The countdown to Thanksgiving has officially begun. If you’re in charge of the meal, you’re probably already frenetically scouring recipes, making schedules, and engaging in seemingly endless coordination with friends and family. Given how many items are already on your Thanksgiving to-do list, why not give yourself a breather when it comes to the culinary centerpiece — the turkey. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in for a traditional, beautifully bronzed, roast turkey, but the 5-6 hour cook time isn’t always the most conducive to a relaxing holiday schedule. So, rather than sacrifice this holiday’s sacred bird, I’ve found a number of alternative turkey recipes that deliver all the tryptophan and satisfaction of a roast turkey with far less work.
One of the main reasons that a turkey takes so long to cook is the size. A typical 4-6 pound bird can take half a day to reach juicy, tender perfection. Tackling one part of the bird instead of the whole is a great way to cut your wait time way down and avoid pulling an oversized roasting tray out of basement storage. The Noshery’s Spiced Apple Cider Glazed Turkey Breasts are a prime example of this philosophy and come together in just under 2 hours. This turkey recipe receives a double dose of flavor from a sage butter that gets smeared underneath and on top of the skin (allowing it to both permeate the meat and create a crispy, rendered layer of skin). While roasting, the breasts get brushed with an apple cider and honey glaze, adding that extra level of caramelized goodness. Get the recipe on The Noshery.
On the flip side of the roasted turkey part spectrum are the legs of the turkey. This regal cut of meat delivers all the wow factor of a whole turkey and will transport you and your guests straight to Medieval Times. This recipe from Vodka & Biscuits starts the day before Thanksgiving, brining the turkey in a spiced sugar/salt water mixture to help tenderize the meat and begin to infuse it with flavor. If time is your enemy come Thanksgiving weekend, you can easily skip this step and jump right to the roasting phase. Before hitting the oven for 1-2 hours, the turkey legs get a thorough douse of poultry seasoning to add extra spice and color. Once nearly cooked through, a lemon and herb compound butter gets spread all over the exterior of the meat and the whole tray gets broiled until the skin has rendered and started to char. True finger (or hand) food that will make you feel like royalty. Get the recipe on Vodka & Biscuits.
Nothing says “wow” quite like a roulade — a butterflied cut of meat filled with stuffing, rolled up into a log, trussed, and cooked until succulent. What comes off as extremely advance and complicated dish to your guests is actually fairly simple to pull together. The Cozy Apron’s Turkey Breast Roulade recipe starts by butterflying the turkey breast (aka cutting a vertical slit partially into the meat and opening it like a book, giving you more surface area on which to spread your filling) and mixing a cranberry hazelnut stuffing based with day-old French bread. Once all of the components are prepped and ready to go, it’s time for assembly. A layer of stuffing gets spread over the top of the butterflied turkey breast before being tightly rolled into a log. Kitchen twine gets tied at 3-4 intervals down the length of the roll to help avoid any seepage during cooking and maintain shape. Given how thin the layer of meat in this dish, these roulades are ready to hit the table after just 45 minutes to an hour in the oven. Get the recipe on The Cozy Apron.
If you’re the type of Thanksgiving host that likes to really mix up your menu year after year, this is the turkey recipe for you. Pho is a Vietnamese soup dish based in an rich, umami-laden stock and loaded up with thin strips of meat (typically beef or pork), noodles, and a plethora of toppings. Turkey makes a great meat substitution and takes this soup to true holiday heights. Pinch of Yum’s recipe starts with a warmly spiced turkey broth and roasted turkey pieces (light, dark, or both types of meat depending on your preference), both of which can easily be prepared a few days in advance. The day of, all that has to be cooked are the noodles before everything gets mixed together in a pot. Toppings are really the best part of the pho experience, so feel free to load up on any and all that suit your fancy (some favorites of mine include cilantro, mint, fish sauce, and finely minced chile). A Thanksgiving centerpiece that is sure to wow your guests and keep you cool, calm, and collected. Get the recipe on Pinch of Yum.
You’d be hard pressed to find somebody who would turn away a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. So why should Thanksgiving be any different? Ground turkey thigh makes a tasty and healthy substitution to the ground beef/pork/veal commonly found in meatball recipes. Pickled Plum’s meatball mixture leans light with loads of fresh and dried herbs and, of course, a generous dose of Parmesan cheese. After shaping, they get tossed into a rich sauce flavored with Italian pantry staples like red chili flake, garlic, onion, and fresh thyme and basil. The mixture simmers away for about 40 minutes until the meatballs are cooked through and the sauce has thickened before being generously ladled on top of al dente spaghetti. Serve with an oversized chunk of Parmesan cheese so everybody can top to their liking. Get the recipe on Pickled Plum.
One-pan dishes are the real MVPs of the Thanksgiving table. More often than not, they can be prepared in advance and require no replating or fancy presentation come dinnertime. Gimme Some Oven’s Turkey Enchiladas can easily be prepped days or even weeks in advance, frozen and baked off on Thanksgiving day. These enchiladas are comprised of layers of cooked, chopped turkey, salsa verde, red onion, avocado, shredded Mexican cheese, Great Northern Beans, and cilantro leaves. Each filled tortilla gets rolled up tight and laid side by side into a casserole dish. Once full, the enchiladas receive a healthy layer of salsa verde over the top and extra cheese to ensure a crackly, golden brown crust. As if this recipe wasn’t easy enough, the enchiladas bake in a mere 20 minutes, ensuring ample downtime on Thanksgiving Day for football, naps, and anything in between. Get the recipe on Gimme Some Oven.
Turkey Pot Pie is commonly suggested as a way of using up Thanksgiving leftovers. While I have been known to take this route in years past, I think pot pie is the perfect centerpiece for a Thanksgiving meal and incorporates everybody’s favorite holiday elements into one dish. I Am a Food Blog’s Turkey Pot Pie recipe is a combination of a pot pie filling and a shepherd’s pie topping (mashed potato instead of pastry), giving it an even greater Thanksgiving feel. The topping is essentially just a super creamy mashed potato recipe that combines Yukon gold potatoes with LOTS of butter and garlic. Once mashed to your liking, it’s time to make the filling. A vegetable stock-based sauce (sort of a play on béchamel) gets loaded with cooked turkey meat, chopped vegetables like carrots and onions, and green peas. Once the mixture is thickened and the vegetables cooked through, the whole thing gets placed in a casserole dish before being topped off with the mashed potatoes and baked until the top is a deep golden brown and super crispy. The ultimate comfort food that will leave all of your guests satisfied and smiling. Get the recipe on I Am a Food Blog.
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Maddie Mays is a Chicago-born personal chef, caterer, and writer. Her love of gastronomy began with an introduction to the Food Network as a teenager and has since blossomed into a deep-rooted passion. She spent her early career in the food world working at the famed Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, before moving on to other notable spots including Detroit’s Sister Pie bakery, and Floriole Bakery, Read It and Eat bookstore, and The Social Table in Chicago. In her spare time, she can be found practicing yoga, hosting dinner parties for friends, and sifting through her ever-growing cookbook collection. Maddie is also a supporter of PAWS Chicago. Since adopting her two cats from the shelter, she has served as a volunteer and donated her cooking services as an auction item at fundraisers. Get in touch with Maddie at madonfood.com