The Food Lab Answers Thanksgiving Questions: On Sides and Desserts

[Doodle: Robyn Lee]

Yesterday we talked turkey; today it's time to discuss the rest of the Thanksgiving spread. The potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, pies, non-pie desserts, and much more. Without further ado, here are the answers to all of your questions.

On Potatoes

I come from a family of loud, unhealthy Irish folks. At most meals, however even more-so on Thanksgiving, potatoes appear to take up the majority of real-estate at the table and on our plates. I am always seeking to improve on our mashed potato skills, what would you say is the secret to making the absolute best mashed potatoes? —Zarncar at 4:22PM on 11/10/11

Well, "absolute best" is a totally subjective term, as me and my disagreeable sister can well-attest to. However, last year I wrote a short piece about making two different types of mashed potatoes that you should find useful. I personally like mine rich, smooth, and creamy, while my sister likes them light, potatoey and fluffy. There's also the question of what variety of potato to use. I like russets because of their lighter textures, but some folks prefer the denser buttery richness of Yukon Golds.

The secret, in any case, is to rice your potatoes, use plenty of butter and cream, and for extra meatiness, incorporate some good chicken stock into them as well.

The magic of a perfect dish of cheesy and wonderful scalloped potatoes is killing me. I either seem to have too much liquid or it never sets, and the potatoes are either mush or too firm. I have tried both waxy and starch potatoes, flour, cornstarch, the ATC recipe, etc. Help!! PS: After 10 years of pie crust failures, your vodka recipe saved me. I cannot thank you enough! —LisaLH at 9:20PM on 11/10/11

Here's my recipe:

Slice four pounds of russet potatoes 1/8th of an inch-thin on a mandoline (you can peel them if you'd like). In a large bowl, whisk together 2 cups of heavy cream, a tablespoon of salt, and a generous amount of black pepper. Have some picked thyme leaves nearby, a stick of butter, as well as a few cups (about 3 ounces) of grated Parmigiano-reggiano. Dump the potatoes into the cream, swirl them around with your hands, then pick them up one at a time and layer them into the dish. In between each layer, sprinkle some cheese, thyme leaves, and dot some butter. After everything is all done layered, finish with some extra butter and plenty of grated cheese. Pour any remaining cream over the top. Bake covered in a 400°F oven for about half an hour, then uncover and continue baking until totally tender and bubbly brown/crisp on top.

Sorry it's not more precise, but honestly, this isn't a very precise dish for me. Perhaps one day I'll Food-Lab it :)

On Macaroni and Cheese

My family's mac and cheese recipe involves cubed cheese and pats of butter interspersed among cooked noodles. You beat an egg and drizzle it on top, then pour in milk until it goes 2/3 of the way up the pan and bake. I love this recipe, and I don't want to hear about a whole new recipe. My problem is that the noodles on top get dried out and/or burned. Suggestions? —erineats at 5:00PM on 11/10/11

Oh, I've got a great alternative recipe for you.

Just kidding.

Have you tried baking it covered in foil for the first 3/4 of the cooking time then jacking up the heat a bit and finishing it uncovered to crisp up the top just a little bit?

I'm having issues getting the best crust on my mac n cheese. I've used bread crumbs, panko crumbs, and Ritz crackers. I'm going to try potato chips this year. Any tips? —hunrgy at 4:45PM on 11/10/11

What's the issue? Just not crusty enough? I'd use regular old sandwich bread pulsed in the food processor with plenty of butter until roughly cut into bread crumbs, then toast them on a tray in a 350°F oven until just barely light brown. Use these par-cooked crumbs on top of your casserole and it should come out super crisp.

On Brussels, Sprouts From

For a number of reasons, the all-out Thanksgiving I love isn't really in the cards this year, and so I mail-ordered a smoked turkey, excellent bread, and pecan pie for my small family holiday. If you were making one thing to go with these purchases, what would it be? —jessie at 6:42PM on 11/10/11


I'm a brussels sprouts fiend, so I'd definitely have to go with Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Shallots with Balsamic Vinegar.

