Leftover Thanksgiving turkey makes the best, coziest soups

By Melissa Clark, The New York Times

For Gail Jennings and her family, the Thanksgiving menu is never written in ink. One year, the turkey may appear on the table in her Durham, North Carolina, home burnished and whole, a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. The next, it may be roasted in parts, the drumsticks, wings and thighs swathed with onions and tomatoes. She might serve the traditional cornbread dressing, sweet potato casserole and macaroni and cheese, or maybe she’ll go with their veganized cousins, all depending on the particular diets her grandchildren are following that year.

“My grandkids go through phases,” Jennings said. “I just have to keep up with them.”

The day after Thanksgiving, however, is another matter. Every year without fail, Jennings gathers the leftover turkey to make a breathtakingly fiery gumbo.

When it comes to upcycling the remnants of Thanksgiving into leftovers soup, she is not alone. All over the country — sometimes even before the table is cleared and the dishes are put away — big pots are filled with turkey carcasses, scraps of skin, bits of meat, even the dregs of the gravy — and set to simmer on stovetops, in pressure cookers and in slow cookers. For legions of cooks, Thanksgiving isn’t complete without that final cauldron of leftovers soup, enough to last through the holiday weekend and into the next week.

Of all the possible ways to use Thanksgiving leftovers — Dagwood sandwiches, turkey enchiladas, turkey potpies — soup may well be both the most widespread and the most variable. It’s definitely among the coziest.

As for what exactly goes into these fragrant pots, the possibilities are thrillingly disparate. Just as Thanksgiving varies widely from state to state and year to year, so does the next day’s soup.

Jennings makes hers from chunks of leftover turkey meat, the drippings and vegetables at the bottom of the roasting pan, chicken wings, shrimp, collard greens and a turkey bone or two to make the broth taste even richer.

To season it, she combines curry powder with King’s Pepper, a chile-and-herb blend of her own creation that’s based on a West African recipe. Then she ladles the steaming soup over mounds of fluffy white rice. It’s a staple on their table from Thanksgiving through Kwanzaa.

“You know regular gumbo?” Jennings asked. “This is gumbo’s daddy. It’s even better.”

A few hundred miles due north in Arlington, Massachusetts, the leftover soup bubbling away in Cristiana N. de Carvalho’s pot is about as different from Jennings’s as can be considering that the main ingredient is still turkey. Instead of intensely peppery, it’s mellow and herbal, with a clear, velvety broth thickened with nubby pearled barley.

Having grown up in Brazil, de Carvalho didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving until she came to the United States in her 20s. When she saw the traditional roast turkeys on every American table, she was reminded of the birds her mother used to roast for Christmas in Rio de Janeiro.

“My mom always knew to marinate the turkey with herbs, and olive oil and salt,” de Carvalho said. The huge bird would take up almost the whole fridge for a few days, during which her mother would regularly flip it in its marinade before finally roasting it on Christmas Eve.

“When I came here and heard about brining,” de Carvalho said, “it made me think of my mother’s big turkey marinating in the fridge.”

De Carvalho’s mother, a Julia Child disciple and excellent cook, taught her daughter to make her own stocks from scratch out of carcasses, bones, fish heads, shrimp shells, and vegetables. But de Carvalho says store-bought broth works perfectly well in this soup.

“With soup, anyone can just chop up a few vegetables and add them to the pot with leftovers,” she said. “You don’t even need broth. Soup should be easy.”

This point is not lost on Liyan Chen of Montclair, New Jersey. She skips the stock entirely for her Thanksgiving leftover congee and uses water as the base, letting the fatty skin and the dark meat from the roasted bird flavor the soft, starchy rice.

The big difference in her home is that, instead of turkey, the bird at the center of her Thanksgiving table is a crisp-skinned roast duck.

“I’m not a big fan of turkey,” she explained.

Her congee recipe is based on what her family made regularly when she was growing up in Southern China. She combines jasmine rice, chopped roast duck (or any other leftover roasted meat) with water, salt and white pepper, then cooks it all in an electric pressure cooker for about half an hour until the rice starts to dissolve, thickening the mixture into a silky, mild porridge.

“For my family, congee is like comfort food, a bit like chicken soup is in American culture,” she said. “It’s what you want when you’re sick or tired, or if it’s a rainy day.”

Although she prefers to keep the seasonings on the plain side, Chen encourages people to add garnishes as they like — chopped romaine for texture, slivers of ginger, scallion, a little more white pepper or a drizzle of soy sauce. Heat seekers can spoon on chile oil or chile crisp to zip things up.

And yes, you can use leftover turkey to make congee. At the end of the day, she said, soup is just so versatile.

