The holidays can be such a wonderful time, but they also come with a fair amount of stress and a heavy mental load — especially when you're trying to feed a bunch of family members you only see a few times a year. You want everything to be perfect, but you're not a professional chef. You're a chicken-nuggets-once-a-week and a "fend for yourself on the weekends" kind of chef. What were you thinking, signing up to cook a giant turkey and all the sides?! Fortunately, you've got the internet — and a whole stable of professional chefs in your corner, courtesy of Scary Mommy, willing to share the best holiday cooking tips with you.
If you're feeling ready to conquer the world one holiday meal at a time, this wealth of information will make your life easier and your meals more delicious. From bold turkey flavors to tasty taters, whatever you're tackling this holiday season, do it with a panel of experts at your side. Here's what the pros had to say.
Start Prepping Early
Starting early might seem like more work upfront, but chefs swear by the results.
- "Always brine your turkey overnight for a moister, flavorful turkey," says Executive Chef Seadon Shouse of Halifax in Hoboken, New Jersey. "I make a brine with one cup kosher salt, one cup white or brown sugar, and one gallon water. Also, prep as much the day before as possible to make for an easier day-of holiday (peeling potatoes in advance, cleaning and blanching green beans, making cranberry sauce)."
- "Start prepping and cooking the weekend before. Especially things like mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and soups/stews," says Chef Diana Manalang of Little Chef, Little Cafe in New York. "Don't just rely on your stove and oven. Using things like crock pots and instant pots to cook and keep things warm saves space and time."
- "Sternos and chafing dishes have always been present at large family affairs," Manalang adds. "They are great for keeping things warm when oven space is tight."
- Matthias Merges, proprietor of Chicago's Mordecai, agrees. "When preparing for multi-course holiday meals, I always sit down a few days in advance and write out a menu. This gives me time to sit with my thoughts and make sure I have fully fleshed out a plan for what I will be serving my guests. The results are amazing, and your guests will definitely tell you that you have your party game down!"
- Merges takes prep one step further, adding, "I always like to set the table a day or two in advance. This is a major stress reliever and allows me to have a clear mind while I cook."
Let Professionals Do Some Work for You
Seriously, you don't have to do it all. And, bonus, you could funnel some much-needed business to your local food and beverage community.
- "It's OK to buy and serve store-bought/store-made items," promises Manalang.
- Also, "Order sides and desserts from restaurants. Most items can hold for a few days, so it's fine to buy early to reheat and eat."
Smoke Your Turkey
Thanks to the "turkey shortage," you may not have even gotten your beloved turkey this year. But if you nabbed a bird, how about honoring your acquisition with a whole new spin on that Butterball? For a slightly different but equally delicious spin on the holiday turkey, Mike Haas, pitmaster and owner of Angry BBQ, suggests you try smoking your brined turkey.
- "Despite the name 'smoked turkey,' you can use a gas grill, charcoal grill, an electric smoker, or any grill that you have available. You need one where you can add in the element of wood smoke and maintain consistent temperatures with indirect heat," he says.
- An interesting note from Haas? "The type of wood used in your smoker affects the smoke flavor. Cherry wood, alder wood, and maple wood complement a turkey's natural flavors.”
- When smoking a turkey, Haas says there are some traditional prep methods you should skip, explaining, "Don't stuff the turkey so it will cook quickly. Instead, make your stuffing in the oven."
- Make sure you set aside enough time and practice food safety. "It would take about four hours to smoke a turkey at around 300 degrees Fahrenheit," says Haas. "Always use a digital thermometer so there'll be no guessing when the dish is done."
Try a Dry Brine
Ina Garten was just on Drew Barrymore's show, saying she hates the mess of a wet brine and prefers a dry brine. Chef Ed Covino, founder of Bes'Dam Soup, agrees. Need to know exactly what to do? He's got you covered.
- "When you're thinking about brining, people generally think about submerging the turkey in gallons of solution and storing this in the fridge (if you have room)," shares Covino. "However, there is another way to brine, without the mess, guesswork, and fridge clutter, and it's called 'dry brining.' I prefer dry brining for these exact reasons, and that's what I'll describe here. Dry brining involves simply sprinkling salt directly on the bird for a specific manner and time to let chemistry do its work. Yes, it's that easy."