Any alternative brussels sprouts ideas besides your two roasted food lab recipes? I'm thinking maybe something that could be done in advance and served cold or room temp. Maybe a shredded salad? Or roasted then marinated? —adrockuw at 9:36PM on 11/10/11

Room temperature salads are great. I'd roast them according to this recipe, store them in the fridge until you need them, then pull them out to come up to room temperature before serving drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. Remember that when serving foods at room temperature, you want to season them wish salt a little more aggressively than you would if serving them hot because you don't taste it as well.

On Cranberries, Sauced

Here ya go, this one is about cranberry sauce, to me the crucial component of a Turkey Day feast. Some years I've gone toward sweet, some years savory, but always deliciously tangy and bitter. What is your suggestion for an optimal whole berry cranberry sauce recipe? —robmarais at 7:23PM on 11/10/11

I tend to enjoy pure, simple flavors, so I usually use nothing but fresh cranberries and sugar in mine, using this recipe. That said, cranberry sauce variations are nearly endless. I often like mine with a bit of orange zest and cinnamon mixed in.

I've tried all sorts of cranberry sauces and they all seem to turn out either too bitter or too sweet. I want it tart and fruity. Any recommendation on the right ratio of cranberries to other fruit? Any recommendation on which other fruits, if any, are best to pair with cranberries? —smsingram at 8:22PM on 11/10/11

See answer above!

On Stuffing

I'd like to try making dressing in the slow cooker in order to save oven space. Do you have tips for doing this? Or would you caution against it altogether? —katerrific at 4:29PM on 11/10/11

I wouldn't make stuffing in the slow cooker unless you want it really really mushy. Stuffing is great for making ahead though. Just bake it off the day before, refrigerate it overnight, then pop it back in the oven while the turkey is resting to reheat it. If you have a large microwave, you can also microwave it then toss it under a broiler to crisp up the top.

Stuffing! The way I understand it, to stuff the turkey with stuffing before baking likely means an overcooked bird: the inside of the stuffing -- as opposed to an empty cavity -- must reach a safe temp, therefore resulting in a much longer cook time. My dear mother disagrees. Please settle this, does stuffing = overcooking?! —frickafricka at 4:29PM on 11/10/11

Ah. I think I just answered this question last week. Read up! (Hint: it's possible to cook a stuffed turkey without undercooking stuffing/overcooking bird).

Any thoughts on a dressing recipe for a soy-allergic vegetarian? I normally make a cornbread dressing with Morning Star sausage, but can't do that anymore because of a soy allergy. I could just leave it out and do the bread/onions/celery, but that seems a bit plain. Thanks! —sarbec at 9:44PM on 11/10/11

How about making your own sausage? You'd be surprised at how simple it is to do.


Just follow the recipe in that post, replacing the fennel seed and marjoram with two tablespoons of rubbed sage or a quarter cup of finely minced fresh sage leaves. It's super easy and well-worth the results!

On Potatoes, Sweet

Any recipes for sweet potatoes that reconcile how I like them (just butter and salt) and how my mother in law likes them (marshmallows, sugar, etc.)? —nothernspy at 7:50PM on 11/10/11

I've had plenty of experience dealing with this sort of inter-family head-butting and I've found that there's only one solution: just make two darn batches of sweet potatoes. A little bit of extra work now will save you many headaches later on.

Whenever I roast sweet potatoes, they never achieve the level of super-crisp that I want. I've read that sweet potatoes roast differently than regular potatoes. Is there any way to get really crisp oven-roasted sweet potatoes? —allisonkendra at 8:04PM on 11/10/1

Sweet potatoes are definitely different from regular potatoes. Far less starchy. They don't crisp up as well. The key to really crisp sweet potatoes is to add starch to them. You can do this by making a mixture of corn starch, flour, salt, pepper, and whatever other seasonings you'd like, then par-boiling your sweet potatoes and tossing them in the flour mixture. After that, toss them with a bit of oil and roast them as you normally would. The extra starch should help them crisp up beautifully.

