clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Meats, ranked

On a holiday like Thanksgiving, Americans deserve better than turkey.

Mmm. Meat.

One of the most puzzling injustices in American history is our time-honored tradition of eating turkey, a bird that excels in its mediocrity, on the best holiday this great nation has to offer.

For generations and generations, Americans have gathered together on Thanksgiving with their families and friends to celebrate what they’re grateful for: life, love, friendship, employment, a favorite sports team, Kit-Kats, and whatever else. And they show their appreciation by consuming a dish that, despite requiring prep and cooking time longer than some human labors, frequently tastes like a chicken that didn’t try hard enough.

The best thing you can say about turkey is that it’s (usually) not aggressively dry. Why else would we smother it in gravy, stuff it with all kinds of flavorful bits and bites, or risk setting our homes on fire just to impart a bit more flavor to it?

There’s so much good meat out there. Turkey is not worth the effort.

So this Thanksgiving, we want to give thanks to the meats that aren’t turkey — the meats that punctuate and pepper our lives with flavor, pizazz, and goodness. The meats that don’t enjoy recognition with a special holiday even though many of them deserve one.

We decided to honor these meats by ranking them based on taste, texture, and versatility in preparation. (To be clear, the environmental implications of each meat on this list are complicated and often controversial; their sustainability is a whole different story and didn’t factor into our rankings.)

To do so, we asked each member of the Vox Culture team to share their opinions by ranking the meats below according to those criteria, and then averaged the scores. Below, you’ll find our results for 23 meats, many of which are better than turkey. Consider making one of them the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving meal instead.

23) Tofu

Pictured: beige.

Just kidding. Sorry, vegetarians: "Meats, ranked" truly isn't for you.

22) Venison

There’s no shortage of deer in this world, so it’s a shame that venison is such a literally tough meat to work with. Venison is naturally sinewy, and though with many other meats, fattiness equals flavor and helps with tenderness, the fact that venison fat is more often used to make soap or candles than human food products should tell you something. Venison is incredibly lean and thus hard to tenderize; in fact, poorly prepared venison can taste almost sour.

21) Tuna

Tuna that comes from a can is largely unappealing, taking the form of chunks or shreds of meat that kind of look like chicken. That’s why it’s often dubbed the “chicken of the sea,” which feels more like a subtle dig than an earnest comparison.

But tuna that is sliced and prepared with care is a different beast, and the quality is much better than the fish you’re getting in those cans. Tuna burgers and spicy hand rolls are great. Poké, the trendy raw fish dish from Hawaii, often uses tuna as its protein.

The best way to eat tuna is in sushi or sashimi form. It’s mild and delicate, a complete contrast to that canned stuff that ends up covered in melted cheese on sandwiches or in casseroles. There’s also a world of texture in one fish — the meat from tuna belly is more like buttery sea bacon, while leaner cuts have a cleaner, steak-like flavor.

20) Veal

And now we come to a cruel fact that no one likes to admit: Baby animals taste better than adult animals. It makes sense, in that no one really wants to eat an animal that’s had a long, rough life full of hardship. Their muscles are rigid. Their tissue is tough and full of stories.

Modern Farmer has a good article that explains why younger meat is often more tender than meat on older animals: The young haven’t developed as much connective tissue. The drawback is that you get a milder flavor.

Veal — calves that are slaughtered around 25 weeks old — is a prime example of this; it’s much more tender, velvety, and succulent than straight beef. It’s why you often see veal in a variety of different preparations (particularly breaded and fried) that you wouldn’t normally see with cuts of beef. It also possesses a milder beef flavor.

Granted, eating veal might make you feel like a monster; the slaughtering of young calves to make it is controversial. But you’ll be a monster who is eating a really delicious piece of veal.

19) Pheasant

If you’re a fan of Renaissance faires, fantasy tales, or the Roald Dahl book Danny, the Champion of the World, maybe you’re into the idea of a freshly plucked pheasant adorning your dinner table. But pheasant needs special attention to bring out the best in its flavors, most notably the fact that it should be hung up once slaughtered — literally from a string, for as long as possible — to help break down any excess gaminess.

Life’s short; just get a chicken.

18) Catfish

Catfish are ugly. They look like more like undersea rodents than fish. They’re also bottom dwellers that eat pretty gross stuff — insects, baby insects, larvae, you get the picture. They’re meaty, but the meat they yield is a bit flavorless.

Still, coating catfish with seasoned flour and frying it to within an inch of its life (grandmothers from the South know the recipe) creates something so delicious that you forget you’re eating a sea rat. Frying is the catfish’s saving grace.

17) Goat

Goat is a cornerstone for many cuisines, especially those from cultures whose religions — like Hinduism and Islam — forbid eating beef or pork. But goat isn’t just an adequate substitute for other meats. Though its closest texture comparison point is lamb, goat is a meat all its own. Its flavor is unique, and can take some who didn’t grow up with it in their diets by surprise. But goat is leaner than lamb, a little sweeter, and particularly good in aromatic stews and curries. To truly get the best sense of how goat meat can make a run for lamb’s money, keep it on the bone and submerge it in sauce.

16) Cornish game hen

DeliriumTrigger via Shutterstock

The “Cornish game hen” is a misnomer. The bird is not from Cornwall, nor it is a game bird, nor is it a hen. According to the USDA, Cornish game hens are defined as “young chickens that are usually less than 5 weeks of age with a dressed weight of two pounds or less.”

Cornish game hens are very much a lie, but we excuse this lie because they are succulent, tasty, and tender. They’re even tastier if you follow a popular cooking method for Cornish game hens — wrap them in one of our highest-ranked meats, bacon (see: “pork, cured”). Sometimes nothing enhances meat like more meat.

And finally, Cornish game hens are small enough that at fancy dinner parties, every person can have their own hen. If that’s not luxury, what is?

15) Buffalo

Buffalo can be a rich source of protein, especially for those who don’t eat beef. (It’s especially popular in India, where a large Hindu population has led to stringent restrictions against cow slaughter.) It’s also a far more versatile meat than many give it credit for, lending itself well to jerky and burgers in particular, thanks to its relative leanness. Buffalo isn’t necessarily a remarkable tasting meat, but it’s a perfectly solid option.

14) Turkey

Okay, fine, let’s talk turkey.

Turkey isn’t a bad meat; it’s merely mediocre. Though the turkey as a living, breathing animal is somewhat unusual-looking, very little sets it apart once you get down to preparing it for a meal. Every piece of it, from its typically drier white meat to its slightly more tender dark meat is … fine.

Yes, you can season it, smoke it, or deep-fry it until you find the balance that makes sense for you. You can slice it for a sandwich, grind it into a burger, rely on it as a leaner alternative to beef. But all turkey — whether gourmet-bred or churned out in bulk for your Thanksgiving table — has the same problem, which is that even with the best preparation, the meat itself rarely tastes above a B+. It’s a placeholder, not a draw.

The one thing turkey does better than any other meat is serve as a blank slate. Yes, chicken can also go with most everything, but it at least has more taste on its own than turkey does.

Turkey’s general blandness does make it a perfect protein for Thanksgiving, which has come to celebrate overeating just as much as gratefulness. If you want a lot of food — including as many different varieties of side dishes as possible — you don’t want a meat that will clash. You need the meat equivalent of the Lands’ End catalog, a familiar standard that’s unlikely to offend. You need turkey.

13) Shrimp

apichart sripa via Shutterstock

The gray, glistening sight of an uncooked shrimp makes the fact that so many people eat and enjoy shrimp particularly confusing; if you ever happened to see one hanging out on your kitchen counter, you probably wouldn’t wonder what it tasted like before you smacked it flat with a spatula.

But for some reason, many people who generally avoid seafood tend to find their peace with shrimp, a compact creature with stringy tendons that morphs from a sickly gray to a pleasant pink shade when cooked. Whether simmered in a pasta sauce or chilled and brushed sparingly with lemon for a cocktail appetizer, a shrimp is a yummy, salty bite. It’s also particularly good when fried — but then again, isn’t everything?

12) Frog

Because frogs are small, lean creatures with little meat on their bones, you may not expect frog meat to be so delicious. But it’s surprisingly rich in taste, especially in the legs, the most commonly prepared cut of frog thanks to their higher fat content.

Sure, you can argue that frog tastes like chicken, and you wouldn’t be far off; both frog and chicken are lighter meats that require seasoning and deft cooking to bring out their best selves. But frog meat has an extra jolt of richness that chicken typically lacks, and should be treasured accordingly.

