What is your favorite Thanksgiving food? Maybe it’s pumpkin pie, Grandma’s stuffing, or Aunt Paula’s Cherry Cheesecake. I’m willing to bet it’s not the turkey. In fact, I know people who don’t even like turkey, but most of us eat it every Thanksgiving (and Christmas!) anyway. So, why not take control and try some alternatives to turkey for Thanksgiving this year?
Why Find Alternatives to Turkey on Thanksgiving?
In a recent survey, over half of Americans said that the worst part about preparing Thanksgiving dinner is messing up the turkey. Some common mishaps: the bird gets dried out, takes an hour longer to cook (leaving guests hangry), and it’s a giant stringy, bony explosion for some poor soul to clean up afterwards. Cue the Lampoon’s turkey fiasco:
To be clear, I love, love, love turkey on Thanksgiving. In fact, it’s the only day out of the year that I don’t look like a freak for oohing and ahhing over a giant bird carcass. I even like the cleaning up part because I’m already thinking about turkey leftovers and picking meat off the bones. There, I said it. I live for it. Not everyone does, and I get that.
Aside from the turkey “fails”, there are several reasons to skip the turkey on Thanksgiving:
- You don’t want to deal with a 20-lb dead bird all day.
- You’ll be eating with fewer people, so don’t need a piece of meat the size of a Volkswagen.
- The crew you’re feeding doesn’t really like turkey.
- You’re a culinary rebel. Go on with your bad self.
Thanksgiving Without Turkey?!
After doing about fifteen minutes of Google-research, I learned that most people look forward to Thanksgiving side dishes more than the turkey! You know that creamed corn and green bean casserole are probably straight outta cans, so why do so many home cooks slave over a sometimes “meh”-worthy turkey?
Having an alternative to turkey this Thanksgiving could be a game-changer, I can tell. There are several other drool-worthy mains that can satisfy and are just as “glorious” as a golden brown bird. Here are six options that have worked for our family:
6 Delicious Alternatives to Thanksgiving Turkey
Small Gathering: A Whole Chicken (or Part of a Turkey)
* Gluten-free * No Sugar
First, let’s ease into the notion of trying something different with some poultry-based alternatives to turkey. For example, if you love turkey, but are only serving 1 – 4 people, how about trying another bird, such as a chicken? Whole chickens can be roasted (or even Instapot-ed) in an hour or two, from start to finish.
Or, if you want to stick with turkey, but don’t want a whole bird, consider a smaller part of the turkey:
- Turkey breasts can be purchased in the plastic and netting like a whole turkey. They taste just like turkey 😉 , take a lot less time to prepare, and don’t have all the extra bones and parts. I recommend this recipe for herb-roasted turkey breast.
- Turkey legs and wings are usually available at my grocery store. Caution – turkey legs and wings have a lot of tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. If you’ll be eating dinner with someone you want to impress, just say no to turkey legs and wings. It’s a mess.
Feed a Crowd: Whole Beef Brisket
* Gluten-free * No Sugar
If your crew loves beef, you have the time and fridge space, try a whole beef brisket (a.k.a. packer’s cut brisket). A whole brisket is made up of two pieces: the flat and the point. You can buy just the flat (3 – 6 lbs) to feed a smaller crowd, or the whole brisket, which is the flat + the point (8 – 15 lb) for a larger gathering.
You do not have to have a smoker to make a tender, drool-worthy brisket. We do not have a smoker, so here’s what we do:
- Rub: Grab your humongous 8 – 15-lb brisket, blot it dry with paper towels, and coat it with your favorite BBQ rub. Don’t have a rub you like? Here’s ours – double it for a whole brisket:
Everything BBQ Rub
- Dry brine: If you have the time, cover the rubbed brisket and let it sit 4 – 6 hours in the fridge (or a snowbank, if you don’t have fridge room). Remember, if you put it in the snow, make sure it’s sealed really well, so it doesn’t get eaten by animals.
- Roasting Slow and Low: Preheat oven to 275’F and line a large enough roasting pan with aluminum foil (for easier cleanup). Place the rubbed brisket, fat side up, on a rack inside the lined roasting pan. Roast for 1-1.5 hours per pound, or until the internal temperature is 190′ – 200’F.
- Yes, it will mean programming your oven before you go to bed the night before, or getting up in the middle of the night to start roasting.
