Thanksgiving Multitasking: Maximizing Your Kitchen

In the flurry of activity designed to put a Thanksgiving feast on the family table, you can maximize the value of your multitasking efforts with smart strategies from professional chefs.

Multitasking vs. Planning Ahead

Psychology researchers find that frequent multitaskers don't do a very good job of it. Attempting to complete numerous tasks simultaneously turns out to reduce proficiency and produce stress. Chef Josh Valentine of Bravo’s "Top Chef: Seattle" recommends planning and preparing ahead instead of trying to do everything at once. "I highly recommend planning ahead when it comes to cooking on Thanksgiving. All casserole items can be assembled up to two days ahead, then just heated through on the big day."

Chef Paul Turano, who owns two restaurants in the Greater Boston area, concurs. "Cooking is all about planning," he says. "I like to go to bed the night before with the table set and 70 percent of the meal prepped, and wake up and put my turkey in while I'm drinking my coffee that morning. Really then, what do you have left to do? You're popping things in the oven and doing small cooking projects towards the meal." Combining related preparation steps leads to efficiency, he notes. "Write down your menu, the steps for each, and think about it in waves across the entire menu, not dish, by dish. So, if there is chopping, do all your chopping in step one for all your dishes." Use a temperature-controlled refrigerator drawer to hold perishable ingredients at the proper setting.

Avoiding Mistakes

Thawing a frozen turkey takes long hours, as many cooks find out the hard way when they try to roast a frozen bird. Safe thawing stays in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Set a smartphone alarm to remind yourself to relocate the turkey to refrigerated storage, or isolate it in a flexible refrigerator section that can function as fridge or freezer and switch the entire section to thawing temperatures. After the turkey thaws, most cooks don't multitask the actual roasting, preferring to leave it intact and cook it as is. Valentine suggests butchering the bird so you can prepare its various cuts of meat individually. "To really have the best roast turkey, you have to butcher the bird into breasts and thighs and legs, since these two cook at different times. This allows you to never serve dried out turkey again."

Turano puts the focus squarely on planning and preparation as the antidotes to mistakes and inefficiency. "With the amount of information that is readily available at our fingertips, there is no reason for guesswork," he says. "Write your menu, gather your ingredients and do proper pre-prep." Save your microwave oven for warming leftovers or popping yourself a bag of popcorn to tide you through the preparations until dinner time.

Fire Safety

In addition to careful planning and execution, never let multitasking compromise your safety, especially since Thanksgiving tops the list of days when home fires occur. Always keep flammable materials away from gas burners or electric cooktop elements, know the right way to extinguish cooking fires—smothering small grease fires with a spare pan lid, turning off the oven if something starts to burn inside—and get out of the house if you're faced with a fire you can't extinguish.

Cook and Bake vs. Buy and Serve

Chefs make their reputations and their livings by serving only their own creations. Turano recommends that home cooks reconsider the "everything from scratch" strategy if some part of the menu doesn't suit your cooking skills, particularly the baked goods. "That can really get you into trouble. Baking and cooking are different disciplines, and I think sometimes people forget that. I mean if you're throwing canned filling into a prefab pie shell, that's no big deal. But if you start making your own bread and pies from scratch, that is a whole other level. If you don't feel comfortable with baking the right way—from scratch—then why not pick up some great breads and pies from a great local bakery?"

Valentine suggests that a great cooked turkey you buy can trump a home-cooked one. "If you're not the greatest cook, there is no shame in purchasing an already-roasted turkey. It saves you hours of worry and allows you spend more time with your loved ones." On a range with a convection oven, however, you can achieve roasted perfection thanks to fan-forced heated air. If you do decide to attempt both the bird and the pie, a range with a flexible oven can divide into two individual compartments to prepare separate foods at different temperatures.

Involving the Family

Let your family take part in the preparations, and you not only reduce the amount of work you need to accomplish; you increase the feeling of togetherness. When you host the entire family at your house, Valentine suggests inviting the others to bring side dishes and desserts. "Not only does this make your life easier, it gets your family involved as well," he says, adding that "I always let the kids help with the desserts. This way they are allowed to make a mess but no sharp instruments are used most of the time. And they can lick themselves clean afterwards."

Turano looks at the presence of others in the Thanksgiving kitchen as an exercise in delegation. "Don't give free rein over an important meal without direction. When I delegate, I explain what is involved in a dish I delegate and then I check in frequently on progress." If you're unsure of how to prepare something, use your smartphone, home computer or tablet to research the steps, tools and utensils you need.

Photo Credits: Demand Media

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