Avoid filling your freezer with leftover turkey with one of these smaller (but still festive) proteins.

By Laura Fisher
November 02, 2020
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Thanksgiving is a special time of year to celebrate family, friends, and of course, good food. Even though Thanksgiving might look a little different this year due to travel restrictions and safety protocols, you can still keep the spirit alive with a robust feast. However, given that your typical Thanksgiving table is likely downsizing this year, it makes sense for your holiday bird to follow suit. Luckily, there is a whole world of birds outside of the classic turkey to consider for your more intimate meal. We consulted Jordan Grosser, executive chef and partner at San Francisco joints Stag Dining Group, Derby Cocktail Co., and Cerf Club to get his top tips for alternative proteins for the big day. “Don’t be afraid to try new birds,” says Grosser. “While they are all very different shapes and sizes and textures, they all have very similar needs.” Read on for Grosser’s recommendation for how to choose and prepare a turkey alternative for a 2020 feast to remember.

General Bird-Roasting Tips

“The first rule of any bird is to buy fresh and not frozen. It will make a world of difference in flavor and moisture retention,” states Grosser. 

The second important step in the perfect bird is a good brine. “I suggest brining as the best way to season your meat and help maintain a very moist and juicy finished product. Salt actually opens up the cells in proteins and allows for more moisture to be absorbed making for juicer meat. Brining also gives an opportunity to impart flavors into the bird using different herbs and spices.”

After brining, dry your bird, and allow at least 24 hours or up to three to four days for your bird or birds to continue to air-dry in the fridge. “This process promotes a crispy or well-caramelized skin, which adds beautiful flavor and color to your final result. The dry skin helps lock in moisture under the skin as well—excess water would promote steaming, which dries out the bird. Dry your bird as best as possible with a towel and place it on a rack in the fridge to dry until ready to cook.” 

Finally, as with all meats, allow your finished product to rest for at least 15 minutes before carving.

Delicious Turkey Alternatives

As Grosser explains, the thick skin and high fat content of duck are the reasons why it’s exceptionally important to air dry it for an extended period of time. In addition to air drying, duck will benefit from a light scoring of the skin before cooking—just be careful to not cut through the skin completely. “Scoring will aid in rendering the skin better, and when nice and browned, it creates an additional desirable texture to the meat,” he adds. When it's time to cook your bird, place the duck breast facing up in the oven—Grosser recommends high heat, like 425°F—and turning the bird over every 45 minutes for a total of 3 times. “Duck is often served with fruit forward, slightly sweet sauces, or even glazed in its finishing cooking moments,” adds Grosser. 

These red meat birds are Grosser’s favorite bird on the list, and he recommends cooking them on the grill, which is perfect if you’re hosting an outdoor feast this year. “A spatchcocked squab roasted over coals is a delicious way to complement the natural rich flavors of the meat.” The skin on squab is thinner than duck but thicker than chicken, so it needs a little time to cook (lifted off the coals) to allow the fat to render and eventually sear on both sides. “The finished product should be browned, crispy, and medium rare,” Grosser notes. 

“Quail are delicious when stuffed and roasted in the oven, which lends itself to cooking for the masses,” advises Grosser. You’ll want to plan for two birds per person for a proper feast, and ask your butcher to debone the quail for you. “This will leave you with a whole bird without a chest cavity but with leg and wing bones intact.” Not interested in stuffing? Pan searing is another option, but it can be difficult to fit enough quail on the stove. Grosser offers a solution: “Although it can be difficult to sear and pan fry enough birds at one time for everyone you’re feeding, you can pre-sear to accomplish the desired color and then finish all of the birds in the oven at once.” 

“Chicken is the most forgiving bird on this list and definitely the most popular alternative bird if you’re not cooking a turkey,” says Grosser. He recommends going for a slightly unexpected and crowd-pleasing twist for your feast: fried chicken (drool). While there are endless recipes for how to make the crispiest and juiciest fried chicken, Grosser swears by a buttermilk marinade. “The buttermilk enzymes help tenderize the chicken and make for a great glue to hold your dredge." Instead of using flour for your dredge, try using potato starch for a slightly crunchier 'shell.' "And in addition to seasoning your flour dredge, chop up some sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds and add them for some additional texture and flavor.” 

Grosser says that cooking a pheasant is similar to cooking a chicken, just with a little less room for error when it comes to keeping it juicy. This is why a brine is an absolute must when cooking pheasant, along with trussing the bird for more even roasting. “I like cooking at very high heat—500°F for 15 minutes—and then brushing it thoroughly with clarified butter and immediately lowering temp to 350°F,” Grosser suggests. Cook the birds at high heat until the internal temperature reaches 155°F, roughly 25-35 minutes, and be sure to let it rest for 15 minutes before carving. The lean meat of pheasant lends itself well to rich and heavy sauces for a truly decadent feast.