Recipes

The great debate: To stuff or bake in a pan?

Bread stuffing, a Thanksgiving must.
Bread stuffing, a Thanksgiving must. The New York Times

For lovers of stuffing and dressing, Thanksgiving may be the apex of the year, though those dishes are welcome on the table anytime.

Although the two terms may be used interchangeably, stuffing is generally understood to be cooked inside the cavity of the turkey, while dressing is baked alone in a casserole or other shallow dish. As a result, stuffing is tender and moist, suffused with the juices and any rendered fat from the bird. Dressing has a crisper top from being exposed more directly to the heat of the oven.

Stuffing

If you love the brawny flavor of poultry juices mixed with your side dish, or if you’re simply a traditionalist, stuffing the turkey is the way to go.

▪  Stuff the turkey just before it goes into the oven. We know you want to do as much ahead as possible, particularly on Thanksgiving, but stuffing ahead of time encourages the growth of bacteria. Don’t do it. This said, you can make the stuffing up to four days ahead and keep it in the refrigerator, then put it inside the bird just before roasting.

▪  If your stuffing recipe calls for shellfish or turkey giblets, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that these be fully cooked and kept hot before they are put inside the bird. So stir them into the mix immediately before stuffing the turkey.

▪  Stuffing expands as it cooks, so fill the cavity loosely.

▪  If you’re going to stuff your bird, you should truss it, or at least tie the legs together to keep the stuffing from falling out.

▪  Bear in mind that stuffed turkeys take longer to cook than unstuffed ones.

▪  Both the turkey and the stuffing need to be cooked to 165 degrees before they are safe to eat. Usually the bird gets there before the stuffing does. To avoid overcooking the turkey, pull it from the oven once the flesh hits the desired temperature. Then spoon the stuffing out of the cavity and into a baking dish and return to the oven (or stick it in the microwave). Continue cooking until the stuffing reaches 165 degrees.

Bread Stuffing: Any bread, from soft white sandwich loaves to chewy bagels to crusty sourdough rye breads, can be turned into a stuffing or dressing. No matter what kind of bread you use, it will absorb more of the seasonings if it is stale and dry. You can either buy the bread several days to a week in advance and let it dry out at room temperature, or cube it and dry it out in a low oven (250 degrees) until thoroughly arid.

Or consider making your own bread for stuffing. Cornbread comes together especially quickly, and you can control the amount of sugar in the recipe, depending upon whether you like it sweet or savory.

Easy breads like biscuits, soda bread, no-knead bread and white sandwich bread all make great stuffing, too. Bake them several days ahead so they have a chance to get stale. Or bake them months ahead and freeze, then thaw them and let them dry out before making stuffing.

Grain Stuffing: Bread stuffing is the classic choice at Thanksgiving, but you could use rice or other grains such as quinoa, farro or barley. Not only are grain stuffings elegant and refined, most also are gluten-free.

Grain stuffings don’t need to adhere the way bread stuffings do, so you don’t need to bind them with egg. Basically, your aim is to make a tasty rice pilaf or grain salad, then cook it again inside your bird, which will give it an even more complex flavor rich with drippings.

You can use classic bread stuffing aromatics (sage, celery, onion), or improvise another flavor combination. Chances are that as long as it tastes good on its own, it will taste even better after taking a turn inside the bird.

Wild rice goes particularly well with the earthy autumnal flavors of a Thanksgiving meal. Or try sticky rice for something unexpectedly terrific.

Dressing

Dressing is baked outside the turkey, which means it can achieve an appealingly crisp, browned top – a nice textural contrast to the softer layer underneath. And, with your dressing out of the way, you can add aromatics such as lemons, garlic and bunches of herbs to the turkey’s cavity for additional flavor. (Another bonus: An unstuffed bird will roast more quickly than a stuffed one.)

▪  You can turn any stuffing recipe into a dressing by simply baking it outside the bird. Spread the mixture in a shallow pan and bake until the mixture reaches 165 degrees. Dressing is pretty forgiving, so feel free to bake it at whatever temperature you need for other dishes you’re cooking.

▪  Vegetarians take note: Because it doesn’t touch the bird, dressing can be utterly meat-free. A rice stuffing with walnut and pears is one good option.

▪  On the opposite side of the spectrum, you can add turkey stock or chicken stock, crisped poultry skin, schmaltz and/or diced cooked gizzards, liver and shredded turkey neck to the dressing to give it a meatier flavor.

▪  If you’ve got enough extra turkey skin, drape it over the top of the dressing before baking. The skin will turn into poultry cracklings and render its luscious fat all over the dressing. Outstanding. If the skin isn’t crisp when the stuffing is done, run it under the broiler for a few minutes to finish. (You can often special-order turkey skin from your butcher – chicken skin will work, too – or trim off the extra skin at the turkey’s neck when you are getting it ready for the oven.)

▪ If you like a deeply golden top, dot the top of the dressing with butter before baking. And if the dressing cooks through before the top is brown, run it under the broiler for a minute or two before serving.

Classic bread stuffing, or dressing?

Time: 1 hour; yield: 6 to 8 cups

Times food writer Mark Bittman says this bread stuffing, based on a James Beard recipe, has been a staple on his Thanksgiving table for decades. First, you make fresh breadcrumbs: Just whiz a few cups of slightly stale cubes of decent bread (crust and all, unless it’s superhard) in a food processor. Keep the crumbs very, very coarse. Cook them with plenty of butter or olive oil, and good seasonings. Baked in a pan, this is delicious, with or without gravy. You could use it to stuff the turkey if you’d like – but once you’ve tried it cooked on its own, you won’t look back.

