Farm Farmhouse Hearty White Bread Celery was the runner up in the CI taste test.
  5. Chicken Stock. Make sure you have at least 4-cups for gravy and stuffing. I have already made a fresh batch of homemade chicken stock.  This year my gravy recipe alone calls for 3-1/2 cups. Actually, this year I used spare turkey bones to make turkey stock.
  6. Butter. Be sure you have at least a pound, but butter usually goes on sale around Thanksgiving. I usually pick up a few pounds of Land o Lakes for $2/lb, and freeze any extra. (This year it’s a little more expensive, and it seems like $3/lb is the lowest price).
  7. Heavy Cream For mashed potatoes and maybe whipped cream for pie. A few eggs (for stuffing).
  8. Any specialty items: White wine for gravy, Salt pork, sausage, kosher salt. This year I need 1 cup dried cranberries  for the stuffing.
  9. Snacks for Thanksgiving Day: Chips, Salsa, Cheeses, Sandwiches. These items don’t generally sell out, but it’s nice to know that you have one fewer thing to worry about.

Tuesday Before Thanksgiving (2 days before):

Take stock of the status of your turkey. Is it soft? Or is there any chance that the turkey’s interior is still frozen? If it’s still partially frozen, then you should thaw it in a clean bucket filled with cold water (leaving turkey pre-wrapped). I don’t have any buckets large enough for my 20-lb turkey, so I use a sink lined with a large trash bag. Depending upon how frozen your turkey is, it can be completely thawed in just a few hours.  Of course, don’t thaw using anything other than cold water at this point.

Wednesday Before Thanksgiving (the day before):

On Wednesday morning, assuming your turkey is thawed, brine or salt the turkey. Lately I’ve been salting because it leaves the skin more appealing.

There are also some things that you can optionally make ahead:

  1. Cranberry sauce.
  2. Pie dough.
  3. Mix the pumpkin pie filling, which will taste better if you mix the night before.

Thanksgiving Day:

Decide when you plan to bake your pumpkin pie. Your options are (1) early, an hour before the turkey goes in the oven, or (2) immediately upon taking the turkey out of the oven. I am going with option 1. Option 2 will require a little cooling time in the refrigerator so that it is cool enough to firm up. There is a school of people who make it the night before and leave it at room temperature until dessert the next day (I’d be too worried about potential bacteria to even consider this).

Quick Tip: Don’t Burn Your Bottoms

November 5, 2014

THE PROBLEM: It always used to happen that my biscuits and cookies would have over-baked bottoms. Using parchment paper helps a little (and helps a lot with cleanup) by insulating a little from the hot baking sheet. The bottom-line is that all ovens heat from below. So even with my oven’s convection fan, the part of the oven below the baking sheet is always hotter than the top. Previous, the only tool in my tool chest to prevent it was to lower the overall oven temperature. But the recipe calls for a specific temperature for a reason, and lowering the oven temperature will almost always have unwanted consequences. For example, “oven spring” usually calls for higher temperatures to cause rapid rising of the leavening agent (yeast or baking soda/powder) before the flour sets. A lower temperature will result in denser biscuits and cookies.

Allows the tops and bottoms to brown perfectly

Allows the tops (left and top) and bottoms (center) to brown in unison

THE SOLUTION: Half-way through baking, put a large Pyrex casserole dish filled with 1/2″ to 1″ of hot tap water on the shelf below whatever your baking. (See photo below). This technique allows time for the “oven spring” to occur, but then prevents the metal sheet pan from overheating and burning the bottoms. The exact timing will depend upon the characteristics of your individual oven, but I have found that half-way is the general rule for my oven.

It’s definitely a balancing act; too soon and the bottoms wont brown, and too late and the bottoms will overcook. If your oven requires you to include from the beginning, be sure to include the water during the entire preheating cycle. The idea is not to lower the overall oven temperature, but rather to even out the temperature in the top and bottom of your oven.


How to Prevent Squirrels from Eating Your Pumpkins

October 27, 2012

I love living in the old part of town, with its mature trees and half acre lots. I have a 150-year-old maple in my back yard and a 60-foot oak in the front-yard. Of course nothing is every perfect, and the drawback of living in this park-like setting are my constant battles with squirrels. They have become my arch-nemesis. They dig thousand of holes in my lawn, hiding acorns from my oak tree. Later, they dig thousands more holes looking for their buried treasure, and can never seem to remember where they hid the acorns, so they just keep digging. They’ve even dug holes in my roof thinking there might be hidden acorns. As Halloween approaches and my $35 worth of pumpkins sit vulnerably outside, I wanted to share my 100% effective tactic in my never-ending battle against my tireless enemy.

It’s been outside a week, and not even a nibble.

Thickly apply a layer of dish soap over the entire surface of the pumpkin. Use your regular dish sponge and wipe a thick layer of soap over every square-inch. Re-apply once a week or after a rain. It’s the same principle as washing your mouth out with soap. It’s guaranteed to work.

Of course, speaking of rain I am right in the path of another pre-Halloween storm. Here is a bit of the disaster I faced last year; here and here; but the big difference this year is that I have a small generator. So my fingers still are crossed, but also I am better prepared.

