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Thanksgiving, Frozen: A 6-Day Guide To What To Cook Ahead, And When

The countdown to Thanksgiving has begun. And for those of us who already feel short on time during a regular week, the pressure is on to figure out just how to squeeze in all that extra shopping, prep work and cooking ahead of the holiday.

In the informal survey of Salt readers we conducted a few weeks ago, many of you told us that one of the most challenging aspects of planning for and cooking holiday meals is timing — especially when you've got busy schedules and only one oven. But a lot of common holiday foods need not to be prepared last-minute.

"I think that a majority of your menu can be done days ahead of time," says Candy Argondizza, vice president of culinary and pastry arts at the International Culinary Center. So come Thanksgiving Thursday, you need only reheat your side dishes and focus on cooking that turkey.

If you scoff at the idea of reheating, keep in mind it's a shortcut that the best restaurants use. "I think what a lot of people don't get ... is how rare the occasion is, even in the best restaurants, that something is pulled out of the oven and brought immediately to the table," says James Briscione, director of culinary development at the Institute of Culinary Education. "There's great romance to that notion and image, but it just doesn't happen."

With that in mind, here are The Salt's recommendations for timing the rest of your week.* And if you're already behind, we recommend our guide to shopping for your holiday meal online.

SATURDAY & SUNDAY

Defrost the turkey. A 20-pounder can take as long as five days to thaw out in the fridge. And you want to defrost it in the fridge, not at room temperature, notes Argondizza. The turkey should be fully defrosted the day before you roast it.

Go grocery shopping. Buy the hardier vegetables like squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, kale and garlic at the grocery store. These will keep well in the refrigerator until you cut them up on Wednesday. (See Tuesday for when to buy other vegetables.) Also buy nonperishable ingredients like crackers, jelly and any canned vegetables you plan to use.

Make and freeze your soups and/or gravy. If you want your gravy to have some of the flavors of your roasted turkey, "you can refortify it with some of the flavors" later on Thursday, say Argondizza.

If you're making your own pie, make the pie crusts, wrap them tightly in plastic and put them in the freezer. (If you have the freezer space, you can go ahead and assemble your pies, then wrap them tightly in plastic and freeze them.)

MONDAY

Feel good about your plan to have everything mise en place. Make a Thanksgiving playlist with Spotify or try out a few curated by experts on Songza.

TUESDAY

Make the dips and cranberry sauce and refrigerate them until Thursday. Cranberry sauce, because of its high acidity, can stay fresh when refrigerated for up to two weeks.

Assemble and bake any casseroles that use sweet potatoes or squash and refrigerate them until Thursday.

Buy the more delicate vegetables, like green Brussels sprouts, and refrigerate them. You can blanch and shock your vegetables by putting them in boiling water for a few minutes to cook, then plunging them into an ice bath. Once they're cool, you can keep them in the fridge until you need them. Try not to use salt – it'll break down the vegetables and make them mushy.

Assemble the stuffing and put it in the freezer until it's ready to be baked on Thursday. Freezing will actually strengthen the flavors of the celery, onion and herb, Mary Kimbrough, a partner at Culinary Nutrition Associates, told The Dallas Morning News. You can thaw the stuffing in the refrigerator. And don't worry about the raw eggs in the stuffing, says Argondizza. "If it's refrigerated, it's in the safe zone," she says.

WEDNESDAY

Assemble and bake your pies. Unless they're custard-based like pumpkin pie, you can keep them at room temperature until you serve them. If you froze your pies, let them thaw in the fridge overnight Wednesday. You'll bake them the next day.

Our experts are split when it comes to mashed potatoes. Argondizza says it's fine to prepare your taters a day ahead — just put them in a dish covered with tin foil to refrigerate overnight. But Briscione notes that mashed potatoes don't always reheat well, so he leaves this step for Thursday.

Clean the salad greens and store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. You can toss and dress the salad just before serving the next day.

Chop the vegetables like onions, peppers, broccoli, zucchini and squash. They'll still look fine on Thursday, just cover them with a damp paper towel before storing them in the refrigerator sealed in a plastic bag or container with lid. If you plan on roasting your veggies, toss them with oil and herbs (skip the salt) before refrigerating them — the oil will help keep them from oxidizing.

Even more finicky vegetables like sweet potatoes, potatoes or fennel can be cut and stored in the fridge in a bowl of water. No need to cover the bowl.

If you brine your turkey, do it in the afternoon and leave it soaking overnight in the fridge until you start roasting Thursday morning. Your brine should include a cup of salt per gallon of water. (Note: If you buy a kosher bird, it has essentially already been brined, so you can skip this step.)

THANKSGIVING DAY

Chill the drinks.

Preheat the oven and make sure to leave 2 to 4 hours to roast the turkey. Let it rest for at least 30 minutes.

While the bird is resting, move on to baking your stuffing and roasting your vegetables. Note: You don't need to serve roasted vegetables fresh out of the oven; they taste just as good at room temperature. The same goes for potatoes gratin.

Toss and dress the salad.

Warm up the casseroles, mashed potatoes, soup and gravy.

Briscione also offers this last piece of advice: "Focus on doing a few things great." You don't need a million dishes, just a few that wow.

Leftovers, by the way, when kept in the fridge, will last you about the next five days — if they're not all eaten up before then.

* We based these recommendations on tips from Argondizza and Briscione, and helpful lists from Epicurious, Food Network, The Pioneer Woman and Cook's Illustrated.

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