Here’s how to hit the right balance of salty and sweet.

By Maddy Sweitzer-Lammé
Updated October 13, 2020
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When it comes to Thanksgiving, lots of people worry about the turkey being too dry or making lumpy gravy, but I believe the dish that is easiest to mess up is the sweet potato casserole. Between the sugariness of the marshmallow topping and the sweet potatoes, it’s easy for the dish to come out cloying—more appropriate for your dessert table than the main meal. I believe a great sweet potato casserole is an exercise in balancing flavors, which can easily be done with a couple of simple tricks. And don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to leave out the marshmallows.

1. Play with texture.

There are a lot of mushy items on the Thanksgiving table. Between the stuffing, mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese, you might find yourself in need of some variation. That’s why I prefer to roast chunks of sweet potato for my casserole, instead of mashing them for a uniform texture. Giving the potatoes a good roast makes them tender and browned, with a little bit of crunch and caramelization. Trust me, everyone at your Thanksgiving table will be grateful for it.

2. Season generously.

Before you start roasting, make sure to season your potatoes well. I like a good balance of dark brown sugar and salt, for that sweet-and-salty flavor that will balance out your marshmallow topping. For those who like a little heat, some chili flake or cayenne pepper isn’t out of place here.

Credit: Caroline Arcangeli; Prop Styling: Christina Daley; Food Styling: Julia Levy

3. Add bacon.

A few strips of bacon, thinly sliced and crisped up, will take your sweet potato casserole to the next level. Why? Because they add a savoriness that helps prevent the casserole from edging into dessert territory, which can get overwhelming very fast. Plus, everyone loves bacon.

4. Toast your pecans.

Another great way to add a savory balance to your casserole is by using deeply toasted, salted pecans. This is a great substitute for bacon if you’re trying to add vegetarian options to your table. Simply toast your pecans in the oven at 350°F until they’re dark brown and smell wonderful. Then salt then generously, and add to your casserole.

5. Give your marshmallows a good torch.

The marshmallow topping is not the time to be gentle with your flame. Whether you’re using a creme brulee torch (aren’t you fancy?) or your oven’s broiler, be sure to get them nice and golden-brown. A few touches of char won’t hurt anyone either, since the gentle bitterness of burnt sugar is a welcome contrast to the dish’s overall sweetness.