Ask Special Sauce: Kenji and Stella Answer Your Thanksgiving FAQs

I don’t know about the rest of you Thanksgiving hosts out there, but my wife and I tend to become increasingly stressed as the holiday approaches each year. On more than one occasion, I’ve reached out to Kenji and Stella to help relieve my cooking-related anxiety. It was during one such conversation that I came up with the idea of having a call-in Thanksgiving episode of Special Sauce co-hosted by Stella and Kenji. We put out the call for your Thanksgiving-related cooking and baking questions and Serious Eaters from all over the country submitted their most pressing questions. As usual, Kenji and Stella had answers in spades.

We fielded inquiries about what foods travel well for a Thanksgiving feast, how to get pumpkin pie filling to set properly, and whether it’s better to cook stuffing in or out of the bird. From Lani Houck’s question about whether turkey can receive the reverse sear treatment to Adrianna Lahti’s request for an improved take on her mother’s questionable pie crust, Kenji and Stella offered answers with their customary elan, grace, and humor. Their seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of all things cooking and baking will take out at least some of the stress associated with Thanksgiving, I promise.

Happy Thanksgiving, Serious Eaters.


Ed Levine: Welcome Serious Eaters to a special Thanksgiving edition of Call Special Sauce. Serious Eaters from all over the country have sent us Thanksgiving related questions that they would like us to answer, but what we’re really trying to do here is take the stress and worry out of your holidays.

EL: Here to do the answering and provide the stress reduction are two Serious Eaters who know a thing or two about cooking and baking. Kenji Lopez-Alt, our chief culinary consultant and the best-selling author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, and Stella Parks, our resident pastry wizard and another New York Times best-selling author of BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts.

EL: Welcome to our special Thanksgiving episode of Call Special Sauce, Kenji and Stella.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: Hey, how’s it going?

EL: Excellent, and Stella Parks is in the house.

Stella Parks: I made it.

EL: The original pastry wizard. Oh gee.

JKLA: Is there, is there another? Is there a new one?

EL: There’s thousands of wannabes, but there’s only one Stella Parks. Good to have you here, Stella. We have a question. Serious Eater, Lani Houck, so good to have you on Call Special Sauce.

Lani Houck: Well, thank you. I love Special Sauce, and I love the website and the blogs, and I use it all the time.

EL: Oh, well that’s awesome. I think you have a question for Kenji about turkey cooking.

LH: I do. I love the reverse sear steak recipe. We use it all the time in our family and it’s so great. Would you ever use that kind of recipe for turkey?

JKLA: That’s a good question. Just so people listening, everyone listening knows, the reverse sear is a method where, so traditionally what you would do with a steak or a roast is you would sear it at high heat first and then you would slow cook it until it’s finished. The reverse sear is the opposite where you started in a low temperature oven and then you finish it at the very end with the high sear. The idea being is that the meat ends up cooking much more evenly and you also get a better sear on the outside because by the time you’re searing it, the exterior is dry, so you don’t have to spend a lot of energy driving off excess moisture. The question is, does that method work on turkeys as well?

JKLA: The short answer is not really, and the longer answer is yes, but you have to put a little work into it. The problem with turkey and with most poultry is that it’s a mix of light … you’re, you’re cooking the whole animal, and so it’s a mix of light and dark meat, so that’s fast and slow-twitch muscle. Those different groups, so the breast meat and the leg meat, the white meat and the dark meat, needs to be cooked to different temperatures. Generally, you want your breast meat to come up to around, well, the government says 165, I say around 155, 150 if you want it to stay juicy. Whereas the leg meat has to come up to around 165, 170, maybe even 175 if you want to get rid of that tougher texture and that really red color, that bloody color, even though it’s not blood.

JKLA: Anyhow, so that that fact and the fact that you have to achieve two different temperatures in the same bird makes it a little bit difficult to do the reverse here because the whole idea of the reverse sear that you’re cooking everything at a very low temperature so that everything cooks very, very evenly. What happens is that you end up, by the time the turkey breast meat is at 155, the legs meet leg meat is also at 155. In order to fully cook the turkey, you end up overcooking the breast or under cooking the legs.

JKLA: The solution to that, if you want to use that method, and by the way the method works great, it gives you very, very juicy, evenly cooked meat, if you want to use that method is to separate the legs from the breast. You can put them all in the same oven at a relatively low temperature. As soon as the breast hits 155, you pull it out. As soon as the legs hit 175, you pull them out. Then you let them rest on the side. Then when you’re ready to serve, you pump up the oven to around 500, 550 and throw them back in just to crisp the skin. It probably takes 10, 15 minutes there to crisp up the skin.