- If you don’t have one already, I recommend this easy-to use javelin meat thermometer.
- Always, always allow more time for roasting than you think you will need. It’s fine to turn down the oven and let the meat sit at 200’F for an hour or two. It’s not fine to delay dinner for an hour or two because the meat’s not done.
- Broiling: When meat is up to temperature, we like to broil the brisket for 5 minutes, or until the rub and fat form a nice crust.
- Resting: Remove brisket from the oven, tent it with the foil, and let it rest for at least 20 minutes.
- Serving: Transfer to a cutting board and slice thinly across the grain, using an electric knife or sharp slicing knife like ours. Serve with whatever sides you have, and put drippings all over everything.
Pork Shoulder: The Always Juicy, Dry Turkey Alternative
*Gluten-free * No Sugar
A big pork shoulder, say 8 – 12 lbs, will also serve a crowd. Additionally, pork shoulder is more forgiving (it will not dry out, ever) and easier to prepare than beef brisket. Really, you just rub it and cook it forever, or until the internal temp gets up to at least 190’F.
We prepare our shoulder according to the brisket recipe above, with a couple modifications:
- Roasting: Using a rack is optional.
- Serving: The pork shoulder will be falling off the bone, so shred it with two forks or just pull it apart slightly before serving. If you didn’t use a rack, then the juices will get mixed in with the meat. 😋
Zero-Prep: Artisan Sausage
Growing up, my grandparents always served a particular sausage that they got from a local butcher. I think my grandma even used some of that sausage in her dressing.
Sausage, the kind that is handmade by an expert butcher, can take center stage at any meal. A few things I really love about sausage at Thanksgiving:
- It goes well with all the traditional Thanksgiving sides, from mashed potatoes and gravy to cranberry sauce.
- The prep is basically zero – you just make it hot. Cook it in the oven, in a pan, in a roaster, toss it on the grill, etc. As long as it’s cooked, it will be delicious.
- It’s easy to scale. You can get sausage for two, ten, or fifty. If you’re serving a large number of people, maybe give the butcher a heads up a week or two ahead of time.
- You get to buy from a local purveyor and try something new.
Game Meats: Rabbit or Venison
* Gluten-free * No Sugar (depending on your BBQ sauce)
Hello? Do I still have you? Although rabbit isn’t hugely popular meat, there is no disputing that it is delicious. To me, it’s like dark meat chicken mixed with the most tender venison steak you’ve ever had.
Speaking of venison, it’s another example of fabulous game meat alternatives to turkey. We made this Venison Medallions with Gin and Juniper a few years ago for friends, and it was outstanding and beautiful.
For rabbit, we grilled our first whole rabbit this year. A local family friend raises and butchers rabbits, and we were lucky enough to get one before she sold out.
Grilling a whole rabbit is similar to grilling a spatchcocked chicken, but a little easier imo. Here’s the BBQ Grilled Rabbit recipe we used from an Oregon-based rabbit farmer – it worked perfectly for us.
Vegetarian Thanksgiving: Pumpkin And Chard Lasagna
* Meat Free
I’ve listed several meaty alternatives to turkey, but what about vegetarians? I made this for fall supper club a few years ago. The theme of the night was pumpkin, and I was looking for something I wouldn’t usually make. For example, I rarely make lasagna (maybe thrice in my life) because I do not personally enjoy the layering process.
Although a culinary risk, this pumpkin and chard lasagna was amazingly rich, complex, and satisfying. Not only that, it’s a creative fall spin on a traditional method. If I ever make lasagna again, this will be the one.
Pro tips: Definitely use heavy cream (no half-and-half allowed) and fresh sage for garnish, because the aroma is so amazing.
Turkey or Not?
Are you calling the shots for Thanksgiving dinner this year? If so, and you aren’t a huge turkey fan, I hope that these six alternatives to a whole turkey have inspired to start a new tradition this Thanksgiving. And way not? 2020 is a year of new and unexpected things, so non-turkey Thanksgiving should fit right in!
To recap, here’s a review of the options we explored:
- Small gatherings: whole chicken or turkey breast
- For a meat-loving crowd: Whole Beef Brisket or Pork Shoulder
- For the adventurous: Game meat like venison or rabbit
- No-prep, no work: artisan sausage
- Vegetarians: Pumpkin and Chard Lasagna
If you try something in this post, please post a comment and tell us how it went!