First rule: don’t panic.
As any seasoned host knows, there are many ways to screw up Thanksgiving dinner. Lumps in the gravy. Bone-dry dressing. Not enough mashed potatoes. Forgetting great-aunt Ruth’s place card. Not polishing the silver.
But here’s a secret. None of this stuff is enough to ruin the holiday for anyone. No one is going revoke your hosting privileges just because your apple pie was a little runny. (And if they do, they should consider themselves uninvited.)
And that goes for the Thanksgiving turkey as well. Even if you burn the turkey, all is not lost. Yes, the turkey is the main event. Yes, everyone will remind you of “that year you burnt the turkey” for the rest of your life, and the rest of your children’s lives. But if this does happen to you, take a deep breath and use this as your cheat sheet.
Survey the damage
It’s easy to freak out when there’s smoke pouring out of your oven. Especially if you have a house full of company. Don’t panic. Pull the turkey out of the oven and figure out what is really going on. It is likely just smoke—not a fire. (Although any fires must be extinguished immediately.)
A turkey is big—chances are, you can salvage some part of it. If the skin has charred but the meat is fine underneath, remove the skin and return the turkey to the oven, covered in aluminum foil. Dark meat takes longer to cook than white meat, so it is possible that the legs and thighs might be fine, even if the breast is burned. If you return the turkey to the oven to continue cooking, be sure to double-check the oven temperature.
Flip the bird
No, not that one. The actual bird, in your oven. If the breast has burned, you can try flipping the turkey over in the roasting pan. Be careful, though—you don’t want this year to go down in history as the Thanksgiving you burned AND dropped the turkey.
Carve in privacy
When the turkey is done cooking, don’t even think about presenting it tableside. Skip the usual formality and carve up your less-than-perfect bird in the privacy of your kitchen. Grab your prettiest turkey platter, arrange the sliced meat as nicely as possible, and go to town with garnishes. A few artfully arranged fresh herb sprigs, sliced citrus, curly kale leaves, or whole nuts can make a carved-up turkey look magazine-worthy.
WATCH: How to Carve a Turkey
Grab the gravy
Homemade gravy can hide a multitude of sins. Douse the carved turkey with gravy and no one will utter a single complaint. Their mouths will be too full.