The sour economy has done wonders for improving cooking skills, prompting many of us to cook from scratch to save a little scratch. But for a big holiday meal such as Thanksgiving, doing it yourself isn't always the most practical or cost-effective way to go.
For one thing, says cookbook author Barbara Kafka, there is only so much oven and stovetop space in most kitchens, which makes it difficult to prepare the whole meal without creating a traffic jam.
Also, though some holiday dishes undoubtedly are better made from scratch, the quality and cost of many ready-made items has improved, says Kate Merker, associate food editor for Real Simple magazine.
The trick of balancing economy and good taste is knowing what to do and what to buy.
When it comes to the turkey, Kafka says she always roasts her own because it's relatively easy to do, it's generally inexpensive, and the meat is more likely to be moist as long as no reheating is involved.
Merker feels the same about the gravy.
"Store-bought gravy just doesn't quite cut it for my family and me," she says. "There is something about using all of the pan drippings that really ties everything together."
Baking, on the other hand, can definitely be left to the professionals, says Kafka, especially since there's so much good bread available. It also saves a lot of time and cleanup to go the store-bought route.
If you do want to bake, Kafka recommends corn bread. It's easy, fast, inexpensive and stays moist even when made ahead.
Purchased pies can be quite good, Merker adds. Or, for semi-homemade feel, pick up frozen pie crust. An apple pie can be made with a five or six large apples, a little butter and a few spices, all of which are fairly inexpensive, especially if you buy bagged apples, which usually cost considerably less than those sold by the pound.
Pumpkin pie is easy as well if you use a premade crust and buy preseasoned canned pumpkin pie mix.
For some of the other dishes in the Thanksgiving meal, Merker suggests using store-bought items as a starting point, then adding fresh ingredients at home.
Stuffing mixes, which usually go on sale around Thanksgiving, are perfect for doctoring.
"They're not all that bad," Merker said. "Extra sauteed onions and a whole lot of chopped fresh herbs can lift up many packaged varieties. And if you have dried fruit, such as apricots or cranberries, already in the house, those are great additions as well."
Kate Hays, chef and owner of Dish Catering in Burlington, Vt., says she loves sprucing up prepared vegetable sides.
Frozen vegetables are excellent quality and usually much cheaper (and quicker to cook) than fresh.
Hays elevates thawed Brussels sprouts by sauteing them in butter until heated through, then tossing them with crushed fennel seeds and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper just before serving.
And heavy cream, she says, can perform miracles on most frozen vegetables.
To make an easy and luxurious creamed corn, add reduced heavy cream to thawed corn niblets, then season with salt and pepper, top with shredded cheddar or pepper Jack cheese, and broil until golden-brown and bubbling.
As for starchy vegetable sides, Merker says she would always vote for making them from scratch.
Potatoes are inexpensive and can go a long way. Plus, she says, for convenience, mashed potatoes can be made ahead and reheated. Roasted potatoes usually are just as good at room temperature.
And though cranberry sauce is easy to make, Kafka says forget about it.
"Ninety-five percent of Americans were brought up on canned, and in my family, they won't accept anything else!"