For most of us, Thanksgiving will look a lot different this year. It’s likely to be a small affair, which may make many of us want to rethink the menu. Whether turkey’s not your thing or you’re just looking for a smaller bird to serve, there are plenty of alternatives to choose from. A chicken can be a show-stopper when seasoned and roasted correctly, while various duck preparations can make the table feel a little more special. If there are only two or three people to cook for, consider making even tinier birds, like quail or Cornish hens, which will give each guest a delicious bird of their own. The best part about some of these birds is that they take much less time to prepare than the traditional turkey. So whether you want to take on a minimal effort bird or a big duck project, these are 14 of our favorite recipes for birds that aren’t turkey.
A perfectly cooked chicken can be tricky—the chicken legs need to reach a temperature of 175°F (80°C), but the breast dries out if cooked beyond 150°F (66°C) or so. The solution? Spatchcocking your bird. By doing so, the chicken legs are exposed to a higher heat, which helps them cook faster than the breast, leaving you with juicy meat and crispy skin. Here, we rub the chicken with a blend of fresh herbs before roasting, then whip up a quick jus for serving.
This roast chicken is paired with a simple French onion sauce for an elegant touch. Though soubise is traditionally made with a béchamel base, we subbed in cream for a lighter take. For added depth of flavor, we also reach for curry powder or vadouvan, a French type of curry powder with garlic and shallots.
Roasting or grilling your chicken under something heavy, like a brick, is one of the best ways to get crispy skin quickly. If you don’t have any bricks on hand, you can use anything from a cast iron skillet to an Italian chicken press. Start off by spatchcocking your bird, then marinate it in a simple blend that includes rosemary, sage, garlic, and olive oil before cooking.
If you’re already eliminating the turkey aspect of Thanksgiving, why not take it a step further and go Cantonese style? This soy sauce chicken is a classic Cantonese dish with a twist—our recipe uses Coca-Cola in place of traditional ingredients like rock sugar and sun-dried tangerines, which can be difficult to source in the US. The soda offers sweet, tangy, and caramel-like notes that play well with the other ingredients—ginger, star anise, cinnamon, and white pepper. Serve over steamed rice for an unconventional but delicious Thanksgiving dinner.
Cornish hens are chickens under one month of age. Though they’re easy to cook and offer a better texture than their older counterparts, they are slightly less flavorful, so it’s important to load up on seasonings. Here, we reach for cumin and smoked paprika and roast the bird until brown. For an easy pairing, serve with fluffy almond couscous.
If your grill is still in commission, it’s worth getting out there and throwing some Cornish hens on the fire. Because of their small size, they finish cooking through just as their skin reaches maximum crispiness—so long as you spatchcock them. In this recipe, we boost the flavor of the bird with a lemon and rosemary rub. The result is a super flavorful Cornish hen with tender, juicy meat.
This recipe for Cornish hens includes prosciutto for an Italian twist. We start by rubbing the birds with garlic, olive oil, and rosemary, then wrap it in prosciutto di Parma. As it cooks, the skin bubbles up and the prosciutto crisps into a salty shell. The juices of the bird make the perfect cooking liquid for white beans, a simple and delicious side.
Though cooking duck requires more attention than roasting a chicken, the result is a tender, juicy bird that feels a little more special. This classic French recipe produces a duck with crispy, crackling skin (thanks to a dry-brine) doused in a sweet and sour sauce known as sauce bigarade. By roasting the duck trimmings with aromatic vegetables, the vegetables can then be used in a stock that will later become incorporated into the sauce. When making the sauce, reach for bitter oranges if you can find them; they make the dish more aromatic and give it a more complex flavor.
Cooking a duck breast at home requires minimal effort. You’ll want to start by scoring the skin so the fat renders quickly. Then, cook the duck breast low and slow, giving the fat more time to render while the meat becomes tender and juicy. Once the duck has finished cooking, the browned bits left in the pan can easily be turned into a pan sauce with the help of some chicken stock and orange juice and zest.
If you’’ve decided to dry-age a duck, it’s worth showing it off with this roast duck breast preparation. By roasting the duck crowns quickly under high heat, the meat stays moist and tender without drying out, while the dry skin browns beautifully. The trick here is to pull the duck out of the oven before it reaches its target internal temperature to avoid overcooking, allowing carryover cooking to do the rest of the work. After carving, spoon our red wine duck jus over the meat for a show-stopping finish.
Despite its French name, this duck preparation isn’t as intimidating as it sounds. The classic preparation starts by curing duck legs for 24 hours with salt, black pepper, thyme, and a mixture of shallots, onion, garlic, and parsley. (Make sure to gently rinse off the cure before cooking.) The duck legs are then submerged in the fat and cooked in a low oven until tender and silky. Because the duck fat acts as a protective seal, the duck legs can be stored for at least a month after cooking, making early Thanksgiving prep an easy option.
Making duck confit sous vide eliminates the need for buckets of rendered fat—the small amount that renders in the vacuum-sealed bag is just enough. Leave the sealed duck in a water bath for 36 hours; with the precise temperature control that sous vide cooking allows for, it’s easy for the meat to achieve a silky, fork-tender texture. When ready to serve, remove duck from the bag and roast or broil until the skin is browned and crispy.
This recipe is similar to our traditional duck confit, but uses funky shio koji for the cure. It’s slathered on the duck legs along with black peppercorns and star anise, imparting an intensely savory flavor with a touch of sweetness, thanks to the natural sugars from the koji kin. These sugars also help the meat form a golden brown color when crisped up. After the cure is rinsed off, the duck legs are submerged in fat and cooked in the oven until tender.
The best part about opting for quail is that it cooks quickly and it’s practically foolproof. Follow our steps for deboning and spatchcocking the quail, then season and sear it. The bird can be served medium-rare, medium, and even well-done. For a final touch, we pair the quail with a quick and elegant plum sauce simmered with shallot, thyme, honey, and butter.
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