A buttermilk-brined turkey, quick-braised greens, a bright citrus salad. Here’s our handbook to Thanksgiving in the South—for today’s home cook
Buttermilk, rice, sweet potatoes, citrus, and greens. This year, we’re going back to the basics. Our Thanksgiving spread is anchored by hallmark Southern ingredients, and nods to a couple classic regional dishes. But that’s about where the convention ends. The recipes aren’t complicated, but they’ll yield impressive dishes that just may find their way into your regular rotation. Let’s take a look at the lineup.
First, the turkey. Every year ignites a new debate about the proper way to prep it: Dry brine or wet brine? To baste or not to baste? If I deep-fry my bird, will I live to tell the tale? It’s exhausting. So this go-round, we turned to a tried-and-true poultry preparation in the South: a buttermilk brine. It’s a surefire way to a tender, flavorful turkey. Dressing is arguably the most iterated of Thanksgiving sides, and ours is no exception. In lieu of the traditional bread base, we opt for rice, the historic starch of so many Southern kitchens. Sweet potatoes really need no introduction, nor do they need much to make them shine. We slice the nutrient-rich spuds thin, shingle them in a skillet, and voilà: They’re ready to roast in butter and herbs à la the classic French side pommes anna.
Now, it sounds like it’s time for a palate cleanser. Enter our sweet-tart citrus salad. Loosely inspired by ambrosia, the bygone Southern recipe that’s ripe for a comeback (you heard it here first), it provides a much-needed pop of acid on the Thanksgiving plate—meaning it also makes an excellent stand-in for cranberry sauce. It’s bright and bracing, and can be made ahead of time and left to marinate while you work on other dishes. And rounding out the menu is a batch of quick-braised chard. This is your super simple side to whip up while the turkey rests— because every Thanksgiving spread needs one or two of those.
And there you have it: a menu of reimagined classics. Consider it your blueprint to a modern Southern Thanksgiving.
An Inspired Bird
Social media went gaga last year for Samin Nosrat’s (of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat fame) buttermilk roasted chicken, a recipe that calls for marinating a whole chicken in two cups of buttermilk before roasting it to juicy, golden-brown perfection. The question was quickly posed: Could this work for a turkey come Thanksgiving? We decided to investigate. Turns out, the big bird needs a full buttermilk bath—we’re talking three quarts—as opposed to a pour-over marinade (now’s the time to clean out your fridge). It also benefits from a generous two-day drying out period for the optimal crispy skin. Those edits bring us to this recipe, which nails the elusive alchemy of crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside.
Buttermilk is a magic ingredient. In its most pure, farm-fresh form, it’s the fermented liquid byproduct of making butter. (By contrast, the mass-produced buttermilk on grocery store shelves is really just milk made sour by the addition of an acid.) Its mild acidity level works wonders in the kitchen, acting as a leavener in baked goods and tenderizer for meats. That’s why it’s key in our turkey brine.
There’s no need for a wire rack when you’ve got a bed of carrots, celery, and onion below the turkey. Plus, after the mirepoix has cooked (read: absorbed all the delicious drippings), you can use it in your gravy.
Give it a Rest
No one likes a dried-out bird. Pull your turkey from the oven when a meat thermometer inserted into the thigh reads 165 degrees, then let it rest at least twenty minutes before carving to let the juices redistribute.
Anatomy of a Dressing
The bones of any dressing are simple: starch, celery, onion, and herbs. From there, cooks can go crazy adding in a couple umami bombs, like mushrooms, sausage, oysters, and nuts. This recipe flips the script on the traditional bread base in favor of rice, and makes mushrooms the star—cooking alongside the rice in vegetable broth, they impart the dressing with their deeply savory essence. Bonus: It’s both vegetarian and gluten-free.
This dressing isn’t super herb-forward. If that’s your jam, feel free to add in rosemary, sage, or thyme.
Pick Your Greens
We’re fans of swiss chard in this recipe, but other greens will do just fine. Here are some ideas.
Rainbow chard: Basically the colored-stemmed variety of swiss chard, there’s no discernable flavor difference here. Pick it if you’re looking for an extra pop of color.
Kale: It may have fallen from its post as veggie-of-the-moment, but we’ll always love the chewy leafy green, especially when it comes to the quick-cook approach. Just skip the stems: They’re too tough to cook down.
Collard greens: Can’t live without your collards at Thanksgiving? Use them here—but they’ll need to braise for a half-hour or more.
Spinach: Nothing wrong with keeping it simple. Spinach will cook up faster than chard, so adjust your timing accordingly. A bunch will also wilt down to practically nothing; if you’re feeding a crowd, this isn’t the green for you.
On Wednesday, wash, dry, and cut your chard. Then loosely wrap it in a paper towel and refrigerate it in an open zip-top bag until braising time.
Swiss chard stems add color and texture. They’re tougher than the leaves, so let them braise solo first.
The mandolin is your friend. Use one here to quickly and evenly slice the sweet potatoes. (Just be sure to use the guard to save yourself a holiday ER visit.)
Fire It Up
For an even crispier top layer, pop it under the broiler for a couple minutes.
The Power of Acid
Restaurant chefs often harness the power of acid in their cooking; a squeeze of fresh citrus over a dish can do wonders to round out flavors. Likewise, an acidic component punctuates a plate: It slices through richness and adds contrast to the meal.
For a smoother Turkey Day, make the gastrique a day out and keep it in the fridge. And come the big day, the citrus salad can be assembled early on—all the better if the flavors have a chance to meld.
Make Life Easier
Sure, you could de-seed a whole pomegranate. Or you could buy a package of pomegranate arils at the store and save yourself a ton of hassle (and the stained hands).
Grab extra grapefruits and oranges to use alongside fresh foliage in your centerpiece.