Michael Symon’s 5 Rules for a Better Thanksgiving

The meat-obsessed celebrity chef dishes on how to make Turkey Day truly epic.

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Iron Chef Michael Symon takes Thanksgiving seriously for a simple reason: He’s got a big family. When you’ve got a massive brood and a James Beard Award (and you’re from Cleveland), there are both expectations and traditions to consider.

“Thanksgiving ranges from 20-60 people,” Symon says. “My 97-year-old grandfather will be there and he could care less that his grandson’s a chef. He wants a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.”

For the most part, Symon obliges. But he’s a carnivorous innovator at heart so he can’t help but add a few innovative twists (and a whole lot of booze). His is an aggressive approach and he’s learned a lot over the years using a process that grade-school teachers call “trial and error” and everyone else calls “making questionable decisions.” 

Here are his 5 rules for preparing a better Thanksgiving meal.

1. Prepare Yourself.

“If your bird is frozen, you want to take it out four or five days ahead of time. Then, four days out, do the rest of your shopping. Three days out, get everything chopped up, and then two days out get your sides ready to go. It’s all about getting your plan made, getting it on a sheet of paper, and then really following that plan. Even somebody like me who cooks every day of their life and is used to cooking for a lot of people, I make a list.”

2. Get the Bird Drunk.

“I’ll do one very traditional bird and then one with spice on the inside, and a spicy glaze on top. This year, we’re doing a turkey with a lot of flavors. I’ll melt a bunch of butter with some Knob Creek bourbon and some sage cider, and then I’ll soak a cheesecloth in the mixture. When the cheesecloth absorbs all of the butter, I’ll lay it over the top with the turkey. Then, when I’m roasting the turkey, it’s constantly getting based. It adds all of the flavors of the fall. At the end of the cooking, you pull off the cheesecloth and you have a beautiful golden turkey.”

3. Have a Signature Side.

“I always take a basic mashed potato recipe, add butter, and brown it. They get that really nutty flavor to them. Whisk them with grated cheese or risotto cheese, and it’s delicious. My family always makes the desserts.”

4. Alcoholic Gravy Is Good Gravy.

“I think that bourbon and meat play really nicely together, especially when you add a little bit of a smoke to it.  If you’re someone who’s smoking your turkey this year, or doing a ham, a little bit of bourbon in the gravy would be spectacular. Or make a glaze with it.”

5. Give the Turkey Some Time.

“Before you put the turkey in the oven, it should be at room temperature for a minimum of an hour. After the turkey is cooked it needs to rest for 30 minutes. I rest mine for up to an hour. The good thing is that while your turkey is resting, you have plenty of room in your oven to finish up all of your other sides so everything comes out at the same time.”