Because mashed potatoes are a nonnegotiable part of my family’s Thanksgiving meal, I argue year after year that we do not need stuffing on the table. Potatoes, I believe, render stuffing superfluous. Inevitably, I end up making stuffing anyway, but my reasoning stands. On a holiday when real estate — stomach, oven and table — is at a premium, hard choices about carbohydrates must be made.
Unlike stuffing, potatoes mingle with and enhance all of the other foods present. But what’s most miraculous about potatoes is how they can take on the dual textures of creamy and crispy. Mashed potatoes might be a classic Thanksgiving side, but the dish’s one-note consistency doesn’t take advantage of the potato’s full potential.
These alternatives, on the other hand, show off its versatility.
The first is pommes boulangère, a French classic. Like a less-rich gratin, it’s made with chicken (or turkey) stock instead of cream, and flavored with caramelized onions and thyme, making it a natural fit on the Thanksgiving table. As the casserole bakes, the potatoes slowly absorb the stock, becoming creamy and soft, while the top layer browns and crisps. This version calls for fingerling potatoes, which don’t require peeling and slice into uniform rounds, but you could use small red-skinned potatoes or Yukon golds. Cutting the potatoes thinly and evenly is key, so use a mandoline if you have one, but be cautious and stop just before the very end.
Using homemade stock in a recipe can feel fussy, but it’s worth making an exception for Thanksgiving. While store-bought stock is an option, homemade contains more gelatin, which lends overall better flavor and texture, and helps bind the potatoes so the final dish holds together.
The other two dishes — duchess-style twice-baked potatoes and a garlicky mashed potato cake — employ baked russet potatoes, taking advantage of their fluffiness and starchiness. Baking is easier and less messy than boiling, and it drives off more moisture, which can then be replaced with fatty dairy for added flavor. If you’re worried about oven space, you can bake the potatoes and start to prepare the dishes well in advance, freeing up the oven for the turkey.
Baking russets directly on the oven rack makes their skins crispy and flavorful, perfect for twice-baked potatoes. But, with their usual sour cream and cheese, they can be heavy, and the Thanksgiving meal is already a rich one. To prevent this, I took inspiration from a French preparation known as pommes duchesse, an egg yolk-enriched potato purée that’s piped into rosettes and baked.
While the baked potatoes are still hot, their flesh is scooped from the skins, passed through a ricer or food mill, and mixed with butter, milk and egg yolks until smooth. (Hot potatoes release less starch, which prevents gumminess.) The mixture is then piped back into the skins, the swirly surfaces dusted with paprika, and then baked again until the ridges are crispy and golden brown. The final result is creamy and rich, but not heavy.
The third contender, the potato cake, is a variation on hash browns, only fluffier, tangier and bigger. Garlic sizzles in butter until both are golden brown, then the coarsely chopped flesh of several baked potatoes is added along with sour cream. It’s all folded together, then pressed into a nonstick skillet and cooked on the stovetop until the bottom is golden brown. Finally, it’s baked until the entire cake is crispy all over. If you’re a mashed potato lover, try this dish. It tastes like a coarse, garlicky mash with a delicate, golden crust.
The biggest challenge for cooks on Thanksgiving is getting all of the food to the table hot and at the same time, so to ease the burden a little, each of these potato dishes can be prepared in advance. The fully baked pommes boulangère benefits from a long rest (so the starches in the potatoes can set) and reheats beautifully, while the twice-baked potatoes can be filled ahead of time, held at room temperature and baked again right before serving. The potato cake can either be made entirely ahead of time and reheated, or you can serve it at room temperature.
Whether you choose to forgo stuffing is entirely up to you, but with these potato side dishes, it’s doubtful anyone would even notice.