JKLA: The method actually works really great. It gives you very, very crispy skin. It just takes a little bit of extra effort to get there.

EL: Lani, do you feel better now?

LH: I do and I actually think it would work because we always cook two small turkeys. I think you could nestle them better than making it the whole turkey.

ELThat is perfect.

JKLA: Absolutely. Yeah, you can try it. You just have to make sure that you hit those two different temperatures for the different parts of the turkey.

LH: Great.

EL: Thank you Lani for your question. It’s great to talk to you.

LH: Thank you.

JKLA: All right, bye-bye.

EL: Adrianna Lahti is on the line, a Serious Eater, no doubt. Nice to hear from you.

Adrianna Lahti: Yes, hi. Thank you for having me.

EL: Oh, it’s our pleasure. You have a question for Stella?

AL: I do. It’s about pie crust, actually. My mother, she’s an absolute saint and she makes Thanksgiving dinner really well each year, but there’s always been a problem with pie crust we’ve found. I’m definitely calling her out right now.

EL: That is cold, man. You’re calling out your mother on Thanksgiving.

AL: I know. I am.

JKLA: In public.

AL: Yup, I am. Yup, I got her blessing though, so I’m okay to ask the question. She knows. But yeah, they always are kind of dry and salty, and they turn out unappetizing and gross, to be honest. My dad, brother and I all want her to try something new, so we’re looking for like a new recipe that’s maybe sweeter, or flakier, or like a pastry for the pie crust.

SP: You know Adrianna, it’s a big world of pie dough recipes out there, so a lot will come down to the style that she is using and the recipe that she has. But not to recipe shame anyone, I’m not even going to ask where this recipe is coming from because we don’t need to know.

SP: The first thing I want to address is salt though because that’s a universal to all recipes, is that almost every of brand of salt has a different weight per teaspoon. So if you’re not using literally the exact salt that a recipe developer used, unless you’re using a jeweler scale and measuring by weight, the levels of salt that you’re putting into a recipe are always going to be off compared to whatever a recipe developer is using.

SP: On Serious Eats, we’d try our best to specify what brand of salt we’re using to at least try and minimize this variable to say, “Hey, I’m using Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt. If you use that, that’ll put you on the same page. But with a different brand, you might need more or less.”

SP: My guess is if it’s a super salty crust situation that your mom’s probably got some iodized table salt of a fine grain and that whatever recipe she’s working with is probably using kosher salt. By using an iodized table salt style, just a lot more salt per teaspoon is coming into the recipe is my guess on that one. She may want to investigate if the recipe has called for a kosher salt style, to cut back when using iodized table salt.

SP: Switching to a kosher salt, we use Diamond Crystal at Serious Eats. Not because we’re in the pocket of big salt or anything, but it’s what we all gravitate towards. It’s got a good texture in your hand. I like it because there’s no additives, so it’s not going to like cause your candies to do anything wacky. Some salts have like anti-caking agents that can wreak havoc on some things, but-

EL: That’s a big thing, right Adrianna? It’s because it’s something that people don’t think about a lot in recipes.

SP: It’s like it’s like a sleeper factor. Anyhow, that’s definitely something to look at, is like whatever the salt brand is. But otherwise, if it seems like it’s dry, it’s probably a leaner style of pie dough and there’s a lot of leaner recipes out there.

SP: In a totally self-aggrandizing sort of way, I’d recommend my recipe because it’s equal parts flour and butter by weight, so you’re looking at plenty of butter. It’s a very rich style. Part of what that does is it waterproofs the dough a little bit, so it’s a very rich dough that bakes up pretty crispy and it’s also less inclined to absorb moisture from the filling because it’s already well saturated with butter, which we all want to be well saturated with butter at the holidays. I would recommend that one can.

SP: Kenji’s got a great recipe also that’s a little bit easier to work with. My recipe involves rolling out the dough and folding it a few times to incorporate some layers, which is great if you want this flaky pastry-like crust. But for some people, that’s more work than they want to get into, and Kenji has a very straightforward recipe that you could just jump in, roll out and no fuss. Either one of those recipes would be great.

EL: Yeah, there’s a whole tender flaky continuum in pie crust isn’t there?