On Sides, Other

I would love to make my own french fried onions (kind of like French's, but I prefer the version Lars makes). The Lars package just lists onions, vegetable oil, wheat flour and salt in the ingredients. But every time I try to make some they come out soggy, not crispy. Help! —mvonhinken at 6:32PM on 11/10/11)


The key is dehydration. You want to cook down those onions very very slowly in relatively cool oil, then make sure that they're spread out nicely as they cool so they can let off steam. I do mine the same way that the Vietnamese and Thai's make fried shallots: Plenty of oil relatively cool oil and constantly agitating as they cook. Once fried, you can store them in a sealed container for a long long time, so long as you keep them out of your diminutive wife's reach (as I do).

For more detailed instructions, check out the first step in this Ultimate Green Bean Casserole recipe I did last year.

Down here in Miami, there is a great BBQ place (surprising, I know) that has a dish called cornbread souffle as a side. It's more of a dessert and is absolutely wonderful. I've tried getting the recipe out of them with no success. I know there's no way you can actually replicate this exact dish without having ever tasted it, but I was wondering if this is one of their inventions or if this actually exists in other places too (that you know of). And if it does, and you know of a recipe, can you recommend one so I can make it for this Thanksgiving? —santiago Cardona at 5:57PM on 11/10/11

Cornbread Soufflé is another name for Spoonbread, which is essentially a corn-flavored custard. It ranges in texture from almost creamy to light and airy like a real soufflé. I'm not sure where in that texture range your ideal version falls, but here's a classic James Beard recipe that might be what you're looking for. It uses beaten egg whites, so as long as you are careful with folding them in, you should get a nice high-rising soufflé-like dish.

Is it possible to make corn pudding without dairy? Eggs are okay, but we are doing allergy-friendly Thanksgiving. —MerMei at 8:17PM on 11/10/11

Hmm... not that I know of, though I haven't actually tried it myself. Sorry I can't be of more help.

Any chestnut recipes that aren't stuffing/dressing? And what's the best technique to cook them without a) charring the outside; b) leaving the inside raw; c) wrecking your hands peeling or d) all of the above? —piccola at 9:56PM on 11/10/11

The easiest way to cook chestnuts at home is to roast them in the oven. Use the tip of a paring knife to cut a small x-shaped slit in the flat end of the nut. As they roast, this'll allow steam to escape (so you don't have nuts exploding all over your oven... ew), as well as create an easy access point for peeling later on. This should solve your first two problems. As for what to cook, I really really love a good smooth chestnut soup. I make mine by sauteeing sliced onions in butter, adding a splash of Madeira, vermouth, or some other sweet fortified wine, then adding chicken stock and roasted chestnuts and simmering. I then puree it in a blender with some extra butter, whisk in a bit of cream, season and serve it. Really freaking delicious.

(Don't ask me for precise measurements—I don't have them).

I realize sweet potatoes are an entirely different animal, but is there a way to get ultra crispy sweet potato results like you covered here:

How about a recipe leveraging the wonderful thickening properties of some modern ingredient to make better gravy?

Turkey stock recipe using the leftover bits and pieces of the turkey carcass?

Recipe involving the neck and other typically discarded turkey bits. —CaramelizedOnion at 10:41PM on 11/10/11

Now that's a lot of questions.

1) See the answer about sweet potatoes above. 2) I like the texture and flavor of flour-thickened gravy, so see no need to "improve" it with any modern ingredients. 3) Simple: roughly chop turkey carcass with a cleaver. Add some vegetables (onions, carrots, celery, thyme, bay leaf). Cover with water and simmer for 3-4 hours, skimming occasionally. Strain. 4) Add them to your stock to make gravy! Who the heck discards any turkey bits?!

