Thanksgiving is coming, and you need to just relax and embrace the horror. Accept the fact that you'll get at least something wrong. The turkey will be too big. Or too small. Or too frozen. There won't be enough mashed potatoes, or maybe you'll forget to salt them. Maybe you'll have rivers of gravy, but only enough stuffing for two people. Which is just as well, because you probably won't remember what temperature the stuffing is supposed to be cooked to anyway.
We can't solve all of those problems for you, but we can give you a cheat sheet to help you avoid at least a few blunders. We've done some of the most common Thanksgiving math for you. Now you can focus on more important things, such as who will sit next to your obnoxious uncle or how to deflect your mother-in-law's unwanted housekeeping advice.
Because this is Thanksgiving, all serving estimates are generous to allow for plenty of seconds and leftovers.
For turkeys less than 16 pounds, estimate 1 pound per serving (this accounts for bone weight). For larger birds, a bit less is fine; they have a higher meat-to-bone ratio. But if your goal is to have very ample leftovers, aim for 11/2 pounds per person no matter how big the turkey is.
-- For 8 people, buy a 12-pound turkey
-- For 10 people, buy a 15-pound turkey
-- For 12 people, buy an 18-pound turkey
-- For 14 people, buy a 20-pound turkey
The big thaw
The safest way to thaw a frozen turkey is in the refrigerator. You'll need about 24 hours per 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. For speedier thawing, put the turkey in a sink of cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes, and plan for about 30 minutes per pound.
A good brine uses kosher salt and sugar in a 1-to-1 ratio, and usually no more than 1 cup of each. Feel free to add any other seasonings. Brines typically are made by heating the salt, sugar and seasonings with a bit of water until dissolved. This mixture then is diluted with additional cold water (volume will vary depending on the size of your bird) and ice. Be certain the brine is completely cooled before adding the turkey.
Turkeys should be brined for at least 8 to 10 hours, but can go as long as 72 hours. A good rule of thumb is, the longer the brine, the weaker the brine. So for a 10-hour soak, use 1 cup each of salt and sugar. For a longer one, consider backing down to 3/4 cup each.
Always keep the bird refrigerated during brining. If the turkey is too big, an ice-filled cooler stored outside works too.
Roasting temperatures vary widely by recipe. Some go at a slow and steady 325 degrees. Others crank the heat to 400 degrees or 425 degrees for the first hour, then drop it down for the rest of the time.
However you roast, use an instant thermometer inserted at the innermost part of the thigh (without touching bone) to determine when your turkey is done. The meat needs to hit 165 degrees for safe eating, though some people say thigh meat tastes better at 170 degrees.
If the outside of the bird gets too dark before the center reaches the proper temperature, cover it with foil.
The following roasting time estimates are based on a stuffed turkey cooked at 325 degrees. Reduce cooking time by 20 to 40 minutes for turkeys that are not stuffed (estimate total roasting times at 15 minutes per pound for unstuffed birds). And remember, a crowded oven cooks more slowly, so plan ahead if your bird needs to share the space.
Using a convection oven? They are great at browning, but require heating or timing adjustments. Either cut the temperature by about 25 degrees from what is called for by the recipe and cook for the time directed, or roast at the suggested temperature, but reduce the cooking time by about 25 percent.
The following times are for a standard oven:
-- 12-pound turkey: 3 to 4 hours at 325 degrees
-- 15-pound turkey: 4 to 41/2 hours at 325 degrees
-- 18-pound turkey: 41/2 to 5 hours at 325 degrees
-- 20-pound turkey: 5 to 6 hours at 325 degrees
Basting the bird with its juices helps crisp the skin and flavor the meat. Do it every 30 minutes, but no more. Opening the oven door too frequently lets heat escape and can significantly slow the cooking.
The turkey never should go directly from the oven to the table. Like most meat, it needs to rest before serving for the juices to redistribute. Cover the turkey with foil and a few bath towels layered over that (to keep it warm), then let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes.
-- Carrots: a 1-pound bag makes 4 to 5 servings
-- Cranberry sauce: a 12-ounce package of fresh cranberries makes about 21/4 cups of sauce; a 16-ounce can has 6 servings
-- Gravy: plan for 1/3 cup of gravy per person
-- Green beans: 11/2 pounds of beans makes 6 to 8 servings
-- Mashed potatoes: a 5-pound bag of potatoes makes 10 to 12 servings
-- Stuffing: a 14-ounce bag of stuffing makes about 11 servings
-- Pie: a 9-inch pie can be cut into 8 modest slices.
-- Whipped cream: Dolloping whipped cream on those 8 modest slices will require 1 cup of heavy cream beaten with 2 tablespoons powdered sugar (a splash of vanilla extract is nice, too)
-- Ice cream: a la mode doesn't require much -- 1 pint per pie should suffice
For food safety reasons, leftovers should be cleared from the table and refrigerated within two hours of being served. Once refrigerated, they should be consumed within three to four days. Leftovers can be frozen for three to four months. Though safe to consume after four months, they will start to taste stale.