SP: Yeah, for sure. Either one of those recipes should treat you well. I’ll say for both of them in the comment section on Serious Eats, it is like a huge treasure trove of dialogue regarding every possible troubleshooting issue you could want to go through. While that is a little bit overwhelming to deal with, if you just load up all the comments, you can do a Control+F number on your web browser to search for a keyword if you want to be like tough, or shrinking or something. If you search for that, you’ll probably find some person who has commented with a problem and one of us who has responded with this solution.

EL: Adrianna, I only have one more question before we have to go. Are you going to pass this onto your mother or are you going to keep this to yourself?

AL: Gosh, I feel like I have to pass it on now. We’ve given her so much grief over the years. It would be so rude of me not to tell her.

SP: I like this level of honesty with the family.

AL: It’s an ongoing problem.

SP: That’s that’s good though. That’s healthy. That’s how we all grow in our relationships.

EL: Exactly.

AL: That’s exactly it.

EL: Thank you, Adrianna. Thank you so much.

AL: All right, thank you so much. Have a great day, you guys.

EL: You too.

SP: You too.

AL: Thank you. Bye-bye.

EL: Hello, Serious Eater Joyce Brendlinger.

Joyce Brendlinger: Hi.

EL: It’s good to have you on the line, but we have to know before you start, are you going to slander anybody in your family?

JB: No, no. My family is all excellent cooks.

EL: All right, so talk to us Joyce.

JB: Okay. I am going about an hour away from here on Thanksgiving. I don’t know the people who are hosting, so I don’t want to impose upon their kitchen. I would like to make a side dish and bring it, but I’m wondering what would travel well for about an hour in the car.

JKLA: Hi there, Joyce. How are you doing?

JB: Okay.

JKLA: As far as your issue goes, I think there’s a couple things you could do. I think the most obvious one is to bring dessert because most Thanksgiving desserts are made the day before or the morning of, and are totally fine at room temperature. So a pie travels great at room temperature and it serves great at room temperature. You don’t have to reheat it or anything. I’d say that is the most obvious thing.

JKLA: The next suggestion I would have is a really good salad. If you’re going to transport a salad, I would keep basically all of the greens separate from all of the mix-ins and separate from the dressing. I’d say three or four different little packets that you can then combine and throw together, and that shouldn’t be imposing too much on someone’s kitchen space. That way your salad doesn’t get soggy, your croutons stay crispy. Whatever your salad is going to be, just keep all the elements separate and toss them together at the end.

JKLA: Then my final suggestion would be is if you want to do something hot, I would suggest actually doing a casserole that gets topped with some kind of crunchy topping or a casserole that doesn’t need to be crunchy on top, and actually baking it at home, taking it out of the oven just before you leave, and then packing it inside a cooler. So just an insulated cooler. Wrap it in foil, put it inside a cooler. If there’s any kind of crunchy toppings, so if you’re doing like a green bean casserole with fried onions or anything with breadcrumbs, leave those off and then add them just before you serve them at the end.

JKLA: But if you wrap it in foil and put it in a cooler, a hot casserole out of the oven, it should stay easily hot enough to serve for an hour or so. Casseroles are the kinds of things that they do fine just sitting for a little while.

EL: Stella, are you okay with Kenji pronouncement that it’s okay if the pie is served at room temperature?

SP: Yeah. Pie… unless it’s a custard cream pie or something like that, it wants to be served at room temperature and travels really well. Cakes travel really well too. Layer cakes travel super well. I’ve never had a problem with that. I don’t have a cake carrier. I’m notorious on Instagram for posting videos of driving around with a cake in my floorboard or in my lap. Everyone’s just like, “Oh my God, you’re giving me a heart attack.” I’m cavalier like that.

JKLA: Wait a minute, are you driving with the cake on your lap and shooting a video of yourself at the same time?

SP: No. John will be driving and I’m sitting in the passenger seat with a cake in my lap.

JB: Oh, that different.

SP: Or I’ll be pulling out of the driveway with a cake in my floorboard, and I’ll do a little video while I’m still in my driveway and not anything unsafe. Very safe driver here.

EL: There is no such thing as a pie airbag, right?

SP: No. You just got to let go and let God, Ed.

SP: I love Kenji suggestion on the salad though. I think a lot of Thanksgiving tables have so many extremely cooked items and a lot of transformed items. You’ve got your mashed potatoes, you’ve got your corn casseroles and there’s so much going on. To have some actual fresh greens at the table is …

EL: It’s true. It’s a relieve.

