Ancient Romans and Arabs stuffed their birds centuries before Thanksgiving was a thing. In Medieval Europe, the English called it forcemeat and the French called it farce, but whatever the name, they filled the cavities of fowl and other animals with a mixture of breads, spices, and chopped items. In the U.S., Northerners call it stuffing, and Southerners and Midwesterners call it dressing.
We prefer the stuffing name because it sounds more fun and doesn’t confuse anyone with a salad association. Spare the thought.
Stuffing mixtures can fill any animal, vegetable, or fruit, and can be cooked separately or in the food in which it’s stuffed. Usually well seasoned, stuffing is based on breadcrumbs or cubes, though rice, potatoes are not uncommon, according to The New Food Lover’s Companion.
There’s no clear evidence that stuffed turkeys were part of the first few Thanksgivings with pilgrims and Native Americans, but it seems natural considering the available native bird and the longstanding practice of stuffing fowl. Early American cookbooks provide recipes similar to today: “The crumb of a halfpenny roll,” “beef-suet chopped fine,” shredded lemon peel, grated nutmeg, salt, pepper, and egg were recommended in the New Art of Cookery According to Present Practice by Richard Briggs, published in Philadelphia in 1792.
Ah, but then came innovation and its slick cousin, convenience, when Stove Top introduced boxed stuffing in 1972. These days, Kraft Foods sells almost 60 million boxes of stuffing every Thanksgiving, according to Kitchen Project. The boxed version’s low cost and ease, plus Kraft’s marketing blitzes every November, made the side dish feel essential to the holiday.
While we understand the lure of convenience, please don’t make boxed stuffing. There are so many variations you can play with to tailor it to your own taste. You could use any of these herbs and spices: basil, bay leaf, caraway seed, celery seed, chives, ground coriander, cumin, fennel, ginger, mace, marjoram, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, parsley, sage, and tarragon. Try some of our ideas on our Thanksgiving page.
How a Chef Does Stuffing
Stuffing is Chef Katie Resmondo’s favorite part of Thanksgiving. A private and special events chef at Simply Wine in Billings, Montana, Resmondo turns to her skillet cornbread stuffing recipe for her family’s feast at home. She warms the skillet with bacon fat before pouring in the cornbread mixture. “It gives it a nice crispy crust,” Resmondo says. “I prefer cornbread over other breads because the consistency is less gummy; it just has a better texture.”
She always makes her stuffing within her turkey, and whatever is left over is baked in a casserole dish. You can pretty much cook stuffing in anything, Resmondo says, but it always tastes best inside the bird, where it’s steamed in the enclosed space and infused with the meat’s juices.
“It takes on the flavor of the bird,” Resmondo says. “The part that’s sticking out gets all the fat from the turkey and it forms a nice crust. It’s like the turkey is its own cooking vessel for the stuffing.”
Resmondo’s Stuffing Tips:
- Plan on a half a cup to a cup of stuffing for each guest, or more if you want leftovers.
- Toast fresh herbs in butter before adding to the mix.
- Only use cubed bread that’s been sitting in a bowl on the counter to dry out.
- Use homemade broth if you can; dark chicken, turkey, or vegetable is best.
- Avoid using too much or too little broth to avoid a mushy, wet or overly dry dish
- Use a sturdy white bread, like a French baguette or Italian bread.
- Brown butter low and slow until it turns brown and fragrant before you add your celery, onions, and herbs. “It gives it a richer flavor,” she says.
- For a vegetarian stuffing, sauté porcini mushrooms for a long time until all the moisture is gone and use a vegetable broth.
- Consider adding oysters, sausage, dried fruit, or squash such as butternut or red kuri.
- For an extra-special flourish, make a pretty garnish by frying whole herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage) in brown butter and sprinkle them with salt.
“The fried herb garnish takes it to the next level for presentation,” Resmondo says.
Also: If you’re making all the stuffing separately from the bird, you can bake it ahead of time, refrigerate it covered, and warm it in the oven at 350 degrees F for about half an hour before serving.
Try some of our stuffing recipes below, and use our Thanksgiving recipe resource for other ideas.
1. Cornbread and Apple Stuffing
Sweet Pink Lady or Gala apples sidle up to tart Granny Smiths in this take on cornbread stuffing with a bit of white wine and the usual accompaniments. Get our Cornbread and Apple Stuffing recipe.
2. Cranberry and Sausage Stuffing
Smoked sausage plus a touch of Old Bay seasoning add more depth of flavor and provide a contrast to the dried cranberries and pecans littering the crusty cubes of French or Italian bread. Get our Cranberry and Sausage Stuffing recipe.
3. Chestnut and Pancetta Stuffing
Steamed, diced chestnuts with cubed salty pancetta are flavored more with a dash of cinnamon and fresh fennel. Get our Chestnut and Pancetta Stuffing recipe.
4. Cornbread and Oyster Stuffing
You must use fresh-shucked oysters and slightly dried-out cornbread for this stuffing. There’s also celery stalks, celery root (celeriac), and celery seeds in this one. You can make the cornbread ahead of time and freeze it. Get our Cornbread and Oyster Stuffing recipe.
5. Celery Root and Mushroom Stuffing
Cremini mushrooms and celery root combined with crusty bread on top and an earthy mushroom stock make this a hearty meat-free version. Get our Celery Root and Mushroom Stuffing recipe.
— Head Photo: The Heritage Cook.