This white pumpkin will make a great skull.

Quick Tip: Best Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches

October 13, 2012

Peanut butter sandwiches are uniquely American. And while the rest of the world turns their noses up on this lunchbox stable, we Americans never tire of them. Personally, I have enjoyed every one of the thousands I’ve eaten over my lifetime. But my 13-year-old son and I recently discovered a Quick Tip to make every sandwich better;  at the price of only 5 seconds of extra effort. The problem: by lunchtime the jelly has soaked through the bread and made one slice soggy. The solution: Spread the peanut butter on both slices of bread. The peanut butter acts as a barrier to prevent the jelly from coming in contact with bread, and the bread will stay in great condition for up to 8 hours.

Spread peanut butter on both slices of bread

But if you leave the sandwich too long (over 8 hours) eventually even the oils from the peanut butter degrade the texture of the bread. Fortunately, that’s plenty of time for an average lunch. I do remember eating PBJs for dinner when I was a kid, but I won’t let my own children do the same.

Mashed Potatoes with Scallions and Sour Cream

November 21, 2011

Insomnia had me watching some late night cooking show last week; they took regular mashed potatoes and spiced them up. Later I couldn’t find the recipe online, so I made this similar recipe from Rachel Ray. Unfortunately her recipe wasn’t very refined, as the seasonings tasted as though they still needed to be tweaked. Also, the texture of the potatoes was gritty with sour cream as the only dairy. They were okay, 3 stars, but still there is plenty of room for improvement.

Shown here with a delicious steak

As Chris Kimball always recommends, I boiled the potatoes with their skins on. This prevents them from becoming water logged and allows them to absorb more sour cream. To peel, I hold the hot potatoes using a fork then remove the skins with a paring knife. It’s a good idea to hold your potato over the strainer in which you drained your potatoes, because the tender potatoes are likely to fall. I had two fall apart right into my bacteria-filled kitchen sink. Better if it were to falls back into the strainer.

Also, I would like to try Chris Kimball’s recipe for Mashed Potatoes with Scallions and Horseradish, but I didn’t have any fresh horseradish, and the post-snow-storm blackout spoiled my prepared horseradish too. I’d like to try preparing my own horseradish someday soon.


  1. Too gritty. They could use some butter, or more sour cream (or something) to improve the texture.
  2. The spices were not right; they need to be tweaked.

Rating: 3 stars.
Cost: $1.60.
How much work? Low.
How big of a mess?  Low.
Start time 5:00 PM. Dinnertime: 6:00 PM.

The original recipe from Rachel Ray is here. My descriptions of how I prepare it today are given below:

3 pounds Russet or Idaho potatoes
1-1/2 cups sour cream
6 scallions
Salt and ground black pepper

  1. Add potatoes with their skin on to an empty pot and fill with water to cover by 1″. Over medium-high heat to a boil, then reduce to medium and boil your potatoes for 20 minutes. They will be done when a paring knife inserted into the potato meets little resistance. Meanwhile finely chop both the white and green parts of your 6 scallions.
  2. Drain the potatoes into a colander.
  3. Quick Tip: If you need to hold your mashed potatoes while finishing the rest of your dinner, re-fill your pot with hot tap water and bring to a simmer. Once you’ve completed your mashed potatoes, cover your serving bowl tightly with a clean, damp kitchen towel, plastic wrap and a lid from your pot. Place snugly over pot of simmering water. They will hold for up to 2 hours, but for more than 1 hour add an extra 1/4 cup of milk, half-and-half or cream.
  4.  Peel your hot potatoes by holding them with a fork. With the other hand, use a paring knife peel away the skins. Use a ricer of food mill and process your potatoes directly into a serving bowl.
  5.  Add sour cream, chopped scallions, and salt and pepper. Stir to combine, and adjust salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Serve immediately or hold according to Quick tip mentioned in step 3.

How to Save Your Pumpkins

October 22, 2010

While growing up in California I used to think that squirrels were cute. But now that I am living in the Northeast they have become my greatest enemy (and I know that I am not alone). They dig hundreds of holes in my lawn, they destroy my tulips in the spring (for no apparent reason), they have even chewed a hole in my home’s rooftop. This time of year, they have their beady little eyes firmly fixated on the pumpkins sitting by my front door.

Save your pumpkins before its too late.

To prevent the squirrels from laying waste to my $35 worth of pumpkins, I applied a layer of dish soap over the entire surface of the pumpkin. Just use your regular dish sponge and try to leave a relatively thick layer. I will re-apply once a week or after a rain. It’s the same principle as washing your mouth out with soap. That, and I will also cross my fingers.

Homemade Vanilla Extract Shootout

October 1, 2010

It adds such rich flavor that for every recipe I make using vanilla, I automatically double it; one teaspoon always becomes two.  This rule has never let me down. I guess anything that costs $4 per ounce is going to taste great. While McCormick’s won CI’s March 2009 Vanilla Extract taste test, six months later Chris Kimball found a better (and cheaper) alternative; homemade. Don’t worry it’s the easiest recipe on my blog (so far). The only requirement is patience.