“You can throw anything in and end up with a heartwarming bowl of love,” she said. And that’s surely a holiday menu worth carving in stone.

Gumbo’s Daddy With Chicken, Shrimp and Turkey

Yield: 6 servings

Total time: 45 minutes


  • 1 to 1 1/4 pound chicken wings
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons fine salt, plus more as needed
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1/4 teaspoon chile powder, such as King’s Pepper, plus more to taste (or use cayenne pepper)
  • 3 cups chicken or turkey stock or water, plus more as needed
  • 1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
  • 1 small red onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup chopped red, yellow or orange bell pepper
  • 1 habanero or Scotch bonnet chile, seeded (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil
  • 1 (15-ounce) can collard greens (with their liquid) or 1 large bunch collard greens, stems removed, leaves torn into bite-size pieces
  • 2 cups chopped or shredded leftover turkey
  • 1 to 2 turkey bones (optional)
  • 1 pound large shrimp, peeled, deveined and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • Cooked rice, for serving


1. Pat chicken wings dry with paper towels. Season all over with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon chile powder (or a pinch of cayenne), and set aside.

2. In a blender, combine 1 cup stock or water, tomato sauce, onion, bell pepper, chile (if using), curry powder, tomato paste, remaining 1 tablespoon ground chile (or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne) and a pinch of salt. Blend until smooth. Set aside.

3. Add oil to a large soup pot over medium-high heat. Once oil is hot but not smoking, add chicken and cook until browned on both sides, 4 to 6 minutes per side. Transfer the chicken to a plate. While the oil is still hot, carefully pour the onion-tomato mixture into the pot. Do this slowly as the sauce may splatter. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until thickens slightly, about 5 to 7 minutes.

4. Add the reserved chicken wings, collard greens, turkey, turkey bones (if using), remaining 3/4 teaspoon salt and 2 cups stock or water. Cook on simmer, partly covered, until chicken is cooked through and very tender, 20 to 30 minutes. If the gumbo looks dry, add more stock or water.

5. Stir in shrimp and cook until it is just cooked through and opaque, another 3 to 5 minutes. Taste and add more salt and chile powder, if needed. Remove turkey bones and serve gumbo with rice.

Turkey Barley Soup

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Total time: 40 minutes


  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter or extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch coins
  • 2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced or finely grated
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh sage leaves
  • 2 teaspoons fine salt, plus more as needed
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • Pinch of cayenne
  • 4 thyme sprigs
  • 4 parsley sprigs, plus 1 cup coarsely chopped parsley leaves and tender stems, plus more for garnish
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 quarts turkey or chicken stock, preferably homemade
  • 3/4 cup pearled barley
  • 2 to 3 cups shredded or chopped leftover turkey
  • 1 lemon, halved


1. In a large soup pot over medium-high heat, melt butter, or heat the oil until shimmering. Add carrot, celery and onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned at the edges, 7 to 10 minutes. Stir in garlic and sage, and sauté for a minute, until fragrant. Stir in salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne.

2. Tie the thyme and parsley sprigs and the bay leaf together with a piece of kitchen twine to make a bouquet garni and add to the pot (or just throw the herbs directly into the pot; you’ll just have to fish them out later).

3. Add stock and barley and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until barley is almost done, about 30 minutes. Add turkey and cook until barley is tender, about 10 to 15 minutes longer.

4. Remove from heat and remove the bouquet garni or herbs. Squeeze the juice from half a lemon into the soup, and stir in chopped parsley. Taste and add more salt, pepper and lemon juice, if you like. Cut the remaining lemon half into wedges. Garnish soup with more parsley, and serve with lemon wedges.

Instant Pot Congee

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Total time: 40 minutes


  • 2 to 3 cups diced roasted duck, chicken or turkey (preferably dark meat), with some of the skin
  • 1 cup jasmine rice, rinsed
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper, plus more to taste
  • 2 cups chopped romaine (optional)
  • Thinly sliced scallions, for garnish
  • Thinly slivered ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil or chile crisp, for garnish (optional)


1. In the pot of an electric pressure cooker, add roasted meat, rice, salt, pepper and 6 cups water. Cover and cook either on the porridge setting or at high pressure for 30 minutes. Allow the pressure to release naturally.

2. Unseal the pot and check the rice. If it isn’t soft enough for your taste, cook on high pressure for another 2 minutes, then manually release the pressure.

3. Uncover the pot and taste, adding more salt and pepper if needed. If it looks too thick, stir in some more water. Stir in romaine, if using, until it just starts to wilt. Sprinkle scallions over and serve with any of the other garnishes, if you like.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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