Vegan

12 Vegan Thanksgiving Mains That’ll Make You Go, 'Turkey Who?'

The best turkey alternatives for vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike.

November  2, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

Every year, as Thanksgiving looms, the texts from increasingly panicked hosts begin to roll in:

  • How do I make a pumpkin pie without dairy?
  • My sister-in-law isn’t eating gluten this year, but demands stuffing.
  • What do I make instead of turkey for a table of vegans?!

First of all, take a deep breath—it’s just one meal. There will be three more tomorrow! As you take another big inhale, know that I’m here to help. Right now, I’ll assist with the vegans. Or vegetarians. Or the ones that you ate burgers with last month but now are strictly pescatarian thank-you-very-much. Basically, if you’re feeding Thanksgiving dinner to people who don’t eat turkey, and want to prepare them something besides the salad and dessert that are already on the table, we’ve got you covered. From whole-roasted cauliflower and lentil shepherd's pie to vegan lasagna and zucchini enchiladas, no one will leave your Thanksgiving table hungry.

And before you start on me about how some of these dishes aren’t rooted in traditional Thanksgiving flavors (my Aunt Deb certainly wouldn’t make mapo tofu on Turkey Day), I urge you to rethink what “traditional” even means. Thanksgiving is an American holiday (actually, there’s one in Canada too), but does every American family sit down to attack a 20-pound bird with a side of marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes on the big day? Nope.

For many, the day is actually quite a painful one, steeped in remembrance of colonialism and fear. As a cook, I tend to think of Thanksgiving as a day I can spend preparing a meal, a thing I love, for people I love. Nothing more. And guess what? I don’t have to make a turkey—and neither do you.

Relatives may cluck disapprovingly behind their water glasses, but once you set the table with any number of these vegan main dishes, no one will miss the tryptophan.


Vegan Turkey Substitutes

1. Burmese Tofu (aka Chickpea Flour Tofu)

For an alternative to turkey that’s mild in flavor and can be treated like any other protein, turn to Burmese tofu, which transforms chickpea flour, oil, and water into a sturdy tofu-like dish. You can dress it however you’d like, or serve it with vegan gravy, dairy-free mashed potatoes, and meatless stuffing if you’d like to stick with those “classic” Thanksgiving flavors.

2. Whole Roasted Cauliflower With Turmeric-Tahini Sauce & Pistachios

A vegetable instead of turkey? You bet. “Whole roasted cauliflower” may sound simple on paper (or on your family’s Thanksgiving planning spreadsheet), but just wait until you set it down on the table. Of course, it’s not just a cauliflower—the brassica is adorned with an herb mixture, nuts, sliced chiles, and dried Kalamata olives. Sound complex? I guarantee you it’s less work than wet-brining a turkey.

3. Vegan Lentil Shepherd’s Pie With Parsnip & Potato Mash

This cozy lentil shepherd's pie is basically a complete vegan Thanksgiving dinner in one neat package. The rosemary and thyme-scented mushroom and lentil mixture satisfies the desire for gravy and protein, and it’s topped with mashed potatoes (and parsnips! don’t knock ‘em ‘til you try ‘em!). For stuffing vibes, serve the dish with a big loaf of sourdough bread.

4. Vegetarian Mapo Tofu

You’ve probably ordered or made mapo tofu before, and are no stranger to the delightfully lip-numbing quality of the dish’s signature Sichuan peppercorn-based sauce. For this recipe, you won’t need to use the peppercorns—though you could certainly add one coarsely ground tablespoon of them to the oil just before the mushrooms. The spicy bean paste doubanjiang, however, is nonnegotiable. Find it in your local Asian market or buy some online.

5. Sweet Potato & Chickpea Cakes

Instead of making these sweet potato-chickpea cakes the day after Thanksgiving, make them for the main event. Start with this recipe for coconut mashed sweet potatoes, then add chickpeas, panko, scallions, and spices. These guys are perfect with a glob of vegan gravy and a smear of cranberry sauce.

6. Vegan Lasagna With Roasted Vegetables

As I always say, when in doubt, make lasagna. The cozy casserole is always, always a crowd-pleaser. This recipe swaps out ricotta, mozzarella, and Parm for tofu and nutritional yeast, but I promise even the non-vegans at the table will be reaching for a wedge. Seriously, who can turn down a hearty slice of lasagna?

7. Zucchini Verde Enchiladas

There’s no rule that says "you can’t make enchiladas tonight” (and if anyone’s ever said that, vote them off the island immediately). These zucchini, black bean, and tofu enchiladas are draped with a garlicky lime cashew cream. And hey, if everyone else at the table is going to be jealous of the vegans because they get to have enchiladas for Thanksgiving, then why not make another tray or two? For a couple non-vegan versions, use turkey meat in these enchiladas Suizas to keep with the tone of the holiday, or go with this yam and collards version.

8. Nutty Veggie Burgers

Who says veggie burgers can’t be a part of the Thanksgiving table? Party poopers! Make veggie burgers, live your life. Maybe you don’t want to break out the burger buns and ketchup, but I certainly wouldn’t be mad at this nutty black bean patty alongside my sweet potatoes and green beans.

9. Vegan Pot Pie With Herby Biscuits

An ideal dish to have on the table when you’re feeding vegans—the filling is creamy and cheesy, the biscuits are buttery, but there’s not a drop of meat or dairy in the whole thing. (Shoutout to nutritional yeast for turning up the flavor dials!). Bonus points: the filling can be made in advance, which is always helpful on Thanksgiving. For some more protein, you could toss in browned vegan sausage to the filling.

10. Marinated Tofu Steak Sandwiches

You can make the whole sandwich if you want, but the star of the show here is the tofu “steak.” Once frozen, tofu takes on a whole new texture. Subtly chewy—nothing like seitan or even real steak, just a bit more oomph—and marinated in a lemony, garlicky mixture, tofu becomes a main dish for which even meat-eaters will swap their turkey. Feel free to get creative with the marinade here: try swapping in apple cider vinegar for white, lime juice for lemon, chili powder for paprika, or maple syrup for honey (many vegans don’t eat it, after all).

11. Vegan Stuffed Peppers

Stuffed peppers are a meatless mainstay for a reason: they’re essentially a full meal in one neat package, but can also serve the main protein when served with other sides. This one’s packed with lentils and quinoa, tethered together with a harissa-based sauce. Feel free to swap out the peppers for tomatoes, or, for an even more autumnal vibe, hollowed out delicata squash (roast the innards alongside, then fold into the filling).

12. Squashduckens

Speaking of stuffed squash, if you swap the cheese in this recipe for vegan alternatives, a Squashducken (yes, that’s a squash stuffed inside a squash inside another squash inside another—in the style of a Turducken) is perhaps the most worthy of the “Meatless Thanksgiving Main” title. Be warned: it’s a lot more work than a turkey, but proven to earn a round of applause when brought to the table. Looking for a sweet version? We've got you covered. Sweet Squashducken is an apple-pear crumble crossed with buttery-smooth roasted squash, and it goes just as well with stuffing as a scoop of ice cream.

Are you cooking vegan this Thanksgiving? What will you be serving for your non-turkey-eating guests? Let us know in the comments below.
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Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. Her writing has appeared in TASTE, The Strategist, Eater, and Bon Appetit's Healthyish and Basically. She contributed recipes and words to the book "Breakfast: The Most Important Book About the Best Meal of the Day." Once upon a time, she studied theatre design and art history at Smith College, so if you need a last-minute avocado costume or want to talk about Wayne Thiebaud's cakes, she's your girl. You can follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.

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