Pulling together the perfect Thanksgiving dinner all comes down to balance. It's a matter of knowing when to save, and when to spend. And that rule applies as much to money as to time and energy.
Because the better you understand where time in the kitchen can pay serious dividends — versus just leaving you frustrated and disappointed — the easier it is for you to decide which parts of the big meal should get your time, and which should get your cash.
To help you sort it all out, I've listed my Top 12 Thanksgiving Trouble Spots, along with my take on where your time and money are best spent.
— THE TURKEY
How often do you roast a turkey? Once, maybe twice a year? And you're likely to spend four or more hours slaving over the sucker, right? So why not splurge on a local, organic, heirloom bird raised by free-spirited workers on a collective? The bird, after all, is the centerpiece of the meal. Make it a good one.
— THE BRINE
It's all about moisture. And brining is worth your time. Because a moist bird makes for a delicious dinner. You could do a basic brine, which is a 1:1 ratio of kosher salt and sugar dissolved in water. Plunk the bird in that for 8 to 72 hours and you're good to go. But anyone can do a basic brine.
What you want to do is invest a few extra minutes and a couple extra dollars to make a sensational brine. Using the same 1:1 ratio, you're going to dissolve kosher salt and brown sugar in gently simmering apple cider seasoned with black pepper and fresh rosemary. Add a ton of ice to cool it down, then resume your poultry plunking.
— THE ROAST
Don't just pop the bird in the oven. Lube it up with as much butter as you can, both under and over the skin. And while you're at it, jam some fresh herbs under the skin, then pop some lemons and fresh rosemary into the cavity. (Don't fret over needing room for the stuffing. We'll get to that in a moment.) This all takes a few extra minutes, but it's well worth it.
— THE BASTE
Do it. But don't do it more than every 30 minutes. Every time you open that oven door, all the heat rushes out. Baste more than every half hour or so and your bird won't be done until Christmas.
— THE ROLLS
Unless you are an amazing baker, buy your rolls. They'll be better than what most amateurs can produce. And you won't spend hours fighting with the dough. Want a homemade touch? Make the butter to go with the rolls. It takes 5 minutes and will be the best butter you've ever eaten. Seriously.
Dump a quart of heavy cream in a food processor, then turn it on. Let it go for about 3 to 5 minutes. First it will turn into whipped cream, then the buttermilk will break away from the fat. Once the fat (butter) is all clumped together, dumped out the liquid. Place the butter in a bowl and knead it to squeeze out more liquid. Once no more liquid comes out, season it with kosher salt and eat it at room temp. Best. Butter. Ever.
— THE MASHED POTATOES
Dry potatoes are better potatoes. So after you boil them, spend a few extra minutes spreading them on a baking sheet. Pop the potatoes in the oven at about 350 F for 10 minutes. After the potatoes are dried out, use a ricer to get just the right texture. Then load on the butter and milk. Spare the fat, spoil the potatoes.
— THE SALAD
Waste of time. Waste of money. Don't do it. Nobody wants it. Nobody eats it. Thanksgiving is about carbs and fat. Be virtuous the next day.
— THE STUFFING
Don't complicate your life — or your bird — by stuffing your stuffing. This is why casserole dishes were invented.
But do spend a little extra to use real bread (not bagged stuffing). Get good bread, let it go stale, cut it into cubes, then toast it in the oven. And when you assemble the stuffing, get some dried fruit in there, which offers a nice contrast of texture and flavour. Dried cherries, cranberries and apricots are all excellent choices. And tons of onions, sage and celery are nice counterpoints to the fruit. Don't forget an egg or two for structure.
— THE CRANBERRY SAUCE
Just make it. It's 5 minutes out of your life and it will make such a difference at the table. Use the recipe on the bag, but add as many other varieties of dried and fresh fruit as you can handle.
— THE GREEN VEGGIES
When in doubt, add bacon. Green beans. Brussels sprouts. Whatever. Bacon makes them better. Money spent on bacon is money very well spent.
— THE ORANGE VEGGIES
We're talking sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Leave the mashing for the white potatoes. Instead, cut the orange ones into cubes, dust them with cornstarch, a sprinkle of oil and whatever seasonings get you going, then roast them until lightly browned and tender.
— THE PIE
Unless you've recently won a bake-off, here's another place to spend money instead of time. A good baker will make your efforts taste like something from 7-11. Instead, spend your time making fresh whipped cream using really good heavy cream spiked with fresh vanilla bean and a bit of powdered sugar. And the same cream can be piled onto the coffee you serve with dessert.
J.M. Hirsch is the food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs at http://www.LunchBoxBlues.com and tweets at http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch . Email him at email@example.com