Do you care more about how dinner rolls look in a basket, or how well they work for sandwiches the next day? Do you want to be able to pass off a frozen pie crust as homemade, or do you want picture-perfect crimping?
In September, we gathered a big group of New York Times tasters to hold a blind tasting of store-bought Thanksgiving staples at New York Times Cooking’s studio kitchen. I was joined by Melissa Clark, Gina Fernandez, Tanya Sichynsky and Alexa Weibel from New York Times Cooking, and Marguerite Preston from Wirecutter. Not only did we discuss our favorites among popular national brands, but we also sorted through Thanksgiving priorities.
Recipes: Our Best Thanksgiving Dishes | Our Best Side Dishes | Our Best Desserts
Never did I imagine the cranberry confessions, dark mutterings about the power of Big Stuffing and accusations of anti-clove bias that ensued.
A few general lessons learned: Look for short ingredients lists. Always parbake pie crusts. And a brushful of melted butter makes everything look homemade.
Here’s what we found:
Rhodes Bake-N-Serve ★ | Sister Schubert’s | Pillsbury Swirls
Our needs for a Thanksgiving dinner roll: warm, buttery and absorbent, for mopping the plate at the end of the meal. Sister Schubert’s had a nice browned top, but its texture was crumbly, more like a biscuit. We liked Pillsbury for its golden swirl, which would look festive in a basket, but found it too croissantlike and not doughy enough. (Alexa said it was “overreaching in every sense.”) Rhodes took the crown, with its soft texture and burnished top.
“It’s just the perfect vehicle for a sandwich, it’s not the star of the show. She gets the job done and we love it,” Gina said.
Make them your own and brush the tops with melted butter spiked with everything bagel seasoning, finely minced garlic and parsley, or flaky salt. Be sure the butter you serve them with is tasty and top-of-the-line.
Stonewall Kitchen ★ | 365 (Whole Foods) | Ocean Spray
The point of cranberry sauce, in our collective opinion, is to bring color and flavor contrast to the table. Distinct from a bouncy, wiggly cranberry jelly, cranberry sauce should have visible chunks of berries, a loose but not runny texture and an intense sweet-tart flavor. “I would eat this — at someone else’s table” said Gina, who had just confessed that she had never tasted cranberry sauce before and expected it to be “weird.” Whole Foods’s 365 brand was all sweet, no tart. Ocean Spray was a bright, clear red — perfect for your best glass or crystal bowl — but tasted milder than we would have liked. Stonewall Kitchen’s New England cranberry relish, while pricier than the others, was indistinguishable from homemade, with bits of orange zest and cranberries that popped a bit in your mouth.
In this case, spending the extra money does get you a product that is indistinguishable from homemade.
Trader Joe’s | Pepperidge Farm★| Stove Top
Since stuffing is the most polarizing dish at the Thanksgiving table, we thought we’d have little consensus here — but no! Everyone agreed that the Trader Joe’s cornbread stuffing, made up of gummy green bread cubes, bore no resemblance to cornbread and tasted of nothing but chicken bouillon. Stove Top reminded us of sour cream and onion potato chips, not a bad thing, with a squishy texture that fans of white bread and challah stuffings preferred. “You can’t deny the appeal of MSG,” Marguerite said. But in the end, Pepperidge Farm had the winning advantage of fresh onion and herbs, and white and whole wheat bread cubes of just the right springiness.
“You know what it could use?” Tanya asked. “Sausage,” everyone answered.
Keep an eye on ingredients lists: Avoid those with lots of umami bombs — like maltodextrin, yeast extract, hydrolyzed proteins — so that your stuffing tastes like something besides MSG.
Premade Pie Crust
Trader Joe’s | Pillsbury | Marie Callender’s ★
Pies seem to bring the most pain to Thanksgiving cooks, so a good premade crust is a gift. But in terms of color, flavor and flakiness, these were all over the map, as were our opinions. Trader Joe’s was tender like a shortbread cookie, but we wanted more crispness and salt. Pillsbury was nicely browned with blisters that reminded us of empanadas; “This has to be a lard crust,” said Melissa, our reigning expert, and she was right. Marie Callender’s looked close to ideal, but the taste was flattish, thanks to soybean oil. It’s precrimped, but you could pass it off as homemade if you muss the edges a bit, and was our favorite overall.
“I know from experience that unfurling the ones that come rolled up is such a pain, it’s not going to work in every dish. This one is just going to be easy,” Marguerite said.
For the best bottom crust, always parbake, even if the package instructions don’t mention that step.
Recipes: Our Favorite Thanksgiving Pies
Libby’s ★ | Happy Belly Organic ★ | Good & Gather ★
Only the hard-core bakers among us roast their own pumpkins for pie, so we looked for canned products — from Libby’s, and Amazon and Target’s house brands — that act like homemade, with a one-word ingredient list: pumpkin. All you need here is consistency. Too wet and it will sog out your pastry; too dry and your filling may crack. There shouldn’t be any liquid in the can, and it should scoop out easily. The purée is cooked before it goes into the can, so there was some variation in how roasted and caramelized they were, but overall they were very similar and all good in our favorite pie recipes. While we were on the subject, I asked: “Where exactly is the line between pumpkin spice and potpourri?” The mob shouted me down.
No need to roast fresh pumpkin or buy preseasoned pie filling: These canned purées are simple, consistent and easy to customize with spices (ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom) and sweeteners (maple syrup, brown sugar, sorghum).
Recipes: Ultimate Pumpkin Pie | Brandied Pumpkin Pie | Pumpkin Pie With Pepitas
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