Thanksgiving

Small Party, Big Feel: How to Cook Thanksgiving for 4 People or Less

Your tiny Thanksgiving can still be a grand affair.
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Published Nov. 9, 2023.

A dozen people gathered around the dinner table or shuffling shoulder to shoulder down the kitchen counter buffet line isn’t the only way to celebrate Thanksgiving. Smaller holiday gatherings are great too.

Whether you’re cooking for your family or yourself, consider these ideas to help your small-scale Thanksgiving retain that big-time feeling.

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Cook Turkey Parts, Not a Whole Turkey

Roasting a whole turkey can feel like a big to-do. It also takes some finessing to nail the timing; if you’re not paying attention, the breast meat may dry out by the time the thighs are cooked through. We’ll never discourage you from roasting a whole bird—this recipe rules, and this one involves slathering the turkey with seasoned mayo—but for smaller groups, consider a technique that yields a first-rate turkey with half the hassle: cooking turkey in parts.

Most supermarkets will sell you the bone-in breast or leg quarters separately. From there, we can’t recommend braising the turkey enough. The meat retains all the moisture and tenderness, and the pan juices it yields make for a dynamite gravy. For those of you who want to level-up your turkey thighs, try confiting them in duck fat (see recipe video below). My colleague Dan Souza declares it “the best turkey I’ve ever eaten”—and that’s saying something.

Watch Cook's Illustrated's Lan Lam make Turkey Thigh Confit with Citrus Mustard Sauce.

But suppose you want that Norman Rockwell carved-at-the-table presentation. Roasting just the breast will take about half the time as a whole turkey, and you still get to show off your carving skills. (You can also roast the bone-in breast in a tightly covered Dutch oven for supermoist meat.) Be sure to salt the breast meat the night before to permeate it with flavor and help keep it moist during cooking.

Or, Skip the Turkey

Why not give yourself permission to cook something non-traditional? 

We know uttering the following statement at America’s Test Kitchen feels a bit like swearing in church, but here goes: Not everyone is crazy about turkey. For those people, roasting a duck is the way to go. It’s the poultry of choice for fans of crisp and fatty skin, and we know they’re legion. 

You might also consider skipping the bird altogether. Several years ago, I hosted a Friendsgiving where the centerpiece that night was a holiday porchetta. Sliced thick with crackly skin attached, our porchetta was meltingly tender and rich, served with Italian salsa verde. Not one person lamented the absence of turkey.

Duckporchetta

Roast duck. Porchetta. Both equally spectacular.

Soups Make Meals Feel Festive

Thanksgiving isn’t usually a light meal, and maybe that’s why it feels special. Any dish to trick your brain into thinking “richness” may elevate your small-scale meal into a more satiating experience.

We’re big proponents of doing this with soup . . . hear us out. Not only is it easy to make and it warms you through on a late-autumn’s evening, but you also can engineer Thanksgiving flavors into the pot. May we suggest this Silky Butternut Squash Soup with buttered cinnamon-sugar croutons, an all-time favorite of our readers. Watch how to make the recipe below.

Scale Down Your Cooking Vessels

If you want to scale down a favorite recipe, choose a cooking vessel that matches the number of people youre serving. Instead of a Dutch oven for that cranberry sauce that serves 12, downsize to a saucepan. Making a smaller amount of brussels sprouts on the stovetop? Swap the 12-inch skillet for a 10-inch. If the green bean casserole you love serves a crowd and is typically made in a 13 by 9-inch baking pan, cut it in half using an 8-inch square one. Prepping for Thanksgiving is typically a competition for kitchen real estate. Adjust accordingly and youll have less mess to deal with afterward.

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And Scale Down Your Cooking Time

Swapping the cooking vessel is important, but there might be other recipe-specific adjustments—such as cook time—that you need to make. Remember that some dishes are more forgiving than others. (For example, unless you have a proven scaled-down version of that wild rice dressing you want to make, you might not want to chance cutting it in half.)

If you do go rogue and decide to scale back a full recipe, know what visual cues to look for when its done. A green bean casseroles top should be golden brown and the sauce should bubble around the edges. Stuffing is done when the top is golden brown and crisp. Dinner rolls, biscuits, and cornbread are done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean or with only a few crumbs attached.

Freeze Today, Serve Later

Theres a certain satisfaction t0 making food ahead of time, freezing it, and having ready-made meals reheatable in an instant. Its a bit like finding a $5 bill in your pocket.

Of the most popular Thanksgiving dishes, many can withstand the rigors of freezing and reheating:

Better yet, make full servings of your favorite Thanksgiving recipes. Eat half of it on Thanksgiving night, and freeze the other half for Thanksgiving II.

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Treat Yo’self

If youre not going to spend $75 on that heritage turkey, take that money and splurge yourself with an extra-special bottle of wine or Champagne. Or fix that cocktail youve been meaning to make. Even if you dont drink, a bottle of sparkling apple or pear cider will make your small-scale dinner feel bubbly and festive.

Support Local Businesses

Our singular goal at ATK is to make you a more confident cook. But we’re also cognizant of our restaurant/butcher/bakery colleagues who need our business, even (especially!) during the holiday season. Maybe this is the year we leave Thanksgiving cooking to the pros. Or, at least some of the cooking.

Why not buy a pecan pie from your local bakery? Order a marinated turkey breast from the neighborhood butcher? Or reach out to your favorite restaurant and have them take care of the entire dinner? You’ll feel good supporting local businesses, and it leaves you more time to watch football and play Stratego.

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