With the pandemic restricting travel and social contact becoming increasingly risky, for many people, this year will be the first Thanksgiving they spend alone.
Spending a holiday alone can be lonely, but you can take steps to make it feel more special. For Thanksgiving in particular, one way to do so is to prepare yourself a Thanksgiving meal.
The classic Thanksgiving meal can seem intimidating, especially if you are tackling it by yourself. Once you downsize the feast, though, there are only a few key things you need to keep in mind to make a successful meal with all your favorite flavors.
Gather your tools
If your culinary tools are slightly sparse, you may need to run to your local homegoods or kitchen supply store in order to pick up a few tools for your Thanksgiving meal. The most important, if you plan to make turkey or even a smaller bird, is a meat thermometer.
“There is no way you’re going to cook a bird well unless you have an internal thermometer,” said Stephanie Enjaian, culinary arts department chair at Kennebec Valley Community College.
The Food and Drug Administration recommends an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit for a safe roast turkey. However, Enjaian said if you go past that temperature your turkey will be “dry as a bone,” so it is important to measure accurately.
If you do not already have them, you will also need a sharp kitchen knife and a large cutting board, at least 12 inches by 15 inches.
“It can be a little bit of a pain to cut up a turkey on a tiny little cutting board,” said Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine.
When It comes to roasting the bird, Dumas said you do not need a roasting pan, but you should at least have a sheet pan and a rack.
“The roasting pan is not the greatest tool for roasting a bird,” Dumas said. “I prefer a sheet pan with a one-inch rack on them. You do want a rimmed sheet pan, though — don’t bake it on a flat cookie sheet.”
Whatever you do, Dumas said, do not make your turkey in a foil pan.
“[When you take your] hot bird from the oven, you don’t want that pan to fold and dump hot grease on you and the turkey falls on the floor and you sit down and cry,” Dumas said.
Turkey basters, however, are not required.
“It’s handy, but it gets left in the back of the drawer [after Thanksgiving],” Enjaian said. “If I want to baste it, I’ll use a spoon.”
To turkey or not to turkey
If you want to have turkey, make sure you know what you are getting into in terms of size.
Jay Demers, department chair of culinary arts and restaurant food service management at Eastern Maine Community College, said that usually the smallest birds you will find are around 12 pounds, which is a lot for one person, even with leftovers. Besides that, he said, smaller turkeys are in shorter supply this year given people having smaller gatherings.
You can opt for a whole chicken instead, or purchase portions of the turkey like the thigh and the breast instead of the whole bird. Or, if you have some cooking experience and that sharp knife, you can purchase a whole turkey and break it into individual components on your own.
“Don’t feel obligated to cook it all on Thanksgiving,” said Dumas. “Cook what you intend to eat. If you want dark and light meat, feel free to roast one breast and one thigh or one leg quarter.”
No matter what bird you choose, if you get it frozen, make sure you get it well in advance so it can properly thaw.
“A 12- to 15-pound turkey can take four to five days under refrigeration to get it thawed,” Dumas said. “I think that trips a lot of people up. Nothing is more stressful than getting to Turkey Day and realizing your turkey is just rock solid frozen. Plan ahead for your turkey to thaw out.”
Dumas said to place a rimmed pan underneath your turkey while it is thawing in the refrigerator to catch any juices that leak as it thaws.
Also, on the day of Thanksgiving, make sure you leave time for your cooked turkey to rest before the meal.
“It will be easier to slice and your juices will redistribute throughout the meat,” Dumas said.
Prepare parts in advance
Prepare what you can in advance to make the day less stressful. Consider buying pre-cubed butternut squash or pre-cut vegetables, or you can cut vegetables the night before.
“Peel and chop your beets and carrots and parsnips and put them in Tupperwares in your fridge,” Dumas said. “If you’re doing Brussel sprouts, wash and trim ahead of time.”
Desserts can also be made in advance. Dumas said if you make apple crisps ahead of time, freeze them and bake them on the day of. Most pies do not need to be served warm, so those can also be made the day before.
It might also be helpful to cook before Thanksgiving. Not only can you cut up a whole turkey into individual portions in advance, but you can also cook the turkey itself.
“In restaurants, we always cooked the turkey ahead to maximize the yield,” Demers said. “This way we can utilize every scrap of meat and use the carcasses to make stock for the stuffing and gravy.”
Even if you are not taking that approach, Dumas said to be sure to give the turkey a spice rub the day before.
“Let it sit in the fridge covered or uncovered the night before so you don’t have to handle that raw turkey the day of,” Dumas said. “If you’ve broken down your turkey, you can make your stock and gravy in advance. It reheats well, and the flavors come together better when made ahead of time.”
Go easy on yourself
If this is your first Thanksgiving meal you are preparing alone, do not feel pressure to make everything perfectly. There is no shame in pre-packaged shortcuts.
“Many people have a hard time to juggle everything from a timing perspective, so this might free people up to shy away from some shortcuts like stuffing from a box or gravy from a jar,” Demers said. “No judgement here — some people love their Stove Top Stuffing!”
If none of the Thanksgiving staples appeal to you, cook what you want.
“Don’t feel obligated to eat turkey,” Dumas said. “If your favorite thing is mac and cheese, make a big pot of mac and cheese and say forget it to the Thanksgiving spread.”