Everyone has their favorite part of Thanksgiving dinner; some look forward to the turkey, others can’t wait to dig into the pumpkin pie and other various desserts, while others yet look forward to Grandma’s Sweet Potato casserole, or Aunt Sue’s famous pickles and relishes. While I love it all, I most look forward to the dressing, aka, stuffing. It’s my favorite part of the meal, even more so than my Mom’s buttery, rich mashed potatoes, for which I have a great fondness. There’s something about stuffing though, that for me, makes it rise above all else, to be what I look forward to the most on Thanksgiving day.
When it comes to stuffing, especially on Thanksgiving, I am a traditionalist. I like my stuffing made with white bread, packed full of bits of onion and celery and redolent with earthy sage, the smell of which says Thanksgiving to me, more than anything else. In my family we also make our stuffing on the side, rather in the turkey and actually refer to the stuffing as dressing. I’m glad to see that in recent years most chefs have also started suggesting that people make their stuffing on the side also. There are three good reasons for this. First, by the time the stuffing has reached a safe temperature chances are that the turkey breast will be overcooked and dry. This leads into the second reason; undercooked stuffing has been the cause of many food borne illnesses in the past few decades. Sure the argument can be made that Grandma always stuffed her turkey, but this was also in a time when industrial farms weren’t around producing thousands of birds in a small space. Grandma probably got her turkey locally and the chances of that bird carrying a food borne illness was significantly lower than it is today. We all want the holiday meal that we host to be memorable, but not for the fact that we made half the family sick. Best bet is to make your stuffing on the side. The final reason, and the one I like most, is the fact that when you bake your stuffing on the side you get all sorts of crispy bits on the bottom of the baking dish, and this alone is good enough reason for dirtying another dish.
If you insist that the turkey must be stuffed then there are a few precautions to take that will help to minimize the chances of serving dry, overcooked turkey breast or making someone sick. First, off do not stuff the bird the night before. Sure it seems like a great way to save a bit of time on Thanksgiving morning but this is a bad idea. Chances are the stuffing you just made is still pretty warm and putting it into a raw turkey is going to allow all sorts of nasty little critters to multiply like mad during the couple of hours it takes for that stuffing to cool to a safe temperature. Secondly, on Thanksgiving morning stuff the cold turkey with hot stuffing. Since your recipe for stuffing probably calls for sautéing vegetables and mixing in hot stock into the bread this is easy. Just make sure to stuff the bird as soon as the stuffing is made and get the bird into the oven, or roasting pan immediately. Finally, when checking the turkey for doneness you also need to take the temperature of the stuffing. It should be at least 165°F in the center, if not higher, to make sure the stuffing is safe. By the way, you are taking the temperature of your turkey yourself and not relying on those plastic pop up doneness indicators, right? They never work properly and are set to go off at a temperature that is guaranteed to ensure dry turkey breast. Also, you might want to reconsider stuffing your turkey if you want to brine your bird. Stuffing has a tendency to leak the salt out of the turkey resulting in stuffing that can be overly salty.
Mention the stuffing to most Americans and chances are the first thing that pops into their minds is the quintessential bread based stuffing most of us grew up with, but stuffing comes in all forms although grain based stuffings and meat based stuffings are probably the most popular after the bread based ones. In the South rice based stuffings a common while in the Upper Midwest it is not strange to come across stuffings based on Wild Rice. Stuffings can be simple affairs made up of bread, broth, onions, celery and sage or they can be complex creations with ingredient lists running upwards of 30 items or more. Nuts, fruits, vegetables all make appearances as well as many different meats and cheeses. Stuffing is as varied as the cultures that make up this great county of ours.
Below are two recipes for stuffing. The first one a very traditional Sage Stuffing, while the second one is for Cornbread Stuffing, also very popular, especially in the South. While these recipes are wonderful in and of themselves you can also use them as the basis for an infinite variety of takes on traditional stuffing and I do just that, offering up a number of variations on both of these.
Before I get to the recipes there are a couple of tricks to making great stuffing that I’d like to share. First, skip the packages of dried bread cubes you can purchase in stores, meant for making stuffing. Instead use fresh bread, a nice crusty French or Italian loaf works well, but even every day white bread makes a good stuffing. Two days before Thanksgiving hand tear the bread into small, 1 inch pieces. Lay out on cookie trays to dry until Thanksgiving morning. In the case of Cornbread Stuffing, make your own cornbread, using a recipe that doesn’t make a sweet cornbread. Once cool cut it into ½ inch cubes and toast it in a low oven (200°F) until dry. Allow it to sit overnight, uncovered to dry even further. Also when it comes to Cornbread Stuffing I usually use a combination of cornbread and white bread as I find stuffing made completely of cornbread is just a little to dense for my taste. By all means though, in the recipe below, feel free to replace the white bread with an equal amount of cornbread for an all cornbread stuffing. The second trick is making a really rich, intense stock. Between the gravy, stuffing and various other uses we need more broth than we could ever get from the turkey we roast for Thanksgiving so a couple of weeks before I will often buy a package of turkey legs and use that to make broth. To do so roast the legs until deep brown, toss in a pot and just cover with water. Bring to a simmer, skimming off any foam that forms. Add 1 peeled and chopped carrot, 2 ribs of celery, chopped, and 1 onion peeled and chopped. Cover and allow to simmer for 2-2 ½ hours, adding water, if necessary. Strain and reserve. If making it a couple of weeks ahead of time, portion it into small plastic containers and freeze, removing from the freezer the weekend before Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving Day I fortify the broth even further, by simmering the neck bones and giblets in the broth for 45-60 minutes. This will give you a broth with plenty of turkey flavor so that no one will complain that because you didn’t stuff the turkey the stuffing isn’t flavorful enough.
