Celebrate with a Southern Thanksgiving Menu
Loosen your belt for a full-on comfort food Thanksgiving for 8! We've got Cajun smoked turkey, the Southern sides you crave, and a rich chocolate cake.
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Article, recipes, and photos by Marrekus and Krysten Wilkes of Cooks with Soul
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Southern living is more than just a lifestyle, it is a culture. Everything that is done in the South, in my opinion, is done with love. That's especially true at Thanksgiving, where over the years we've often gathered for big feasts.
When I was growing up, we would have family come from all over the country. Thanksgiving Day usually meant that we would eat at multiple locations due to our family being so large and everyone wanting to showcase their cooking skills. My mom would have my grandfather pick some fresh greens, cabbage, peas, or other vegetables from his garden and she would get busy in the kitchen. Like other families, mine would stick to the traditional menu but would add our Southern flair.
There were always at least two turkeys: one smoked or oven-roasted, and one fried. We would have ham as well, and if we were lucky it would come from my grandfather’s salt house from a recent hog kill. The sides usually included some combination of collard greens, cabbage, corn, squash, peas, cornbread dressing, yams, and spaghetti. The desserts were plentiful and included sweet potato pies, chess pies, custard pies, strawberry cake, pineapple upside-down cakes, and my all-time favorite, banana pudding.
While dinner was being prepared, usually by all of the moms and grandmas, the kids would run around playing and working up an appetite, and the males would be outside manning the smoker and fryer, or taking care of any other chores that the ladies required. I remember growing up and saying to my uncles that I could not wait until I had the opportunity to fire up the smoker or fryer to cook the birds for our feast.
When I left to go to the military, I remember vividly my first Thanksgiving away from home. I had been in Air Force basic military training in San Antonio, Texas for about three days when Thanksgiving rolled around. All I could think of was how much food my family was enjoying. After I arrived at my first duty station and met some new friends who were also from the South, we started hosting our own family Thanksgiving dinners, and they were everything that I missed from home.
I would even call my mom and aunts to get a hold of their secret recipes so that I would be able to keep the tradition going and their recipes alive. We've continued that tradition with my military family and friends over the last 19 years and we still get together for Thanksgiving when we can.
These days my wife and I tend to do seafood for Thanksgiving, a tradition we started when we lived in Florida, but this year we decided to get back to our roots, to recipes that remind us of those big family gatherings. For this Southern Thanksgiving dinner, which is just the right size to serve our family of 8, we went with spatchcocked Cajun Smoked Turkey, which has the perfect spice to it and is packed full of juicy flavor. Then we added some favorite Southern Thanksgiving dishes: baked mac and cheese, candied yams, Southern-style cabbage, and cornbread. And for dessert, a German chocolate cake.
I know, I know, German chocolate cake does not have a Southern tie to it, but it’s such a favorite of my wife’s and something she grew up having with her family in California, so we made it part of this meal. Happy wife equals happy life!
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How to make a Cajun smoked turkey
I could not have a Southern-style Thanksgiving without tossing in some Cajun influence. I am not from Louisiana, but my wife and I were married there, so their cuisine holds a special place in our hearts. I make a super simple Cajun butter injection that I use to add extra moisture and flavor to the turkey. The recipe is pretty straightforward but does take a little prep work for a flavorful and juicy turkey.
If you space everything out over a few days, you’ll be all set for perfect results, even if this is your first time smoking a turkey.
• Line up your equipment. You’re going to need a smoker or grill, fuel for it, and also an injector. The injector that I use is the SpitJack Magnum. I go with the Green Mountain Grill pellet smoker to make my turkey, but you can use any smoker or a gas or charcoal grill. (See more details in the recipe.) You also need a brining bag or large pot, a pair of sturdy poultry shears to spatchcock the turkey (or ask a butcher to do it), a sheet pan, and a few chunks of cherry wood or apple wood (or wood chips if using a gas grill). And finally you’ll need a meat thermometer such as the Yummly Smart Thermometer.
• Get some Cajun seasoning. Most of the ingredients in the recipe are straightforward, and you can go with any Cajun seasoning.
• Thaw the turkey (if needed, 3 days). Pick out a 12-14 pound turkey from your local grocer or butcher, preferably fresh, but if you have to get frozen, make sure you allow enough time for it to thaw in your fridge. I recommend 24 hours in the refrigerator for every 5 pounds of turkey, so at a bit under 15 pounds, you’re looking at around 3 days for it to thaw.
• Spatchcock the bird (before you brine). Spatchcocking a turkey entails removing the backbone and pressing the bird flat. This allows the breast to cook at the same temp and time as the legs and wings. Overall this puts out a more evenly cooked product and it also reduces your cook time. See the video below. You can also have a butcher do this for you if you buy a fresh bird.
• Brine it (16-24 hours). Once your bird is thawed, you want to get it into a nice brining solution. Brining your turkey in a salt, sugar, and herb solution seasons the bird from the inside out while enhancing its tenderness and flavor. No one likes a dry piece of turkey, so take the time to put in the effort to ensure your family enjoys dinner.
• Turkey injection (just before cooking). You want to inject the turkey in the breasts, thighs, and legs with the Cajun butter. This only takes about 15 minutes with the injector. Watch the video below to see how it works.
• Smoke the turkey. Plan on 2 to 3 hours, including starting the fire, and your beautiful turkey is done!
What’s the right temperature to cook a turkey to?
