How to Make the Best Thanksgiving Turkey Burgers

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All the flavors of Thanksgiving on a bun—turkey, sausage, roast vegetables, herbs, sweet potato, cranberry, apple, gravy, and fried onions. [Photographs: Joshua Bousel]

A couple of years ago, I took my inevitable Thanksgiving leftovers and pressed them into an incredible panini. Between those two toasted, crusty pieces of bread, the flavors of roast turkey, sugary-tart cranberry sauce, sweet and savory cornbread stuffing, and rich gravy combined into a killer sandwich that captured all the comforts of the holiday in one bite. I thought that for those looking for a smaller scale Thanksgiving meal, this would be a perfect flavor-packed substitute. But it would also require cooking each ingredient separately—not very practical.

I set out to capture the same experience, without the days of work. Here's how it's done.

Turkey Time

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I've never been a fan of turkey burgers, which are all too often dry and flavorless. In the past, I've resorted doctoring them up with tons of mix-ins to compensate for their inherent shortfalls.

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Of course, Kenji has found an answer to the flavorless, dry turkey burger that doesn't require the barrage of herbs, spices, and veggies I've turned to in the past. I figured this was as good a time as any to start. Unfortunately, none of my local butchers or grocers seemed to carry the juicy, flavorful turkey thighs that recipe calls for. Instead, I bought a package of the more widely available 85% lean ground turkey, determined to turn it into the best damn turkey burger I could.

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From my past experience with burger-making, I knew that 15% fat wouldn't be quite enough to ensure a juicy, full-flavored patty. Kenji uses eggplant to boost the moisture content of the ground meat; I started to wonder if a sweet potato might do the job in its place, with the added bonus of incorporating some classic Thanksgiving flavor.

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I decided to buy both and roasted them in a 425°F oven until they were completely softened—about 30 minutes for the eggplant and 60 minutes for the sweet potato (if I didn't have the oven going already, I would have opted to cook the spud in the microwave, which can get the job done in around 12-15 minutes). After a short rest, I scooped out the flesh of both, noticing the eggplant was significantly more moist. But I was no less enthusiastic about the sweet potato's potential, and I made up two batches of turkey burgers, one using the eggplant, and the other the sweet potato.

Building a Base

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Although I planned on hitting the full range of turkey day dishes with my burger toppings, I still wanted the burger to strike the right balance of a rich, meaty base and a mellow Thanksgiving flavor. The sweet potato was just the start—I also sautéed onion and celery until softened, finished with a healthy portion of sage, thyme, and garlic.

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Once my veggie and herb mix had cooled off, I divided it up into each batch of burger meat, along with a third of a pound of loose pork sausage—my favorite flavor in my family's signature cornbread stuffing.

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Once combined, I cooked up a couple of small test patties. Both were killing it, and the difference in moisture content was almost indistinguishable, thanks to the addition of the fatty pork sausage. But the potato mix had a mild sweetness that went especially well with the veggies and herbs, for a great Thanksgiving-quality flavor profile. Neither batch was excessively seasoned, allowing the turkey to really shine.

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Top That

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The burger was just the beginning, though: I had grand plans to put together an array of toppings that would make this the ultimate Thanksgiving-quality meal all wrapped up in sandwich form.

Step one? Toasting a buttered potato roll until it was lightly browned and crisp.

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I rested the burger atop its buttery, pillowy throne and spread it with a layer of cranberry-apple relish. This relish has about half the sugar of regular cranberry sauce, so it really highlights the tartness of the cranberries and the sweetness of the apples.

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Next came the gravy. I used this all-purpose gravy because I didn't have the required turkey drippings or stock to make a standard turkey gravy. It was a little more work, but the flavor was totally worth the extra effort in the end.

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Then some spinach went on for greenery, and finally French's fried onions, because my Thanksgiving meal isn't complete without those greasy little pockets of salt to cancel out whatever healthier food they're resting on top of.

Thanksgiving on a Bun

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The base patty is nice and juicy, with just the right herbal touch and sweetness. The cranberry relish provides a sweet and tart contrast, while the gravy amps up the richness and enhances the poultry flavor. Spinach lends a freshness, and the fried onions a salty crunch.

So there you have it, Thanksgiving on a bun. Actually, that's shortchanging it—this is its own masterpiece. One whose holiday influence shouldn't pigeonhole it into a once-a-year event. All the flavors work in harmony to deliver an all-around great burger experience, which is definitely not something I say lightly when it comes to turkey burgers. This is great eating, no matter the time of the year.