- Start a day in advance. "OK, we all know that salt adds flavor and retains moisture and water weight. My bathroom scale tells me that the day after I eat a bag of chips! Just like my bathroom scale says, this works best overnight. So, go ahead and do the brine the evening before, then place in a covered pan in the fridge."
- Get everything you need for prep organized before diving into the dry brining process. Says Covino, "To get this benefit for your turkey, just place it on a big platter where you can work on [it] and have a bowl of kosher salt or regular salt next to it. You'll be getting raw juice on your hands, so you don't want to keep going back and forth, handling the salt container."
- Work with the right amount of salt. "Rule of thumb is ½ teaspoon of salt per pound. So, an 18-pound bird will use about nine teaspoons. Again, this is a rule of thumb, and a little more is fine if you run out [before you've salted the whole bird]."
- Give certain areas a bit more attention. "The breast is thicker and dryer, so you want to use twice as much salt on that area than the rest, which is juicier dark meat," explains Covino. "Go ahead and rub the salt directly on the skin all over the turkey, again putting more on the breast skin. That's it — just place it in a pan, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the fridge overnight."
Cook That Bird Properly
The biggest mistake you can make on a holiday? Not cooking your food enough and getting your entire family sick.
- "Generally, I roast covered at 350 F for about 15 minutes per pound for an unstuffed bird," says Covino. "The USDA recommends taking it out at 165 F. However, I take mine out at 160 F, and I find that 'carry-over cooking' takes it the rest of the way, and you'll have a much juicer bird."
- Of course, take all the proper precautions. Emphasizes Covino, "Make sure you have a calibrated thermometer and check the temperature deep in the thickest part, the thigh."
Skip the Water
Making sure your turkey is moist and flavorful is key, but many people find themselves basting with water. Spoiler alert: Chefs do not love this.
- Chef Michael DeLone of New Jersey's Italian restaurant Nunzio by Chef Michael DeLone suggests staying far, far away from water. "Use any liquid other than water to baste, make gravy or incorporate into vegetable purees," pleads DeLone. "One of the first things I learned as a chef is common sense, but water dilutes. Stock of any form, white wine, even orange juice, are my go-to's. It makes all the difference, and once you do it, you will never use water again."
- Chef Chris Martin, of the genius Savor the Passion, has an even easier solution to flavorful basting. "Soak a chunk of cheesecloth in melted ghee and let the excess drain off briefly before draping over your turkey," says Martin. "This will act as your baster so you don't have to think about the turkey anymore."
Take Allergies and Sensitivities Seriously
Most of us remember to break out a food thermometer at the appropriate time and keep raw meat away from other foods. But if you don't have food allergies or sensitivities, you may overlook the fact your guests could have them. So, here's your reminder to do your due diligence.
- "Consider gut-friendly ingredient swaps, especially if you're inviting guests over," says Brian Nagele, CEO of Restaurant Clicks and former owner of Kings Oak restaurant in Philadelphia. "One in 10 Americans suffer from some form of food sensitivity, whether from gluten, eggs, dairy, or the like. It's easy to bypass these conditions if you're catering for your household — after all, you have a good idea of your family's health. However, the dynamic changes when you're inviting people over for dinner. You may want to ask them if they have any sensitivities in advance ... the holidays are about bringing people together safely. Catering to your guests' needs is just another way of showing them that you care."
- Fortunately, there are easy swaps for most (but not all) foods. "If dairy is off the table, consider swapping it for coconut or almond milk. If gluten is an issue, you might be able to fair out with oat flour instead of wheat. The same goes for allergies. Peanuts are a common culprit in this area. And, chances are, other nuts might be manufactured in a facility that also processes peanuts. So there's no clear-cut swap for this one."
It's easy to stick to the basics and do things you've always done or how your family likes them best. McAlister's Executive Chef, Courtney Bufford, suggests doing the exact opposite. Go big! How?
- "Brine, inject, stuff (with onion, garlic, fruit, and herbs), and rub your turkey for ultimate flavor."
- "Freeze and save your ham bone for your NYE black-eyed peas."
- "No store-bought gravy! Brown in a skillet or roast the giblets from your turkey and use onion, garlic, carrots, celery, and fresh herbs to season your gravy. Put in all the things that add flavor, simmer for at least 45 min, and strain for a super flavorful gravy."