SP: … a true blessing.

EL: Yeah, it’s a relief. All right, Joyce. I think you’re in good shape now, right?

JB: Yeah, I think so. Thanks.

EL: Thank you for calling. Hello Carol Pease, Serious Eater in … Are you in Cali?

Carol Pease: Yes.

EL: Talk to us, Carol. What’s your question?

CP: Well I was asked to make a pumpkin pie for a party and I said, “Sure,” because I love to bake, “no problem.” Then, little did I know I was dealing with a custard and it was not coming out right. The center never set. I managed to rescue all but two inches of the center. It didn’t overcook, so it didn’t curdle and get grainy or anything, it was like pudding. So I cut out the middle, and then I made a whipped cream and then plopped that on the end, so it hid the edge. But then the next morning I happened to see this email about ask a question and I was like, “Ah, this is perfect. Stella will know the answer.”

EL: Is your oven temperature accurate?

CP: Yeah, my oven is accurate because I bake a lot, so I always know about that. I use a recipe from The Best Recipe and they go through all this stuff, and the pitfalls and everything.

EL: All right. Stella, you got to come to Carol’s rescue here.

SP: Sure. Hey, Carol.

CP: Hi, Stella.

SP: I’ve got to say, awesome thinking on the fly to fix up that pie the way you had done. That’s true brilliance and I really trust that you’re going to handle whatever comes your way next.

CP: Thank you.

SP: If anything like a pie, it’s … Pies are very communicative as to what their issue is. If you’ve got a pie that it’s not set, it’s not fully set, it’s undercooked and that’s it. It’s undercooked. It’s the same thing with cracking. If your pie cracks, it’s overcooked. It’s a pretty binary situation.

SP: There is always a wild card option of it happens to everyone from time to time. Like if you were doing a recipe by weight, and there’s like a towel on your kitchen counter and it just gets nudged too close to the scale, it could actually prevent the plate from depressing properly. Aside from some kind of freak accident where it’s got five times more milk than it should have, or some ingredient is way off base for no reason or unexpectedly, usually in a case like that you would notice you have an extreme volume of pie filling, or not enough or something. It would usually show up.

SP: Otherwise, it just means it’s a little under done. That can be caused by a number of things, even if your oven is running true to dial. It’s really normal for a recipe to vary and how much time it takes to bake. That can be influenced by the ingredient temperature. If the recipe calls for room temperature eggs, but you’re in a rush and you just grab some eggs straight from the fridge, that’s fine. It’s going to make a difference in how long it’s going to take that super cold mixture to cook through, versus if the eggs were lightly warmed or something.

JKLA: I was just going to jump in. Yeah, a lot of recipes … All the recipes on Serious Eats, for example, and if you were doing that from the Cook’s Illustrated best recipe book, probably in there also, rather than relying just on timings, they’ll usually give you visual cues or other types of cues to look for. So they’ll say, “Do it until this, which is about this much time.” It’s always a good idea to really pay attention to those cues, as opposed to just the timing because that’s going to tell you when it’s actually done. Timing is always just an approximation.

EL: No wonder why I have all these problems when I go watch a basketball game after putting a pie in the oven.

SP: The timing is always going to be a rough ballpark figure. It’s just like this is our own personal average, unless a recipe says, “Set a timer for exactly three minutes,” to time some specific stage. Yeah, the timing listed is always going to be just a vague suggestion of what to expect. The visual cues, the textural cues, those kinds of things will be a little bit more important.

SP: Then some recipes will include an internal temperature, if you want to use a digital thermometer. That can vary a little bit from recipe to recipe. But for something like a pumpkin pie, I think I take my pumpkin pie to an internal temperature of 145 degrees. I want to say America’s Test Kitchen goes to like 150 or 155.

JKLA: I think it’s 155.

SP: Mine is just a lower moisture content and I’m just budgeting for carry over cooking. I’d rather go a little under than a little over. For various reasons, people will come up with different temperatures.

EL: So the key then is not the oven temperature, but it’s actually the temperature of the pie.

