It’s not that I’m not a fan of the holiday’s patron saint protein—trust, there’s nothing I look forward to more than my family’s Black Friday menu of leftover sandwiches and turkey soup—but this was more about embracing our chance to eschew tradition. There are lots of birds in the pasture, as you might say, and just because standard operating holiday procedures favor one, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of other worthy candidates.
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Whatever bird you pick, serve it up in style.
Related Reading: The Best Special Occasion Dinnerware & Serving Pieces
Maybe a quail or Cornish game hen makes more sense because a whole turkey is too much food for your small group. Or maybe you want to try your hand at the road—ahem, roast—less traveled, and experiment with different flavors and techniques. From duck and goose to quail and capon, here is a guide to our favorite alternative birds and how to cook them.
More daring than chicken and less challenging to source than capon or goose, duck offers a smaller, gamier alternative to turkey. Intimidating though it may seem to first-timers, duck is actually a fairly forgiving bird to cook, adapting easily to a wide variety of techniques, from roasting and pan-searing to slow braises.
If you’re going for the non-traditional bird, you might as well embrace the opportunity to go non-traditional with the flavor profile as well. This tasty mash-up between duck à l’orange and Chinese roast duck uses a combination of orange juice and marmalade to turn up the citrus tang. Keep the side dish game in theme by subbing in miso mashed potatoes and Chinese sausage-sticky rice stuffing for the old standbys. Get our Marmalade-Glazed Roast Duck recipe.
This year, skip the predictable oven drama (“What the hell is going on with the temp?” “How am I going to fit all the dishes I need to cook in here?”), by opting instead for everyone’s favorite no-fuss tool: The slow cooker. Duck is a classic choice for the low-stress Crock Pot confit technique—aka, slow poaching in fat—which results in rich, pull-apart-tender meat. Hey, let’s be honest, Thanksgiving isn’t exactly about moderation, so you might as well really go for it, right? (And just think of all the amazing leftovers possibilities: sandwiches, breakfast tacos, spring rolls…) Get our Slow Cooker Duck Confit recipe.
A smart option for a smaller, more intimate Thanksgiving dinner, these little game birds work perfectly as individual portions. The trick with these guys is to be really diligent about cook time and temperature. Overdo it and the meat will be tough and dry; you want the flesh to be just firm to the touch and for the juices to run clear.
If you love the idea of deep-fried turkey but don’t need a big bird this year or aren’t quite ready to commit to the necessary equipment, try a smaller-scale variation with quail. A heavy hand of salt and pepper, a light flour dredge, and a quick bath in a skillet full of bubbling-hot peanut oil is all you need to achieve deep-fried glory this holiday. Get the Southern-Fried Quail recipe.
Related Reading: A Beginner’s Guide to Deep Frying
For those die-hard Team Dressing fans, this small bird rendition offers quite the perk: Individual quails means individual, no-sharing-necessary portions of sweet-savory pork sausage, cranberry, and chestnut stuffing. Get the Roast Quail with Cranberry, Chestnut & Pork Sausage Stuffing recipe.
Or try putting an international spin on them with couscous and pomegranate:
Just because the bird is an old-school Christmas favorite doesn’t mean it can’t be considered for your Thanksgiving table. Definitely a specialty shop or online order, there are a couple things to keep in mind when you’re getting your goose. For one thing, don’t ball out and buy the biggest bird you find as the meat will likely be too tough; instead, you want to look for something in the 8- to 12-pound range. And also, if you’re roasting, make sure you sit the goose on a rack in the pan so that it doesn’t sit in the rendering fat as it cooks.
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As long as we’re talking about breaking with tradition here, why wait another month for the roast goose? The rich, flavor-packed dark meat bird offers an unexpected, throwback kind of wow-factor that nevertheless fits in seamlessly with turkey’s tried and true accompaniments. Get our Roast Goose recipe.
Make it even more festive with four kinds of beer, plus red cabbage cooked with cinnamon, orange zest, and port. Get the Ale-Roast Goose with Double Red Cabbage recipe (from “The Beer Kitchen” cookbook by Melissa Cole).
For the overly ambitious cook who’s really looking to go outside the box this year, try upping the ante with a unique bird and a unique cooking technique. The intensely flavored goose meat works especially well with the bright heat of the Cajun spices and sweet-smoky profile from the pecan wood chips. Get the Cajun Pecan-Smoked Goose recipe.
Related Reading: How to Smoke Meat According to a Pitmaster
Capon & Cornish Game Hen
Because a regular roast chicken doesn’t quite feel festive enough, why not try something a little more specialty, like capon (aka a castrated rooster) or Cornish game hen (a hybrid, broad-breasted breed of chicken). The latter are fairly easy to find at specialty markets, while the capon may need to be a special order from your local butcher or online.
When turkey’s too big and standard-issue chickens are too small for the group (and perhaps not quite celebratory enough), capon is definitely the way to go. This Italian-inspired variation draws on the bold flavors of garlic, fennel, sherry, and orange to make sure your alternative bird maintains its showstopper at the main event status. Get our Roasted Capon with Citrus-Sherry Jus recipe.
Sure, you could do very well by going the roasted-bird-and-stuffing route with a Cornish game hen. But since this is the holiday of over-the-top eating, really celebrate that you’re going against-the-grain with your protein by dressing up your hens in a savory bacon lattice. Thanksgiving could stand to show bacon some more love, if you ask me. Get the Bacon-Wrapped Cornish Hens recipe.
Related Reading: How to Add Bacon to Your Thanksgiving Feast
Don’t think you have to ditch your beloved brining technique just because you’re not having a turkey this year. Here, citrus, clove, garlic, and peppercorn infuse with tangy apple cider, giving this tender, juicy meat a wallop of fall flavor. Get the Apple-Brined Capon recipe.
The perfect choice for a fan of wild game, you’ll want to source a younger bird, which will be more tender.
Here’s a classic way to cook any bird, with specific tips for dealing with pheasant without drying it out (hint: Don’t skip the brine). Treat it like a typical turkey dinner with traditional sides, or add international flavors and accompaniments as you please. Get the Roast Pheasant recipe.
If it’s still unseasonably warm enough out to fire up the grill, consider swapping in the wild game bird for this typical chicken treatment. Keep it super seasonal by opting for a pumpkin ale or other favorite fall brew. Get the Beer Can Pheasant recipe.
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