The Secret to Seving A Great Thanksgiving Meal

Imagine arriving at a family member or friend’s home eagerly anticipating Thanksgiving dinner and eating mashed potatoes at room temperature with lukewarm gravy poured over it. Next you bite into a cool roll with cold butter on it. Finally you cut into a slice of turkey or ham and it also is only slightly warm. I bet that this isn’t difficult to imagine because you have most likely experienced this.

Maybe you have served such food and experienced the personal disappointment of seeing the reaction of your guests after eating cold food which should be served hot. All of the effort put into preparation, seasoning and presentation all gone to waste when your guests are visibly disappointed. This certainly wasn’t what you had on mind when you rose at dawn and commenced with the preparation of the thanksgiving meal.

In fact if you are like many assigned or choosing to prepare the annual family Thanksgiving meal you want it to be picture perfect. You want to recapture that iconic Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post scene. You dream of preparing a meal and presenting it to your family and guests that leaves them in awe of the occasion.

Hot Food Equals Happy Thanksgiving Guests

As impossible as it may sound to achieve this, it is possible. It is simply a matter of understanding the timing associated with preparation of each menu item in relation to the scheduled time to eat. The good news for you is that I have over ten years of professional cooking experience and am willing to provide you with some information on cooking times and organizing keys which will help you pull off this grand feat.

What follows is a list the components of a more traditional menu which are served hot. These items include: roast turkey, roast ham, whipped potatoes, green beans and bread stuffing and baked macaroni and cheese. In that there are many different recipes for each item, I will limit my discussion to the preparation and cooking times for the main items.

Cooking and Baking Times

For each of the items listed below, there exist numerous recipes and cooking methods. Several cook books and other sources are in print or online offering traditional and unique variations of the traditional Thanksgiving fare. The list represents typical cooking times depending on the size and quantity of each item.

  • Roast Turkey: (twelve pound turkey) prep time approximately twenty minutes, cooking time 3 to 5-1/2 hours. Be sure to verify cooking times with directions provided on the wrapping.
  • Roast Ham: (whole ham pre-cooked) prep time twenty minutes, cooking time 18 to 10 minutes (cured and smoked) 30 minutes to 3 hours. Again, be sure to verify cooking times with directions provided.
  • Whipped or mashed potatoes: (6 to 10 medium sized potatoes diced) prep time twenty minutes, boiling time is approximately one hour; whipping or mashing time is 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Green beans: (canned) read cooking directions, typically 5 to 8 minutes. (Fresh) depending on quantity and degree of crispness desired, 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Stuffing: (oven baked out of turkey) prep time approximately 15 to 20 minutes, bake time 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Baked Macaroni and cheese: (6 to 10 servings) prep time 10 to 20 minutes. Bake time 30 to 50 minutes.

As indicated, the meat items take the longest to prepare and cook. Knowing the scheduled time to serve allows you to begin preparing each item at the appropriate time. This is important because few things will make your guests concerned about the quality of a meal than seeing a roast turkey or ham sitting out of an oven for thirty or forty while you are just beginning to prepare the potatoes. And while they will politely eat some of what is prepared, you can bet that some of the discussion on their way home is the cold turkey or other item that sat at room temperature and was less than pleasant. Aligning the cooking times outlined earlier with the scheduled serving time will prevent this.

Your cold serve items such the tossed salad, pre-meal appetizers, and Waldorf salad can be prepared the night before and stored in a refrigerator. As with the food meant to be served hot, the cold items should not be removed from cold storage until serving time; a limp and lukewarm salad has as much appeal as lukewarm potatoes covered with lukewarm gravy.

Bringing the Food to the Serving Area

It is important to note that the cooked food will remain at optimum serving temperature for 10 to 15 minutes. Therefore our focus here is to make sure that all hot foods are finished cooking within minutes of serving time. Ideally, the potatoes, green beans, will be finished mere moments before or immediately after the baked items are removed from the oven. If time and space permit, serving dishes can be placed in the oven or stovetop for a moment thereby preventing hot food being placed in cold dishes.

For large groups of guests requiring large quantities of food placed on a large table, I recommend that items to be served hot be placed in two separate serving dishes and placed at opposite ends of the dinner table. This way, people at opposite ends of a long table will not need to wait for the arrival of an item from a long distance allowing it to become cool. Also, if the turkey is placed at one end of the table, and the ham at the other end, then all those wishing for a portion of either can receive their portions at one time and then switch the meats.

Bringing the food to the serving area is an exciting time. It marks the time for enjoying good food and good conversation. The initial commentary from your guests typically will focus on the food. The first comments will be about the appearance of the food and the variety. Each new item brought to the table will heighten the anticipation for the meal. If hot items are brought to the table quickly, and service starts within minutes of this, your quests will enjoy warm carved meat and accompaniments. The smiles and “oohs and ahs” will speak volumes of how your guests feel about the moment. If you accomplish this, then you will have much to be thankful for.

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