7 Great Thanksgiving Mysteries Solved

What's the difference between brining and marinating, stuffing and dressing, or sweet potatoes and yams? Find out the answers to all of your Thanksgiving dinner questions.

1. Turkey Bath: Brined vs. Marinated
Every year on Thanksgiving you hear about people brining a turkey, but not marinating it. Why is that? The difference has to do with acidic marinades versus salty brines. Acid, a strong component of marinades, tenderizes only the surface of meats, thus they are not the best way to add flavor to your large turkey. Brining is a longer, deeper process. The salty nature of the brine "adds moisture to the meat through osmosis." The salt draws the water inside the meat out while the brine flows into the meat, adding extra water and juiciness.

Want to do both? Try this Citrus Marinated Turkey recipe from Iron Chef Jose Garces, in which he first brines and then marinates the meat.

PLUS: 13 Thanksgiving Turkey Tips

2. In or Out? Stuffing vs. Dressing
For those who believe the conventional wisdom, stuffing is the stuff that is cooked inside the bird while dressing is baked on the outside. But Chow notes that both are actually the same thing, according to the National Turkey Federation, which states, "Both terms are used interchangeably." Since this side dish is most often discussed at Thanksgiving, we think the turkey experts at the NTF may know best. If you do choose to stuff your turkey remember that it must reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees!

3. Sweet Debate: Yams vs. Sweet Potatoes
Don't lose your potatoes over this, but these two spuds are not related botanically. Now that you've digested that bombshell, here are a few more potato particulars:

Sweet potatoes come in several varieties, classified as either firm or soft. Firm varieties remain firm after they're cooked, while the soft varieties get moist and soft. The Library of Congress says these soft types are often labeled "yams," but adds that true yams are native to Africa and it is unlikely you'll find them at your local grocery store. Yams are starchier and drier than sweet potatoes, though they can be used interchangeably in recipes.

4. Potatoes 101: Whipped vs. Mashed
Both dishes start out the same, with boiled, steamed, or even baked potatoes that are then tossed with seasonings and processed into a smoother consistency. When analyzing a handful of recipes from a few sites, it seems that whipped potatoes are made with a hand mixer, while mashed potatoes are often passed through a ricer, food mill, or crushed with a hand masher. However, some believe that motorized mixers and starchy potatoes will cause a gummy consistency. Try each method for yourself to see which one your family prefers.

PLUS: 8 Double-Duty Kitchen Tools

5. Cranberry Concoctions
Not many people can imagine a Thanksgiving spread without cranberries. Let's look beyond the cranberry we shimmy out of cans and dig into the differences between other preparations.

Relishes: When we use cranberries as a condiment we're using them as a relish, according to several dictionary entries that claim relish perks up what it's served with, i.e. turkey. Typically relishes are made of pickled ingredients, in a grinder. For a Thanksgiving menu, however, many people prefer sweet relish that's just a tad tart. To achieve the right flavor, use cranberries, apples, and oranges.

Jellies: Clear and bright, jellies have the ability to keep the shape of whatever they're stored in. The main ingredients are fruit juice and sugar, though a jelly can be made with pectin, a gelatin-like agent used to thicken fruits that don't have the ability to "gel" on their own.

Preserves: Thicker than jellies and jams, with chunks of fruit.

Conserve: Nuts give conserves more substance than jellies, preserves, and relishes. According to Epicurious, this preparation of cranberries uses a mix of fruits, nuts and sugar. Cooked until thick, it makes a nice spread for biscuits.

Sauce: Consistency really makes a difference when you're talking cranberries. Cranberry sauce can be served loose, but it can also be referred to as jellied (see above). Without the presence of gelatin, cranberry sauce can be placed in a bowl on the table, whereas canned cranberry sauce made with gelatin can be sliced after it's dispelled from the can.

PLUS: 12 Gadgets Every Kitchen Should Have

6. Soups, Stews, and Bisques - Oh My!
According to Epicurious, a soup can be any combination of vegetables, meat, or fish cooked in a liquid. Smoothness, clarity, and food size appear to be the deciding factor on what to call it beyond that.

The main types
Gumbo: thick, starts with a roux (slow cooked fat and flour)
Consommé: thin and clear
Bisque: smooth, like a puree
Chowder: chunky, often with seafood
Stew: thick, with a generally longer cooking time

7. Just Desserts: Tarts vs. Pies
While both are delicious, there is a distinction. A tart, says the Food Lover's Companion, is very much like a pie, but with a shallower crust. Tarts are served open-faced (read, one crust, usually on the bottom) whereas many pies are double-crusted, or draped with strips of pastry to form a lattice. Going a step further, or backward as it were, the vessels used for baking these delights is telling, too. The sides of a tart pan are steep compared to the sloped sides of a pie pan, allowing for the tart's clean, straight edges. What's more, tart pans are not always round. They can be rectangular, unlike a pie which is by definition, circular. Sometimes tarts are baked using pastry rings, something you can't use for baking a pie. Additionally, a pie is always served out of the container it was baked in, unlike a tart which is unmolded prior to being served.

Sources: finecooking.com, thekitchn.com, epicurious.com, wisegeek.com, ochef.com, historicfood.com, epicurious.com, kitchencdaily.com, loc.gov, usda.gov, exploratorium.edu

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