Make the Mini Quiche; Buy the Pigs in a Blanket: The Holiday Apps Worth Making (and Which Ones to Buy Instead)

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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman, Sabrett; Design: Kitchn

The best thing about a holiday party? (You know, aside from celebrating with family and friends?) All the apps! Whether you’re going to an afternoon party in the neighborhood, organizing a potluck with your coworkers, or planning a cocktail party at home, everyone on the guest list knows there’s going to be plenty of one-bite snacks. Mini hot dogs, meatballs on fancy toothpicks, cheesy dip, tiny quiches … you know the deal.

If you’ve been missing these festive, munchy meals (we sure have been!), you might have the urge to go all out this year. And that’s where this post comes in. Our editors started with a list of the most popular holiday appetizers. And then we tasted, tested, and debated. The goal? To definitively identify which apps are worth making from scratch and when you’re better off buying it at the store. We considered the level of effort (how much work it will take to go the DIY route), the payoff (how likely people are to rave about whatever you’ve taken the time to make), and, of course, taste.

Credit: Marta Rivera

MAKE: Meatballs

“Bubbling meatballs in a Crock-Pot next to a container of frilled toothpicks just says ‘holiday party’ to me,” says Production Editor, Tracey Gertler. “The light texture of the meatballs in this oven-baked recipe combined with the unique sweet-tart taste is something you just can’t get from a store-bought version.”

Get the recipe: Easy Cocktail Meatballs

Credit: Photo courtesy of Walmart

BUY: Onion Dip

I’ve written about how I have this stuff on hand for every single party I throw. And I meant it: My friends know to expect this dip, no matter the time of year,” says Executive Lifestyle Director, Lisa Freedman. The key, she says, is to mix a pouch up with Daisy Sour Cream. The result is a perfectly onion-y dip that’s rich and flavorful and takes less than a minute to make. No need to waste time chopping up or caramelizing onions. Just don’t forget the Ruffles.

Buy: Lipton Onion Recipe Soup & Dip Mix, $1.68 for two ounces at Walmart

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: Coral Lee/Kitchn

MAKE: Spinach and Artichoke Dip

“Hot spinach and artichoke dip is always my first stop on a holiday party spread,” says Senior Food Editor, Megan Steintrager. “And while there’s no shame in buying it pre-made, making it at home is quick and easy — and allows you to make a few tweaks to really boost the flavor. Take Christine Gallary’s version, which includes Parmesan, mozzarella, sour cream, and cream cheese for lots of creamy, cheesy goodness, plus lemon zest for zing, and shallots, which make just about anything taste better. Plus, it uses shortcut ingredients like frozen spinach — no washing bags and bags of fresh spinach! — and takes just about 15 minutes to assemble.”

Credit: Photo courtesy of Sabrett

BUY: Pigs in a Blanket

Sure, you could take the time to wrap puff pastry around tiny hot dogs, but that’s not necessary. Pigs in a blanket are expected at a party, yes. However, they’re not going to steal the show, so you’re better off putting your time into something else. We tested a bunch of frozen options and these earned the spot as top dog because the pastry puffs up nicely and the hot dogs, while mini, are still pretty beefy. Pun intended.

More info: Sabrett Cocktail Franks

Credit: Christine Han/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

MAKE: Scallops Wrapped in Bacon

“Store-bought bacon-wrapped scallops usually wrap uncooked bacon around the scallops, and I found that the bacon never crisped up fully by the time the scallops were cooked,” says Food Editor-at-Large, Christine Gallary. “Our recipe pre-cooks the bacon slightly (but in the microwave so it’s easy!) so it starts to render out the fat. By the time the scallops are cooked, the bacon is nice and crisp!”

Credit: Joe Lingeman

MAKE: Mini Quiche

“If you start with a package of refrigerated pie dough, these mini quiches are practically as easy as store-bought — and so much more customizable,” say Deputy Food Director, Grace Elkus. “Pack them with your guests’ favorite fillings, from extra cheese to veggies galore. Plus, you can make them in advance, then reheat in the oven when everyone arrives.”

