11/21/2012 09:54 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

No-Sweat Rules Of The Thanksgiving Road


Today: Whether you're cooking for a few or for 100, here are 5 tips to make your Thanksgiving easier -- prep like mad, accept the right kind of help and use that cooler to keep the turkey warm.

-- Tom Hirschfeld, Contributer

I have this brother-in-law who purposefully annoys everyone. If I didn't know what I was doing at Thanksgiving, if I hadn't made a plan and done my prep, there have been times when my anger might have shown. Inevitably, in the middle of everyone getting everything ready for Thanksgiving dinner -- during that big rush when everything is coming out of the oven hot, people are carving the turkeys, water glasses are being filled, hot rolls are going into cloth-lined baskets -- he will mill around, get in everyone's way, and start giving me a hard time about being hungry, asking "When is dinner going to be ready?" Or he might even look at a turkey leg and suggest that it is a little pink, when in fact it is nothing of the sort. But instead of blowing my top, I smile and suggest that if he can't wait, McDonald's is just down the road.

In the past I might not have been so casual. Let me explain.

>> RELATED: See our 7 Low-Maintenace Hors D'Oeuvres to keep everyone happy before the big meal.

For years I didn't play well with others in the kitchen, especially on holidays. I thought of it as a break for my guests -- they shouldn't have to cook, I would tell myself, forgetting that in reality they might enjoy bringing a dish, and even helping out. But instead I would go into my one-man band mode: I became the guy with the big bass drum attached to his chest, a harmonica around his neck, a guitar dangling from his side, a cymbal or two tied around his knees and maybe even a maraca on his shoes. It was stressful, and more then a little ridiculous. Throw in a cocktail or two and it easily became like watching the Titanic.

And while I never sank the ship, I did learn from my past mistakes. I have reached an age when the food is important, but it is far from everything. I would rather spend quality time with my family and my in-need-of-a-place-to-go friends than I would in front of the stove.

1. Each year, I develop a plan. I go so far as to write it out like I did my prep lists when I was a line cook. It works for me. Like a dog on a shock collar I have come to know my parameters, and as long as I don't cross them I have a perfectly wonderful, pain-free holiday. To do this, my cooking week starts on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Well, I take that back.

• Gravy. At some point during the previous week, I pick up five pounds of turkey legs or wings. Then on Sunday, before I sit down to make my prep list for the big day, I throw a pot on the stove and make turkey stock. That night, I use a little of the stock to make soup for dinner before straining and freezing the rest.
>>See a recipe for Bacon Bird with Turkey Neck Gravy.

• Knifework. I don't want to have to chop anything on Thanksgiving day. So everything is cubed, diced, or minced on Wednesday. I even cut and peel the potatoes I will need and store them in a pot of water right in the fridge.

• Bread. I let my rolls take a rest in the fridge overnight. The first thing Thanksgiving morning, they get set on the counter for the final rise and baked early. Then I only have to warm them before dinner.
>>See a recipe for Oatmeal-Molasses Rolls. • Casseroles. Have all your casseroles made in advance, at least by the day before. Then simply pull all casseroles out of the refrigerator one hour before they are to go into the oven so they come to room temperature, then bake.

See, I have done this for ten-odd years now. I cook the same thing every year. My guests have an expectation of the familiar and, in fact, crave their favorite dishes. But I have one exception. Each year I rotate in a new dish, something I have made but not served to others. A dish I know works, tastes great, and has been road-tested by me. I cook nothing I haven't cooked before.

2. I know I have limited space. Each of us only has so much room in the oven, only so much stovetop to work with. Whatever I decide to do, I do it with space requirements in mind.

I divide things up. I try to cook an equal number of dishes on the stove as I do in the oven. I only bake things that require the same oven temperature -- never something that needs 425º and another that needs 325º. There are so many different recipes out there that it is easy to find delicious things that require the same oven temperature. On the stovetop, I don't cook anything overly fussy. I look for recipes that can bubble gently on the back burner and be ignored for the most part.

3. Keep the turkey warm... in a cooler. A few years back, I learned a valuable lesson. We had a large crowd, which meant two turkeys and a whole, brined venison ham to cook. Now, I used to be in the catering business, and we had these hot/cold do-hickies called Cambros, nothing more than fancy coolers. They kept things hot or cold for hours and what I decided (and it works great -- I mean really great) is to let the finished turkeys rest in a foil-lined cooler with the lid shut. If you are baking a Judy Bird and cook the turkey so it comes out of the oven an hour and fifteen minutes before you want to carve it, it will stay hot, juicy, and succulent beyond belief.

My only requirement for anyone needing to do this is to make sure ahead of time that the bird fits in the cooler -- don't wait 'til it comes out of the oven to see if it fits. Do this while the turkey is still in the bag, uncooked, and remember to try closing the lid, too. Don't expect the roasting pan to fit in there (it won't), hence lining with foil. If you didn't stuff the bird, be aware when you move the thing to the cooler that the cavity is full of juices. Best to drain it into the roasting pan first.

4. Accept time where it comes. Think about it. If you throw in the turkey carving time, you now have a free and clear oven for an hour and a half. That's right, an hour and a half! And you've done your homework and know all your casseroles are going to fit into the oven. (Remember? You tested it last week by putting the empty casseroles into the oven to see if everything would easily fit.) It's showtime, and you are on easy street.

I like to have a clean sink, with the exception of one or two pots, before we sit down to dinner. Cookware and utensils get washed as I go. Dishwasher will be empty too. Clean as you go.

5. Accept help where it comes. One last thing: I assign desserts, salads and cold appetizers to those who want to pitch in. I do this so I know what needs to be done at the stove, and so I am not worried about ruining someone else's dish by not browning it enough or, worse, burning it. It also keeps anyone else from getting in and out of the oven, or stirring the pot. And really, if you let others help, they feel needed, and you will find your job much less hectic. Let people help, but know who you're dealing with and don't let them get in above their heads. Assign the right tasks to the right people.

"Kids, make yourselves useful, do the damn dishes!"

And everyone will have a happy Thanksgiving.