11) Scallops

We like to describe scallops as “sea marshmallows”; they’re the perfect bite of decadence, just the right balance of airy and fatty to make for something more exciting than any old bite of fish.

Of course, this is only true if scallops are cooked past their slimy original forms. Scallops are delicate, prone to being overshadowed if you approach them without care. Cooking them right is a surprisingly difficult task; a heavy hand can leave them rubbery and practically inedible. But those who can sear a scallop to golden perfection — keeping its light balance while bringing out its lusher tenderness — are true heroes.

10) Rabbit

Elena Valebnaya via Shutterstock

Rabbits are delicious, so delicious that some people believe their cuteness is meant to discourage us from eating them. Rabbit is like the best, juiciest chicken you’ve ever had, amplified by 10 — but with a slightly heavier texture and a denser feel. Their close resemblance is the reason rabbit is often prepared in similar fashion (soups and stews) to chicken.

9) Crab

While not often as prized as its lobster cousin thanks to the latter’s relative scarcity, crab is a fantastic shellfish in its own right. While crab can be briny and one-note on its own, variations like Dungeness and blue crabs can be just as rich and flavorful as lobster when prepared well.

Then there’s the crabcake — which, no matter which style of crabcake you prefer (Maryland versus Cajun versus whatever comes out of combining the spices you prize most), adds frying to mix. Whichever ingredients you like to throw in with your crab, it will all be fried in the end, so there’s very little going wrong here.

Crab might need a little more help to become something special all on its own than lobster. But don’t sleep on crab, which can sing its own flavorful song with the right nudges.

8) Salmon

There’s a reason bears will sit patiently in a gushing stream, eyes trained on water and paws at the ready, in hopes of catching salmon for dinner. It’s worth that kind of trouble.

Salmon is decadent, with some cuts as thick as a prime rib. Yet there’s also a certain smoothness, a certain lightness to it. Like chicken, it’s pretty versatile; you can sear it like a steak, pair it with all kinds of other flavors, and use it to complement everything from other types of meat to, in its cured form, a toasted everything bagel with cream cheese.

It’s even aesthetically pleasing, so much so that fashion designers and interior decorators have long tried to capture its singular pink-orange hue.

7) Beef

Goskova Tatiana via Shutterstock

Aside from chicken, there’s no meat more widely consumed in America than beef. It appears on both fast-food dollar menus and tasting menus alike. It’s the star of your local taco truck and burger joint. The word “meat” has almost become synonymous with “beef,” such are its pervasive powers.

The downside of beef’s omnipresence is that it’s easy to take beef for granted — and, worse, easy to abuse. If you’ve ever had a lean hamburger patty hastily charred beyond all recognition, or a steak cooked well past well-done until it’s tough and dry, you know the heartbreak of wasted beef. But it’s on us, not the beef, to make sure it reaches its full potential.

And when high-quality beef is done right, there’s nothing else like it. Slicing into a perfectly cooked steak — medium rare, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise — can induce drool on sight.

6) Lobster

chuckstock via Shutterstock

Lobster is sweet, buttery, and luxurious. Lobster tails have long been considered the prize, but lobster fans have also come to realize that claws, while having a different, more tender texture, are just as delicious and valuable. And while the popular cooking method of dropping live lobsters into boiling water has been the subject of many a movie scene and humaneness debate, there’s a certain thrill to knowing lobster is often alive until the moment you eat it — that you’re getting the freshest possible animal.

There’s also the all-important effort-to-meat equation to consider: the quality and the quantity of the meat, divided by the amount of effort and mess — so many shells to crack! — required to obtain it. On that scale, lobster is infinitely less work and less mess than a crab, and tastier and smoother in texture than shrimp.

5) Lamb

Lamb can be tricky to prepare. It’s easy to overcook into irredeemable toughness, and therefore easy to dismiss. But you’ll never hear “tastes like lamb!” in the way that some crow about the versatility of chicken, because nothing else quite does taste like lamb.

No matter the preparation, lamb’s unique flavor — almost a tang, and one that lingers on the back of your tongue — necessitates always making it the star. It’s too good for second billing.

There are lamb chops, served with spare streaks of sauce, sidekick vegetables, or, if you subscribe to the United Kingdom’s determination to make all meals a confusing experience, neon green mint jelly. There are lamb kebabs, lovingly dusted with whatever spices your culture prizes most. And there are more lamb stews than we could ever count, steeped in hearty broths that break down the meat’s naturally tougher tendencies.

