If, like me, you have your favorite stuffing recipe and would face a table of angry family members if you altered it, you may be tempted to skip this article. Don’t. For one thing, you’ll learn how to improve your stuffing without upsetting family tradition by, say, considering a different kind of bread base or by tweaking the herbs and spices you add. Or you might be inspired to do what I do on the holidays—make two stuffings, one for the sake of tradition and one to try something deliciously different.
The bread you use sets the tone
The job of stuffing is to absorb those delicious juices that are released from the bird during cooking. Though some people make stuffing with grains, I think bread does a better job. My mother used soft, fat loaves of Italian bread in her stuffing, but the possibilities range from everyday white bread to a hearty whole grain, which adds heft and a touch of sweetness. Sourdough makes a slightly tangy and chewy stuffing. Cornbread gives stuffing a light, slightly nutty flavor. A southern friend of mine combines two parts cornbread with one part buttermilk biscuits to make a light and buttery stuffing. Use the kind of bread that appeals to you, but avoid packaged croutons because they taste, well, packaged.
How much stuffing?
To figure out amount of stuffing you’ll need, estimate 3/4 to 1 cup stuffing per person. I always err on the side of too much rather than too little. After all, leftover stuffing is great on a turkey sandwich.
The way you prepare the bread also affects the character of the stuffing. Most cooks cut it into small—1/4- to 1/2-inch—cubes. Tearing the bread rather than cutting gives you a more textured look and feel—an especially good technique for rustic hearth breads.
Avoid soggy stuffing by drying the bread. If the bread isn’t dried, it will become sodden, making the stuffing mushy. You can dry bread cubes by spreading them out on a baking sheet and leaving them out uncovered overnight or heating them in a low (275°F) oven until they feel dry, about 15 minutes. The exception is cornbread, which needs only to cool completely before being broken into large crumbs.
Aromatic vegetables add flavor
The flavor base for stuffing starts with a mirepoix (pronounced meer-PWAH)—an assortment of chopped vegetables and seasonings cooked slowly in butter, oil, or rendered bacon fat. The idea is to soften the vegetables just enough to release their flavors; you want to leave them, especially the celery, a little crunchy to counter the softness of the bread. Onions and celery are almost always part of this aromatic mix, but consider them a starting point. A bit of garlic is always welcome. Other possibilities include shallots, red and yellow bell peppers, carrots, leeks, and fennel.
Sage is the classic seasoning used in turkey stuffings. Thyme and parsley are great along with sage. So is rosemary, but use it sparingly so its strong, resinous flavor doesn’t overpower. Spices like ground cloves, allspice, nutmeg, or mace give stuffing depth, adding a touch of sweetness and warmth. Use just a tiny pinch, however: the spice flavors shouldn’t stand out.
Don’t overstuff the bird—and other tips for safe stuffing
Because an improperly stuffed or undercooked turkey can cause illness, follow these guidelines for safe stuffing:
• Stuff the bird just before roasting. You can make the stuffing in advance and refrigerate it for up to two days, but bring it to room temperature before stuffing the turkey because a cold stuffing will slow down the cooking. If you like to add egg to your stuffing, don’t add it until just before stuffing the turkey.
• Pack the stuffing loosely. The stuffing expands as it absorbs juices, and if it’s too tightly packed, it won’t cook through. I generally leave enough room to fit my whole extended hand into the bird’s cavity. Any extra stuffing gets cooked alongside the bird in a casserole dish.
• Cook the stuffing in the bird to 160° to 165°F. Check it with an instant-read thermometer inserted all the way into the center of the stuffing. If the bird is done before the stuffing is, take the bird out of the oven but spoon the stuffing into a casserole dish and continue to bake it while the turkey rests before carving.
A little liquid holds it all together
A stuffing destined for inside the bird should have just enough moisture to barely cling together when mounded on a spoon. If it’s too wet, it can’t soak up the juices from the bird. A stuffing baked in a casserole dish needs a cup or two of stock poured over it to keep it moist during baking.
There are many ways to add moisture before the stuffing goes into the bird. For my Basic Bread Stuffing, I cover the vegetables as they cook to trap all their moisture and flavor. Then I add a generous dose of melted butter, and a bit of stock, white wine, or milk. In other stuffings, I rely on the moisture from added fruits or other additions. Some cooks add an egg or two to their stuffing as a binder. Once again, cornbread breaks the rules—it’s moist and tender enough on its own so there’s no need to add a lot of extra liquid.
Create your own stuffing
One fun thing about stuffing is that there are so many ways to play with flavors and additions. In fact, you can build your own stuffing recipe with our interactive recipe builder here. But before you start, get an idea of the overall flavor you’re after and then select ingredients to get you there. For example, if you like southwestern flavors, you might add some smoky chiles and earthy cumin seed to a cornbread-based stuffing. Or for a sweet fruit dressing, try wheat bread, apples, dried cranberries, and parsley.