Following the 2 recipes are a number of variations that change things up a bit. Use these recipes and variations as is, or use them as starting point for your own creations.
Traditional Sage Stuffing
10 cups dried white bread (see above for directions)
1 large onion
4 ribs celery
4 Tbl. Butter
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 ½ Tbl. Dried sage, or 4 Tbl. Fresh sage
Freshly ground black pepper
3-4 cups homemade turkey broth (see above) or high quality store bought broth
Place turkey broth in a pot and heat over medium heat until just barely simmering. Peel the onion and dice into a small dice. Cut celery into a small dice also. Heat 3 Tbl. butter in large skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion and cook, without browning, for 4 minutes. Add the celery and continue to cook until vegetables are soft, about another 5 minutes. While vegetables are cooking place bread cubes in a large bowl and add the sage, salt, and pepper. Add beaten eggs and toss to evenly combine. Add the hot vegetables and mix. Add 3 cups of the broth and mix well. Depending on how wet or dry you like your stuffing either stop there or continue to add broth, ½ cup at a time. In our house we like a moist stuffing so I add all 4 cups. Using the last tablespoon of butter grease a 9x13 baking pan. Place stuffing in baking pan, cover with foil and bake for 40 minutes at 350°F. Remove foil and continue to back for another 15-20 minutes or until brown and crispy on top and it registers at least 165°F when a thermometer is inserted into the center. Serve hot.
5 cups dried cornbread (see above)
4 cups dried white bread (see above)
3 ribs celery, diced
1 large onion, diced
4 Tbl. butter
2 tsp. dried sage
1 tsp. dried thyme
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 ½-3 cups turkey broth
Place turkey broth in a pot and heat over medium heat until just barely simmering. Heat 3 Tbl. butter in large skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion and cook, without browning, for 4 minutes. Add the celery and continue to cook until vegetables are soft, about another 5 minutes. While vegetables are cooking place bread cubes in a large bowl and add the sage, thyme, salt, and pepper. Add beaten eggs and toss to evenly combine. Add the hot vegetables and mix. Add 2 1/2 cups of the broth and mix well. Depending on how wet or dry you like your stuffing either stop there or add the remaining ½ cup. Using the last tablespoon of butter grease a 9x13 baking pan. Place stuffing in baking pan, cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes at 400°F. Remove foil and continue to back for another 10-14 minutes or until brown and crispy on top and it registers at least 165°F when a thermometer is inserted into the center. Serve hot.
Variations on Traditional Stuffing
-Individual Stuffings – for a more elegant presentation place the stuffing mixture into buttered muffin tins and bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes
-Spinach and Artichoke Stuffing – replace the celery with 2 packages of frozen spinach (thawed and all water squeezed out) and 2 cans of artichoke hearts, roughly chopped. Replace sage with 1 tsp. of dried thyme and 2 tsp. of fresh tarragon. Replace 1 cup of turkey broth with heavy cream.
-Oyster Dressing – add 32 shucked oysters (reserving liquid) replace sage with 1 tsp. fresh thyme, 1 tsp. fresh tarragon, and ¼ cup of fresh parsley. Replace turkey broth with reserved oyster liquid, ½ cup of white wine and enough water to make 3-4 cups. Can also add 3 slices of bacon, chopped and fried crispy.
-Wild Mushroom Stuffing – In a separate skillet sauté 3 cups of mixed mushrooms (shiitakes, oyster, Portobello, crimini, chanterelle, etc.) in butter until browned. Add any tough stems to the simmering turkey broth, straining them out when adding broth to the bread. Continue with recipe as written.
Variations on Cornbread Stuffing
-Caramelized Onion and Fennel Stuffing – Replace celery with 2 cups of fresh fennel and increase the onions to 2. Slowly cook the onions and fennel together over medium high heat until deep brown and well caramelized. Continue with recipe as written.
-Chorizo and Cherry Stuffing – Add 12oz. of Mexican chorizo that has been browned, in a skillet, along with 1 ½ cups of dried cherries to the cornbread recipe. Remove the thyme and reduce the sage to 1 tsp.
-Green Chile & Bacon Stuffing – Dice and cook 4 slices of thick cut bacon until crispy. Saute the onions and celery in the reserved bacon fat instead of butter along with 1 finely diced jalapeno (or more). Remove from heat and add 1 cup of drained, diced green chiles to the vegetables. Continue with recipe.
-Sausage, Cranberry & Pecan Dressing – Cook 1 pound of bulk breakfast sausage until done, breaking it up into small pieces. Add to the recipe along with 1 ½ cups of dried cranberries and 1 cup of toasted pecan pieces. Continue with recipe. Serves 10 or more.