Happy Thanksgiving table decor

Thanksgiving is right around the corner, which means turkey is on the brain for cooking in the kitchen. Or is it? Every year at Thanksgiving or Christmas if we’re hosting family, there are inevitably always a handful of family members who warn me not to get a huge turkey because they “don’t like turkey.” I usually end up doing two proteins to accommodate those who aren’t turkey fans. Beyond that, there are also dietary restrictions: what if someone attending your shindig is vegetarian or vegan and doesn’t eat meat, poultry, or fish either? If you are going full-on traditional with a turkey, are there ways to liven it up? A turkey baked in the oven is always a hit, but why not try something different this year?

Sure, traditions are great. But most important is that everyone enjoys the meal, and you have fun cooking it. If that means cooking something instead of, or in addition to, turkey, it’s worth considering. So, what can you do differently this year to shake up Thanksgiving?

Other ways to cook a turkey

If you have decided to do a turkey, even if it’s a smaller one to go alongside a second protein, you don’t have to cook it the standard way. There are other ways to make a delicious bird.

Smoking

Tacklife smoker with woman

Since we got a smoker a few years ago, my partner has had tons of fun trying everything from brisket to reverse-seared steaks and chicken wings. One thing he did try one Thanksgiving was smoking a turkey, and the results were absolutely delicious. It’s usually still nice enough outside in October to cook outdoors. The family cook can enjoy the fresh air while sipping on a glass of wine or a pumpkin spice latte and tending to the charcoals for a smoky twist on traditional turkey.

Deep frying

Sure, deep frying is not the healthiest way to cook anything. But isn’t Thanksgiving all about indulgence? You’ll need a large deep fryer or buy a small turkey or turkey pieces. Toss them into the deep fryer and serve it up with a side of mashed sweet potatoes, vegetables, and dinner rolls. You could also use the deep fryer to make canapes before dinner is served, including fresh or frozen battered appetizers.

Air frying

If you have a large enough air fryer or want to opt for turkey breast and legs (ideal if you’re serving just one or two people), consider using this machine for a quick, simple, and healthier alternative to the deep fryer. You’ll get a nice crispy exterior of skin with a juicy inside.

Sous vide

Breville Joule sous vide with cooks in the background

If you’re cooking turkey breasts versus a full turkey, consider using the sous vide method to lock in those juices and try something new. The cook will take about the same amount of time as in the oven. The best part is that it’s very difficult to over-cook a turkey done using the sous video method. You may very well end up with the juiciest turkey yet.

Alternatives to turkey

What happens if you don’t want turkey at all, or if you want to cook another protein alongside turkey to accommodate certain guests? We have you covered here.

Surf and turf

Ninja Foodi with sliced steak

Go wild, especially for a smaller gathering, with a night of surf and turf. Visit a local butcher or grocery store and get delectable filet mignons or T-bone steaks. Pair this with lobster, and you have a special surf and turf meal this Thanksgiving. We have done this before for New Year’s Eve dinner at home and it’s an instant hit. Serve it with some mashed or baked potatoes and vegetables. Don’t forget to pick up a pair of lobster shears and make sure you have a good set of steak knives. With the right cook, however, cutting through the meat will be like butter.

I’d recommend cooking the meat on the barbecue or smoker and cooking the lobster in a large pot of heavily salted boiled water for just a few minutes. Sure, this is a pretty fancy and expensive dinner. But it’s something you’ll do once a year so you might as well go all out.

Roast beef

Roast beef is another good alternative, and you can use a slow cooker or multicooker to cook it all day so you get tender, juicy beef. You could also consider the sous vide method or cool it old-school in the oven. Paired with roasted mini potatoes and green beans, this is a nice alternative to traditional turkey. Don’t forget to use the juices to make a delicious gravy to go with it.

Ham

The second protein I usually make on Thanksgiving or Christmas is ham. You can buy a small ham or opt for a larger one, but keep in mind that even a small ham yields tons of slices. I love to use leftover ham to make things like ham and cheese pockets, quiche, or soup, using the hambone as well for a flavourful broth. Try it savoury style with cloves or consider a fruity marinade using orange or pineapple juice. The latter will be a favourite for the kids. Leftovers work great along with eggs and toast for breakfast or for ham sandwiches the next day for lunch.

Chicken

Woman taking chicken out of a Ninja Foodi

When all else fails, chicken usually goes over well. I make a great whole chicken in the Instant Pot that takes about 45 minutes from start to finish with a simple spice and oil rub. You could also use chicken breasts and cook or grill them to go with some pasta, vegetables, or rice. Go ahead and make that turkey stuffing anyway: it will go nicely with chicken. You can find chicken stuffing in most grocery stores as well, which is a nice, indulgent side. Or consider using those stale pieces of bread that are taking up room in your freezer to make your own homemade stuffing.

Fish

If you’re a fan of the FX show The Bear, you likely saw the Seven Fishes episode, a flashback to a Christmas dinner when the mother’s tradition was to cook seven different fishes, seven different ways. You don’t have to go this far, but a single fish dish might be a hit. Keep in mind that fish dries out quickly and is easy to overcook so you’re best to prep and leave it in the fridge, then cook right before serving.

I love a good salmon. Make a rub or top it with olive oil, salt, lemon pepper seasoning, and a fresh squirt of lemon juice and bake for a healthy and delicious option. Get the right bakeware to cook it in the oven. You can use either a shallow baking pan or I like to use a baking sheet covered in foil or wax paper for baked fish dishes.

Tofu or vegetable “turkey”

Turkey in an Insignia oven

The Internet has a wealth of recipes from which to choose for Thanksgiving, or any other occasion or daily dinner, centered around imitation turkey for vegetarians, vegans, and those who want something different. Some of the most popular substitutes include tofu and cauliflower heads, cooked and dressed to mimic the look of a turkey with all the fixings. Take a look at our article on how to serve the perfect vegetarian or vegan thanksgiving dinner for ideas for turkey substitutes and meat-free side dishes.

In terms of replacement turkeys, some of the most popular options include seitan (made of wheat gluten), tofu, and cauliflower. By crisping the skin or exterior in an oven with a broiler and adding savoury rubs and sauces, your guests will be mesmerized by how much it looks, and even tastes, like turkey.

Get creative for Thanksgiving this dinner and play around with the various small and large appliances, in your kitchen to make a delicious dinner that everyone in the family will love, no matter their dietary restrictions.

Christine Persaud
With 20+ years of experience in trade and consumer tech journalism, I have covered the tech space since before social media was a "thing" and the smartphone as we know it was even invented. Writing for various technology, lifestyle, and entertainment sites, I have covered and reviewed hundreds of tech products, from home appliances to wearables, fitness tech to headphones, TV entertainment products and services, and more. I'm also a passionate foodie who loves to cook and bake, a TV show fanatic (happy to give what to watch recommendations!), and proud mother to a 12-year-old son.

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