In Defense of a Turkey-Less Sidesgiving
Instead of making a turkey that’ll let us down, my family makes double batches of the things we really love: mashed potatoes, stuffing with sausage and pies — lots of them.
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Every year my family has the exact same conversation: "Why don’t we just skip the turkey?" And then several family members promptly take the firm stance that it won’t be Thanksgiving without turkey. Any weak murmurings that turkey isn’t really that good anyway are drowned out. And I, as the designated Thanksgiving cook, make yet another turkey, roasting it whole or maybe spatchcocking it or basting it in something exciting.
But no matter how well (or differently) I cook the turkey, it never really turns out quite as tasty as a fantastic roast chicken with tender juicy meat and crackling skin. The crux of the problem is that we want the giant turkey to cook up like chicken. People will tell you that turkeys cook exactly like chickens. The only difference is they’re way bigger, they say. But the size makes an enormous difference! The breasts inevitably cook more quickly than the thighs and end up a bit dry and tough. "Well then cook the thighs and breasts separately!" one might say. Still, I find the breast meat to be rather woody.
Then there’s also the matter, from the cook’s perspective, that turkeys are a pain. Yep, I said it. They’re big and heavy and hard to fit in the fridge. They take an annoyingly long time to thaw. They hog the oven when I’m trying to cook other sides. Sometimes, when I load up the oven with several other sides while the turkey is roasting, the turkey takes way longer to cook than the recipe says.
There’s so much pressure on the turkey to be absolutely perfect. But cooks only make them once a year, so it’s hard to really perfect one’s turkey technique. Chickens on the other hand? Everyone has way more practice making them.
Last year, the "no turkey" voices were more forceful, and I cooked up two small roast chickens instead. Obviously, I made two of Ina Garden’s Perfect Roast Chickens because Ina is the queen of creating magical chicken recipes. Stuffed with thyme, lemon and garlic and surrounded by hearty roast vegetables, they were everything we’d wanted our turkeys to be — especially when we drizzled them with gravy.
Even still, we wondered, "do we need a big bird at all?" Between our cheese and charcuterie board appetizer, Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Sausage and Herb Stuffing (another Ina recipe, don’t judge), it felt like we had plenty of meat in our meal. Not to mention all of that butter. Call us crazy, but this year we’re going to make zero birds, and double down on the parts of the meal that everyone loves. More stuffing and mashed potatoes, which always disappear before anyone can have seconds. And pies. Without the distraction of the bird, you better believe there are going to be at least three different kinds. Maybe chocolate cake, too, because why the heck not?
This Thanksgiving, I say cook whichever parts of the meal make you the happiest. Maybe it’s the sides, or maybe for you it’s the turkey. There’s no need to be tied down to what you think a Thanksgiving meal should be.