Americans don’t agree about everything. But we agree about deep fried turkey.
When we interviewed top chefs around the country about their Thanksgiving menus for 2017, deep fried turkey was the only thing most chefs had in common. Every other dish reflects the regional creativity of local cooking styles throughout the U.S.
Turns out some people say “stuffing” while others say “dressing,” and as far as what goes in it, expect anything from cornbread to oysters to cranberries to mushrooms to clams to pecans. And no, not everyone tops it all off with pumpkin pie.
Here’s what Top Pro chefs love to cook up for Thanksgiving dinner with tips and tricks for an unforgettable meal (and leftovers).
Chef Nakaya Wiggins went to culinary school in Connecticut, but her grandmother is from South Carolina and Nakaya currently is a personal chef in Atlanta, Georgia, so she’s the perfect person to share her thoughts on everything that makes a Southern Thanksgiving so perfectly indulgent and delicious.
People here deep fry their turkeys. We usually use peanut oil; it’s expensive, but the turkey comes out really good. Once you have a fried turkey, you’ll never go back to roasted turkey. If you overcook roasted turkey, it’s dry, whereas fried turkey is moist throughout.
My grandmother uses cornbread instead of white bread and adds celery, onions, and cranberries, so it’s the perfect mix of sweet and salt. People here also like to add nuts, like almonds and pecans.
In the South people are all about cream, butter, oil, and lard; no one’s being health conscious on Thanksgiving. My grandmother taught me to make them with red potatoes and to use lots of butter and lots of cream and she adds garlic powder and Parmesan cheese. It’s so delicious.
Candied yams are also popular. My grandmother will cut yams or sweet potatoes in circular shapes and lay them in layers and then put butter, brown sugar, and nutmeg in between the layers, and then on the very top she puts marshmallows.
People usually do collard greens or string beans, but greens are boring if you don’t add something to them. My grandmother makes string beans with pearl onions and a lot of bacon on top. For the collard greens, add flavor by using smoked turkey neck bone or pork neck bones and the bacon grease that’s left over from the string beans.
The Macaroni and Cheese
My grandmother does a five cheese mac and cheese for Thanksgiving. She puts Ritz Crackers on top because they’re buttery, and add a crunch element on top for texture.
Cornbread is very Southern. My grandmother used to make a cornbread with a cinnamon sugar butter, which is really good. So bad for you, but so good.
Apple pie and banana pudding. My grandmother taught me her recipe for banana pudding and it’s amazing. She makes it with vanilla pudding, which I think is genius because it’s not banana overkill. And then she puts bananas on top and uses cinnamon sugar.
Chef Beau Blackburn is a private chef and caterer in Chicago who specializes in cooking for people with allergies and sensitivities, which means he is an expert in creating delicious dishes that are gluten, dairy, or soy-free alongside standard fare.
Most Thanksgiving feasts in Chicago are predicated on doing a deep fried turkey. That’s one thing people love. It’s so moist, so juicy, and you don’t put it in the oven for three hours and hope it turns out good; it turns out great every single time as long as you monitor the temperature of the oil and keep it down there for less than 40 minutes. It’s really the most perfect way to cook a turkey.
Because I live in a world of no wheat, I do a sweet potato stuffing or a beauregard yam stuffing. You might think you need bread, but you really don’t. Add a little sugar and you’ve got heaven in your mouth. There’s a lot of way to add flavor to the stuffing. Add some celery, celery stalk, and celery root… I also like using bacon fat. I would use a good organic bacon and make almost a hash with that, then throw it in the turkey. It comes out perfectly when you deep fry it. It’s so much like a stuffing, you’d be surprised.
The Cranberry Sauce
We grew up with canned cranberry sauce, but there’s nothing nutritious that comes out of that can, so I like to soak my fresh cranberries ahead of time and then use maple syrup or coconut palm to sweeten them. Then I’ll soak mandarin oranges or orange segments overnight in a really good rum. The combination of the cranberries and the oranges the next day is the cranberry sauce and people go nuts over it.