On Pie

Last year, I made a beautiful pie crust in a glass pie dish using a combo of lard and butter, blind baked it, then filled it with a pecan pie recipe I've used before (with store bought crust, only because I didn't know how easy it was to make awesome pie crust myself). However, when we tried to cut into it, the crust was seriously stuck to the pan. Like, scraped out after soaking for hours in the sink stuck. I've never had this issue while making apple pie using the same crust. Should I not have blind baked it? What did I do wrong? I want to make it again this year, because it was delicious, but I can't hack at it like I did last year - it was so sad to leave half of it in the pan. :( —jettabugfox at 4:16PM on 11/10/11

Wow, I've never ever heard of anything like this happening. Generally pie crusts are so buttery and fatty that they easily release themselves from pie plate. Was the blind baked crust stuck to the pan before you even put the pecan filling in? The only guess that I have is that either it had holes in it so your sticky pecan filling somehow leaked in between the crust and the pan, or perhaps it was filled too far up to the rim and the pecan filling expanded and dripped over the side. Either way, you'd end up with pecan filling sticking the crust to the pan.


You might consider baking your pies in a well seasoned cast iron skillet? They distribute heat well and even if your pie leaks and gets sticky, if should release from cast iron quite easily.

I have a crust question: every time I bake an apple pie (or any kind of fruit pie), the bottom crust always seems pasty, wet and undercooked, even though the upper crust is a beautiful, golden, flaky, and tender dream of a crust (I use your recipe). I've tried blind baking (it's really awkward to crimp a rapidly warming disk of dough over a very hot pre-baked crust), I've tried egg white wash on the inside after blind baking to "seal" the crust (no real difference), I've tried metal pie pans over overturned cast iron frying pans that have been pre-heating in the oven for half an hour (marginal difference--that ceramic pan was death to the bottom crust). Is this an impossible dream? Should I give up? Should I just make cheater's pie (ie: just top crust) from now on? —Marshmallow at 4:42PM on 11/10/11

There's a couple things that could be wrong. First, your oven might be funky at managing temperature. If your bottom crust is coming out undercooked, I'd suggest baking it on a lower rack in the oven. Shift your rack down by two stops and preheat a heavy rimmed baking sheet on it before placing your pie directly on the baking sheet. This should help the bottom cook faster and harder.

The other problem might be that your filling is just too wet. I'd try increasing the amount of thickener in it by a smidge.

That said, your bottom crust is never going to be as light, crisp, and flaky as your upper crust, so don't sweat it too much!

On Desserts, Non-Pie

Bread pudding! I've volunteered to make a pumpkin bread pudding for the festivities, and a) it's my favorite dessert and b) I've never made it before. What are the secrets to a bread pudding that's delightfully custardy but not to the point where it's just crouton-laced pudding? —aintbaroque at 6:30PM on 11/10/11

Check out this recipe for Banana-Dulce de Leche Bread Pudding where Maria totally nails that elusive just-custardy-enough texture. What's that? Don't like bananas?

I hear you. I hate them myself. Just leave them out. Nobody will tell. I like to pour a nice bourbon-caramel over my bread pudding to give it a bit more of that special "adult" flavor beyond the rum that the bread is soaked in.


Your choice of bread can also have a great effect on finished texture. Keep an eye out for a post on stuffing coming up this Thursday in which we tried various types of bread. Stuffing is essentially savory bread pudding, so you can take a lesson from there.

First off, thank you so much for handling all of these questions, also my family followed your recommendation of a dry salt brine last year and it was our most flavorful thanksgiving bird ever. So I'm considering making a bread pudding as one of the desserts this year. My family, however, has a mandate of one dessert per adult. Therefore, the desserts need to hold up as leftovers for a few days and my mother is convinced the bread pudding will dry out after the initial go round of desserts. Any suggestions for a bread pudding that will still be tasty as breakfast on Friday and Saturday? —SoxFan49 at 9:38PM on 11/10/11

There's no reason bread pudding should dry out if you wrap it and store it in the fridge. The best way to reheat it is either in a foil-covered container in the oven, or actually in the microwave, which will very rapidly heat it and give it a nice soft, pudding-like texture.

Why does every Gingerbread recipe call for dissolving baking soda in hot water? What the hell? —zorazen at 7:59PM on 11/10/11

I know, what the hell, right?

(Seriously, I had no idea that this was even true, sorry I can't be of more help.)