Secrets to a Perfect Thanksgiving

Duke employees share tips on preparing a holiday feast

Thanksgiving recipes are easy to come by, whether you’re looking for the best way to prepare a turkey or a collection of side dishes and desserts.

But for as many different kinds of food you could prepare to satisfy hungry friends and family, there are just as many tips, tricks and techniques to take worry out of the day. For Pat Marson, executive assistant to Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president of administration, it starts with preparing food a day in advance and letting her daughter, Aly, handle dessert.

“Aly makes three or four desserts every year and plans months in advance,” said Marson, who noted she’s been hosting Thanksgiving dinners for 35 years. “Everyone looks forward to her desserts and the tradition takes a lot of stress off of me.”

Planning also plays a big part for Jason Cunningham, executive chef at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club, especially when there’s limited space on counters and in refrigerators.

“Prepare your recipe before the big day by washing and trimming your vegetables, as well as measuring out ingredients and reserving them together for a single recipe,” he said. “Some dishes can be done in advance and reheated and other dishes can be put together the night before and then just popped in the oven.”

Want some extra insight to prepare for your holiday feast? Check out these tips and tricks from the Duke community.

Staying Organized

“I want to get everything done for the big day with minimal stress so I use a spreadsheet that has my menu, grocery list and timeline that covers cleaning and cooking. Anything I can make ahead, I do, since there is so much cooking on the big day. I follow Alton Brown’s recipe for cooking the turkey almost to the letter. So juicy and delicious.”

Debrah Suggs
Senior IT analyst, Office of Information Technology

Turkey Time Saver

“If you debone the turkey and cook the stuffing separately, it cooks much faster and the serving is much easier. Julia Child and Jacques Pepin had a cooking show with this tip, and it is a timesaver.”

Renee Gorby
HealthCheck nurse, LIVE FOR LIFE

Emergency Rations

“When in doubt, a scoop of vanilla ice cream fixes any dessert. To add another layer of flavor, pour some hot caramel sauce over it. You can make the sauce a few days in advance.”

Pat Marson
Executive assistant to Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president of administration

Find More Flavor

“Brine your meats. Whether it’s turkey, chicken, beef, steak, roast or cutlet, brining your meets enhances flavor and juiciness tremendously. Simply mix one-quarter cup brown sugar and one-quarter cup kosher salt in four cups of water and stir until dissolved. Place your meats in the brine and soak in the refrigerator overnight. There are hundreds of variations that will greatly enhance the flavor of whatever it is you plan to serve.”

Jason Cunningham
Executive chef, Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club

Advance Planning

“I cook the turkey the night before being sure to reach the perfect temperature to keep it from drying out. Once cooked, I remove the meat from the bone to carve later and reheat, and use the bones to make my first round of stock in a crockpot overnight. I dice all of my onions, celery and carrots a few days in advance and keep them in Ziploc bags with a little water to keep them fresh. I save all of the vegetable trimmings to use in my turkey stock for gravy. A few days in advance, I also chop garlic in the food processor with a little oil in it to keep the air from oxidizing.”

Mark Turner
Executive chef, East Campus Marketplace

For more culinary inspiration, see these other Thanksgiving stories from over the years: