These Thanksgiving turkey meatballs with stuffing and cranberries are the perfect main dish for a Campsgiving meal (…or anytime you want to enjoy the taste of Thanksgiving!).
One of the biggest dilemmas of celebrating Thanksgiving while camping is how to incorporate the turkey. Personally, the idea of trying to roast, smoke, or deep fry a turkey at a campsite sounds like a recipe for a high-stakes disaster. There are just so many things that could go wrong. Plus there are going to be an obscene amount of leftovers.
That is why we developed these camping-friendly turkey meatballs. They have all the satisfaction and iconic flavors of a traditional turkey main dish, but with streamlined practicality that makes them perfectly suited for camping.
You can (and should) prepare them in the comfort and relative luxury of your home kitchen ahead of time. The on-site preparation can be done either in a Dutch oven or cast-iron skillet and takes as little as 20 minutes of active cooking time.
So if you are planning on hosting your own camping Thanksgiving, or just want to experience a little bit of Thanksgiving flavor any time of year, then you have got to try these turkey meatballs. You are going to love them!
Why We Love This Recipe:
- A much more reasonable way to incorporate turkey in your Campsgiving dinner plans
- A blend of stuffing, dried cranberries, and diced onions give these meatballs a distinctive Thanksgiving flavor
- Can be made ahead of time and frozen in advance (up to several weeks!)
- Dial-in the serving size to match your group, so you’re not left with a mountain of leftovers at the campsite
- Can be cooked either in a Dutch oven (baked) or in a cast-iron skillet (pan-fried) over a camp stove
- The Dutch oven or skillet used to make the meatballs will be filled with drippings, which is PERFECT for making a quick gravy
Thanksgiving Meatball Ingredients
Ground Turkey: This is a Thanksgiving-inspired meal, so we’ve got to use turkey, right? By default, ground turkey meat is unbelievably lean. Like 99% lean. If you can find any with a little more fat, the meatballs will be juicer and more delicious.
Store-bought stuffing: While traditional meatballs use regular breadcrumbs, Thanksgiving meatballs are the best with a box of store-bought nostalgia-inducing stuffing. We personally prefer Stove-Top Savory Herbs, but you can use whatever variety you like. Pulse in a food processor to turn it into a course crumble. If you can’t get your hands on boxed stuffing, you can use panko breadcrumbs and add 1 teaspoon of dried herbs like sage and thyme. This recipe only uses half of a 6oz box, so bring the rest along to make at the campsite!
Egg: This is your binder and will help the meatballs keep their shape.
Dried Cranberries: Adding finely chopped dried cranberries gives the meatballs a delightful pop of brightness.
Onion: Dice as finely as you can. Minced, if possible. If the pieces of onion are too large they will affect the structural integrity of the meatball.
Milk: Adding a little bit of milk to the meatballs helps hydrate the stuffing (dairy or plant-based is fine—we actually used oat milk in this).
Lingonberry Jam (for serving): If you’ve had the stuff from IKEA you might think you’ve had lingonberry jam, but buy a jar of D’arbo Wild Lingonberry Sauce and you will be blown away (nope, not sponsored!). It is so amazingly good and pairs perfectly with these turkey meatballs. Forget the cranberry sauce in a can, we are team lingonberry all the way!
Hardsided Resealable Container: Once frozen, the meatballs can be placed in a hard-sided resealable container (this will prevent them from inadvertently getting smashed) and transported inside your cooler. If you need to do multiple layers to fit all the meatballs in your container, cut a piece of parchment paper to place between layers, so they don’t stick together as they thaw.
Dutch Oven: If you want to bake your meatballs, you’ll need a camping Dutch oven, plus all the necessary accessories (charcoal chimney, tongs, lid lifter). This recipe just barely fits in a 10” 4-quart dutch oven and will also work in a 12″ 6-quart oven.
Cast-Iron Skillet: If you want to pan-fry your meatballs, then you will want a cast-iron skillet. Cast-iron really radiates heat well, which helps cook the meatballs even if they’re not in direct contact with the skillet. This recipe will just barely fit in a 10” skillet, but a 12” skillet would be better.
Thermopen Instant Read Thermometer: Nobody, we repeat, nobody wants a medium-rare turkey meatball. From a food safety standpoint, turkey is not something you want to be eye-balling. The internal temperature needs to be 165F. An instant-read thermometer like the Thermapen is going to be your best friend here.
Tongs: Whether you’re baking or pan-frying your meatballs, you will need to do a lot of quick meatball rotations. The best way to do this is with a good pair of tongs.
Tips on Making Thanksgiving Turkey Meatballs
- Make these meatballs at home, freeze them, and then bring them with you in a cooler. You will be much happier this way. Trying to manage the food safety concerns of raw turkey is not something you want to deal with at the campsite. Your hands will be covered in raw turkey and you will want immediate access to hot running water and soap.
- Get the cranberries, onions, and garlic as finely chopped as you can, otherwise, it will affect how well the meatballs hold together.
- Don’t go off-script and make the meatballs larger than ~1.5-inch in diameter. It will throw off the cook times and we’re unsure if the skillet method would even work with significantly larger meatballs.
- Use an instant-read thermometer to determine doneness. If you’re cooking at a campsite, it might be dark, the heat is going to be variable, it’s just not worth guessing.
- After you’re doing coking your meatballs, use the brown bits and fond from the skillet along with a gravy packet to make a super delicious quick brown gravy.
How to Make Turkey Meatballs – Step by Step
Get out a large mixing bowl, parchment-lined baking sheet, and the ingredients. Finely chop the cranberries, dice the onion, mince the garlic, pulse the stuffing in a food processor (to a crumbly coarse consistency).
Add the eggs to the mixing bowl and beat thoroughly with a fork until uniformly scrambled (with no stringy whites). Add the stuffing, cranberries, onions, garlic, salt, and milk. Lastly, add the ground turkey.
Use a fork or your hands and gently incorporate all the ingredients until everything appears evenly distributed. Do not mix too forcefully, which can cause the meatballs to become springy and tough.
Once all the turkey mixture is ready, place a lump of it in your palm and roll it gently with the palm of your other hand to form a 1.5 inch in diameter meatball. You want to provide a little bit of pressure to compact the mixture slightly. Then set aside on your parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat this process until the mixture is all used up.
Storage & Transport
After thoroughly washing your hands, cover the meatballs in cling wrap and place the baking sheet in the freezer. They can remain frozen in the freezer for 2-3 weeks before they will start to degrade in texture and flavor. Once they are frozen solid, you can move them into a more compact hard-sided container, placing a piece of parchment paper between layers (so they don’t stick together when thawing).
Before departing for your camping trip, move the frozen meatballs into your cooler and store them there for the duration of the trip. Brush up on how to safely pack a cooler here.
Once you arrive at the campsite, you have two different cooking options: baking and pan-frying. Baking is a little more hands-off but requires all the typical Dutch oven prep work (preparing the charcoals). Pan-Frying is more active but requires no charcoal prep. Both methods taste amazing. Either way, take them out of your cooler ahead of time to start thawing them a bit (30 minutes should do).
Dutch oven (baked method):
Prepare your charcoal. You will want more than you anticipate using, so you can add heat if needed. For a 10” Dutch oven prepare no less than 35 coals, for a 12” Dutch oven prepare no less than 40 coals.
Once the coals are ready, dump them into one single pile. Add a little cooking oil to your Dutch oven and place it on top of the entire pile. You are going to put a quick sear on the outside of the meatballs, so you will want maximum heat.
Place the meatballs into the Dutch oven. The exterior will start to brown almost immediately. Rotate the meatballs with your tongs to brown the other side, and then remove the Dutch oven from the heat. The carry-over heat of the cast iron will continue to brown the meatballs even after it has been removed from the heat, you so may want to rotate them a third time.