Day 1: In order from left to right; recipe 1, 2, 3 and 4.


Actually, Chris Kimball has two vanilla extract recipe; one from 1993, and another from 2009 (The later heats the vodka to speed the extraction process). As I have been waiting patiently for my internet Vanilla Beans to arrive in the mail, I’ve been doing some research on the topic. Here’s what I found: most online recipes vary from Chris Kimball’s recipes in two important ways. (1) extraction time: the consensus on the internet is that it should between 2 and 6 months; not 1 week, and (2) most recipes call for 3 beans per 1-cup of vodka; not 1-1/3 beans (his 1993 recipe uses 2 beans). But even at 3 beans per cup of alcohol, that’s barely 50% of what the FDA has set a minimum standard for vanilla extract.  The FDA minimum is 0.834 oz. of bean per cup (8 ounces) of 35 percent alcohol (70 proof). And when you consider that most bakers prefer double strength extract (though Chris Kimball doesn’t like the double-strength, see How string is your Vanilla?)

The four recipe variations that I made are:

  1. Chris Kimball’s 2009 Recipe. 1-1/3 beans per cup of vodka. I placed the finished bottle in pan of 125-degree water for 1 hour, per Recipe #1 only. Extraction time 1 week, after which time I will filter the vanilla.
  2. Chris Kimball’s 1993 Recipe. 2 beans per cup of vodka. Extraction time 1 week, after which time I will create a small filtered sample, but allow the remaining to continue to steep per the CI instructions.
  3. Internet Recipe. 3 beans per cup of vodka. Extraction time 2 to 6 months, after which time the vanilla will be filtered.
  4. FDA Single-Strength Recipe. 0.83-oz per cup (about 7 beans). Undefined extraction time. I will sample at various stages, and filter if it ever becomes too potent.

Generally, I followed the same instructions for each recipe, except where noted:

  • Use a sharp paring knife to cut lengthwise down the center of the vanilla beans.
  • Scrape the caviar out of the pods. Put the vanilla beans (and caviar) in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid.
  • Cover the beans completely with alcohol. Depending upon the jar being used, the beans may need to be cut in half to get the alcohol to cover the beans.
  • Tightly cover the jar and give it a shake.
  • Store in a cool dry place.  Give the bottle a good shake every week or so.

Not only do I intended to make a superior quality vanilla extract, but I also want to yield significant savings. Here’s the breakdown of costs:

  • I paid $8 for 1/4-lb of my internet vanilla beans, including shipping. All four recipes used a total of 3/4 ounces. So the beans portion of my vanilla extract only cost $1.50.
  • The vodka doesn’t have to be expensive; it contributes no flavor. I spent $11 on a 750-ml bottle (approx 25 ounces).
  • Like so many other things, the supermarket is the worst place to buy things. They charge $17 for a 4-oz bottle of McCormick’s,  and $25 for a 8-oz bottle. Also my supermarket sells whole vanilla beans for $7 per bean.
  • Doing the math, my 14-oz of vanilla extract cost me $7.60; for which McCormick’s would cost me $43; a 5-fold increase.

Over the next six months I will followup as the vanilla extract becomes “ready” and provide ratings at the various stages for each recipe. Recipe #1 will be ready in one week.

Rating: (still unknown).
Cost: $7.60 for 14-ounces of vanilla extract.
How much work? Low.
How big of a mess?  Very Low.
Started: 6:00 PM.  Ready:  7:00 PM. (including all 4 recipes)

Additional considerations:

  1. There are two main varieties on beans used to produce vanilla extract: Bourbon and Tahitian. The Bourbon refers to the Bourbon Islands, located near Madagascar. Bourbon beans do not typically use bourbon (the alcohol) to extract the vanilla flavor. I selected Bourbon beans because they have a more traditional taste profile. Tahitian beans have a more floral and fruity flavor with hints of anise.
  2. The FDA defines Vanilla Extract to contain at least 35% alcohol. Theoretically any alcohol can be used; rum, bourbon or brandy is sometimes used. I opted to use Vodka because of it’s neutral flavor. I used 80 proof (40%) because that’s what I have left over from my pie crust recipe.
  3. Most commercial extracts also add sugar, which takes away the natural bitter aftertaste. If you buy/make it without sugar it will keep indefinitely. Besides all recipes in which you use your extract will also add sugar, so there is little reason to add incorporate sugar into your extract.
  4. Vanilla keeps for at least 10 years without any loss in potency or flavor; though McCormick’s puts an expiry date about 2 years out. If properly stored in cool, dark place, most say that it only improves with age, and any fine red wine.
  5. It appears that the average number of extract grade vanilla beans is 140 to 160 per pound. My beans were a little scrawny coming in at 240 per pound, so I adjusted the recipe accordingly. Using 1.6 of my beans for every one bean called for in the recipe. I recommend contacting your seller before placing your order to ensure that you aren’t surprised.
  6. A helpful website I used while waiting for my beans to arrive in the mail.
  7. The perfect bottles for gift are here. The amber helps protect the vanilla from light.

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