SP: Yeah. It’s still not a foolproof method. People want to think that if you’ve got a thermometer, you can’t make a mistake. But placement is everything. Like Kenji has talked a lot about getting the correct internal temperature of a steak where you’ve got this one inch to one and a half inch slab of meat, and how do you correctly judge the thermometer probe placement. With a pie, you’re dealing with a similarly … It’s not super thick, so if you get too close and you’re actually getting more readings from the plate itself, or you’re not deep enough and you’re not getting as true of a reading as you could. There’s still a margin of error in how the thermometer is deployed, so to speak. But you want to try and get in the exact dead center of the pie, both vertically and horizontally.

EL: Do you feel, Carol, that you are better equipped to deliver a properly baked pumpkin pie to the table?

CP: Well, I didn’t see that thing about the temperature. I might have tried that. I went five minutes over though and then I was afraid. Isn’t it true that if you go past the point, and then they will curdle and then it will never set?

SP: No. Fortunately that’s … You can’t go over anything until you’ve gotten to the place in the first place. I see people with that on whipped cream a lot. They’re like, “Oh, this whipped cream never thickened.” I was like, “Oh, really? How long did you whip it?” They’re like, “Oh, I whipped it for three minutes. It just never got thick.” I’m like, “Well, you can keep going.” They’re like, “Well, I was scared to over whip it.” It’s like, you can’t over whip it until it’s properly whipped, and you can’t overcook it until it’s properly cooked, and you can’t overwork a dough until it’s probably been worked in the first place. That’s something you can just cut that fear away from you and just be like, “You know what? I can’t overdo it until I’ve done it.”

CP: Okay.

JKLA: Right. If it’s still jiggly and wet, it’s not going to suddenly turn scrambled with skipping over the actually done part.

SP: Don’t feel beholden to the timetables too. These are rough ballparks, so if it’s like, “Bake this thing for 30 minutes,” and you’re on an hour and a half, that’s a sign that something has gone wrong. It’s like a good way to like alert yourself like, “Oh, maybe my oven is running super low,” or, “Maybe this recipe, they didn’t really do a lot of testing,” if you just like pulled it off some random website. Or maybe there’s a big discrepancy in equipment or something, but plus or minus even 10 minutes on the bake time or something is completely negligible.

EL: Do you feel more confident now Carol?

CP: Yes. I’m going to try it again. I have to get it right.

EL: Excellent. Just remember to take my advice, which is don’t go watch a ballgame after you put the pie in the oven.

CP: That sounds easy to follow.

JKLA: It’s also like some of those old recipe books, like the Fanny Farmers where the instructions just cook until done like there is something good about that.

SP: I love it. I love it.

CP: All right. Well, thanks so much.

EL: Thanks a lot.

SP: Thank you.

CP: Bye.

EL: Hello, Serious Eater Glenn Tait.

Glenn Tait: Hello.

EL: I don’t know why, I sense you’re from Canada. I don’t know, I’m just intuiting that.

GT: That’s right. I am.

EL: You sound like you’re from Canada. Are you from Ottawa?

GT: No, I’m from Yellowknife, way north.

EL: Yellowknife. That is one of the coolest sounding towns to be from. I’d like to be from Yellowknife. What’s your question, Glenn?

GT: So my question is, where do you sit on putting stuffing inside the turkey? I have done that all my life and one of the great joys of putting the turkey together is jamming the stuffing into the cavity. But I’ve got a bunch of friends who are all over me about that, and rail on me about how dangerous it is and how I’m going to kill myself. My question is, whether or not there are any food safety or other reasons why I shouldn’t be cooking my stuffing inside the turkey.

EL: Glenn, you’ve come to the right person because Kenji is actually trained as a turkey intern.

GT: All right.

JKLA: I have definitely touched the interiors of many turkeys. Okay, so the simple answer is yes, there is a food safety issue. The reason is because when you put that stuffing inside the turkey, the raw juices from the turkey start to soak into it and they can soak through the stuffing. In order to cook the stuffing safely, you have to bring the stuffing up to the same temperature that you would bring the turkey up to. Whether that’s 155 degrees or 165 degrees, whatever temperature you’re comfortable with, the stuffing has to come to that temperature too. The issue is that then by that point, generally the breast meat of the turkey is going to be overcooked because the heat travels from the inside out, so by the time that something is done, the breast meat is over cooked.

JKLA: There is a couple of ways around this, because as you say, the stuffing does definitely get a different flavor and texture when it cooks inside the turkey. It’s softer and it definitely has more turkey flavor, and it gets an almost pudding like texture that you don’t really get when you bake it in a casserole dish in the oven.

