Thanksgiving is the holiday of sanctioned indulgence, but that doesn't 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 D'Arabian, 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 you're making it for a lot of people and if you don't 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. It's 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."
Here's a little more guidance from the experts.
Splurge on preparation, save on the bird.
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."
Splurge on the produce, save on the bread.
Stuffing was meant to 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, that's going to elevate your stuffing into something really special," D'Arabian 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 people's hearts, the stuffing is the star of the show, so that's a good place to splurge."
Splurge on the cream, save on the spuds.
Starchy russets are your best bet for everyone's 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.
"There's nothing like heavy cream in mashed potatoes, and it's such an indulgence," D'Arabian says. Leftover cream can be whipped for dessert.
Another splurge? A little fleur de sel or other crunchy finishing salt for the top.
Splurge on fresh potatoes, save on the marshmallows.
When it comes to sweet potatoes, skip the can. Fresh sweet potatoes are inexpensive, come in beautiful, meal-enhancing colors like 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 souffle. Where to save?
"Save money on the marshmallows," says Mary Risley, director of Tante Marie's Cooking School in San Francisco. "They're not food."
Save on the rolls, splurge on the butter.
Unless you're a born baker, why fuss with the dinner rolls? Even the most mainstream grocers these days sell totally respectable rolls. And it isn't 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. You also can season the butter with crunchy salt flakes, fresh herbs, whatever. The web has tons of recipes, but all you need are a food processor and a pint of heavy cream.
GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE
It's a recipe that started on the back of a can, and many food folks say that's where it should stay.
"I get that it takes a green bean casserole to scratch the green bean casserole itch," D'Arabian says. "Any attempt to elevate the green bean casserole does not scratch the itch. Do not elevate. Go with your classic recipe." If it's not an itch your family has, upscale your green vegetable by sauteing fresh, shaved Brussels sprouts in excellent bacon.
Splurge on the crust, save on the filling. Or splurge on the filling and save on the crust.
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 don't 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 Simple's 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 don't even come close to the real thing -- which requires almost no effort to make.
"It's amazing how a simple thing like homemade whipped cream as opposed to a defrosted whipped topping can elevate a dessert," Rodgers says.