When I cook a spatchcocked turkey I pull it from the grill at 145°-150F° in the thickest part of the breast, and get an extra 10°-15F° temperature rise during the resting period, as the heat carries over and continues cooking. To me the turkey is more juicy than if cooked to the typical 165°. And it’s safe to eat. I learned from Serious Eats and the USDA that if you cook a turkey to 150F° and let it rest only 3.8 minutes (for 145F°, 10.5 minutes), any salmonella is killed. But you and your diners may still prefer it more done, and with a good meat thermometer, you have the choice.
Ready to give the smoked turkey recipe a try?
How to spatchcock a turkey (video)
We put together this video of preparing the Cajun Smoked Turkey so you can see just how easy it is to spatchcock a turkey. I also show you how to use the injector to add the Cajun butter to the meat.
As I mentioned, I like to inject my Cajun Smoked Turkey before smoking it with a simple Cajun butter in the breast, thighs, and legs. This brings flavor into the meat and also bastes the meat as it cooks to keep everything super moist. The injector that I use isthe SpitJack Magnum. If you watch the video above, you'll see how to get the butter into the injector, where to place the injection needle in the turkey, and how much butter to use.
Southern Thanksgiving side dishes
What are some good Southern-style sides? Though the choices for side dishes are endless, for a traditional Southern-style Thanksgiving, I think there are a few staples. Cabbage or collard greens, candied yams, mac ‘n’ cheese, and cornbread will always be the stars of the show.
Southern mac and cheese
One of the most controversial side dishes for any holiday meal seems to be baked macaroni and cheese, because everyone likes to put their own spin on how they cook it and what ingredients they use. This is by far one of my favorite dishes. I have had it with all types of cheeses and even had it with seafood. For our Thanksgiving meal we went with a simple recipe that is extra cheesy and packed with flavor, including a touch of Cajun seasoning. I took a few of my family members’ recipes and broke them down, mixing bits and pieces from them all to come up with a dish that is simple but does not lack flavor.
My Southern Baked Mac and Cheese starts off with a blonde roux made with flour and butter. I like the flavor profile of Colby jack and sharp cheddar cheese, but feel free to change those out for whatever you like. I also like curly cavatappi noodles instead of elbow noodles. I feel like they hold the cheese sauce better and have better texture. I know folks reading this will draw me into the argument of how many cheeses I did not use or what I should’ve done, but trust me when I tell you that this recipe is a winner.
Southern candied yams
If done right, candied yams are like dessert during dinner. The sweet and buttery flavor warms me all over and reminds me of seeing my grandmother in the kitchen peeling and slicing the yams, then coating them in her famous caramel-type sauce. When she would bake them in the oven you would think that a pie or cake was coming out, and not a side dish to go with turkey and ham. Our recipe has all the notes of Grandma’s kitchen, including brown sugar and spices, and I am glad to share it with you.
Cabbage cooked Southern-style
Southern cabbage is a side dish that is super simple but packs a ton of flavor. You want to make sure that you buy a nice, firm head of green cabbage with no wilted leaves from your local grocery store. If you can find a farmers' market that has cabbage, then even better.
I like to give my cabbage a rough chop and then rinse it thoroughly in a bowl to remove any residual grit. While you are chopping and rinsing your cabbage get a Dutch oven or large pot preheated. My mom always used ham hocks in her cabbage, so I follow suit. They add a ton of flavor and if you are looking for true Southern cabbage, then you need those hocks. If you cannot find them, go with thick-cut bacon or diced thick-sliced ham. Toss the meat into the Dutch oven and cook it down with the cabbage. The smell coming from that pot will take you down South. When the cabbage is nice and tender, it’s ready to eat.
Cornbread comes in many styles, including the more buttery, sweet kind. But the Southern kind I love most is flavored with bacon grease but no sugar and baked in a hot cast-iron skillet for an extra-crispy crust. It's also the starting point for my Southern Thanksgiving dressing recipe.
German chocolate cake for dessert
My wife Krysten’s family makes German chocolate cake every year for Thanksgiving. It’s a rich, indulgent chocolate cake that’s layered with coconut and milk chocolate frosting. This tradition started with her grandmother, Mary, and was later adapted by her mother, Angela. Krysten grew up as an only child, so her family often made smaller cakes, which are also less intimidating for novice bakers. Krysten especially loves to use round 6-inch cake pans to stack and layer this cake. It serves about 8 people, which is perfect for intimate gatherings. Although Krysten was raised on the West Coast, for a Southern twist, you can also top the cake with pecans. Note that German chocolate cake is named after an American chocolate maker, Samuel German, who created his signature and versatile dark chocolate for the American Baker’s Chocolate Company in 1852.
In addition to the cake pans, you’ll need a piping bag and star tip, two 6-inch cardboard cake rounds, and either an additional 8-inch decorative cake round, serving platter, or cake stand. (You can also cut your own cardboard rounds and cover them with foil.) The cake keeps well if you want to make it a day ahead.
I truly hope that you and your family have a happy Thanksgiving and that these recipes make preparing that special meal a little simpler for you. Any chance that I have to introduce people to the food and cooking styles that I grew up on, I jump at the opportunity because nothing brings people together like food. Happy holidays.
Explore more of our best Thanksgiving recipes
Still looking for side dish ideas for your Thanksgiving table? How about sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and Southern cornbread dressing? On Yummly we have cranberry sauce recipes, dinner rolls, corn pudding, and buttermilk biscuits, too.
Explore additional ideas on our Thanksgiving landing page and in the following collections.