- "Consider some different cheeses for your mac and cheese. All cheese tastes and melts differently and adds something different to your dish. I like to use a blend of sharp cheddar, mozzarella, gruyere, and gouda."
Get Guests Involved
Did you know Modern Family's Jesse Tyler Ferguson is not only an actor but also a dad and the writer of an amazing cookbook? His advice is literally the best — especially when it comes to looping guests in to take a little pressure off of you.
- "Let your guests be their own bartenders by setting up a charcuterie board of garnishes and syrups near the punch bowl so they can mix and match and have fun reinventing the night's signature sip! Ingredients and garnishes like coffee beans, chocolate flakes, and cinnamon powder are always hits at my espresso martini bar with Absolut and Kahlúa!"
- "Have your guests bring their own to-go containers to help tackle leftovers! That way, everyone gets to leave with a goodie bag of treats, and you're not stuck with the extras for days."
Use Compound Butter On Everything
Flavored butter, often called compound butter, is a game changer. Keeping some in your kitchen all year long is a solid idea, but they're particularly beneficial during the holidays.
- "One way to make holiday feasts more memorable is to prepare a variety of compound butters ahead of time," says Milo Cruz, CMO of Legend Cookware, food blogger, and former chef. "Compound butters are great because they're versatile, easy to prepare, and can make for quick appetizers if you're in a pinch. They also add that special touch that lets your loved ones know you went the extra mile for them."
- Not sure where to start? Cruz has some go-to ideas: "A few compound butter combinations I recommend include garlic with dill, smoked paprika with black pepper, and fresh tomatoes with roasted mushrooms. You can serve these with warm bread to kickstart a wonderful meal, place them on meats to add more flavor and depth, or even use them as the basis of a sauce."
- According to Koralee Bruno, celebrity chef, compound butter can make a holiday menu favorite even better. "One of the best tricks to having flavorful mashed potatoes is infusing the butter with thyme, rosemary, garlic, salt, and pepper," shares Bruno. "This has been a game changer to this holiday side dish."
Mix Traditional Favorites With Trendy Options
You don't have to make every main dish and side the same every year simply because that's how your family always does it.
- "Trendy alternatives to [classic holiday] dishes are always great options to play off of traditional foods," says Chopped champion Brian Jupiter, the executive chef of both Frontier Chicago & Ina Mae Tavern. "Instead of mashed potatoes, try roasting fingerling potatoes with thyme and rosemary. The sweet creaminess of the fingerlings paired with roasted herbs is intoxicating and definitely a winner on the table."
- "I have also found that the best way to find easy sides to make is to go to the farmer's market and grab any large squash," adds Jupiter. "Roast the squash and top it with candied pecans and goat cheese for a lighter alternative to the traditional sweet potatoes."
- And if you're into salads on your holiday table? Suggests Jupiter, "Opt for a light kale salad with dates, Castelvetrano olives, shaved radish, and a simple shallot vinaigrette."
Worried you might run out of your favorite holiday menu items? A little upfront research can save you the frustration of trying to find an open grocery store for a last-minute run.
- "Oftentimes, I hear of the two most important holiday staples running out: turkey and pumpkin pie," says Good Cook chef Anthony Serrano. "As a general rule, one 9-inch pie is normally enough to feed 6-8 guests. Of course, that depends on the thickness and richness of the pie."
- Worried you're going to choose the wrong drinks. Serrano is coming in clutch yet again. "A pinot noir or chardonnay will complement a holiday dinner perfectly," he suggests. "Apple cider makes an excellent choice as a non-alcoholic option."
A Final Word of Advice
One of the great things about the holidays is that you get a do-over every year. When the turkey takes longer than expected, the potatoes turn out soupy, and no one is impressed with that new spin on corn, just breathe.
Starting the day after your holiday, you have 364 days to regroup, fiddle with your recipes, and prepare to try again. While it's fun to take on new and interesting recipes as a surprise to the whole family, new recipes require practice, even for the most seasoned chefs. If you didn't nail that new side right out of the gate, don't give up.
And whatever you do, don't give back holiday duties to your MIL in defeat. Just, as they say, "try, try, again."