Dishes of cold meze are served at a restaurant. (Photographer: Geraldine Hope Ghelli/Bloomberg)

Chefs Share 23 Easy, Last-Minute Cooking Hacks to Save Thanksgiving

(Bloomberg) -- If there’s one rule that Thanksgiving experts agree on, it’s to plan ahead. Make lots of lists. Start cooking a week before. Even the late Anthony Bourdain’s No. 1 Thanksgiving ultimatum was to not start cooking on Thanksgiving Day.

But while most hosts have every intention of serving a well-thought-out, homemade Thanksgiving feast, that rarely becomes reality. Here professional chefs and sommeliers share their best tips for scrambling when key ingredients are not available, extra guests show up, the pie falls on the floor—or you’ve simply run out of time.

Chefs Share 23 Easy, Last-Minute Cooking Hacks to Save Thanksgiving

Buy Time With Safe Snack Starters

“Have a vegetable crudite platter ready before the meal,” suggests Katie Button, chef-owner of Curate in Asheville, N.C., and she encourages using whatever vegetables are on hand. “I serve it with horseradish dipping sauce. It buys you time if you’re running late with cooking but is also light and bright and not filling before the main event.” 

Chefs Share 23 Easy, Last-Minute Cooking Hacks to Save Thanksgiving

It’s Easy to Be Cheesy, Too

A wheel of ripe cheese—something creamy like brie—is a go-to for Caitlin McCormick, pastry chef of Fig in Charleston, S.C. “Mix dried fruit and nuts with some jam, spread on top of the wheel of cheese, wrap the entire wheel in store-bought puff pastry and bake for a very easy, but indulgent, appetizer or cheese course.”

Embrace Casseroles—and Cans

“They are super easy to reheat and always delicious,” says Aaron Bludorn, executive chef of Cafe Boulud in New York. “You can get creative with them and they still scream Thanksgiving. Canned green beans can be quickly and easily fashioned into a last-minute side with sherry bacon vinaigrette. White beans from the pantry can become a mini-cassoulet with bacon and sausage (left over from breakfast), layer breadcrumbs on top and then bake. It’s good the day after, too.” 

Yes, That Means Canned Cranberry, Too

“No matter how many talented chefs you have in the kitchen, you can’t say ‘Thanksgiving’ better than a purchased can of cranberry sauce,” says Mario Carbone, chef/owner of The Grill in Manhattan. “Ocean Spray is my brand of choice. It has intense cranberry taste and a sweet and sour balance that is almost impossible to replicate. It’s also very nostalgic.”

Lucas Sin, chef of New York’s Junzi Kitchen, agrees: “Canned cranberry sauce is so much easier than homemade. To chef it up, I cook canned cranberry sauce down with spices like ginger, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and fennel; orange juice; and spiced rum.”

Chefs Share 23 Easy, Last-Minute Cooking Hacks to Save Thanksgiving

Ramen-ize Your Turkey Rub

Erik Bruner-Yang, chef at Brothers and Sisters in Washington, D.C. suggests using instant ramen spice packages. “Rub the outside of the turkey with the seasoning package mixture,” he says. “I love the flavor: garlic, ginger, onion, chili pepper, white pepper, sesame oil, chili oil, and dehydrated vegetables, already perfectly portioned so you don’t have to worry about measuring. Then save the juices from roasting to make turkey ramen noodle soup for leftovers.” 

Cut Down on Roast Times

“If you run out of time to roast a whole turkey,” suggests Craig Koketsu, chef and partner at New York’s Quality Meats, “take the legs and thighs off the bird and place them on top of a casserole of stuffing before baking. It cuts the roasting time way back, and allows you to cook the breast perfectly without worrying about whether the dark meat is cooked thoroughly. And it gives the stuffing in the casserole real roasted turkey juices to absorb, because there is never enough stuffing from the turkey cavity alone.” 

Try an Untraditional Stuffing ...

“Stuff your turkey with fried rice instead of traditional stuffing,” suggests Junzi Kitchen’s Sin. “It soaks up the flavors of the bird better than stuffing does, and never gets mushy. You don’t even need to make your own fried rice; buy it from any Chinese restaurant, and that’ll work.” 

Chefs Share 23 Easy, Last-Minute Cooking Hacks to Save Thanksgiving

… And Upgrade the Store-Bought Stuff

“Pepperidge Farm stuffing is still my favorite, but I add homemade chicken stock and grate good parmesan over the top,” adds Fig’s McCormick. 

Use the Outdoor Grill—Even if You’re not Cooking With It

“If you have an outdoor grill, turn the heat on very low and use it as a hot box when preparing multiple dishes, McCormick continues. “Just make sure your baking dish is cast iron or metal (not glass).” Bonus tip: “Set up a cooler with beverages to save as much refrigerator space as possible.”

Simple Secrets to Good Gravy 

“Soy sauce is a secret weapon for my gravy,” says Quality Meats’ Koketsu. “It helps to round out its flavor while also adding a nice caramel color.” 

The Grill’s Carbone opts for something stronger. “I finish mine with alcohol to liven it up and add some acidity,” he reveals. “Keeping with the American theme, I use Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon."