JKLA: Now, there’s a couple of ways you can get around this. First of all, I don’t think there’s ever enough space inside a turkey to cook enough stuffing for everybody anyway, so I always have stuffing on the side, regardless. The two ways you can go about this, the first way is to roast the turkey, take it until the breast meat is maybe at around 150 or so, and then take it out, remove the stuffing, put it in a separate dish or add it to the stuffing that you have in a separate dish, and then put them both back in the oven, continue cooking the turkey until it gets to your final temperature, and then cook through that stuffing as well until it’s hot. That way you can separate the two and control the final temperature that you’re taking them to, to make sure they’re both safe and that the turkey doesn’t get overcooked.

JKLA: The other method that you can use, which is a lot more involved, definitely a lot messier is that you lie … What you do is you take a cheesecloth and you line the interior cavity of the turkey with it, so get like a big square of it and just shove it up inside the cavity of the turkey with the ends hanging out. Stuff all that, stuff the cheese cloth and then tie off the front of it, so what you essentially end up with is a interior cheese cloth sack that’s full of stuffing. Then what I do is I take that stuffing and I heat it up by itself first in the microwave until it gets to 165. Then while hot, I shove it inside the turkey and then put the whole thing in the oven, so that jumpstart on the heat for the stuffing, make sure that it stays hot enough through the entire cooking process that it’s safe to eat at the end and it can cook for the entire time inside the turkey.

JKLA: Honestly, I would suggest the first method over the second method because the second method, it’s just a lot of trouble. The benefits of it are minor compared to the first method. But the short answer is yup, it’s, it is safe if you want moist turkey meat, moist breast meat.

EL: Glenn, the amazing thing is you’re talking to two people in Stella and Kenji, that loves turkey.

JKLA: Yes.

SP: I love turkey.

EL: They love Turkey. They are unabashedly turkey and even white meat.

SP: I sincerely really love turkey.

JKLA: Me too.

EL: They both love white meat turkey. Then the only other question I have for you, Stella, on the stuffing front, no pun intended, is that people talk about using stale bread, but you can just put bread in the toaster, right? There’s no magic to the bread getting naturally stale.

SP: I don’t know about that. No, because I feel like toasted bread, it seems like it absorbs differently and it also develops a flavor. I don’t know. I am such … You know, bakers are planners by nature, so when I do stuffing every year, I make my dad’s recipe and he uses a mix of corn bread and white bread, so I’ve got plenty of time to knock those both out and let them age naturally.

EL: Age naturally … They’re dry-age …

SP: They’re dry-aged.

EL: … not wet-aged.

SP: Yeah, because then you’re also getting that surface treatment with toast, where sometimes it’s still got a nice moist interior to a slice.

JKLA: Yeah. If I could add to that.

SP: It’s a lifestyle.

JKLA: I think like Ed, what you’re getting at is that there is a difference between staling and drying, and that generally when you just leave bread out it gets both stale and dry. So staling is the retrogradation of starch and how it hardens. Even wrapped bread will harden like that as it cools and it sits over time.

JKLA: With stuffing, what you really want is dry bread. You can get it by toasting, but like Stella said, you end up with that brown flavor. The better way to do it, if you have a ton of fresh bread and you really want to make stuffing that day, is rather than toasting, you just dehydrate it, so a very, very low oven or a very, very slow toaster oven so you dry out the bread without developing any of the brown flavors.

SP: Low oven.

JKLA: Unless you want those brown flavors.

EL: Got it, so don’t toast it. Put the oven at 250 or something.

JKLA: Yeah, or even lower, as low as it will go basically.

EL: Thank you Dr. Alt. All right, Glenn. I think you’re in good shape now, right?

GT: Absolutely. Thanks so much, you guys.

EL: Thank you. We’re back with another caller on Special Sauce. I am Ed Levine, Serious Eats overlord.

Lastisha Johnson: Hi.

EL: Hi, Latisha Johnson. You’re in the house. Where are you ma’am, because I’ve got a 917, so it means you were at one point from New York, but God knows where you are right now.

LJ: I’m still in New York.

EL: It’s good to have a New Yorker on the line because it’s important that we go local even on our phone calls.

LJ: Awesome.

EL: No, I’m just kidding. Just kidding. Just kidding. Okay. Leticia, what’s your question?

LJ: Okay, I wanted to know how can I make holiday cookies, the homemade decorated sugar ones, more manageable and not an all day affair.

SP: Yes, I fully support this. Hey, Leticia. Thanks for calling. This is Stella.

