6 Reasons to Ditch a Whole Turkey and Make Meatballs This Thanksgiving

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Joshua McFadden’s glorious turkey meatballs, plated with gravy.


For his Thanksgiving at the Jacobsen Salt Co. warehouse in Portland, Oregon, host and chef Joshua McFadden has skipped the basting and the brining in favor of a turkey standout that only takes two hours to make: turkey meatballs.


“The turkey meatballs where a happy accident,” he says. They came about two years ago, when he was cooking a Thanksgiving meal at Suttle Lodge and didn’t have a whole turkey to roast. Instead, he got his hands on ground turkey, infused it with traditional Thanksgiving flavors like sage and thyme, and served it with traditional trimmings like mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. No one, it turned out, missed the whole turkey in the slightest, and now the meatballs are the chef’s very favorite centerpiece for Thanksgiving. He adds: “I’m going to do them every year for the rest of my life.”


Aside from the addition of herbs like rosemary, sage and thyme, his secret to such great turkey meatballs might be surprise you. On top of adding ground white and dark meat turkey, about a third of the ground meat is actually pork. “Pork helps the meatballs bind and adds flavor and fat,” he explains. Still not yet convinced you should be making meatballs in place of a whole bird this November 23rd? Keep reading; we’re betting by the time you get to the recipe, you’ll have changed your mind.

Reason #1: Turkey meatballs are easy to scale.

The chef browning his meatballs before they go into the oven to build flavor.


Hosting Thanksgiving for six? That’s no problem. Having sixteen people over for dinner (like McFadden did at his Thanksgiving)? That’s no problem, either. Making a batch of meatballs means it’s easy to scale the recipe up or down, depending on the size of your party. (The recipe serves six to eight, but could easily be doubled or even tripled.)

Reason #2: You can (and should) make delicious turkey gravy.

Arguably more than turkey, gravy is the star of Thanksgiving: It’s what brings all the flavors, from the bird to mashed potatoes to stuffing and rolls, together. But it requires fond, all of the delicious browned bits that are a byproduct of browning or turkey. It’s a sorely missing byproduct from many of the alternatives to roast turkey, including deep-fried turkey and vegetarian mains. But McFadden’s meatball browning step leaves you with a pan full of caramelized bits that are ready to be reduced into the world’s most delicious holiday sauce.

Reason #3: Pretty much all of the work can be done ahead.

Sear off these meatballs the night before and pop them in the oven the day of the feast.


The chef likes to make his meatball mixture ahead of time, and explains it actually works better when you brown the meatballs while they’re still cold, which helps them to hold their shape. You can even brown them in oil the day before the big feast, then braise them the day of the dinner. (Save the fond, of course!)

Reason #4: They cook really quickly.

Depending on its size, the roasting time for a whole turkey can go up to four and a half hours or longer. Not this recipe: while the smallest of whole birds start at two and a half hours, that’s less than the entire prep and cook time for these meatballs. There’s no need to fret about brining technique or what to do if your bird hasn’t fully defrosted on the day of the meal, since these meatballs take a mere 30 minutes to assemble and 90 minutes to cook. Now you just have to figure out what to do with all that extra time. (Consider nursing White Russians with your guests instead.)

Reason #5: They make unforgettable leftovers.

After you make these meatballs, McFadden insists, you’ll never look at Thanksgiving leftovers the same way again. His big thing is saving any remaining meatballs (if such a thing exists) and inserting them between a split Parker House roll with gravy to create your own turkey meatball sliders. “Sliders with these meatballs are the best things ever,” he insists. “I add mashed potatoes and stuffing to make it a complete Thanksgiving sandwich.”


Turkey meatballs happen to fit right into a traditional Thanksgiving spread.

Reason #6: They’re Thanksgiving in a bite.

When we say these meatballs have everything Thanksgiving, we mean everything—think meat (turkey and pork), fresh herbs (sage, rosemary, thyme), everyone’s favorite aromatics (celery, carrots, onion) and even elements of stuffing (like butter, turkey stock and croutons). When they’re served with Thanksgiving trimmings like mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, no one will miss the roast turkey at all. “The flavors are so traditional that they blow people’s minds when they take their first bite.”

Convinced to try something different? Get chef Joshua McFadden’s Thanksgiving recipe for Turkey Meatballs with Gravy.


See more of our day spent with Joshua McFadden and friends in the video below.



Join us in stores Thursday, November 2nd at 6:30 p.m. for our Open Kitchen Technique Class, which highlights the casual feast that Portland chef Joshua McFadden created in collaboration with salt maker Ben Jacobsen. We’ll be making mashed potatoes with celery root, carrot pie and, yes, those turkey meatballs. See all upcoming classes and events, and contact your local store for details.


2 comments about “6 Reasons to Ditch a Whole Turkey and Make Meatballs This Thanksgiving

  1. Steve Bielski

    Well, these came out splendid!! What a hit! And they don’t take up the real estate that a turkey carcass would in my fridge. Wonderful!

    1. Ann

      Big hit! Instructions were quite thorough though I might add a bit about skimming the oil while frying and also about heating the stock prior to popping the meatballs in the oven. It might be obvious to some but not to others. I like the do ahead suggestions and next time will make and freeze the roux ahead of time as well. There was a lot of gravy. It was quite tasty. The recipe, as written fits beautifully into the small All Clad Roasting pan. Thanks for the next Thanksgiving tradition in my house!


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