At this point, the exterior will be nicely browned, but the interior of the meatballs will still be raw.
Set out a small number of coals (7 for a 10”, 8 for a 12”), and place the Dutch oven on top. Then cover with the lid, and place double the amount of coals on the lid. (14 for a 10”, 16 for a 12”). Bake for about 10 minutes.
Remove lid and test with an instant-read thermometer. Once the meatballs register an internal temperature of 165F, they are done. If they haven’t quite gotten there after 10 minutes, return to the heat and cook for another 5 minutes. Add more coals if necessary.
Cast Iron Skillet (Pan-Frying) Method:
If you don’t own a Dutch oven don’t worry! You can easily make these meatballs using a cast-iron skillet.
We recommend cast iron here because it does a tremendous job of radiating heat upwards. But if you only have stainless steel or aluminum nonstick pans, it will work too (although it might take more time). The recipe as written will just fit in a 10” skillet, but using a 12” inch will be much better.
Over a camp stove or a campfire, heat your skillet using medium heat and add a little cooking oil. Once the oil is hot, add the meatballs. As the meatballs start to cook, use your tongs to roll around so each side gets evenly browned. This will be a fairly active process. Add cooking oil as needed to keep the meatballs from sticking to the pan.
So long as you are using medium heat, the insides will cook through completely and register 165F on an instant-read thermometer before the outsides start to burn.
If your meatballs are still low on their internal temperature, but the outsides are starting to deeply brown, the heat was probably too high. But that’s okay! Take the skillet off the heat (or just lower the heat if the temp has a ways to go) and cover it with an aluminum foil or a lid. The trapped steam will continue to gently cook them without burning the outsides.
Make the gravy
Once the meatballs are done, transfer them to a plate or large bowl and return the Dutch oven or skillet to the heat. Whisk a turkey gravy packet (we like McCormick’s) with cold water (according to package directions) in a small bowl and then add it to the pot, using a whisk, spatula, or spoon to scrape up all those delicious browned bits. Simmer until the gravy starts to thicken up. Add the meatballs back in to warm up and hang out with all the gravy until you’re ready to serve!
Use up the rest of that boxed stuffing: Put the stuffing in a medium bowl with a tablespoon or two of butter. Bring water to a boil and pour it over the stuffing — the meatball recipe uses half a 6oz box, so use half the water specified on the box. Stir and cover with a plate and let it sit for about 5 minutes.
Turkey Meatballs with Stuffing & Cranberries
- ½ cup stuffing, (crushed)
- 2 tablespoons milk
- ½ cup onion, finely minced
- 2 garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons dried cranberries, chopped
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 egg, beaten in a small bowl
- 1 pound ground turkey
- 1 packet turkey gravy mix
- Crush the stuffing until it resembles the texture of coarse breadcrumbs. Add to a large bowl and stir in the milk. Add the remaining meatball ingredients (everything except the gravy packet).
- Using a spatula (or your hands) mix the ingredients until evenly combined.
- Form 1.5-inch meatballs and place them in one layer on a lined baking sheet.
- To freeze, place clingwrap over the meatballs and transfer the baking sheet to the freezer. Transfer to a storage container once frozen.
- Thaw the meatballs for about 30 minutes while you prepare the coals for your Dutch oven.
- Once the coals are hot, heat the Dutch oven over the fire with a touch of oil. Add the meatballs in one layer to brown, then use tongs to flip them.
- Cover the Dutch oven and place on a ring of 7 coals. Place 14 coals on the lid. Bake for about 10 minutes, checking for doneness using a thermometer. The meatballs should be cooked through to 165F.
- Transfer the meatballs to a plate or dish. Return the Dutch oven to the heat and prepare the gravy in the Dutch oven according to packet directions, making sure to scrape up all the browned bits using a spatula or spoon.
- Once the gravy has thickened, return the meatballs to the Dutch oven to reheat and coat with gravy. Remove from the heat and serve!