Every year we hear about all sorts of Thanksgiving foibles from our readers. And though we’re still not sure how to save the day if the dog gets the turkey — frozen pizza, anyone? — we can salvage almost any other disaster. Here are 10 tales of woe that we all can relate to, along with Fine Cooking’s fix-it tips for now or next time.
1. Unevenly cooked turkey
Problem: I can’t seem to cook a turkey evenly. One year the breasts will be perfect, but when I carve the bird, the thigh meat is shocking pink; the next year, the thighs are perfect but the breast meat is overcooked and dry.
Quick fix: Unfortunately, it’s hard to avoid one or the other of these scenarios, because turkey breasts cook faster than the legs and thighs. (For food-safety reasons, it’s important to cook the bird until the breast registers 160° to 165°F and the thighs register 170° to 175°F on an instant-read thermometer. ) If despite your best efforts, you wind up with dry breast meat, make lots of delicious gravy, ladle it generously over the meat, and don’t give it another thought. And if the dark meat is undercooked, simply carve off the legs and thighs, put them in a pan, and return them to the oven to continue roasting until they reach 170°F.
Avoiding the problem: You can slow down the rate at which the breasts cook by putting ice packs on the breasts while you defrost the bird so that the breasts are cooler than the rest of the bird when it goes into the oven. Or, you can try our favorite trick for keeping the meat moist: start the turkey off in the oven breast side down with the legs pointing toward the back of the oven, where it’s hotter. About halfway into the total cooking time, turn the bird breast side up so that the skin can brown and crisp. Brining is another option; it doesn’t completely protect meat against dryness, but it does give you a juicier bird.
2. Still frozen turkey
Problem: Yikes, it’s Thanksgiving morning and the turkey is still frozen.
Quick fix: It takes a long time to thaw a turkey in the fridge — about 5 hours per pound. To speed up the process safely, you can defrost the turkey in cold water, which is not only a faster thawing method than the fridge but a gentler one. Simply put the turkey (still in its wrapper) in your kitchen sink and cover it with cold tap water. Every half hour, drain the water and refill the sink. The turkey will thaw at a rate of about 30 minutes per pound. Meanwhile, call your guests to tell them that dinner will be delayed. And don’t forget to remove the giblets after the bird is thawed. Oh, one last thing: we’d be remiss if we didn’t remind you that it’s never a good idea to thaw the bird on the counter overnight.
3. The trouble with stuffing
Problem: It seems to happen every year: my turkey is fully cooked, but when I stick my instant-read thermometer into the stuffing, it reads lower than 165°F, the safe temperature for stuffing cooked in a bird.
Quick fix: This isn’t as big a problem as it might seem. To remedy the situation, simply take the turkey out of the oven, scoop the stuffing into a baking dish, and return the stuffing to the oven to bake while the turkey rests before carving.
Avoiding the problem: To prevent this scenario next year, here are a couple tips: If you’ve made your stuffing in advance, let it come to room temperature before stuffing the bird. Pack the stuffing loosely — tightly packed stuffing won’t cook through easily — leaving enough room to fit your hand in the bird. Or take our test kitchen manager’s advice and don’t cook the stuffing in the turkey at all; give it its own baking dish, instead, and you’ll get lots of nice crisp topping as as bonus.
4. Timing dilemmas!
Problem: I’ve got one oven, so how on earth am I supposed to get a turkey and all the trimmings to the table, warm and delicious, at the same time? My mother always pulls it off, but when I try keep things warm until dinner time, something inevitably winds up overdone.
Avoiding the problem: This is probably the most common Thanksgiving complaint of all. Fortunately, it’s easily solved. The key to pulling together any big feast is having a strategy and doing as much of the cooking ahead as possible. Start by reading through your recipes and looking for do-ahead components — and then sit down and write yourself a timeline. Here is a sample menu and timeline to get you started. Also, make sure to serve nice hot gravy; it’s our favorite trick for making lukewarm potatoes, stuffing, and turkey taste warm and wonderful.
5. Burned pan drippings
Problem: Everything on the bottom of my roasting pan burned, so now I have no delicious browned bits for gravy. Is there any way out of this mess?
Quick fix: Don’t worry. You can still make gravy. Pluck a couple tablespoons worth of nicely browned bits of skin and meat from the underside of the turkey, chop finely, and in a clean skillet, sauté them in bacon fat or butter with minced onion and fresh herbs such as parsley, thyme, and sage. When the aromatics are well browned and soft, sprinkle flour into the pan and cook the roux until golden; slowly add your broth, and cook, stirring, until the gravy is the thickness you desire.
