How to Cook a Classic Thanksgiving Dinner

Our CIA student guest blogger, Sam, shows how to throw a real adult Thanksgiving dinner party.


For most of us, Thanksgiving means a meal enjoyed with family and friends, and if you’re like me, that meal was almost always at home with the parents. Throughout college I would go home for Thanksgiving break each year, so it wasn’t until after college when I was living in an apartment with a few friends that I cooked my own Thanksgiving dinner for the first time.

My friends and I cooked for two days and my mom actually came to MY house for dinner! It was a big change and it felt good to be hosting this special event. Thanksgiving dinner holds a lot of memories and meaning to us, so it may seem daunting to try and live up to those expectations. But in reality it is the people with whom you eat that you truly remember, not the slightly dry turkey or the lumpy gravy. Follow these recipes and you and nine of your friends will have a fun, delicious meal that you can be proud of!

Roasted Turkey:
1 turkey (12 pounds)
2 cups roughly chopped onions (about 2-3 medium)
1 cup roughly chopped, peeled carrots (about 2)
1 cup roughly chopped celery (about 2 ribs)
3 sage leaves
Kosher salt
Vegetable oil

Buy your fresh turkey a day or two ahead and keep it in the refrigerator on a tray to catch drippings. (A frozen turkey is usually less expensive, but will take 3-4 day to defrost in your fridge.) Plan on serving about 1 pound of turkey per person. To serve 10 people you could buy a 10-12 pound bird, since everyone likes leftovers! A turkey that is from 8-12 pounds will generally take about 2 3/4-3 hours to roast in a 350F oven.

-Begin by roughly chopping the onions, celery, and carrots.
-Next remove the package of the giblets and the gizzards from the body cavity, then wash the turkey with cold water and dry with paper towels. Rub inside of the turkey with salt. Stuff the turkey with the vegetables, as well as 3 sage leaves.
-After stuffing the turkey you can truss it; tying the legs so that the bird retains its shape during roasting. This helps immensely when it comes time for carving (but is a step you can skip). It isn’t hard, just hard to explain:
Start by cutting 4 feet of kitchen twine. Position the turkey so that the legs are facing you and the breast it facing up. Find the middle of the twine and drop it over the top of both drum sticks at the “ankle”. Loop the twine down and around the ankle and cross over on top of the opposite drumstick, forming an “x”. Now, pull the twine tight so that the ankles touch and bring the rest of the twine up along the sides of the bird making sure to pin the wings the body and push the breast up to promote better browning. To secure the twine, tie a know around the turkeys neck and you’re done!

Once the turkey is trussed, pat the outside dry and rub with canola oil and salt. Use oil, not butter because you can always add butter near the end of cooking. Add it now and it may burn.

-Once you have stuffed, seasoned, and trussed the turkey, put it on a rack in a roasting pan (if you use a disposable aluminum roasting pan place it on a cookie sheet) and place in an oven heated to 350F. Check the turkey periodically to baste it with the pan drippings.  After 2 hours and 15 minutes you can start lightly brushing the turkey with melted butter if desired. After another 15 minutes start checking the temperature of the bird at the base of the thigh, making sure not to hit a bone. The internal temperature should be 165F. (You can also check if the turkey is done by feeling that leg moves easily and by pricking with fork to see that juices run clear.) Pull the turkey out and let it sit on a cutting board, loosely covered with tin foil, for 20 minutes before cutting. Discard the vegetables from inside the turkey but don’t wash the roasting pan!

Turkey Gravy
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/3 cup all purpose flour
4 cups chicken stock (low sodium), simmering
Pan drippings from the turkey roasting pan
1/2 cup of red wine
salt and pepper to taste

-While the turkey is roasting, melt the butter in a heavy bottomed sauce pan.
-When the butter is fully melted and begins to foam, add the flour and whisk to mix thoroughly. Stir the flour and butter mixture for a minute or two, being careful not to let it burn.
-Once the mixture starts to turn light brown and bubble like cooking pancake batter, gradually add the hot stock, whisking continuously to make it smooth. Let this mixture cool if turkey is still cooking, then reheat to a simmer to finish.
-Once the turkey is done, pour the grease out of the roasting pan (not down the sink, use an old container that you can throw out) and place the pan over medium heat on the stove and add the red wine. When the wine simmers, scrap the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to release all the flavor that has built up there during roasting. If using a disposable pan, do not put directly on the burner, just add a little hot water to the pan and scrape all the good bits directly into the gravy. Skip the wine.
-Do not simmer away all of the wine, but make sure it simmers long enough to get rid of the alcoholic vapor that it first gives off.
-Pour the wine and pan scraps into your gravy and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm.

Classic New England Chestnut Stuffing
3/4 pound minced onions (about 2 medium size) 
1/4 pound celery, diced small (about 3-4 ribs)
6 Tbsp butter
1/2 lb breakfast sausage, raw, chopped up well
1-2 stale (couple of days old) baguettes or other type of bread, 1/2” cubes
2 cups chicken stock
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 Tbsp chopped parsley
salt and pepper as needed
2 Tbsp fresh sage leaves, chopped
1/2 pound fresh chestnuts, peeled and chopped

-Start by preparing the chestnuts. Cut an “x” into each chestnut shell, place them in a small sauce pan and cover with cold water (no salt). Bring the water to a boil and simmer the chestnuts for 15-20 minutes. Once tender they are easier to peel. Allow to cool a bit, peel, then chop them roughly.
-Next, saute the onions, celery, and sausage meat over medium heat in the butter until the onions and celery are tender.
-Combine the bread cubes, chicken stock, and egg. Mix well and add the sausage mixture.
-Add the parsley, a few pinches of salt, a couple grinds of pepper, sage, and chestnuts to the mixture, mixing well.
-Place in a buttered casserole dish covered with aluminum foil and bake at 350F for 45 minutes.
-Serve hot

Cranberry “Relish”
2 pounds fresh cranberries (frozen is fine too)
Zest from 1 small orange
2 oranges, juiced
2 granny smith apples, peeled and diced small
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 cinnamon stick 
1/4 cup apple cider

This is a great recipe that I learned at the Culinary Institute of America. Cranberry sauce has always been an essential part of Thanksgiving to me and this recipe is very easy, just don’t forget to stir!  You can make it a few days before and refrigerate.

-Combine all of the ingredients in a heavy bottomed pan and simmer gently until the berries pop (they are full of air). This should take 45 minutes-1 hour.
-Stir the cranberries periodically, making sure that you reach all corners of the pot, as sugar can burn very easily. Once the cranberries have popped and the sauce is thick, hold the relish in a warm place until ready to serve.

If you are cooking Thanksgiving dinner for your friends and family it is totally fine to ask people to help with the cooking or to bring food with them to fill out the table.  Potluck-style Thanksgivings are always good, especially if this is your first time heading up the dinner operations. If you cook the main turkey and stuffing, ask other people to bring some vegetable dishes, drinks, or dessert.  

Happy Thanksgiving!

(Ed. comment. If this is the first time you are attempting to cook a major dinner and are now freaked out, check out the easy Thanksgiving dinner we posted last year.)

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Author My First Apartment

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Sam is originally from Boston, MA. He studied ecology and Spanish language during his undergraduate degree at Hampshire College (Amherst, MA). He then went on to train as a chef at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, NY) and earn an introductory certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers in San Francisco in 2013. He currently lives in Barcelona, Spain and works as a culinary tour operator, wine educator, and food/travel writer for several outlets including My First Apartment. You can check out his blog at Zucker and Spice Travel.

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