The problem with holiday traditions is that, though comforting and familiar, they can also be boring. That’s why each holiday season, I search for ways to mix it up a little without breaking the tradition of turkey and all its trimmings. Stuffing is the perfect place for experimentation: the only constant is the bread, and even then there are lots of choices. Once you choose a bread, you still have dozens of options for other flavors, like nuts, sausage, olives, and all kinds of vegetables, herbs and spices. It’s hard to go wrong as long as you choose flavors that are harmonious together.
The trick to making a good stuffing is getting the moisture right. In the end, the stuffing should be golden and slightly crisp on top and moist inside. You don’t want it to be soggy or dry. Different types of bread will require different amounts of moisture to achieve this texture, so be sure to add the liquid gradually, evaluating as you go.
In my opinion, stuffing baked outside the bird (also called dressing) is the way to go: your turkey cooks faster and more evenly, your stuffing gets nice crisp edges, and you don’t have to worry about undercooking. However, if your tradition insists on baking the stuffing inside the bird, just cut back on the liquid by a cup or so—the stuffing mixture should be moistened only enough to barely cling together, so that it can still absorb turkey juices. And when you stuff the turkey, leave enough room to fit your hand into the top of the cavity; this will ensure that the stuffing has space to expand when as it cooks.
Perfect bread stuffing
Serves 8 to 10
Prep the bread
You can cut your bread cubes a day ahead, then prep the stuffing components and cook the add-ins several hours ahead. Just wait to combine and moisten the stuffing until shortly before you’re ready to bake it.
Bread is the backbone of your stuffing. You can use just about any kind, from white sandwich bread to rustic artisan loaves. Except for cornbread, the bread must be dried so it can absorb the flavors of the other ingredients.
Tear or cut 14 to 16 oz. of bread (see options below) into 3/4-inch pieces until you have 8 to 10 cups. If working a day ahead, lay the pieces out on a rack and leave them uncovered on the counter to dry overnight. Otherwise, spread the bread out on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in a 275°F oven, stirring every 10 minutes or so, until it is crisp and mostly dry; it will continue to dry a bit as it cools. Depending on how moist the bread is to begin with, oven-drying takes 15 to 45 minutes.
Choose a bread
Brown the meat
Adding sausage or bacon is optional. Not only is it a delicious addition, but you can use the fat to saute the vegetables in the next step.
Brown up to 1 lb. of bacon or sausage (if using; see options below) in a large skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally until fully cooked.
Choose the meat (optional)
The add-ins (vegetables, plus other goodies) give the stuffing its personality. Celery and onions, shallots, or leeks are a given for most stuffings, but other than that, just about anything goes. Choose a variety of up to 6 add-ins that seem like they’ll taste good together, and consider texture as well as flavor when choosing—you want your stuffing to have some crunchy elements to counter the soft texture of the bread.
Sauté the vegetables
Turn the heat to medium-low and add your vegetable add-ins to the skillet (or if not using meat, the vegetables should be cooked together in 2 Tbs. butter or oil with a big pinch of salt in a large covered skillet over medium-low to low heat), stirring occasionally, until they’re slightly softened but still have some crunch.
Choose the vegetable add-ins
Mix the stuffing
In a large bowl, toss the bread with the meat (if using) and vegetables, plus the remaining add-ins (see options below). Remember not to use more than 6 cups total of cooked vegetables, meat and other add-ins, or it could overwhelm the bread.
Choose the other add-ins
Season the stuffing
All stuffings benefit from a healthy dose of fresh herbs. Sage is a natural for most stuffings, but at the very least, use some parsley.
Add up to 5 seasonings (see options below) to the stuffing mixture and toss well. Add kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Choose the seasonings
Moisten the stuffing
The trick to making a good stuffing is getting the moisture right. In the end, the stuffing should be golden and slightly crisp on top and moist inside. You don’t want it to be soggy—or dry. Different types of bread will require different amounts of moisture to achieve this texture.
Add 2 cups of your liquid (see options below), and if the liquid isn’t immediately absorbed and pools at the bottom of the bowl, that should be enough; just toss the mixture occasionally for a few minutes and the liquid will be absorbed. At first, the bread cubes may feel wet on the outside and still be dry on the inside, but they’ll even out as the stuffing cooks.
Choose a liquid
If the bread immediately sucks up the initial 2 cups liquid, add another 1/2 cup of broth and taste the mixture. The bread should be moist but not soggy. Add up to another 1/2 cup for a total of 3 cups of liquid, if necessary.
Taste and enrich the stuffing
Taste the mixture and add salt and pepper as needed. If the mixture doesn’t taste as rich as you’d like, add 1/4 cup of melted unsalted butter or extra-virgin olive oil to suit your taste. If you’re using sausage or bacon as an add-in, you may not need any additional fat. Once you’re satisfied with the flavor of the mixture, stir in 2 large lightly beaten eggs.
Bake the stuffing
Heat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease a 9×13-inch baking dish with oil or cooking spray. Spread the stuffing in the dish, cover tightly with foil, and bake until heated through, about 30 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake until the top is lightly browned and crisp, another 20 to 30 minutes.
If you use a Pyrex dish, as opposed to a ceramic one, the bottom of the stuffing will brown better.