Credit: Faith Durand

MAKE: Baked Brie

“We’ve probably all had baked Brie — ooey and gooey and deliciously old-school — but this is by far my favorite way to do it,” says Editor-in-Chief, Faith Durand. “The Brie’s woodsy richness is complemented by the tart, slightly astringent cranberries, and it’s baked until it’s bubbling and oozey then scooped up with crackers. It’s rich, sweet, and festive — practically a dessert — although I’ve found that people will attack it at any time of day.” And with that testimonial, this one is firmly in the “make it” camp.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: Brett Regot/Kitchn

MAKE: Stuffed Mushrooms

“You aren’t fooling anyone if frozen stuffed mushrooms are on your holiday spread,” says Contributing Food Editor, Patty Catalano. “The styled images on the package are enticing, but you are sure to be disappointed by a water-logged shroom and a messy cheese filling. The better choice: Turn fresh, bite-sized mushroom cups into a crispy, savory appetizer that everyone will enjoy. Infuse the crispy panko filling with shallots, parsley, white wine, mushroom stems, and a pair of cheeses. The best part — this impressive appetizer can be assembled a day in advance.”

Credit: Photo courtesy of Target

BUY: Spanakopita

Phyllo dough can be intimidating because it’s tricky to work with. Instead of fumbling with those very thin sheets, opt for these frozen, ready-made triangles. They’re incredibly flaky and they have a good amount of filling inside. Another great option: Order a bunch from a local Greek restaurant and reheat them just before your guests arrive.

Buy: Good & Gather Spanakopita, $5.39 for 12 at Target

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

MAKE: Mini Crab Cakes

“Crab cakes should, well, be all about the crab,” says Senior Contributing Food Editor, Sheela Prakash. “All too often, though, the store-bought versions are more filler (looking at you, breadcrumbs) than actual sweet crab meat. That’s why it’s 100% worth it to make your own. Yes, lump crab meat is a bit of splurge, but you’ll be rewarded with an appetizer that really shows it off.”

Credit: Lauren Volo

MAKE: Shrimp Cocktail

“Shrimp cocktail may have reached peak popularity during the Mad Men-era martini lunches, but it is still a classic appetizer I make every holiday season,” says Contributing Food Editor, Patty Catalano. “Steamed shell-on shrimp have more flavor and none of the rubbery texture the pre-made platters do. Update the presentation by arranging the shrimp on an ice-filled tray with a dish of horseradish-spiked sauce in the center. And because shrimp cocktail is served chilled, it is the perfect make-ahead appetizer.”

Credit: Emma Christensen

MAKE: Cheese Straws

These two-ingredient wonders — just store-bought puff pastry and cheese — are the ultimate low-effort, high-reward appetizer. Just cut the pastry into strips, sprinkle with cheese, twist, and bake. They’re so easy even the kiddos can help. Pro tip: This is the time to splurge on the all-butter puff pastry.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Ithaca Hummus

BUY: Hummus

Our editors were split down the middle when it came to this one. Hummus is simple enough to make and you can get it so that it’s oh-so creamy. But Ithaca Hummus is such a favorite on staff, it eventually won out for ease and flavor. (It made our list of Kitchn Essentials two years in a row!) While it’s pretty perfect on its own for a regular ol’ snack, our editors do suggest dressing it up a little for a party. Add a drizzle of good olive oil, some flaky sea salt, and some spices.

More info: Ithaca Hummus

Credit: Photo courtesy of Sahale Snacks

BUY: Spiced Nuts

“My roommate and I first discovered these glazed nuts in a convenience store at an Amtrak station,” says Groceries Editor, Mara Weinraub. “We were immediately drawn to the non-traditional flavor combinations and the range of both sweet, salty, and zesty options.” Set some out in a nice bowl, Ina Garten-style, and call it a day. These nuts are so special, you could also give out packs as little gifts or toss some into a box of homemade cookies.

Buy: Sahale Snacks Glazed Nut Mix Variety Pack, $23.94 for six (4-ounce) packs

Credit: Photo courtesy of Trader Joe's

BUY: Deep-Fried Olives

It would take you far too long to stuff, batter, and deep-fry your own olives. Instead, grab this box from Trader Joe’s. Inside, you’ll find Castelvetrano olives and Kalamata olives — covered in breading and filled with cheese. Even in the oven (read: not an air fryer), they crisp up well and the cheese gets nice and oozy. They’re salty! They’re crunchy! They’re cheesy! They’re hot! Seriously, be sure to let them cool before you pop one into your mouth.

