With Thanksgiving just a couple weeks away, we’re rounding up ALL of our family’s favorite Thanksgiving recipes on the blog. Every year we try to update this post with new musings and recipes, so even if you are a longtime reader, read on!
Thanksgiving: the super bowl of the food world
Thanksgiving has become the Super Bowl of the food world. I feel that this year in particular, we’ve reached a fever pitch of people bringing their A-game on Thanksgiving menus and planning. Over at the New York Times, their teams started developing in JULY.
Our philosophy on Thanksgiving is a bit more tame. As food writers and recipe developers, most years, we’re tempted to be those kids during the dodge ball game—purposefully putting our arm out to get hit so we can amble off from all the craziness and eat our turkey in peace. (For the record, that was both my and Sarah’s real-life dodge ball strategy during school.)
Doubling Down on classics
There are two kinds of Thanksgiving cooks—the traditionalists and the experimenters. It might be to our detriment to admit it, but we fall squarely into the former.
We keep our eyes and ears open for new recipes, and there are certain things that we tweak around the edges, but much of the heart of the meal remains unchanged year to year.
This year’s only rogue menu planning thought was my potent curiosity about ricing potatoes for mashed potatoes. Spoiler alert, the lovely Trent of Storebought Is Fine has since informed me that his food mill is in storage and it is very much not worth the trouble for only slightly better results. (Definitely check out his ranking of Ina Garten’s mashed potato recipes that I linked above!) As we get closer to Thanksgiving, I’ve also found my mind drifting toward cornbread and pecan pie…but those are projects for next year.
In spite of all the hullabaloo around us, our personal family Thanksgiving meal this year will be doubling down on the classics with a few small tweaks around the edges (as we always do).
One of our core non-negotiables, for example, is that we serve Grandpa’s Thanksgiving Turkey, with a simple marinade of salt, pepper, and garlic.
We’ve created more out-of-the-box turkey recipes for the aforementioned experimenters, but Grandpa’s is our North Star. This might be the Super Bowl equivalent of purposefully fouling my own team, but I have to tell the truth!
Our unpopular Thanksgiving opinions
Moreover, after nearly ten years (where has the time gone?!) writing on this blog, and the new designation of New York Times Bestselling author putting a pep in my step, I feel I must admit some other things about Thanksgiving in our house:
- We don’t brine (wet or dry). I know, sacré bleu! D: We don’t think it’s a bad method—in fact it seems to have become food world gospel—we just never use it, as we prefer the simplicity of a good long overnight marinade, a briefer roasting time—very hot to start, reducing as you go, with one flip and a tent to protect the meat from any drying effects. It works every year for juicy, tasty turkey. Not to mention, my mother would balk at the thought of using 1/2+ cup of salt when we can get perfectly good results with just 2 or 3 tablespoons in a marinade. And it goes without saying we would never endorse a wet brine. According to J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, a liquid brine causes the bird to retain water and lose flavor (i.e. the turkey is juicy, but the juices are watery, without much flavor. Note that he does like the dry brine method!).
- We love a classic spread. My mother will be the first to tell you that during her early years in America, zero attention was given to the burnt dry turkey dutifully cooked and laid out in the corner. It was all about the Chinese food. The turkey was effectively a prop that was then made into stock or congee! While we firmly believe Thanksgiving is for everyone and you absolutely do not need what is too often and somewhat offensively referred to as “traditional American” dishes, we do enjoy the classic spread. And our family is pretty good at pulling it off too. That said, the next morning—turkey congee is ALWAYS what’s for breakfast, and my mom looks forward to that more than Thanksgiving dinner itself.
- Every year I have an existential episode about the amount of fat I’m willing to put into my mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes are something of an Achilles heel for me. Since we were old enough to be tasked with orchestrating Thanksgiving dinner, I have been the potato person. Starting at the age of 12, I’ve tinkered with my mashed potatoes—there was my peppery mashed potato phase, my garlic parmesan mashed potato experiment (meh), and some unfortunate roasted garlic trials that I simply could not let go of (it’s simply too much competing flavor for the turkey and gravy). I tried cheesy scallion (offered below, in fact), but I must tell you that while that was enjoyable, nothing beats the classic.