LJ: Hi, Stella.

SP: Baking is a great way … In almost all cases with baking, there are ways to break up a process so you don’t have to deal with it all at once. I fully support that. I think that’s a smart way to do it because baking cookies and decorating them should be a lot of fun.

SP: With most recipes, including and especially mine, you can make the dough in advance. If you want to make the dough one day, wrap it up in some plastic wrap and keep it in the fridge, most doughs will keep a couple of days. My rolled sugar cookie recipe has specific storage instructions, if you want to do that. The biggest trick on the dough aspect is you’ll want to bring it back to room temperature before use because when it’s straight from the fridge, it’s going to be cold, and that makes it brittle because the butter and the dough is really hard. As you try and roll it out, it’ll crack a lot. You want to probably bring it up to something like 70 degrees. If it’s a really cool temperature in your house, it might not actually soften fully, so you might want to very carefully pop it in the microwave for some three second bursts just slowly to nudge it in the right direction. You don’t want to totally melt it down. But doughs, you’ve got some wiggle room for making it ahead and refrigerating the dough.

SP: Then with mine, at least, I like to very lightly knead it once it comes back up to temperature. That just helps ensure it’s nice and pliable, and not soft on the exterior where there’s still a cold nugget on the inside. Lightly kneading the dough can homogenize the temperatures and textures. That’s great right there. You’ve already got making the dough and rolling the dough on two separate occasions. That’s split up a little bit.

SP: Then when it comes to actually rolling and baking the dough, in most cases you’ve got a little bit of wiggle room on that side too, so after you’ve begged a tray of sugar cookies, the cutout style, you can wrap the whole tray up of all your finished cookies and hold those for about a day before decorating. That buys you a little bit more time on that side. Then when it comes to royal icing, which is the most common decorating method for rolled sugar cookies, royal icing can definitely be made in advance. What I like to do is have a bunch of small disposable pastry bags. You can pick this up at stores like Michaels, or I think in my sugar cookie recipe and royal icing recipe on Serious Eats, I think we’ve got some links to my favorite brands that you can buy online if you want, instead of like running around to a local store.

SP: But you can go ahead and make up the icing, divide it up, make your different colors, and then bag each color, and just seal the bag really tightly. That’s a perfectly airtight environment and you don’t have to worry about it lightly drying out around the edges like it would in a bowl or other container that even if you wrapped a bowl really well in plastic, the surface is still exposed to air within the bowl and it will dry out a little bit. That lets you break up all three stages from making the dough, baking the dough and decorating the cookies. That really can lighten up the process because you can make your dough on Monday, and bake the cookies on Wednesday, and then have a decorating fest with your family on Friday or Saturday, or something.

SP: All the recipes on Serious Eats at least have specific storage instructions for long-term examples. You can probably extrapolate those to other recipes. If you’re dealing with a family favorite rolled sugar cookie recipe or a family favorite royal icing recipe, you can probably use our storage guidelines as a rough ballpark for what you can get away with those recipes.

LJ: Wow.

EL: Your cookies are going to be serious, man. I have no doubt now, do you?

LJ: Almost. I just want one more thing was all these recipes have a ton of sugar. How can I ease that down a bit without compromising taste?

SP: Well, here’s the thing. I like to say in dessert that sweetness is sugar’s least important role. Sugar is there. It affects how the gluten within the dough is formed, so when you reduce the sugar, the cookies may not be as tender as they normally are. The gluten is going to be able to form a little bit more in the dough and it’s going to be a slightly tougher or stronger dough. In some cases, that’s good if you’re like, “These cookies always crumble apart on me and that’s a problem.” Well, in that case, scaling down the sugar a small amount may help. It may help you get a more structured dough. But sugar also determines the shelf life of the cookie, so if you want to have a cookie that you can make an advance and it’s going to be okay for a couple of days, sugar is what’s allowing that. It’s what’s helping the cookie retain its moisture and flavor over this time period. If you cut the sugar down, you’re going to be losing some of your shelf life issues.

SP: Sugar also controls browning and spread, and the actual volume of the dough and how much air is able to be during the creaming phase. It’s responsible for so many things. If all we cared about with sweetness, we would have all switched to Splenda a long time ago because you could just get a few drops of something from an artificial sweetener and just knock it out. But sugar is doing so much. It’s …

EL: Wow, I had no idea.

