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The New Secret Ingredients for Thanksgiving

Created October 16, 2019
Bottle of soy sauce, maple syrup apple cider vinegar and package of cream cheese.
Turns out traditional Thanksgiving dishes are better made with non-traditional ingredients.
Thanksgiving is all about tradition—but that doesn’t mean the classic dishes we know and love can’t be tweaked for the better. We asked the experts in the Betty Crocker Kitchens for tips to elevate holiday favorites and learned it’s easier than we’d thought. With four simple, widely-available ingredients—soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, cream cheese and maple syrup—you can enhance the depth of flavor in your turkey, balance sides that might be one-note otherwise and more. So, pull these staples to the front of your fridge and pantry, and you’ll be ready to bring out the best qualities in your favorite Thanksgiving dishes.

1. Soy Sauce for Ultra-Umami Mains

Whole roasted turkey on platter.

  • What is umami? Umami is that indescribable but oh-so familiar “5th taste” of savoriness. You know it from parmesan cheese, mushrooms, gravy, tomatoes and many other foods, including your favorite take-out condiment: soy sauce. Soy sauce is made of fermented soybeans, water and salt.
  • Why use it? Brushing your turkey with soy sauce, won’t make it taste like General Tso’s chicken—we promise. Instead, the earthy, full flavor of soy sauce will bring out depth of flavor and richness in the meat.
  • What to make? If you’re on the fence, our Soy-and-Butter-Basted Turkey will convince you this flavor-enhancing ingredient is what your bird’s been missing all along.

2. Apple Cider Vinegar for Balancing Sweets

Hasselback sweet potato casserole.

  • What is it? A little sweet, a little savory and all-around tangy, apple cider vinegar will add complexity to your favorite rich and starchy dishes—try our Hasselback Sweet Potato Casserole to see what we mean—and additional brightness to fresh dishes, like slaws, salads and cranberries.
  • Why use it? You know when a dish “needs something” but you can’t quite figure out what? The “something” you are missing is acid, which balances a dish by adding contrast. Apple cider vinegar is the perfect ingredient to use at Thanksgiving when there are lots of rich flavors that need the lift vinegar provides.
  • What to make? As they say, what grows together, goes together, so what could be a more perfect match for butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and other fall produce, than a vinegar made of fermented apple juice?

3. Cream Cheese for the Most Luscious Sides

bowl of creamy butternut squash.

  • Why to use it? Come Thanksgiving, cream cheese is good for a lot more than topping a bagel. This humble brick, made mostly of milk and cream, adds richness, silky texture and a mild tang to just about anything.
  • What to make? Skip the cream of mushroom in your Green Bean Casserole, make a Midwestern fluff “salad” or plus-up your mashed potato casserole—this simple ingredient has a role to play in dishes both sweet and savory. And it’s downright magical in Instant Pot Creamy Butternut Squash where it enriches the squash without overpowering its subtle nutty flavor.

4. Maple Syrup for Vegetables No One Can Resist

plate of glazed Brussels sprouts.

  • Why use it? Leave the maple syrup out after breakfast, because you’re going to want to add it to all your veggies this Thanksgiving! Made the from sap of maple trees, this sticky, sweet liquid isn’t just a sweetener, it has a woodsy flavor, which perfectly complements vegetables.
  • What to make? Even kids will gobble up their green veggies, when you serve Maple-Glazed Brussels Sprouts. Maple syrup is also great paired with roasted root vegetables or mixed into a salad dressing—a touch of sweetness is the key to a perfect dressing. Whatever you do with your maple syrup, we do recommend springing for the real deal—imitation maple syrup is made with corn syrup and lacks the depth of flavor.

Now that you know how simple it can be to put a flavorful twist on your favorite traditional dish—don’t forget to check that you’ve got all these staples stocked. Ready for some more Thanksgiving guidance from the Betty Crocker Test Kitchens? Check out these 9 Pro Tips.