Now, onto the issue of fat application. One of the early food blogs we followed was The Pioneer Woman. Her mashed potato recipe involves a fantastical amount of fat: butter and half and half AND cream cheese. Last year, I decided I would try it. But when game time came, my extreme indecision on whether I would just let the entire package of cream cheese tumble into the pot of potatoes led to an excess of nervous mashing, and the mash ended up with a very subtle gluey texture. Did you know you could over-mash your potatoes? Neither did I.
This year, I will be decisively adding somewhere in the neighborhood of a stick of butter and an eye-balled 1/2 cup of whole milk, with plenty of salt and just enough black pepper, as I have for many of my intervening years. (I will also not make the mistake of being short on milk, as our go-to macaroni and cheese recipe is quite thirsty for it. Last year, there was an extremely tense grocery store milk run conducted a mere 30 minutes before we were due to eat. We will be posting that recipe this week!)
- We like to have light options on the table. It’s tempting to give into the fun of all the mash, gravy, and creamy stuff, but the reality is you need some contrasts. We almost always have a stir-fried vegetable—something very green. Leave it out, and the meal is incomplete! That’s probably the most Chinese menu decision we make, as our grandparents and our mom have always wanted a leafy vegetable to round out the meal. This year in particular, I’m thinking more about non-traditional veggie forward options that will add a refreshing bite to the meal and also make use of the beauty and flavor of autumn fruits and vegetables.
One menu item I’m planning is a Polish-inspired apple and onion salad (an unpublicized favorite of ours from last fall—it’s peeled chopped apples—something strongly apple-y like macintosh or macoun—with thinly sliced onion or shallot. Season with salt and white wine vinegar, a bit more than you think you need of both. Bonus if you have a little lemon juice to stave off oxidation, but I promise it gets eaten so fast. Toss. Let sit while you do other stuff. Serve. That’s it!)
Another one I have planned is roasted mashed carrots with thick yogurt, inspired by my trip to London and lunches at Ottolenghi. (The recipe can be found in the Ottolenghi test kitchen cookbook!)
- We kind of love industrial stuffing. The classic bags of Pepperidge Farm stuffing or box of Stovetop stuffing is the basic flavor profile that we’re trying to replicate and amplify—but from scratch. Though for years, we stubbornly refused to cook anything other than the packaged stuff. Last year, we kept the flavors classic (mirepoix, sage, etc.) but leveled up by baking and hand-tearing our own sourdough bread and making big chunks instead of factory cut tiny cubes, and it was delicious.
So! Those are my unpopular Thanksgiving truths.
Click the links below to jump to these sections of the post:
Stories of Thanksgiving Days Past
In addition to hopefully inspiring your holiday menus, each of us also has a story to share about memorable Thanksgivings from days past, which you can find at the end.
Unique Thanksgiving Mains
There’s also a sidebar on non-traditional Thanksgiving mains—if you’re not a fan of turkey, or if turkey prices this year are just too crazy!
The Woks of Life Family’s Top 25 Thanksgiving Recipes
We’ll go in rough order on these 25 Thanksgiving recipes, from turkey, to sides, to desserts, all the way to what to do with the leftovers! (Click on the read more links or recipe photos to go to the recipe!)
1. Grandpa’s Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey
My grandfather was a professional chef working in the Catskills and the eventual owner of a Chinese restaurant. This is his Thanksgiving turkey recipe, and we use it every year.
It has never failed to produce an incredibly moist, flavorful bird, and there’s no complicated liquid brine or spice mix involved!
We’ve received messages from many readers who have also made this their family’s annual go-to Thanksgiving turkey recipe.
We also have a recipe for a full Thanksgiving dinner with gravy and stovetop stuffing using a turkey breast rather than a whole turkey—for those smaller celebrations—as well as recipes for those all-important leftovers!
2. Cantonese Roast Turkey
A combination of Chinese and American traditions, this recipe applies the expert roasting techniques for Cantonese roast duck to a Thanksgiving bird. Try this for a slightly non-traditional, but no less flavorful Thanksgiving dinner.