Lamb isn’t for the lazy. But if you’re patient with it, you’ll be rewarded with a truly singular meat.

4) Pork (fresh)

While cured pork boasts an extra boost of salty goodness, there’s no denying the power of the original source. There are many different cuts of pork, and they hold an entire world of possibilities to explore.

There's the kind of uncured ham you can bake; one of pork's most straightforward iterations, it’s an underrated base for hasty sandwiches and Sunday dinners alike. There's the simple pleasure of the pork chop; the lushness of fatty pork belly; the fork-tender, velvety quality of a slow-cooked shoulder. You can sweeten pork with baked apples, spice it with chilies, enrich it with brown sugar and barbecue sauce.

The true beauty of pork is that it can be whatever you want or need it to be, plus it has more natural flavor that other similarly versatile meats.

3) Pork (cured)

Pork is such a glorious meat that we gave it two distinctions on this list: cured preparations like ham, bacon, and chorizo, and “fresh” preparations like pork chops or tenderloin.

In this case, the salty-sweet lick of bacon and the smokiness of sausage pushed cured pork ahead of its fresh counterpart.

Bacon has convinced many to renounce vegetarianism or bend the rules of their religion for just a bite. Chorizo, a salty, spicy flavor bomb, is just as good. Sliced salami, from finnocchiona (with fennel) to felino (salt, peppercorns, white wine), is the jewel of any good charcuterie plate. And merely talking about sausage — from andouille to Polish kielbasa to anything Italian to Filipino longganisa — can make one’s mouth water.

2) Chicken

Gitisak via Shutterstock

The chicken is not a majestic bird by any stretch of the imagination. She does not soar through the sky and represent freedom like the eagle. She is not adorable like the penguin. Nor is she smart and cunning like some parrots and crows. And there is no holiday where the chicken takes center stage, like turkey does on Thanksgiving.

Yet she should be admired more than any other avian, because in death, the chicken can surpass her mortal limits to become something magical. The chicken’s versatility is unmatched, its subtle natural flavor making it a perfect partner for countless spices and flavors.

When you bite into a piece of crispy, juicy fried chicken, it’s possible you’ll hear cherubs grace you with song. When chicken is roasted, its buttery richness tastes like home — even if you didn’t grow up eating the stuff. Chicken soup evokes a feeling of warmth and love that outdoes even the best hug.

That’s not to say poorly cooked or underseasoned chicken doesn’t exist. And there’s quite a range of quality to keep in mind; free-range, organic, artisanal, hormone- and antibiotic-free, never-frozen chicken is the pinnacle. But even cheaper, lower-quality meat can usually be dressed up enough to make it delicious.

Beyond its potential for flavor, chicken is about community. Many other meats’ tastes are measured on a spectrum where both ends are chicken, because chicken is familiar, a touchstone of relatability. From korma to tinga to adobo, chicken transcends all cuisines. (Well, except vegetarianism and veganism, but that’s another story.)

Two people who don’t agree on anything — not even which part of a chicken they prefer — could still split a chicken and enjoy a silent meal with one another. Find us another meat that can do that.

1) Duck

Duck, while perhaps not an obvious No. 1 choice, easily took the top spot thanks to its consistency and intrinsic richness.

Sure, duck’s legacy has been marred by the heated debate over the ethics of foie gras production and the classic French dish "duck a l'orange" that the American 1970s turned into a flaccid hotel buffet horror. But these tragedies should not undermine the intrinsic superiority of duck, which is chicken's snobbier sister for a reason.

Ducks naturally have more muscle than chickens, because they can fly and swim. And their status as a waterfowl means they need insulation against the cold. Combined, these factors make for a lean bird that nonetheless has a layer of fat beneath its rustling feathers.

Ducks, in other words, are perfectly engineered to taste delicious.

Duck meat is tart and fragile and earthy, all at once. You can roast it, confit it, sear it, compress it into a paté. All iterations are delicious, smooth, and tender. And if you take special care with roasting a duck, you’ll end up with crispy skin atop a layer of sumptuous fat that melts on your tongue.

Chicken is solid, but if you want to treat yourself to something with a little more style, grace, and flavor, duck is a sure bet.

Watch: Turkeys have gotten huge since the 1940s

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.