1/2 pound butter (2 sticks)

1 cup chopped onion

1/2 cup pine nuts or chopped walnuts

6 to 8 cups coarse fresh breadcrumbs (see tip below)

1 tablespoon minced fresh tarragon or sage leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried tarragon or sage, crumbled

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup chopped scallions

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves

Melt butter over medium heat in a large, deep skillet, Dutch oven or casserole. Add onion and cook, stirring, until it softens, about 5 minutes. Add nuts and cook, stirring almost constantly, until they begin to brown, about 3 minutes.

Add breadcrumbs and tarragon or sage and toss to mix. Turn heat to low. Add salt, pepper and scallions. Toss again; taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Add parsley and stir. Turn off heat. (You may prepare recipe in advance up to this point; refrigerate, well wrapped or in a covered container, for up to a day before proceeding.)

Pack into chicken or turkey if you like before roasting, or roast in an ovenproof glass or enameled casserole for about 45 minutes, at 350 to 400 degrees; you can bake this dish next to the bird if you like. (Or you can cook it up to 3 days in advance and warm it up right before dinner.)

Tip: To make the breadcrumbs, tear bread into chunks and put them in the container of a food processor; you may need to do this in batches. Pulse until you have coarse, irregular crumbs, no smaller than a pea and preferably larger.

Sweet Potato Casserole

Time: 2 hours; yield: 8 servings

This version of the classic Thanksgiving side dish forgoes the traditional marshmallow topping for a generous sprinkle of brown sugar, butter and pecans. You get crunchy, soft and sweet all in one glorious bite.

4 medium-large sweet potatoes (about 3 pounds)

6 tablespoons brown sugar

1/4 cup orange juice

1/4 cup heavy cream or whole milk

3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon salt

For The Topping

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened slightly

1/2 cup dark brown sugar

3/4 cup chopped pecans

1. To make the casserole, heat oven to 375 degrees. Bake sweet potatoes until very tender, about 1 hour, 20 minutes. Remove and let cool. Reduce heat to 350 degrees.

2. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, cut them in half, scoop out flesh and mash until smooth. You should have about 4 cups. Using a hand mixer, mix in brown sugar, orange juice, heavy cream, butter, vanilla and salt. Place in a casserole dish.

3. To make the topping, combine the butter, brown sugar and pecans. Sprinkle over sweet potato mixture. Bake for 30 minutes.

Marian Burrows, The New York Times

Stuffing With Leeks, Mushrooms and Bacon

Time: 2 to 2½ hours; yield: 8 to 10 servings

Discord swarms around the issue of stuffing. Should it be cooked in the turkey or baked alongside, as dressing? White bread or cornbread? Firm enough to slice, or soft as pudding? Call this recipe the peacemaker, because it’s adaptable enough to make everyone happy. You can use white bread or cornbread (and gluten-free cornbread works perfectly). The mushrooms allow vegetarians to lose the bacon without sacrificing all the flavor. We advocate baking it separately (which technically makes it dressing), but if you want to stuff the turkey, you can do that, too.

3 tablespoons melted butter, more as needed for greasing pan

1 1/2 pounds sliced white bread or cornbread

1/2 pound thick-cut bacon

2 large leeks, trimmed and sliced (3 cups)

1 1/2 pounds mixed mushrooms, cut into bite-size pieces

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

3/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons chopped sage

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 1/4 cups chicken stock, more as needed

1/4 cup apple cider, if using white bread

3 tablespoons chopped parsley

1. Heat oven to 250 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Trim the crusts from the white bread and cut into 1-inch cubes; if using cornbread, coarsely crumble it. Spread the bread pieces out on one or two large baking sheets. Toast in the oven, tossing occasionally, until very dry, about 30 minutes for white bread, 1 hour for cornbread. Transfer to a large bowl to cool. Increase oven temperature to 375 degrees.

2. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the bacon strips until crisp. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain, leaving the fat in the pan. Add the leeks to the bacon fat and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Cook, tossing frequently, until mushrooms are tender and most of their juices have evaporated, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the sage and cook 1 minute. Add the wine and cook until it evaporates, about 2 minutes.

3. Spoon the mushroom mixture over the dried bread. Stir in stock. If using white bread, stir in the cider. Add parsley, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. The mixture should be moist and very soft. If you like your stuffing extremely moist, add enough stock to make it seem slightly soggy but not wet. (Think pudding.) Crumble bacon and stir it in.

4. Transfer the bread mixture to the prepared baking pan. Drizzle 3 tablespoons melted butter over the stuffing. Bake until golden, 35 to 45 minutes.

Melissa Clark, The New York Times

Sweet Potato Casserole

Time: 2 hours; yield: 8 servings

This version of the classic Thanksgiving side dish forgoes the traditional marshmallow topping for a generous sprinkle of brown sugar, butter and pecans. You get crunchy, soft and sweet all in one glorious bite.

4 medium-large sweet potatoes (about 3 pounds)

6 tablespoons brown sugar

1/4 cup orange juice

1/4 cup heavy cream or whole milk

3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon salt

For The Topping

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened slightly

1/2 cup dark brown sugar

3/4 cup chopped pecans

1. To make the casserole, heat oven to 375 degrees. Bake sweet potatoes until very tender, about 1 hour, 20 minutes. Remove and let cool. Reduce heat to 350 degrees.

2. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, cut them in half, scoop out flesh and mash until smooth. You should have about 4 cups. Using a hand mixer, mix in brown sugar, orange juice, heavy cream, butter, vanilla and salt. Place in a casserole dish.

3. To make the topping, combine the butter, brown sugar and pecans. Sprinkle over sweet potato mixture. Bake for 30 minutes.

Marian Burrows, The New York Times

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