SP: … the real heavy lifter. This is true in any recipe, whether it’s cookies, or cake, or pie, or ice cream or whatever. Sugar is doing a lot. What you can do, however, on on Serious Eats, we have a recipe for toasted sugar and that’s my go-to. You can take sugar-

EL: Stella invented toasted by accident.

SP: Dad. You can take some sugar, and put it in a baking dish, and toss it in a low oven for a few hours. When you start to smell like this nice caramel smell, you can just say, “I’m done,” and take it out. It’s going to be the sugar that you had in the oven, and granted it’s a little bit more complicated in that, you need to stir it during this time period so it doesn’t clump, but the sugar develops some caramelized notes. It’s really subtle. It’s not like suddenly I have a bowl of Werther’s Original caramel or something. It’s a real subtle change, but if you just take a spoonful of toasted sugar and a spoonful of white sugar, and taste both, the toasted sugar tastes dramatically less sweet. It’s a real big difference. Lightly toasted some sugar can really help tame down a sense of sweetness within any recipe, or you can bump up the salt.

SP: People have this notion that somehow salt is going to make their things taste sweeter. Maybe in some like vague cases, that’s true. Like if you’re sprinkling salt on, I don’t know, a cantaloupe or something, it can help maybe bring out some natural sweetness in something by reducing our perception of bitterness. But by and large, if a dessert tastes too sweet, it just needs more salt, so you can bump up the salt.

SP: We were chatting with a caller earlier about how salt is hard to dial-in precisely because every brand is a little bit different in how it measures and how much salinity it actually delivers to a recipe. If you’ve ever made something and you’re just like, “It just tastes a little flat,” or, “Just the flavors aren’t popping for me,” or, “It seems a little too sweet,” just try bumping up the salt the next go round. My like personal rule of thumb when dealing with kosher salt is a quarter teaspoon of kosher salt for every cup of sugar. That’s a gram of salt for every seven ounces of sugar. I’m a mixing my measuring styles here.

EL: We are going deep and precise, Leticia. I think you are golden. You’re as golden is toasted sugar.

LJ: I am.

SP: I hope that helps. I know for people who are looking to reduce sugar for caloric or dietary concerns, it’s not a lot of help, but at least in terms of flavor profile, I hope that can help you dial that in a little bit better.

LJ: Yes, that was what is this for. Thank you so much.

SP: Awesome. Great.

LJ: Thank you very much, guys. Enjoy your holidays.

SP: Thank you.

EL: Thank you.

SP: Thanks for calling.

EL: Stella, are you doing the shame Thanksgiving dance where you go to your mother-in-law’s?

SP: I don’t know.

EL: You don’t know? This is big news.

SP: It might be. It might be a little up in the air. I don’t know if I’m family over sharing my. My mother-in-law recently had a surgery, and so my husband and I were going to volunteer to take over some Thanksgiving duties, but I literally don’t know if this conversation has been had my family as of this airing. Linda, if you’re listening and John hasn’t talked to you yet, surprise.

EL: What about, what about you Kenji?

JKLA: Actually my-

EL: Because your family is spread out all over.

JKLA: They are. Yeah, so this year my mom and dad are going to come up from the East Coast, and my younger sister is going to be driving here from Montana, her and her boyfriend, and their dog are all driving over from Montana.

EL: Nice.

JKLA: Yeah, it should be fun.

EL: Nice. They all can’t stay in the guest house.

JKLA: Our guest house is under construction right now, so nobody can stay in it, so it’s all hotels.

EL: Got it. All right. So Kenji, thanks for taking the time and have a great holiday, man.

JKLA: All right, you too.

EL: Give your daughter Alicia the sweetest, most wonderful … Now she’s a little older than two, right?

JKLA: She’ll be three in February. Yeah.

EL: That’s great. All right.

SP: Bye, Kenji.

JKLA: All right. Bye-bye, Stella. Bye, Ed.

EL: Stella, that was awesome. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

SP: Thanks for having me.

EL: Now it’s time for me to give thanks. First I’d like to thank the Serious Eats community for sending us their questions. I hope we have succeeded in reducing your holiday related stress. I’m also thankful for everyone who helps make Special Sauce, a joy to create, our producer Marty Goldensohn, our associate producer Grace Chen, and everyone here at the Radio Arts Foundation studios, and CDM Studios and CityVox. May your holidays be filled with lots of seriously delicious food and drink, and the sounds of friends and family enjoying each other’s company. So long Serious Eaters. We’ll see you next time.