3. Five Spice Thanksgiving Turkey
This five spice roast turkey with giblet onion gravy is a surprisingly traditional Asian-inspired approach to the Thanksgiving bird. Chinese five spice powder actually combines many of the spices we love during the holidays, including cinnamon, fennel, and cloves.
This juicy, richly flavored turkey will still be at home next to all your traditional Thanksgiving dishes, while offering a little something new to everyone at the table.
4. Herb Roasted Turkey Breast with Stovetop Stuffing
This is a Thanksgiving turkey recipe for smaller celebrations and no-fuss cooks. It includes both the turkey and stuffing in one! If you don’t need to cook a whole bird or particularly enjoy white meat, this turkey breast recipe comes out perfectly juicy for both dinner and sandwiches the next day!
5. Smoked Turkey Legs
For those of you in warmer climates (or those in cold climates willing to brave the weather in the name of grilling), this smoked turkey leg recipe is for you!
Smoky, juicy, and every bit as good as the theme park and festival turkey legs you may already love. If you’re brave, you could also cut up a whole turkey and try to smoke the pieces, not just drumsticks! For the ardent fans of this recipe, this Thanksgiving I’m accosting my Aunt as soon as she walks through the door to help me document the oven-baked method!
6. Perfect Turkey Gravy: 3 Ways
At a loss every year for how to achieve the perfect gravy to grace your turkey and stuffing? This is our complete guide to making gravy on Thanksgiving, with three different “enhancements.”
Check out the recipe to see what they are!
7. Cheesy Scallion Mashed Potatoes
A deliciously creamy, cheesy change-up from your run-of-the-mill mashed potatoes, this is one of our favorite Thanksgiving recipes.
8. Crispy Hasselback Potatoes with Spicy Bacon Scallion Relish
Make sure you make a few too many of these crispy hasselback potatoes with spicy bacon & scallion relish, because everyone will be fighting over them!
9. Sweet Potato Gnocchi Bake with Bacon & Sage
If you’re not a fan of traditional candied sweet potatoes, but you still want sweet potatoes to make an appearance at your Thanksgiving table, give these homemade sweet potato gnocchi a try!
Baked in a creamy sauce with bacon and fresh sage, your family will toast to your brilliance in the kitchen!
10. Sticky Rice Stuffing (Gluten-free!)
This sticky rice stuffing is a great gluten-free option for those with Celiacs or a gluten sensitivity (just use gluten-free soy sauce). It’s also super simple and INCREDIBLE with gravy. If you are a Chinese food purist and are looking for a more traditionally Cantonese sticky rice, head over here or here!
11. Curried Butternut Squash Soup
This richly flavored, ever-so-slightly exotic-tasting soup will brighten up your Thanksgiving table with a little something new. The soup is delicious, but the REAL start might be the croutons slathered with red curry butter.
12. Classic Stuffed Mushrooms
A classic—bordering on retro—recipe from Bill’s youthful days cooking for large parties at a Holiday Inn in the Catskills, these stuffed mushrooms with buttery breadcrumbs are exactly the savory, pleasing appetizer or side dish you’ve been looking for.
13. Cheesy Kale Sweet Potato Tart
This combination of antioxidant-rich veg, paired with sweet potatoes, cheese, and lovely pastry makes a delicious and somewhat different seasonal side for Thanksgiving!
14. Miso-Glazed Roasted Root Vegetables
This is a show-stopping yet simple vegetable side dish. The key is using root vegetables with lots of different colors––multi-colored carrots and golden beets as well as red beets. They look like jewels on the plate!
15. simple cornbread
This cornbread recipe is simple, basic, and just a little sweet. It actually wasn’t even the main event in the post in question, which was for Instant Pot Ribs.
16. Pumpkin Dinner Rolls
Adapted from our ever-popular milk bread recipe, these pumpkin dinner rolls are festive, fluffy, and soft.
They’re reminiscent of Hawaiian sweet rolls, with a little holiday twist. Serve with softened butter, and everyone at the table will be in dinner roll heaven!