I like a green bean and almond casserole. I grew up with people using the cream of mushroom canned soup, but we’ll make it fresh by using a chicken stock and a little cassava flour to thicken it and then throw the mushrooms in there. That goes fantastic with roasted or steamed green beans. If you’re frying your turkey, that means you have room on the grill, so you can also do a grilled green bean. Add a little bit of oil, salt, and pepper; they have a fantastic flavor.
You can’t go wrong with garlic mashed potatoes. I use Irish Gold Butter and roast garlic and whip that all up. With sweet potatoes I like to use cinnamon and hazelnut cream and salt and pepper and sometimes I’ll add maple syrup to it. That’s a vegan version.
Cobbler, cobbler, cobbler. Whatever’s fresh and sweet. Usually around Thanksgiving you can get some really good blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries, but my favorite are Michigan sour cherry cobblers. You don’t even have to buy them fresh because they’re flash frozen so they still retain their freshness. It’s quick and easy. Do an oatmeal crisp or cobbler and season it with fall spices, like cinnamon, nut, and clove.
Chef Sean Weyhmmiller is a Bay Area native who started his personal chef and private dining company, Oak and Olive Kitchen, with his wife as a way to bring wholesome, home-cooked meals to busy families.
Most people don’t like turkey because it’s always dry, so I like my turkey cooked two ways. I brine the whole thing, and then I take the legs and thighs off and I cook them in duck fat. And then I cook the breast in the oven. The less time it spends in the oven, the juicier it’s going to be. I like the dual textures of the dark tender meat, and then the slightly more toothy white meat that is still pretty juicy. I’ve deep fried them before and I have to admit it’s really good, but it’s a whole lot of mess to clean up.
The biggest thing here in California is that everything’s really fresh because we have such a long growing season. We make a fantastic mushroom stuffing. It has all of the fall harvest mushrooms you can think of in it. We use Acme bread, fresh herbs, seasonal mushrooms, and homemade chicken stock. It’s stupid good.
The Cranberry Sauce
Cranberry sauce is a must. I grew up eating the cranberry sauce out of the can and I fell in love with it, but as I’ve gotten older, while I still love that one, I like making fresh cranberry sauce also. I think that’s a great place where all of the melting pots of cultures comes in… The flavors are endless. Ginger, cardamom, turmeric… it’s an interesting place to play with flavor.
You always have to have mash no matter what. That’s a classic. But with that said, there are so many beautiful potatoes out there to use other than just russets. I personally love Yukon gold potatoes. They naturally yield a beautiful buttery flavor without having to do anything else to them versus a russet potato, which is standard and traditional, but I think they have a better use than in mashed potatoes.
The vegetable department is where I like to change all traditions. I can’t stand overcooked mushy anything. I prefer easy sautéed greens—chard and kale—with a little bit of garlic and lemon oil on it. I like the color and for it to be fresh and to have a little tooth to it.
You’ve got to have the two standards: pecan pie and pumpkin pie. Those are my two go-tos. My wife made a really good one last year that was pumpkin caramel pie. It had the most amazing, silky texture. There’s always an apple one in there too. My daughter likes to make little seasonal tarts. And we always make our own ice cream.
Diane Smith is a personal chef in Gainsville, Virginia, who is originally from Ohio and started her business in Philadelphia. She prepares all of her dishes from scratch, including salad dressings, ice creams, and her specialty is French sauces.
More and more people are deep frying the turkey as opposed to putting it in the oven.
Some people use clams and other people use the giblets, and people are starting to use a whole wheat bread for the bread part of the stuffing.
I try to make a white wine sauce and incorporate some of the herbs that were used under the skin on the turkey.
A lot of people like baked sweet potatoes. People put raisins in there to sweeten them up instead of topping them with sugary marshmallows. I see people trying to be healthier. I don’t know if they’re really eating less calories, but the attempt is being made.
For mashed potatoes, it might be half potatoes and half cauliflower. So a cauliflower potato mash or a parsnip potato mash.
I like baked carrots with shallots and caraway seed, which gives it a bit of a rye flavor.
If I can find decent corn to use, I like to grill it and cut the corn off of the cob and serve it with garlic, cilantro, garlic salt, and Cotija cheese (“Mexican parmesan”).
People are still doing traditional pies, like pumpkin pie, but I like lemon meringue pie. I’ll also make a cranberry bread with nuts.