By: Layla Khoury-Hanold
Next to the turkey the stuffing is one of most important components of Thanksgiving. But, to get technical, if you want to call it stuffing, it should be baked inside the cavity of the turkey. “For me, stuffing is something that you actually stuff inside something, such as quail, chicken or turkey; everything else we consider dressing,” says executive chef Joe Cervantez of Brennan’s of Houston.
Still, the terminology can be a regional thing. “Growing up in Michigan, I used to hear family and friends refer to stuffing as what was cooked inside the bird, and dressing was cooked outside [the bird] in another vessel,” says Jason Bamford, executive chef at the Epicurean Hotel in Tampa, Florida. “If you go south of the Mason-Dixon line, it’s all dressing.”
Whatever you call it, stuffing — and moist stuffing at that — is a must-have on any Thanksgiving table. Typically, baking the stuffing inside the bird helps keep the mixture moist. “I prefer stuffing (in the bird) to dressing (outside of the bird) because all those delicious drippings that come off the turkey gets absorbed right into the stuffing,” Bamford says. For a how-to primer on stuffing your bird, watch this stuffing tutorial.
It takes two
If you’re cooking your stuffing outside the bird, there are two key ingredients for ensuring that the stuffing stays moist: fat and, yes, moisture. In stuffing recipes, fat is usually synonymous with butter, but turkey drippings can add an extra flavorful dose of fat, while olive oil can be subbed in for a vegan-friendly option. According to Cervantez, another trick for adding a double dose of fat and flavor to your stuffing is to incorporate Parmesan cheese. If your recipe calls for bacon, be sure to incorporate the rendered fat drippings into the stuffing mixture as well. Get the best of both worlds with this Bacon Parmesan Stuffing recipe.
You’ll also need to add in plenty of liquid moisture, such as chicken, turkey or vegetable stock, but white wine or Madeira also makes a flavorful complement to stock. Don’t believe us? Try The Best Stuffing recipe (pictured up top), which calls for a half-cup of white wine (plus stock) to keep the wild-mushroom-sausage stuffing moist.
Don't loaf around
Bread is another key consideration to ensure moist stuffing. “The type of bread you use is the roadmap to how much moisture you need to add to your stuffing,” says Bamford. “You should always add a little at a time, so each dose has the opportunity to get absorbed and [pulled] together. Kelly Bianchi, Wynn Las Vegas’ executive chef of catering and special events, advises testing out a small batch in a ramekin or small baking dish before baking the whole recipe to ensure that you have the right liquid-to-bread ratio. Working with day-old or toasted bread helps to ensure maximum moisture absorption. So, with the proper ratios of fat and stock, the choice of bread really comes down to personal preference; and chefs aren’t afraid to play favorites.
Bamford pledges allegiance to cornbread. “It’s the perfect flavor for the fall,” he says. “I like to make cornbread and giblet dressing with sage. If I feel like making it extra special, I add in a little foie gras.”
Two sage-forward cornbread stuffing recipes to try include Katie’s Cornbread Stuffing (pictured), which also incorporates other herbs such as thyme, parsley and rosemary, and Anne’s Sausage Cornbread Stuffing, which pits finely chopped fresh sage against spicy sausage crumbles. Cornbread is a key component of classic Oyster Stuffing, which stays moist thanks to a combination of melted butter, dry white Vermouth and reserved oyster liquor. Ree’s seasonally on-point Cornbread Dressing with Pancetta, Apples, and Mushrooms marries tart-sweet Granny Smith apples with mushrooms, pancetta and buttery cubes of cornbread. For an extra dose of corn flavor, Michael pulls in fresh corn kernels for his corn-and-ham-studded Cornbread Stuffing.
“I like to use a good toasted ciabatta cut into a large crouton,” says Bianchi. “Ciabatta has a nice texture that absorbs the stock while also holding its shape. It has a bit of sour note—it’s not as strong as a sourdough but has just enough depth in flavor.” Try Giada’s Ciabatta Stuffing with Chestnuts and Pancetta or this Rosemary Focaccia Stuffing with Pancetta (which also calls for ciabatta); both recipes get an extra flavor jolt thanks to the addition of crisp pancetta and aromatics cooked in the rendered fat.
Derek Herre, chef de cuisine at Rhubarb in Asheville, defaults to brioche. “I believe that it makes a softer, more tender stuffing,” he says. “I have Crohn’s disease, so gluten is not something I eat often. Holidays are usually a treat for that, so I choose the most delicate, softest and tastiest bread possible.” This Mushroom Brioche Stuffing doubles down on the fluffiness factor by calling for a cup of heavy cream in the liquid mixture.
“I love a good sourdough loaf. The bread has a nice crust with a hearty crumb that will give the outside a good crunch while soaking up as much fat and stock as you can get into it,” says Sean Fogarty, executive chef of Steenbock’s on Orchard in Madison, Wisconsin. For a nice effect, pull in sourdough for Ina’s crowd-pleasing Sausage and Herb Stuffing.
Sweeten the pot
Classic stuffing has its place on the table, but stuffing is one of those dishes that leaves plenty of room for experimentation. Sweet-and-savory combinations are a winner — Bianchi’s all-time favorite combines Italian sausage and chestnuts with dried apricots and cherries. This Herb Stuffing with Dried Fruit (pictured) gets a duo of fruit flavor and textures thanks to dried fruit such as apricots, cranberries and figs, as well as fresh Golden Delicious apples.
Cervantez is also a fan of seasonal fruit, turning to apples or peaches to imbue savory stuffing with a touch of natural sweetness. Try this Pear-Pecan Stuffing with Bosc pears. Sunny’s Plantain Stuffing leans on caramelized plantains to bring a rich sweetness to her cornbread stuffing.
Stuffing is also an opportunity to incorporate more vegetables into your Thanksgiving spread (or use up what’s in your veggie drawer). Most veggie-and-herb-based recipes can be made vegetarian by subbing in vegetable stock. For extra seasonal style points, stock up on butternut squash and make Butternut Squash-Mushroom Stuffing (pictured), which also incorporates collards; Squash-Shiitake Stuffing; or Rice Stuffing with Butternut Squash, which also happens to be a naturally gluten-free option (but if you want to use a gluten-free loaf, try this Classic Gluten-Free Stuffing recipe.) Or go anti-veg with this take on slider stuffing.