The Best Thanksgiving Meats

Tired of turkey? Replace the bird with one of these four sustainable wild meats (plus one vegan alternative)

Venison

Tired of turkey? Try something new this Thanksgiving.    Photo: Christian Jung/Shutterstock

The 5 Best Alternative Thanksgiving Meats

Thanksgiving is synonymous with turkey, so banishing the bird from your table may seem like the height of madness. But bear with us. Replacing a store-bought turkey with sustainably-harvested game is better for the planet and gives guests a chance to sample exciting new flavors beyond the bland meat from freezer-aisle poultry. We spoke to five hunters and chefs who, after bristling at the thought of serving hormone-filled, fattened turkeys at their tables, shared their recipes for four wild meats (and one vegan alternative) they’ll likely cook up this Thursday night. Yes, there is life after Butterball.

Alternative Thanksgiving Meats: Feral Pig

Pork loin with peaches
Pork loin with peaches.   Photo: David P. Smith/Shutterstock

Eating a wild, or feral, pig may be one of the most ethical choices you make this Thanksgiving. “For every feral pig you get, you’re helping the wildlife that’s having a tough time surviving because of it,” says invasive species hunter and Eating Aliens author Jackson Landers. With feral pigs multiplying throughout the southern United States—over three million are in Texas alone—these bristly, tusked habitat-destroyers have created a real need for hunters. While federal regulations prohibit the sale of wild game, if you can bag a porker yourself or beg some of the lean meat off of a friend with a well-stocked freezer, you can cook it like venison.

ROASTED WILD PORK LOIN WITH PEACHES
1. While preheating the oven to 400 degrees, trim off any unwanted fat or connective tissue from a wild pork loin.
2. Slather one side of the loin with butter and 1 can of peaches, then sprinkle on chopped fresh thyme and salt and pepper to taste.
3. Roll the loin into a coil, pinning it together with toothpicks or skewers.
4. Pan-sear each side of the roll in butter and transfer to a covered dish.
5. Deglaze the pan with 1 cup of wheat beer and pour the rest over the pork. Cook at 400 degrees until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees F.

Alternative Thanksgiving Meats: Wild Turkey

Turkey soup
Avoid tough turkey by cooking your bird in liquid.   Photo: Courtesy of Steve Hickoff

“Wild turkey is more turkey than a turkey can be,” says bird hunting expert and blogger for Realtree Outdoors Steve Hickoff. Darker and leaner than their farmed brethren, over seven million wild Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Gould’s, and Merriam’s turkeys wander throughout the continental forests of the United States. Part of the fun of wild turkey meat is that it lacks the homogeneity of traditional turkey, so each part requires a different treatment. The birds are surprisingly un-gamey, so Hickoff's favorite recipe is more about keeping the almost fat-free meat moist. A farmed Bourbon red is a close second to the wild version if you don't have time to pick up your shotgun.

WILD TURKEY BARLEY SOUP
1. After cubing 1 cup of turkey breast meat, wrap it in plastic wrap and use a meat hammer to gently tenderize the cubes.
2. In a medium pot, brown turkey and 1 cup of chopped yellow onions in cooking oil.
3. Stir in 4 cups of chicken broth or reserved wild turkey broth, and bring to a medium boil.
4. Add 1 cup of barley, 1 cup of frozen corn (or other vegetables), salt and black and red pepper.
5. Cook for 30 minutes, stirring as needed.

Alternative Thanksgiving Meats: Venison

Venison
Cooked venison.   Photo: Rus S/Shutterstock

While most non-hunters use the word "venison" to refer to deer meat, it can actually refer to elk and moose as well. Master climber and Black Diamond Equipment representative Russ Clune has been hunting all three for 15 years. White-tailed deer run rampant near his Catskills home, but elk and moose bring him to out to Colorado and Alaska, respectively. To temper wild venison’s liver-like taste and toughness, soak it in a vinegar-water mixture or purchase younger farmed meat, which is more tender and less gamey. With venison's deep color and rich taste, Clune says less is more when it comes to cooking it. “But when I feel real fancy,” he says, “I make this raspberry-butter sauce to top it.” You can cook this recipe with deer or elk, whichever you have in your freezer.