Make Butter Punch Above Its Weight

Fig’s McCormick suggests buying bread or dinner rolls from your favorite local baker and then dressing up the butter—it’s minimum effort for a huge payoff. “An herb compound butter looks great rolled into a log and sliced. Or you can paddle room temp butter with a little honey and cinnamon, load it into a piping bag with an open star tip and pipe into individual dishes. This takes 10 minutes but looks so fancy on the table.”

Chefs Share 23 Easy, Last-Minute Cooking Hacks to Save Thanksgiving

Raid Your Freezer

“Don’t be afraid to use frozen vegetables,” says Ross Henke, executive chef of Quiote in Chicago. “Some, especially corn and peas, taste better than fresh at this time of the year. Microwave your frozen peas, add some butter, kosher salt, chives and tarragon, and it’s a light and refreshing but crave-able side dish.”

Take a Sweet Potato Shortcut

If you don’t have time to deal with making sweet potato casserole, you can bake or even microwave a version of it instead, suggests Brian Christman, executive chef of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in San Diego. “Rub sweet potatoes with oil, season with garlic, onion, salt, pepper, and sugar, and bake until tender. Sprinkle brown sugar and butter on the potato when you cut them open.” 

Buy Your Pies

“Making pies is the biggest Thanksgiving time waster,” says Curate’s Button. “Find an amazing bakery that you love, and just buy them. There is so much other work that needs to go into the savory part of the meal that it can feel really overwhelming if you try to take on dessert as well.” 

… Or Try This Speeded-Up Version

“To make a fast pie, I process sweet potatoes with a food mill, and mix with a little sour cream, fill into a graham cracker shell, and top off with Marshmallow Fluff or marshmallows to sweeten it up,” says Pichet Ong, pastry director at Brothers and Sisters. “You can also make it a savory side dish with oven-dried turkey skin and thyme as a garnish. It’s an updated version of sweet potato casserole.” 

Chefs Share 23 Easy, Last-Minute Cooking Hacks to Save Thanksgiving

… Or Cook the Crusts Early

Cory Colton, pastry chef at Quality Italian in New York, prefers to serve pies where the filling can be cooked separately from the crust, like a chocolate cream pie. “You can prepare them days before Thanksgiving,” he says, “and simply fill your baked pie crusts the day of. Or for a fruit pie, you just cook your filling until the fruit is tender and bubbly. The day of, put the fillings in the crusts and top with a crumb topping that can also be made ahead. Alternatively, set up a DIY ice cream sundae bar with your favorite pie fillings—like fruit and crumble—as toppings, plus fudge sauce, whipped cream. You’ll eliminate the most time-consuming part of making pies, and it’s a fun display.”

Chefs Share 23 Easy, Last-Minute Cooking Hacks to Save Thanksgiving

Just Spike a Milkshake Instead

If you run out of time to bake a pie, Del Friscoe’s Christman has a solution: Ice cream drinks. “They are built to please. You can blend vanilla bean ice cream with pumpkin spice and brown sugar, and even add a little dark rum. Or, try vanilla bean with caramel and bourbon.”

Rescue a Ruined Pie

On the other hand, “if you made an apple pie and then dropped it—which happened to me—rescue the parts that you can, chop it up, and fold it into vanilla ice cream,” advises Mindy Segal, owner of Hot Chocolate in Chicago. “Then sprinkle an eyedropper of CBD oil over the ice cream. Problem solved.” 

Punch Up Your Drinks

“If you don’t have enough bottles of wine to go around the table, stretch it out into something more festive (and Instagram-friendly) by making a Thanksgiving punch,” says Joe Campanale, owner and wine director of Fausto in Brooklyn. “Combine your red wine with orange slices, your favorite fall warming spices—cinnamon sticks, cloves, or star anise—along with a brown spirit. Cognac, whiskey, or rum will do. You can sweeten it with simple syrup or maple syrup to taste. Serve with ice on the side so it doesn’t get watered down.” 

Salvage Bad Wine

“The Spanish classic of putting red wine in Coke is a good way to spruce up the bad wine your uncle brought with him,” says John deBary, spirits writer and former beverage director of Momofuku.

Chefs Share 23 Easy, Last-Minute Cooking Hacks to Save Thanksgiving

Enrich Leftovers

“When making the turkey soup, throw some of the leftover stuffing in,” says Jody Adams, chef/owner of Trade in Boston. “It makes it richer and thickens it a bit.”

Cranberry Your Way to Sparkling Wine Cocktails

“Everyone always has extra cranberry sauce left around,” observes Paul McGee, co-owner of Chicago’s tiki bar Lost Lake. “Typically guests will bring sparkling wine. To make it more festive, take 1 teaspoon of spiced cranberry sauce and add it to 5 ounces of sparkling wine in a coupe and you’ll have an easy, nice Champagne cocktail. Also 1 teaspoon of that spiced cranberry sauce can be added to gin and tonics, vodka tonics, or just tonic and soda, too.” 

Fancy Platters Can Make Up for So-So Servings

“Serve your Thanksgiving dishes on beautiful platters,” says Cafe Boulud’s Bludorn. “It’s an easy way to elevate the buffet line and take attention away from a dish that is not perfect.”

Chefs Share 23 Easy, Last-Minute Cooking Hacks to Save Thanksgiving

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