17. Butternut Squash Pie
Thanksgiving isn’t complete without dessert! This butternut squash pie is tastier than a pumpkin pie made with canned puree, because of course, the squash is fresh! Make it over the top with a dollop of cinnamon vanilla whipped cream.
18. Pumpkin Tres Leches Cake
This is a perennial fall favorite, wonderful with a cup of hot coffee at the end of the Thanksgiving meal.
19. Apple cinnamon coffee cake
This is great for Thanksgiving dessert—or breakfast on Thanksgiving day with a hot cup of coffee! Between the cake and the crumb, there’s an apple-pie-like layer of tender apples.
20. Cinnamon Sugar Apple Fritters
Apple fritters are so much easier to make than donuts! Sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, this surprisingly light sweet treat won’t last long on the dessert table.
21. Flaky Apple Pie
If you HAVE to have apple pie on your Thanksgiving dessert table, give my flaky apple pie a try. The secret to a melt-in-your-mouth crust is to put less water in the dough than most recipes call for!
22. Leftover Thanksgiving Turkey Congee
If we have a turkey carcass after Thanksgiving dinner, this is what we do with it the next day. A big pot of congee with Thanksgiving flavors makes the ultimate comforting breakfast.
23. Next-Day Thanksgiving Pastries
All you need is a pack of puff pastry, shredded cheese, and some Thanksgiving leftovers (turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes) to make these out-of-this-world pastries. Ideal for breakfast the next morning, or as a next-day lunch with a simple mixed green salad.
24. Leftover Thanksgiving Turkey Lo Mein
This lo mein made with leftover shredded turkey will be a delicious change from Thanksgiving food. Make sure to serve with chili oil!
25. Leftover Thanksgiving Turkey Ramen
Give a bowl of this warming Thanksgiving turkey ramen a try for lunch the next day. It’s pretty much a slam dunk of comfort and happiness!
TIP: Non-traditional Thanksgiving mains
This year, the prices of turkeys are set to be high, what with a wave of avian flu hitting turkey populations across the country. And what might be even worse, there may be a last minute shortage on our hands! (Buy your turkeys ASAP, people!)
That said, while this post has some of our traditional heavy hitter recipes, it’s a great year to consider these unique ideas for the Thanksgiving dinner main event! You might even go so far as to make a totally non-traditional Thanksgiving—maybe a full Chinese feast even?
Because perhaps the oldest Thanksgiving tradition is to completely set aside Thanksgiving classics in favor of what your family loves best!
Pork is one of the tastiest and most economical proteins for feeding a crowd:
- Char Siu (see Char Siu Chicken if you don’t eat pork)
- Carnitas (okay, we know the headline is “tacos” but a giant Dutch oven of carnitas with a huge festive spread of Mexican rice and beans and all the fixin’s is truly celebratory and exciting)
- Plum Sauce Glazed Ham
- Cantonese Roast Pork Belly
- Baked Whole Chicken with Vegetables (see also a 2-part Recipe for Roast Chicken & Stock)
- Chicken Adobo – A GRAVY OF SORTS?!
- Salt Baked Chicken (this could actually fit in seamlessly with classic Thanksgiving sides)
- Soy Sauce Chicken
- Chicken Egg Foo Young (this is a rogue one, but what’s more indulgent and festive than breaking out the frying oil for this retro favorite?)
Okay so strictly speaking, pound for pound, to feed the amount of people you need to feed this may not be cheaper than turkey—rather, on par or more expensive. BUT for those among us who don’t even like turkey to begin with, a duck or a goose could be the ideal swap this year with turkey prices on the high side.
Here are some of our favorite memories of Thanksgivings past! We hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving this year!
Judy Leung: “Finding the George Washington Bridge”
I still remember my first Thanksgiving over thirty years ago like it was yesterday.
It was our second year in America as new immigrants. My grandmother, who had been in New York by herself for years, worked to get all five of her adult children and their families from China to the United States. By the time we got here, she was eager to introduce us to all things American.