VENISON LOIN WITH RASPBERRY-BUTTER SAUCE
1. In a large bowl, make a marinade by combining 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil with cracked black pepper, kosher salt, and garlic, onion and ginger powders to taste.
2. Trim silver skin from 2-pound venison loin, rub it in marinade and refrigerate for 4 hours.
3. Roast in 350-degree Fahrenheit oven until the meat’s internal temperature is rare- to medium-rare.
4. In a saucepan, combine a half-stick of butter, 1/3 of a jar of raspberry preserves and 1/3 cup of water, and heat until a thick liquid.
5. Slice loin, and drizzle sauce over meat.

Alternative Thanksgiving Meats: Canada Goose

Canada geese
Canada Geese on the wing.   Photo: Injo/Shutterstock

Besides turkey, few birds conjure up images of the holiday season like a fattened goose. But try cooking a Canada goose like one of its domestic cousins, and you might be disappointed: simply stuffing a freshly-hunted goose with apples and roasting it will result in tough, dry, gamey meat. “Wild goose is very unforgiving,” says Scott Leysath, food columnist for Ducks Unlimited Magazine and host of the Sportsman Channel's Hunt Fish Cook. “If you cook it like most farmed birds, you’ll never eat goose again.” Like wild turkey, he suggests breaking goose down and cooking it in liquid. The result may not have the classic look of a Christmas goose, but it’s tasty, low-fat, and helps rid the pesky birds from clogging up parks and golf courses around their East Coast and Midwestern migratory routes.

BRINED CANADA GOOSE ROAST
1. In a large bucket, combine 1 gallon of water and 1 cup each of kosher salt and brown sugar.
2. Cut legs from goose and brine for 12 hours; add breast meat to the brine for the last 9 hours.
3. Place legs and breast meat into separate roasting pans and brown in a 325-degree Fahrenheit oven.
4. To the legs, add chopped onion, garlic, and fresh herbs, and pour in 1 inch of chicken stock or white wine.
5. Cover in foil and bake for about 3 hours, adding the breast meat to the pan for the last hour.

Alternative Thanksgiving Meats: Squash and Wild Rice

Squash and wild rice
Squash and wild rice.   Photo: Julie Morris

Just because you don't eat meat doesn't mean you need to limit yourself to picking at the side dishes this Thanksgiving. For inspiration, we turned to vegan Ironman triathlete and Canadian Ultra-Marathon Champion Brendan Brazier, the author of Thrive Foods: 200 Plant-Based Recipes for Peak Health. Brazier has never seen the need to substitute a meat entrée with an equal hunk of plant-based protein. What’s most important, he says, is getting the most bang for your caloric buck by eating foods whose nutrients haven’t been eliminated through processing. “It’s more about finding a variety of foods that have immediate protein—like brown rice and squash—and letting the rest sort itself out,” Brazier says.

WILD RICE WITH KABOCHA SQUASH AND SAGE BUTTER
1. Cut a 1-pound kabocha squash in half, then scoop out and discard the seeds.
2. Brush the cut areas of the squash with coconut oil, and place the cut side down on a baking sheet. Bake it at 400 degrees Fahrenheit until it’s soft when pierced with a fork, then cut into 1-inch chunks.
3. In a saucepan, cook 1/2 cup each of brown rice and wild rice together.
4. Meanwhile, blend 3 tablespoons of coconut oil, 1/2 cup of chopped fresh sage, one tablespoon of minced shallots, and a half-teaspoon of salt until smooth.
5. In a large pan, place the sage butter mixture over medium-low heat, and toss in the rice. Cook for 1 minute longer while stirring, then remove from heat and fold in the squash.

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