There’s one thing that all chefs seem to agree on when it comes to cooking Thanksgiving dinner: there’s always a lot to do, so finding ways to save time is just as important as settling on the right menu.
“You have to plan in advance,” said chef Jake Cohen, author of the cookbook ”Jew-ish.” “There is nothing worse than someone who is trying to cook everything the same day. You have to start with a game plan, how you are going to split up the work and delegate things to other family members.”
To most mere mortals (that is: home cooks), that planning involves a slew of store-bought items and shortcuts (instant mashed potatoes, anyone?) meant to ease the culinary anxiety that undoubtedly beckons as November rolls around.
But are these hacks worth it, or should folks try their hand at actually cooking cranberry sauce, for example?
We presented three chefs with a list of usual Thanksgiving shortcuts, from store-bought turkey to canned pie fillings, and asked them: yea or nay? Below, their at-times surprising thoughts. (Spoiler alert: Even chefs don’t cook everything when hosting holiday meals.)
Store-bought, precooked turkey: Thumbs down
It seems like we can’t get away from this one: chefs believe that the heart of the Thanksgiving meal is the turkey — and we should try our best to cook it ourselves.
“I think that part of the excitement on Thanksgiving is that masterpiece turkey in the middle of the table, carved,” said Mary Attea, chef at The Musket Room in New York City. “The thing about cooked birds in stores is that they’re a bit overcooked and dry.”
Chef Maro Gjurasic, who helms the kitchen at New York’s Que Chevere, agreed. “You gotta make your own turkey, it’s the one thing you have to do!” he said.
Too scared? Gjurasic suggests considering a netted small turkey. “It’ll cook in half the time and still have that homemade feel. Your house will totally smell like turkey.”
Cohen, also adamant about self-prepared birds, has an alternative tip: If you’re not going to make your own turkey, “I think you will have better luck buying a bunch of rotisserie chickens than a premade turkey, because the chickens are one of the few store-bought, ready-made items that people actually love.”
Instant mashed potatoes: Thumbs down
All three chefs agree that mashed potatoes can be made in advance and rewarmed on Thanksgiving Day — and should therefore be made from scratch.
“I do not like instant mashed potatoes,” Attea said matter-of-factly. “I find they don’t usually taste like potatoes.” She suggests using sweet potatoes instead of regular ones, as the former might prove easier to smash.
Gjurasic goes a step further, positing that mashed potatoes are actually the result of teamwork. “I like to do it from scratch because I like to have people help me in the kitchen,” he said. “If your kids are running around, you can stick a peeler in their hands and have them help you out.” A good idea indeed.
Premade pie crust: Thumbs up (mostly)
Attea and Gjurasic, although preferring freshly baked crusts over store-bought ones, agree that purchasing one from the store may not be all that bad. “By dessert time, everyone is drunk and full anyway,” Gjurasic joked. “You can also use it as a base and build off it to make it seem like it is not store-bought.”
Cohen wholeheartedly disagrees. “Store-bought pie crust is always a no, it’s all bad,” he said. “It’s just never flaky, never golden enough and just not good.”
Canned pie fillings: Thumbs up
This is one of the more surprising answers we encountered. As long as the crust is a good one — whether purchased from a store or made from scratch — the pros seem to be OK with canned pie fillings. “If buying the fillings means you’re going to make your own crust, then I don’t mind,” Cohen said after his rant against premade crusts.
“Pie fillings are sort of like Hershey’s syrup,” Gjurasic said. “If they’re done right, why make your own?”
Premade gravy: Thumbs down
Chefs understand that there’s a lot of tension and hype surrounding the gravy. But they want you to know that if you put your mind to it, you can get it right.
A few tips: Use the pan drippings from your turkey to fortify the gravy (Cohen). Add a little flour and cornstarch to thicken those drippings (Attea). Prepare it as your turkey is resting (Cohen again).
Gjurasic has some words of encouragement: “People get overwhelmed, but it’s not that difficult,” he said about making your own gravy. “Read a few recipes and make them your own!”
Store-bought apple pie: Thumbs up
“I am a dessert fan, so give me a pie from outer space and I’ll eat it,” Gjurasic said. The other two experts wholeheartedly agreed: A pie from a “reputable” store might taste just as good — and, sometimes, even better — than a homemade one!
Cohen mentioned Costco as a good place to find one. Attea, meanwhile, sings the praises of small bakeries in neighborhoods all around the country. “You can even reheat it and add ice cream to it,” she said.
Canned cranberry sauce: Major thumbs up
It’s official: Canned cranberry sauce is always better than a homemade version. All three chefs proclaimed their undying passion for the product as soon as it was mentioned, and all three clarified that “the jelly one” is better than the kind “with whole cranberries.”
The appeal may hark back to childhood memories. “It is one of those things that, as a kid, was my favorite to eat. I would have a whole bowl of it,” Attea reminisced. “I have had many homemade cranberry sauces throughout the years and I just find that I want the slab of canned sauce.”
Gjurasic agreed. “It’s a classic!,” he said. “It has the right tartness and right sweetness.”
Store-bought appetizers to be passed around before dinner: Thumbs up
Most of the chefs agreed that offering guests a few store-bought apps to nosh on before dinner may be a good idea. However, they seem to disagree on the types of foods worth buying.
Cohen suggested pigs in a blanket and premade dips. Gjurasic prefers to stay away from the former and “stick to simple cured meats, salami, cheese boards and perhaps a fruit plate with good nuts.” Attea, who is partial to cooking the hors d’oeuvres herself, mentioned cheeses, crackers, meats and olives as good store-bought options.
Cornbread mix: Thumbs down (mostly)
Both Attea and Cohen urged home cooks to stay away from cornbread mix. “I believe it is better made from scratch and it is something that you can prepare the day before,” Cohen said.
Gjurasic, however, is a big fan — actually using it to make cornbread stuffing. “I also use some stock, sage, celery and onion,” he said.
So, this Thanksgiving, if you feel the need to take a few shortcuts, heed these chefs’ advice and figure out how to make your meal a little less stressful.