In due time, we came face-to-face with hamburgers, pizza, chocolate milk, and peanut butter. (Toast with peanut butter has since become my preferred breakfast item, but I remember that no one liked pizza, because we all thought the cheese smelled bad. Those were different times.)
The big plan that year was to get everyone to my grandmother’s apartment in Monticello, NY for Thanksgiving. My parents had just bought their first car, an old, raggedy Chevy station wagon that they’d paid $500 for––their very first big ticket item.
As it turned out, the unforgettable memories of that Thanksgiving weren’t about turkey or stuffing, but the fact that it took us four tries to drive across the George Washington Bridge. Driving North on FDR Drive, our eyes were glued to the big green signs over the road, searching for a few familiar words. A couple times, we thought we’d made it across, but then that GW Bridge sign would appear again, and we knew we’d gotten it wrong.
None of us could utter two English words to ask for directions, and as we watched all the other cars speed by, it was like we were on a foreign planet—worried that the old car would break down, that we’d never find our way, and worse, that we wouldn’t make it to dinner on time.
Eventually, by some miracle of navigation, we did make it to my grandmother’s apartment, where we were able to have some traditional Thanksgiving leftovers for a late dinner. These included: a Shanghai braised pork shank, stir-fried leafy greens, rice, and bottles of everyone’s new favorite beverage, Sunkist orange soda.
There was a turkey, of course, but at the time, we had no idea what we were doing when it came to roasting a turkey. We’d never seen a bird that large, let alone cooked one. The poor turkey was a bit charred on the outside and still undercooked near the bone. We’d carve whatever edible pieces we could find, and the rest would go towards making soup the next day.
My memories of that Thanksgiving always remind me of how far we’ve come since then. The road has been tough, but we walked it. A shout-out to all immigrant families, wherever you may be! You have my utmost respect and admiration for your bravery and drive to achieve a better life in this new land we proudly call home.
Sarah Leung: “A Very Hey Arnold Thanksgiving”
I’m eight years old, and my top 5 concerns in life are as follows:
- Convincing my parents that my six-year-old sister and I are responsible enough for a puppy. (They are less than convinced.)
- Maintaining my position as Posh Spice in the power plays that regularly develop in any and all attempts to reenact scenes from Spice World.
- Figuring out what Andy Buki sharing his goldfish with me at snack time really means.
- Coercing every guest at Thanksgiving Dinner to go through the exercise of saying what they’re thankful for before the turkey is carved.
It all began a few days earlier, when I’d seen the Thanksgiving episode of that best of 90s Nickelodeon cartoons, Hey Arnold. Long story short, the characters are in a Rockwellian school play set at an idyllic Thanksgiving table. Then they each take turns saying what they’re most thankful for in a vaguely unnatural Brady Bunch sort of way.
Of course, eight-year-old me eats this up (kind of missing the point of the rest of the episode), and I proceed to distract everyone from the food preparation, the football, and the familial chatter to explain that they will be expected to announce at the table that night what they are most thankful for. I poke and I prod, trying to get the attention of my aunts, uncles, grandparents, and parents. I try to convince my sister and cousins that it’s not a dumb idea. My determination even extends to an attempt to take dictation on one of my dad’s yellow legal pads, to ensure that if someone were to forget what they were going to say, I would be there with the right cues to remind them, and thus save the whole endeavor.
Of course, amidst the kerfuffle of me going around alerting everyone of the public speaking portion of our Thanksgiving program, I give no thought at all as to what I’m actually thankful for. By the time dinner rolls around, I’m beaming at my master plan’s triumphant success when I realize it’s my turn. And that everyone else had already taken all the really good answers, i.e. “health,” “family,” “this delicious turkey,” etc. etc. In short, I had no idea what I was going to say.
Not sure what happened next. I think my brain blacked out and rebooted over my mashed potatoes while everyone gratefully started to dig into the food. Soon enough I’d forgotten about any formalities, happily reaching for extra gravy.
Bill Leung: “Two Roast Chickens”
Growing up in upstate New York with immigrant parents, the holidays were always an interesting time. In addition to traditional Chinese holidays, we always celebrated western and American holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving. But early on, when my sisters and I were young, there were still quite a few missing links when it came to Western holiday origins, traditions, and of course, food.
