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Thanksgiving is all about abundance, from the gut-busting, nap-inducing feast itself to the iconography associated with it—it's an overflowing cornucopia, after all. However, we as human beings, gracious hosts and once-a-year caterers have limits. There's only so much oven space for that big bird, counter real estate for rolling out pie dough and emotional/mental capacity with the influx of family, friends and inevitable chaos.
Take a breath: You don't have to make everything by yourself. And chefs are in agreement.
"It really comes down to how you want to spend your time—in the kitchen or with your friends and family. If you find something at the store that looks great, don't be afraid to buy it," Jeremy Sewall, chef/partner of Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34 in Boston, says.
Your local grocery store, butcher and bakery are stocked with better stuff than you realize, some of which might even be better than you could make. So we polled chefs for their input on the traditional dishes that absolutely must be homemade or can easily be swapped for something store-bought. Here's the verdict.
Turkey: Make (Unless . . . )
"How can you not make your own bird?!" Tony Maws, chef/owner of Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says. "The house smells great, and you will marvel at the grandeur of a perfectly roasted turkey on the table." This one seems like a no-brainer, especially when it's the main event of the meal. However, it's not always as delicious as it looks—"Seriously, though, every turkey I've ever tasted made somewhere else was dry and bland," Maws concedes. "But it's totally worth it." If you're really pressed for time, there are creative options. "Since this is usually the most abused part of the meal and quite often the least successful, I recommend buying smoked turkey as a great alternative to doing it yourself," Brad Farmerie, chef at PUBLIC and Saxon + Parole in New York City, says.
Mashed Potatoes: Toss-Up
Despite chefs praising the deliciousness of smashed taters—"Mashed potatoes for me are a must-make-at-home dish. They taste so much better," Kevin Nashan, chef/owner of Sidney Street Cafe and the Peacemaker in St. Louis, says—the boxed stuff got some love. "While making every dish by hand is ideal, if you're trying to save time, I recommend buying mashed potatoes," Jesse Schenker, chef/owner of The Gander and Recette in New York City, says. "Betty Crocker Potato Buds are great. Your guests probably won't even know the difference!" However, going commercial doesn't mean you can't jazz it up. "There are some good mashed potato varieties that you can buy," Sewall says. "But I would recommend making them at home and then dressing them up with simple additions like fresh herbs."
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"Bread is an easy one to outsource, but my pop swears by the preseasoned croutons," Daniel Holzman, the chef/co-owner of The Meatball Shop in New York City, says. "I prefer to use fresh bread and add my own spice, but his stuffing is certainly delicious." Obviously, you don't need to make everything in the stuffing by hand—you can rely on artisanal bakeries, even the packaged croutons in Holzman's case. However, there's also nothing wrong with the boxed kind, according to a few chefs. "I grew up on Kraft Stove Top boxed stuffing, and I loved it," Paras Shah, chef at Kat & Theo in New York City, says. "Boxed stuffing has the quintessential flavor Americans think of for Thanksgiving, so you know this will be a crowd-pleaser." And it's fast. "My stuffing takes three days to make. Stove Top's takes minutes," Matt McClure, chef at The Hive in Bentonville, Arkansas, says. "I'd go for the Stove Top."
"I have a general rule," Travis Swikard, chef at Boulud Sud in New York City, says. "If you can buy it better than you can make it, go ahead and buy it. I make just about everything but the bread and the pies." Most chefs we talked to beeline for the pies made by their pastry comrades or a good local bakery rather than struggling to make the flakiest crust. However, for those looking for a happy medium between store-bought and somewhat-made-with-love, McClure has the answer. "It's tough to beat canned pumpkin pie filling and a premade pie dough," he says. "Buy, open, assemble, cook."
Cranberry Sauce: Buy
There are memories in that iconic can. "I love store-bought cranberry sauce, the kind that comes out like a jiggly log with ridged edges," Annie Pettry, chef at Decca in Louisville, says. "I have to have it with Thanksgiving dinner every time. The sweet-and-tart flavor pairs perfectly with turkey, stuffing and gravy." Bonus: It's a sure crowd-pleaser. "No one will be mad if you buy this rather than whipping up a fresh cranberry-orange-zest-walnut relish,"Adam Ross, chef at Le Fanfare in Brooklyn, says. "That ruby cylinder, quivering on the plate still grooved from the can, evokes strong feelings of nostalgia."
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