Avoiding the problem: Drippings usually won’t burn in a heavy-based roasting pan that’s just large enough to hold the turkey. If your pan is too big or too flimsy, coarsely chop an onion or two and sprinkle it around the turkey in the pan to act as a heat absorber. If you need to do this, leave the onion out of your homemade broth (if making) because the pan drippings will be plenty oniony.
6. Too salty
Problem: I was overenthusiastic with the salt shaker when making my sweet potatoes and my green beans.
Quick fixes: Depending on how much you’ve over salted, you may or may not be able to salvage the dish. If the salt is mildly out of balance, you can sometimes fix things by adding an acidic ingredient: lemon juice, vinegar, wine. This trick doesn’t exactly rectify the situation, but the acid distracts your taste buds from the salt. To actually fix an oversalted dish, you could double the recipe, adding more of all the other ingredients, except salt, and hope that does the trick. Or, if it’s an easy recipe, such as a salad dressing, and you have the ingredients on hand, the obvious thing to do is start over. As for that old saw about adding slices of peeled potato to the dish and cooking for 10 minutes (the idea being that the potato will absorb the excess salt): it hasn’t been proven to work.
7. Lumpy gravy
Problem: My gravy tastes great but it’s got small whitish lumps in it.
Quick fix: Those little lumps of undissolved starch are easy to get rid of. Simply strain the gravy through a fine sieve. If the strained gravy is thick enough to use, go ahead and serve it. If the gravy is too thin, return it to the stove and let it cook down to the consistency you desire. Or, you can quickly thicken the gravy by adding extra starch: thoroughly dissolve a teaspoon of flour or cornstarch in a little cool liquid, and then whisk it into the gravy and cook, stirring, until thickened.
Avoiding the problem: Next time, you can avoid lumps by whisking your roux vigorously as you slowly pour the cool broth into the pan.
8. Gluey mashed potatoes
Problem: I’ve always mashed my potatoes by hand and the results are slightly lumpy. I don’t mind that, actually, but some members of my family tease me about the lumps, so this year I decided — disastrously — to whip the potatoes smooth with my electric mixer. Instead of the velvety purée I’d hoped for, I created a gluey mess.
Quick fix: If you don’t have the time or ingredients to start over, make the best of what you’ve got. Spread the potatoes in a fairly thin layer in a shallow baking dish, top with plenty of coarse breadcrumbs and maybe a little grated Parmigiano, dot with butter, and pop in the oven to bake until the crumbs are golden brown and crisp. If you’re lucky, the crunchy crumbs will be so yummy that no one will even notice the texture of the potatoes.
Avoiding the problem: Next year, go back to making your mashed potatoes by hand. If you use a potato ricer or food mill instead of your wire masher, you should get the lump-free results your guests desire.
9. Soupy pecan pie
Problem: I’m generally a competent baker, but the pecan pie I made for Thanksgiving dessert turned out really soupy. Not only was I embarrassed, I didn’t have anything else to serve.
Quick fix: Always have plenty of ice cream in the freezer on Thanksgiving day, just in case something like this happens. Instead of serving the pie, scoop ice cream into individual serving bowls, spoon the pie filling on top, and garnish with a dollop of whipped cream. Soupy pie fillings make excellent ice cream toppings.
Avoiding the problem: This is a tough one to troubleshoot without seeing your recipe because there’s more than one way to make pecan-pie filling — some versions are partially cooked on the stovetop while others aren’t — and a number of things could cause the filling to be runny. To name a few: It could be a problem with the proportion of ingredients in the recipe, e.g., there might not be enough egg to hold the custard together, in which case you should try a different recipe next time. Or you might not have baked the pie long enough — it needs to bake until the filling is puffed and jiggles only slightly when the pan is nudged. Or the pie might have baked at too hot a temperature, causing the egg custard to break and weep.
10. A cracked pumpkin pie
Problem: I made a gorgeous pumpkin pie, but while it was cooling, a big crack opened up in the middle of the pie.
Quick fix: Whipped cream to the rescue. Instead of fretting about the crack, hide it. You can pipe whipped cream decoratively onto the surface of the entire pie. Or slice the pie in the kitchen, place each slice on a dessert plate, and top with a generous dollop of fluffy whipped cream. No one will ever guess your delicious pie wasn’t picture perfect.
Avoid the problem: Custard pies tend to crack either because they’re overbaked or because the filling recipe called for more starch than was needed to thicken the custard. Next time, remove the pie from the oven as soon as it just begins to set — the filling will continue to thicken as it cools. If this doesn’t solve the problem, you may want to reduce the amount of starch in the recipe by 25 percent.