I vividly remember one Thanksgiving dinner conversation many years ago. My parents had invited a few friends over for Thanksgiving dinner, and a discussion began about how the Thanksgiving tradition began.
One of my father’s friends said something like, “Yep, the American soldiers were on the battlefield and were literally starving to death when over the ridge appeared a flock of turkeys! They had those turkeys for dinner, thus saving their lives, and that’s why Americans eat turkey every year!”
As children, we learned to listen and not speak unless spoken to. But I had to respectfully disagree: “Uh, not quite, uncle. It was the Native Americans who helped the pilgrims farm and hunt. They celebrated after the harvest with a big, thankful meal of turkey and pumpkins.” I probably got a stern look from my parents for that one.
Similar to Judy’s early Thanksgiving experiences, we would have turkey, rice, and stir-fried vegetables for dinner. I felt like Peppermint Patty in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, when Charlie Brown serves toast, pretzels, and jelly beans for dinner. “Where are the mashed potatoes? Where’s the cranberry sauce? Where’s the pumpkin pie???”
Then when I was 11 years old, my civil engineer uncle took me to his workplace the day after Thanksgiving to see a NYC fire station being built in Chinatown. A friend in the office trailer asked my uncle what we did for Thanksgiving, and my uncle muttered, “we had two roast chickens.” I think the guy took pity on me and offered me his slice of pumpkin pie, neatly wrapped in plastic.
When I shoved the first bite into my mouth, I immediately fell in love with it. Needless to say, as my sisters and I grew up, we got more involved in the kitchen and would help to prepare more traditional Thanksgiving dishes for the holiday.
As history tends to repeat itself, our girls now take the lead when it comes to cooking Thanksgiving dinner and experimenting with new sides and desserts every year. Whenever we have pumpkin pie, I always silently thank that guy from the office trailer!
Kaitlin Leung: “To Grandmother’s
House Flushing Apartment We Go”
When the family temporarily relocated to Beijing (way back when the blog was born), things were understandably a little bit weird. School breaks and holidays relocated from the suburbs of New Jersey to the crowded streets of Flushing, Queens, where my grandparents and my mom’s aunt and cousins live.
Fall breaks were spent shopping in Long Island and cruising the New World Mall Food Court. Train rides and the Chinatown bus between Philly and New York became a regular occurrence, to the point where I could leave class at 3:50, sprint to the subway, run through the train station, buy a ticket, and make it onto a 4:12 train with a surprising level of punctuality.
In spite of all this, when the first Thanksgiving without the family rolled around, I was feeling a bit depressed about the turn of events—this would be our first Thanksgiving without being together, while I was left in Flushing to scrounge up a traditional meal as the sole qualified person for the job.
So it was that I coordinated with my grandma to buy a turkey in advance and prep it with salt, pepper, and garlic. To my cousins, I allocated some side dishes. And in Philadelphia, drowning in self-pity and longing for the gourmet experience of a Thanksgiving at home, I made 2 pies—pecan and sweet potato, completely from scratch in my cramped apartment kitchen.
Both were, to my surprise, 100% perfect specimens. What I did not anticipate, however, was that by the time I arrived at the train station in Philadelphia, I was already sweating from balancing my pies, a backpack, and an empty suitcase (for taking home leftovers and Black Friday spoils, obviously), and by the time I arrived at my grandma’s apartment—off the train, the subway AND the bus, I was just about ready to collapse before I had a chance to prep the stuffing for the next day’s feast.
Despite some operational fumbles, dinner went off without a hitch! We had turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables, gravy (which I made for the first time! Normally my only job would be to add the pepper while my dad handled the heavy lifting), Cantonese roast duck risotto (it was a Chinese Thanksgiving after all), and yes, pie with plenty of ice cream.
We hope you enjoyed these Thanksgiving recipes and memories. Happy Thanksgiving to all of our extended Woks of Life family!
Note: This post was originally published in November 2015, but we have since updated it with ALL of the Thanksgiving recipes we’ve posted up to November 2022!