The Right Stuffing

We may talk turkey on Thanksgiving but what we really want is the stuffing. That’s why many Thanksgiving tables have two kinds of stuffing. Who has two kinds of turkey?

My mother made her stuffing the night before Thanksgiving. This remarkably simple bread stuffing, gently seasoned with celery, onions, and sage, was so delicious we couldn’t keep our hands off it. Dad, my siblings and I picked at it as soon as it came out of the frying pan—sometimes before it came out of the pan. (The key to Mom’s stuffing is that she “toasts” it by frying it in a cast iron skillet.)

So my family would be in complete agreement with Holly Garrison, author of “The Thanksgiving Cookbook,” who calls stuffing “the soul” of Thanksgiving. Her mother’s bread stuffing sounds similar to my mother’s except her mother didn’t sauté the onions and celery, something Garrison says she would never do if creating her own. “But people don’t give up flavors easily. They want what they grew up with,” she says.

I know what she means. I tried to improve on Mom’s stuffing by using whole wheat bread instead of the white sandwich bread she uses. It didn’t taste as good. Despite health concerns about margarine, Mom still clings to it instead of butter because that’s what her mother-in-law used when she taught Mom the recipe.

Lisa Schroeder of Mother’s Bistro & Bar in Portland, Ore, which will serve 200 Thanksgiving dinners this year, got her bread stuffing from her mother. Like my mother’s it contains the holy trinity of onions, celery and sage. However, Schroeder dries the bread (which is sometimes eggy challah bread) so it can soak up more juices. And she sautés the onion before the celery. “Celery releases too much water. If you cook it with or before the onion, the onion won’t caramelize properly,” she says. Schroeder believes that many cooks don’t sauté the vegetables long enough (until they just begin to brown) to develop sufficient flavor. She also favors fresh herbs—she uses parsley in addition to sage.

The stuffings of Schroeder, Garrison, and my mother illustrate how even a straightforward stuffing can vary to suit personal taste—or your family’s quirky traditions. That’s what makes stuffing fun. And unlike baking, stuffing doesn’t require any precision or skill. Which is not to say there are no rules. There are, or at least some guidelines.

Garrison writes that all stuffings have four elements: a base or starch, texture, seasonings, and a binder. Bread is the most common base. It could be cottony “American bread” (as Mom calls it), homey sandwich loaves, Italian or French bread, San Francisco sourdough, rye, whole wheat, or multigrain.

Cornbread is popular for stuffings, especially those with a southern twist. Since cornbread isn’t normally sold commercially (though you could use store-bought corn muffins), you’ll have to make your own. It isn’t difficult and allows you to season the bread the way you want, adding chilies, for example, if you’re doing a Southwestern-style stuffing.

Wild rice is a common base because it is so American and it evokes images of autumn. But wild rice isn’t starchy enough, so it needs something like white rice or bread to bulk it up. Other starches to consider are couscous, barley, and bulgur. Or potatoes. I made a baked potato stuffing with bacon and herbs from Garrison’s book that was quite good.

Texture comes from vegetables, fruits and nuts. Other than celery and onions, consider leeks, scallions, shallots, fennel, and mushrooms, especially exotics such as shiitakes, which give that woodsy fall taste. (Reconstituted dried mushrooms such as porcini or morels intensify the mushroom flavor.) Tart apples and cranberries provide not only texture (leave the skin on the apples) but color and seasonality. Don’t forget dried fruits too, particularly dried cranberries, cherries, dates and apricots. Pecans are the quintessential stuffing nut because they are indigenous to the Americas. They go especially well with wild rice and cranberries. Toasting nuts brings out more flavor. Though they are not true nuts, chestnuts are wonderful in stuffings.

Herbs add plenty of flavor, especially when fresh, though dried versions of thyme, rosemary and sage work pretty well. Use dried sage leaves, not powdered sage, which can be acrid. And crumble any dried herb between your fingers to release more flavor. With parsley, I prefer the more robust flat-leaf over the curly variety. (Never use dried parsley.)

Fat adds and carries flavor. It may come from pork such as pork sausage, usually bulk breakfast-style sausage, spicy sausage like kielbasa or andouille (for a Cajun-style stuffing) or bacon. Best of all is good, old-fashioned butter. Add more richness with turkey liver, ground turkey, and oysters.

The most common binder is eggs, though milk, broth, stock and other liquids can be used. (Wines and spirits such as brandy or Sherry add flavor as well as moisture.) When using liquids, add them gradually until you’ve achieved a moist, but not soggy dressing. Taste the dressing for seasoning before adding eggs. Don’t over mix the stuffing or you’ll get a pasty texture. One cup of stuffing per pound of turkey will give you enough for leftovers.

If all this still seems daunting, use the bread stuffing recipe below—slight  variation of Mom’s—as a base for innumerable variations. For example, you could make a New England style dressing by adding apples, cranberries and pork sausage. Make a chestnut dressing with roasted chestnuts and Madeira or Sherry. Or combine wild and button mushrooms and fresh thyme for a mushroom stuffing.

Stuff the turkey immediately before putting it into the oven. When baking stuffing outside the turkey, moisten it with homemade turkey stock or chicken broth. If possible, add juices from the turkey roasting pan. The United States Department of Agriculture says cooked stuffing should reach 165 degrees. If you get flummoxed on the big day, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 800-535-4555. Maybe the operator will tell you about her mother’s bread stuffing.

Basic Bread Stuffing

  • 8 tablespoons butter
  • 4 cups chopped onions, about 3 medium onions
  • 2 ½ cups chopped celery, about 6 ribs
  • 2 pounds good quality sliced white sandwich bread
  • One 14-ounce can chicken broth
  • 2 to 21/2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage or 2 to 21/2 teaspoons dried sage
  • ¼ cup chopped parsley
  • 2 teaspoons salt or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper or to taste


1)Put a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. And 2 tablespoons of the butter, increase the heat to high and add the onion. Sauté about 10 minutes, stirring periodically, or until onions just start to turn brown. (Lower the heat, if needed, to prevent burning.) Scrape the onions into a large mixing bowl. Add another 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add the celery and cook, stirring periodically, until it just starts to turn brown. Add to the onions.

2)Meanwhile, put the chicken broth in a small bowl. Gently dip two slices of bread at a time into the broth. Squeeze out the excess moisture, then crumble the bread into the large mixing bowl with the cooked celery and onion. Season with the sage, parsley, salt and pepper, and toss well. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

3)Put the pan used for cooking the celery and onions over medium-high heat.  Add half of the remaining butter. When the butter stops sizzling, add half of the stuffing. Cook, turning every few minutes with a spatula, until the bread is lightly toasted. Lower the heat if needed to prevent burning. Add to the onions and celery. Repeat with the second batch.

4)When cooled, stuff the turkey or put in a buttered casserole. Makes about 10 cups

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