Find in stores: Fried Olive Bites, $4.49 for 12 at Trader Joe’s

Credit: Joe Lingeman

MAKE: Gougères

“Gougeres are one of the most impressive appetizers you can make, and store-bought ones simply can’t compare to crisp, still-warm homemade ones,” says Deputy Food Director, Grace Elkus. “Plus, I bet you already have the ingredients on hand: butter, flour, eggs, and cheese.”

Credit: Joe Lingeman

MAKE: Queso

Melted cheese is a must for any holiday spread, and this fun, easy queso hits all the right notes. It’s only three ingredients (or four, if you count the chips) and it can hang out in the slow cooker, where it will stay warm and melty for hours, thanks to the magic that is Velveeta.

Get the recipe: Slow Cooker Queso Dip

Credit: Photo courtesy of Walmart

BUY: Mini Tacos

Tiny tacos are a crowd-pleaser and are available in a wide variety of fillings, from super-meaty to veggie-based. Their small size makes them a perfect bite-sized snack — and also means that they’re super tedious to make at home (cutting tortillas down with cookie cutters, deep-frying, etc.). For this app, store-bought is the way to go.

Buy: Don Miguel Shredded Beef & Cheese Mini Tacos, $5.63 for 32 at Walmart

BUY: Potstickers

“Go to your local Asian supermarket and try something from the freezer case there,” says contributor Patty Lee. If that’s not an option, she suggests the potstickers from Bibigo, which you can find at Costco in bulk. The Organic Chicken & Vegetable ones are not to be missed.

More info: Organic Chicken & Vegetable Potstickers

Credit: Photo courtesy of Sukhi's

BUY: Samosas

Here again, our editors suggested turning to your local Indian restaurant. If you need something that comes frozen, Sukhi’s won our freezer aisle taste test. The crusts are flaky, the filling is plentiful, and the included chutney packets are wildly flavorful.

More info: Sukhi’s Samosas

Credit: Lauren Volo

MAKE: Cheese Balls

This vintage snack is worth bringing back because it’s delicious and cheesy and oh-so easy. Sure, you could buy one at the grocery store, but making one at home is simple and gives you more opportunity to customize. It’s so easy that we can tell you how to make it right here.

  • Mix room-temperature cream cheese and other cheese until smooth.
  • Shape into a ball.
  • Chill.
  • Roll in crunchy stuff, and serve.

I think our work here is done.

Get the recipe: How To Make a Cheese Ball

Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

MAKE: Jalapeno Poppers

Store-bought frozen jalapeño poppers are hit-or-miss, but our version of this classic snack delivers every time. In this recipe, the peppers are stuffed with a cheesy filling, wrapped in bacon, and baked in the oven for a fuss-free appetizer that’s loaded with smoky bacon flavor and — dare we say — even better than the original.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Trader Joe's

BUY: Toasted Ravioli 

For those who are unfamiliar, breaded and deep-fried ravioli is a Midwestern classic, and St. Louis legend says it was invented by accident when a chef inadvertently dropped a fresh ravioli into the deep fryer. Many restaurants in the area claim to be the original site of this innovation, and while Trader Joe’s certainly did not create it, they have found a great way to perfect it for the freezer. The folks at TJ’s take semolina ravioli (filled with five kinds of cheese), batter each one, deep-fry them, and flash-freeze them. Heat them up (ideally in an air fryer if you have one) and you’ll get a cheesy app with a crispy, chewy exterior that rivals the mozzarella stick.

Find them in stores: Breaded Fried Ravioli, $3.99 for 16 ounces at Trader Joe’s

Credit: Photo courtesy of Snow Days

BUY: Pizza Bites

“Pizza bites are a classic party snack that make me feel like a little kid again,” says Danielle St. Pierre, Senior Commerce Editor. “In my opinion, it makes sense to buy them from the frozen food section versus making them from scratch because really solid, time-saving store-bought options exist. One brand in particular — Snow Days — makes grain-free, organic frozen pizza bites in sausageveggie white, and cheese flavors, and they are all crowd-pleasers.” Danielle has tried all three varieties, and she voted for the sausage bites when pressed to pick one.

Buy: Grain-Free Pizza Bites, from $31.49 for 40 bites at Snowdays

Are there any appetizers you always make or always buy for parties? Tell us in the comments below!