Everyone knows that Thanksgiving is all about the sides—right? They’re arguably the tastiest items on the table, and they’re what make the holiday spread your own.
When I polled the Cook’s Illustrated team about what the must-have side dish is at everyone’s table, no two answers were the same. Here’s a rundown of our collective favorites, including notes about what makes each recipe special.
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Simple Cranberry Sauce
"This sauce has clean, pure cranberry flavor. There’s enough sweetness to temper the assertively tart fruit but not so much to be cloying, and the little bit of salt heightens its flavor overall. Then I like to riff on it by simmering the sauce with fresh rosemary. Don’t knock it till you try it!"
Brussels Sprout Salad with Warm Browned Butter Vinaigrette
"A shaved brussels sprout salad will never go out of fashion on my table. I love the way the pungent leaves contrast with richer items on the menu. But eating one can sometimes be completely lackluster. Lan Lam has solved this problem by combining the slivered sprouts with tender chopped baby arugula. The other supporting players in this salad make it especially festive—quick-pickled shallots and dried cranberries, manchego cheese, and toasted hazelnuts, all tossed in a nutty browned butter–and-mustard vinaigrette."
Braised Collard Greens
"No Thanksgiving table is complete without at least one pot of greens. (My Mom makes braised mustard and turnip greens too). They’re tender, silky, and smoky with ham hocks, which are boiled until the water turns slightly opaque to ensure that the pork’s fat and gelatin have diffused into the cooking water. That way, the pot liquor is flavorful and full-bodied."
"My Great Aunt Wendy, a legendary Philadelphia caterer who for decades hosted a huge family Thanksgiving, would always set out a platter of gravlax and black bread to start the meal. I’d pile so much salmon on my plate that I’d barely make it to the main event. Now I host Thanksgiving and make my own because it’s the simplest make-ahead treat for a crowd. Just rub a skin-on side of salmon with salt and brown sugar (more nuanced than granulated), a little brandy (adds flavor and helps the cure stick), and fresh dill; refrigerate it under some heavy cans for a few days to help the fish release moisture and firm up so that it’s easy to slice; baste it daily with the exuded liquid to help speed the curing process; scrape off the herbs, pat it dry, and slice it paper-thin."
Roasted Butternut Squash with Goat Cheese, Pecans, and Maple
"What I like about this recipe is that it focuses on the squash's nutty flavor rather than covering it up. Tossing the slices with butter and roasting them at a relatively high heat means there is plenty of flavorful browning. A sprinkle of goat cheese lends a touch of creaminess and toasted pecans add crunch. The final drizzle of cayenne-spiked maple syrup brings everything together."
"For years I made scalloped potatoes on Thanksgiving, but then I tried out tartiflette on the crowd and will never go back. On Thanksgiving, where space on the plate is at a premium with so many side dishes on offer, I like its bold flavor and richness. This French potato and cheese gratin is earthy (from leaving on the potato skins); luscious with ripe rind-on Camembert (a stand-in for traditional Reblochon) and heavy cream; and smoky from hunks of thick-cut bacon—the rendered fat of which is used as a flavor base. Just a small scoop satisfies, freeing up space for the stuffing, squash, cranberry sauce, etc."
"Rice balls, or arancini, have always been a staple of our family's Thanksgiving table. Everyone hangs out in the kitchen while they're being fried, waiting excitedly and impatiently as the deep golden spheres emerge from the bubbling oil. By the time we sit down to eat, somehow, without fail, at least half of them are always gone. This recipe is helpful because it calls for a measured amount of risotto and cheese, ensuring that there will be enough rice to surround the filling and that the cheese will be gooey by the time the outside browns."
Our Favorite Turkey Gravy
"There are always so many last-minute details to attend to on Thanksgiving, but gravy doesn't have to be one of them. I love that I can make this one ahead. After reheating it, I whisk in the defatted juices from the turkey to boost the flavor even more. My nephew would drink this from a mug if we let him."
Citrus Salad with Radicchio, Dates, and Smoked Almonds
"I love to have something fresh and juicy on the table to cut through all of the richer, heavier dishes, and this salad is absolutely gorgeous on a holiday table—people "ooh" and "ahh" over it every year. The clever thing is that you treat the fruit with salt, which counters its bitter notes and also pulls juice from the fruit that we use to dress the radicchio. Smoky almonds add some richness and chewy dates add texture and sweetness."
Silky Butternut Squash Soup
"I love this soup because it extracts the flavor out of every part of the squash, including the seeds and skins. They are used to make a butternut stock, which becomes the base of the soup before the flesh is pureed. I feel like this is especially important in the "don't waste anything" era we are living in. It can be garnished with a variety of things, including croutons or roasted pepitas. When I make it, the tureen is always empty at the end of the meal!"
"This is officially the new potato recipe in our family, because it tastes like the butteriest, best mashed potatoes you could want. The softened kale and scallions swirled into the potatoes (creamy Yukon Golds) adds some pleasant bite and nutrients, and gently folding them into the mash at the last minute ensures that they’re not crushed."
Skillet-Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Maple Syrup and Smoked Almonds
"In my house, brussels sprouts have joined gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce in the upper echelon of Thanksgiving sides. They are a must-feature dish. And no sprouts recipe receives as many accolades and encore requests as this one. These skillet-roasted brussels sprouts get deeply browned and crisped in the skillet before soaking up woodsy maple syrup and savory-sharp sherry vinegar. A sprinkle of chopped smoky almonds adds satisfying crunch."