Thanksgiving is the holiday of sanctioned indulgence, but that doesnt mean the meal has to break the bank. Strategic splurging can keep your budget – and your time – under control.
The elements of Thanksgiving in general are relatively inexpensive, says Melissa DArabian, cookbook author and host of the FoodNetwork.com Web series The Picky Eaters Project. Items like potatoes, bread for stuffing and even the turkey are pennies per pound. But even inexpensive things can become expensive if youre making it for a lot of people and if you dont shop well.
Knowing which items to go big on depends on your menu, your skills and your family and friends.
The trick to this is know your audience, says Rick Rodgers, author of numerous Thanksgiving cookbooks, including Thanksgiving 101. If you have foodie friends who really enjoy discussing a meal, then maybe you do want the $100 organic turkey. Its the same thing with the wine. If people are going to notice that you have a $50 pinot noir, go for it. But if they are average Joes, then cook for them, not for you.
Heres a little more guidance from the experts.
Many people have ethical and environmental reasons for buying a heritage, free range or other high-end bird. But if your only consideration is taste, many experts say even the frozen supermarket bird will suffice if you brine it and brown it.
The ecologist in me says buy a heritage breed turkey, says Sarah Copeland, food director for Real Simple magazine. But if you treat your turkey right, even a Butterball can be delicious.
Stuffing was meant to be cheap. Its job is simply to soak up all the lovely juices from your bird. An ordinary loaf of white bread or baguette will do this just fine – Rodgers even likes the pre-packaged bread cubes – but load up on fresh herbs, crisp celery and flavorful extras like excellent mushrooms.
If you can get higher-end mushrooms, thats going to elevate your stuffing into something really special, DArabian says. A bit of minced shallot will add sweetness and depth. Having high-end stuffing versus run-of-the-mill is worth a few extra bucks. In a lot of peoples hearts, the stuffing is the star of the show, so thats a good place to splurge.
Starchy russets are your best bet for everyones favorite side because they soak up whatever flavors you throw at them. The 10-pound bag at Costco will do the job just as well as farmers market potatoes at four times the price. But using heavy cream instead of milk will make those potatoes silky and rich.
Another splurge? A little fleur de sel or other crunchy finishing salt for the top.
When it comes to sweet potatoes, skip the can. Fresh sweet potatoes are inexpensive, come in beautiful, meal-enhancing colors such as orange, yellow and purple, and require little effort to cook. They can be roasted simply in the skins and topped with butter and herbs, or they can be candied, scalloped or turned into a soufflé. Where to save?
Save money on the marshmallows, says Mary Risley, director of Tante Maries Cooking School in San Francisco. Theyre not food.
Unless youre a born baker, why fuss with the dinner rolls? Even the most mainstream grocers these days sell totally respectable rolls. And it isnt hard to hunt down a local bakery to grab something even better.
Where to spend your time? Make homemade butter to go on those rolls. It takes just 5 minutes, but is so worth it.
Green bean casserole
Its a recipe that started on the back of a can, and many food folks say thats where it should stay.
I get that it takes a green bean casserole to scratch the green bean casserole itch, DArabian says. Any attempt to elevate the green bean casserole does not scratch the itch. Do not elevate. Go with your classic recipe.
It all comes down to what your family values. For some people, a good pie is all in the crust. If that describes your crowd, do the real deal and dont blow it with purchased crusts. And go all-butter or go home.
There are very few premade crusts on the market that taste and feel as good as a real butter crust, says Real Simples Copeland. But the filling is a different story. Why bother roasting and breaking down a fresh pumpkin when canned pumpkin consistently delivers great texture and flavor? Canned pumpkin is a wonderful invention, Copeland says.
Or maybe your family considers crust just a vessel for a delicious filling. If so, why waste time making your own? Grab a prepared crust and just focus on everything that goes in it.
However you roll on the crust, there should be no compromise on the topping. Pre-made whipped toppings dont even come close to the real thing – which requires almost no effort to make.