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How To Organize Holiday Meal Preparation

Your oven will get more use in the next two months than any other time of the year. Learn how to organize your menu and juggle recipes so everything comes out hot and on time.

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Thanksgiving Day's crowning glory is turkey and those special family side dishes. The meal only comes out perfect, however, if you do a little advance strategizing. Once you've decided on your menu, think through how to cook it. If all of your dishes have to go in the oven--and at different temperatures and times--you might have trouble. Modify your menu so that you get the turkey done first; then choreograph the rest of your prep time so that all your dishes come out together. The tips we offer will help you develop a plan, whether you're working with new recipes such as the ones here or trusted favorites.

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Related: 26 Tempting Apple Desserts, Our Favorite Fall Desserts

Turkey Tricks
It can take two to three days to thaw a frozen turkey. So, buy it ahead of time while the selection is still good, and plan when and how you'll thaw it. Find defrosting charts attached to the turkey, or visit www.butterball.com.

After the turkey thaws, stick your hand into the cavity and pull out the neck and giblets. They're usually wrapped in paper. If you forget this step and find these after you've finished cooking, your turkey is still safe to eat; just pull 'em out, enjoy a laugh, and go on.

Once you remove the turkey from the oven, cover it loosely with foil to allow the bird to rest. The juices absorb back into the turkey, and it carves easily. This resting is prime oven time for additional casseroles or dessert.

The Roasting Pan
A turkey is best cooked on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. If your roasting pan is missing the rack, line the bottom with 1 1⁄2 inches of roughly chopped fruits and vegetables (onions, celery, carrots, apples). These elevate the bird off the pan and add wonderful flavor. Plus, the rich pan drippings make a delicious gravy. Here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to picking roasting pans.

Related: Spectacular Thanksgiving Sides

Essential Gadgets

In the Oven
The turkey's done. Decide whether you can fit one or two baking dishes into your oven, and position the racks accordingly. For older ovens, allow extra baking time if the oven contains more than one item. You may also need to rotate the dishes halfway through the bake time for even baking and browning. For newer ovens, the technology allows them a standard baking time, regardless of what's in the oven.

Multiple items may be baked at the same time if they require the same baking temperature. When you're selecting your menu, keep an eye on temperatures and bake times to make coordination easy.

What About Convection Cooking?
Convection ovens force hot air around food and cook it about 25% faster than conventional ovens. You save time and energy with this method, and there's the added bonus that food loses less moisture and retains most of its nutrients. Several companies combine convection and conventional options in the same oven. That's a great choice regardless of the size of your household.

No special equipment is required but it helps to know which pans work best. For best results with convection cooking, keep these tips in mind:

Most manufacturers suggest one of the following options for converting cooking times and temperatures for a convection oven.

After you bake the first cake or cornbread and roast a chicken and vegetables, you'll know exactly what adjustments work best with your oven. The main thing is to explore and enjoy the options.

Clip and Keep Holiday Hotlines
Here's the insider's list of toll-free telephone numbers and Web sites for quick answers to last-minute questions about roasting turkeys, baking, and food safety issues.

Oven Alternatives
If your oven can't accommodate everything on your menu, consider replacing some recipes with ones that rely on a slow cooker, microwave, or cooktop. Steam vegetables or cook potatoes in the microwave, or sauté fresh vegetables on the cooktop. You can also microwave hard squashes such as acorns and butternut. Make casseroles ahead of time in microwave-safe dishes (make sure they fit your microwave), and reheat them just prior to serving.

When using the slow cooker, set it on a cutting board to protect your countertop from heat fluctuations that might cause it to crack. Also, make cleanup easy with new slow-cooker liners (like a plastic bag inside your slow cooker) available at the supermarket. Just lift the bag out of the slow cooker after the food is removed, and toss it. For smart slow-cooker recipes, see our Slow-Cooker Cornbread Dressing or check out how we use the slow cooker to hold mashed sweet potatoes until it's time to eat.

About Desserts
Good cooks take several approaches. The first is to offer selections that can be made ahead of time, such as cakes, some pies, and chilled desserts. Other dessert items, such as cobblers and bread puddings, go into the oven just before you sit down to eat and come out hot just as you finish the meal. Either approach works.

If you prefer something more showy such as a crème brûlée or soufflé, do as much prep work beforehand as possible, leaving the final mixing, stirring, broiling, or blow-torching until the last minute. Invite your guests to help you; they'll love being a part of the show.

"How To Organize Holiday Meal Preparation" is from the November 2005 issue of Southern Living.

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