As anyone who’s taken part in Thanksgiving cooking can tell you, while the holiday comes with high culinary expectations, things definitely don’t always work out as planned. Sometimes you can prepare everything perfectly only to burn a dish while reheating it. One small miscalculation could leave you with the daunting task of thawing the turkey on short notice. Or maybe unexpected circumstances force you to quickly adapt to alternative methods for proofing and baking. Wait, what even is spatchcocking?! And in addition to the culinary challenges, there’s all of the social stuff: You want to impress! You want to try something new! You want to make something good enough that you don’t regret stuffing your mouth to avoid the awkward questions that arise from having your whole family in one room.
Because it’s best to learn from others’ mistakes, we asked Slate staffers to regale us with their most inglorious Thanksgiving cooking disasters. Good luck to all those brave souls who dare to enter the Thanksgiving kitchen and make turkey day (more or less) delicious for the rest of us.
The Frosting Fiasco
Like the man (on Slate) said, I hate pie. So I always fantasize about imposing a cake on my Thanksgiving gatherings. A few years ago, when I was hosting, I did it: I made what is probably a perfectly fine recipe, Applesauce Cake with Cream Cheese and Honey Frosting, from the NYT’s Cooking section, and served it on the dessert table. But I didn’t have enough room in the fridge to let it rest overnight (it was, obviously, Thanksgiving), so that its frosting might mellow and meld with its cake. I also overbaked it by about 5 minutes because I was overwhelmed by other recipes that needed my attention, so it was dry. It had that cake problem where you slice into it and can see the tiny pocket of air between the frosting and the cake. Not pretty, not good. I was the only one to have a slice; we composted it three days later. —Rebecca Onion
Blue Cheese Blues
Many, many, years ago, one of the first times I contributed to a Thanksgiving dinner, I made what I thought would be an interesting hit. My family had unadventurous tastes, but I figured I could introduce them to something delicious and be celebrated for years to come. I don’t remember what recipe I used, but I made a pear and blue cheese quiche. Turns out, nobody in my family likes blue cheese … including me. I usually test recipes before the big day now.
A Thaw Deal
For my first Thanksgiving as an “adult” (23 years old) and far from home, I desperately wanted to have a Friendsgiving that felt cozy and sophisticated. So, I volunteered to make the turkey for my crew. I’d never attempted to cook a turkey before, but felt confident from watching my mom do it over the years. I was clearly not attentive enough as a kid, though, because I didn’t know that you had to defrost the bird days ahead of time and clean out the inside. Fast-forward to me microwaving the entire turkey on Thanksgiving morning with the giblets and everything still inside. It was an extremely tight fit which didn’t rotate at all and only cooked select parts of the outside, so they turned gray. I kind of blacked out the rest of the process, but I somehow managed to get it fully cooked in the oven and mostly edible, and, miraculously, no one died. I’m a vegetarian now. —Caitlin Schneider
My ex-husband and I always did a “theme” for Thanksgiving: Traditional (whole bird), ramen (shredded turkey), Mexican (sliced turkey with Pipián sauce)—you get the idea. One year we decided to go French and I planned to confit the turkey legs. Delicious, right?
Well, it was, but I wasn’t sure it was going to be possible because I bought a whole bird from a local butcher and, like the knife skills show-off I was at the time, thought I would butcher the raw bird myself. Cutting up a turkey is NOT like cutting up a chicken. I remember starting to work on separating a leg from the body and it was like the turkey was alive, moving all over the place as I tried to wrestle it and dismantle it at the same time. Two and a half hours later, with some tag-teaming, I had the bird cut up well enough. But it will not be repeated! This year, I am doing a spatchcocked turkey, and I had the backbone removed at the butcher, by a professional. It’s more than a decade later and I’m so much wiser: no need to attempt to show off anymore! —Hillary Frey
A Dastardly Dip
This isn’t so much a fail as it is a lesson learned, but—once, in high school, I attended a party and ate one of the best dips I have ever had. I made it my mission to find the person who brought the dip and I got her to give me the recipe, which she was slightly abashed about. The reason is that the secret to this dip, which I call pepperjack dip to make it seem appealing, is that it is really just a lot of mayo (a cup), and also sour cream (16 ounces). Add two shredded blocks of pepperjack (and a few cloves of garlic and tablespoons of flour—now you can make this dip, too!) and bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. It is delicious and somehow tastes light and almost fluffy? Except … it is not actually light, or fluffy in any way. It is an enormous serving of mostly mayonnaise. It is the WRONG thing to serve with your cheese course before Thanksgiving! Save it for the Super Bowl. —Susan Matthews
A (Too) Well-Kept Secret
When I was a freshman at NYU, I thought I was going to be an adult and skip my family Thanksgiving in D.C. in favor of dinner with classmates in Park Slope. I was making dessert: my grandmother’s legendary cake recipe. I made the batter, and realized that I didn’t remember her secret ingredient, the one so secret it was never written down on the recipe card. So I poured in a teaspoon of whatever brown-bottled McCormick extract was handy. It turned out to be mint. The cake came out with a green tint and smelled like peppermint schnapps. It wasn’t exactly something you’d want to serve at a holiday table, so I ended up eating most of it myself. —Alicia Montgomery
For many years, I cooked a vegetarian Thanksgiving, and the showstopper was a mushroom-thyme gravy made with dried porcini mushrooms, soy sauce, and light cream. Even as a certified carnivore these days, I adore this gravy—it’s seriously, seriously good. One year as it came together, I went in for my first taste, and instead of the usual waves of flavor, it was totally inedible. I tasted it again, and again, wincing deeper each time. I could not for the life of me figure out what I did. Then I looked closer at the “light cream.” I had actually used my in-laws’ truly foul fake vanilla creamer. RIP to that gravy, which went directly down the drain but will unfortunately be remembered forever. —Jeff Bloomer