To live your best Thanksgiving leftovers life, plan ahead

Today they’re a side, tomorrow, a salad.
Today they’re a side, tomorrow, a salad.
Image: AP Photo/Matthew Mead
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Opening your refrigerator the day after Thanksgiving can be an utter joy or an abject misery.

There’s nothing worse than finding yourself confronted with a giant turkey carcass, haphazardly covered in foil and drying out, alongside the congealed remains of the green bean casserole you made only for your sister (who ate one serving and refused to take the rest home with her).

On the other hand, a refrigerator stocked with delicious pre-cooked food, to be devoured as is or used as a base to build new meals upon, is one of the great gifts of the holiday season.

To end up in the latter situation—not the former—it’s best to make a plan.

Prep your kitchen and refrigerator

The week before a gigantic meal is a great excuse for a clear-out of your fridge and freezer. Throw out frost-covered peas and unidentifiable packages from your freezer, clear your crisper drawer of slimy cucumbers, and finish that last olive in the jar so you can recycle it. Make room.

Think ahead to how you’ll pack up leftovers, whether that’s in containers, large resealable bags, or jars. Make sure you’re fully stocked with foil, cling wrap, and parchment paper.

Make sure you have all the tools you need, in good working order: Sharp knives, kitchen shears, basters, thermometers, and anything else you’re likely to use.

Plan sides that are easy to repurpose

Think about leftovers as a way to stock the fridge with the building blocks of meals. Plan your sides carefully and they’ll transform more easily into new dishes.

Begging to be repurposed.
Begging to be repurposed.
Image: AP Photo/Matthew Mead

As a rule of thumb, simpler sides work better as leftovers. Roasted root vegetables can find a new life mixed with warm farro and dressed with tahini in a way that marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes just can’t. Green beans almondine, as opposed to green bean casserole, can be tossed with vinaigrette or added to a salad the next day.

Break down the carcass as soon as you can

The sooner you do it, the better. On Thanksgiving evening itself, dealing with the turkey after the meal can be meditative, or an opportunity to grab someone you’ve been wanting to catch up with and spend some quality time chatting together in the kitchen as you work. And the meat is more supple and easier to pull from the bones when it hasn’t been refrigerated overnight.

Here’s how to tackle the job: Grab three containers, large resealable bags, or whatever works best for your space. Carve or pull all the white meat off the carcass and put it in one container for sandwiches and leftover plates. Put the legs, thighs, wings and assorted bits into the other container for soups, stock, or the turkey carnitas you’re going to make over the weekend (more on that later). Break up the ribcage with a strong pair of kitchen shears and bag it up, either for the refrigerator or the freezer, for future stock-making.

Breakfast is your friend

It might feel like you’ll never eat again, but the day after Thanksgiving you, and any house guests you might have, are going to wake up hungry. Breakfast is not just a great time to eat pie, it’s also a good way to clean out the fridge.

“Leftover stuffing makes for a decadent breakfast,” writes Julia Turshen, in Now & Again, a book dedicated to turning one meal into many. Turshen takes a portion of stuffing, adds it to a skillet with some olive oil, and crisps the exterior. Then she tops it with two sunny-side-up eggs. This is somewhere between a hash and a savory bread pudding, and it sounds like a Friday morning dream.

For something slightly lighter, with some green in it—a sort of gradual step down from the intensity of holiday eating—Kristen Miglore adapted a potato and scallion pancake recipe from Bert Greene’s cookbook Greene on Greens for Food52. “It’s basically just a mashed potato pancake but it’s so much lighter because he blanches scallions and chops them up in big chunks and adds those to the mashed potatoes,” she says. “It’s not this leaden, dense, floury cake, which is especially nice the day after Thanksgiving.”

Top with eggs, serve with a bright arugula salad, and start thinking about what kind of salsa to make to go with turkey tacos.

Put an egg on top.
Put an egg on top.
Image: James Ransom/Food52

The answer is always tacos

The Thanksgiving sandwich is an excellent thing, but after you’ve eaten one or two of them, you’re probably ready to move on. This recipe for turkey carnitas from J. Kenji López-Alt in Serious Eats works wonderfully to get the last bit of stock and meat off the carcass. And when you’re fully over Thanksgiving flavors, tacos are just the thing.

“You can transform your leftover turkey meat into wonderfully crispy and juicy shreds that are a dead ringer for carnitas, minus all the lard and time involved,” López-Alt writes. “This is a technique I discovered by accident a few years back, when I decided to see what would happen if I fried up the shredded meat I’d picked off the turkey carcass that I’d just used to make stock. Extreme deliciousness is what happened.”

It’s truly a win-win recipe: The bones from the roasted legs and wings make a flavorful stock (useful if you’re making a turkey soup), and you can always add the rib cage to the pot. Adapt this for the Instant Pot by following López-Alt’s recipe, but pressure-cooking it on high for 25 minutes. Let the pressure release on its own.

If there’s too much meat left, freeze it

Sometimes, that pile of leftover turkey can start to feel oppressive. “Turkey is endless,” Kristen Miglore, who writes the Genius Recipes columns at Food52, told me over the phone. “You bought this massive bird that you’re not used to cooking whole and then you end up with just bags of meat.”

The day after Thanksgiving, Miglore recommends this turkey hash salad, adapted from the Silver Palate. You could also swap out the potatoes for roasted vegetables, if that’s what you have left over.

What comes next?
What comes next?
Image: AP Photo/Matthew Mead

But if you simply can’t imagine getting through that pile of meat in the next few days, freeze it. Pulled from the bones and frozen in vacuum-sealed bags, tightly packed jars, or freezer bags with the air squeezed out of them, cooked turkey freezes well and is a great base for quick weeknight meals. ”If you’re in the habit of using up roast chicken, it becomes really easy to use up leftover turkey in all the same kinds of places,” Miglore says. Soups, stews, enchiladas, and fried rice are all great places to start. Turkey can top any salad that chicken would, and go in a grain bowl, too.

Another strategy is to make turkey soup and freeze it in jars, or mix the turkey meat with the leftover gravy and freeze it in portions to fill future turkey pot pies.

Eliminate leftovers altogether

Some people (gasp!) don’t really like eating leftovers. And Thanksgiving doesn’t have to stretch the capacity of your refrigerator. You’re not contractually obligated to cook an entire turkey. Simply roasting or braising turkey breasts might be the answer if you’re a small group.

As you plan the menu, how about just eliminating one side dish all together? You probably won’t miss it. There’s a temptation to make sentimental dishes that only one or two people are really craving. Solve this by letting guests know that you would love for them to bring their cranberry jello salad or pureed chestnuts, and then make sure they take whatever doesn’t get eaten.

Make them easily portable, and the rest of your leftovers will walk out the door, too. If you picked up a few sets of plastic food storage containers in advance, it’s easy to send leftover food home with your guests. This is also a great use for saved takeout containers. Put mashed potatoes on the bottom as a base, then place turkey, vegetables and a dollop of gravy on top.

As for pies, bake them in foil tins, or pick up extra pie plates at the thrift store, then send them home with a lucky guest.