I'm not going to come down on either side of the whole stuffing-versus-dressing debate, except to say that three reputable sources give three different answers:
- The Oxford English Dictionary says that stuffing is stuffed in a bird or joint, while dressing is a more general term for seasoning that goes with food or sauce.
- The Joy of Cooking contends that they are one and the same, except that one is in the bird and one is out.
- The Food Lover's Companion, on the other hand, says the two terms can be used interchangeably.
With that out of the way, I expect to hear no more on that semantics discussion this holiday season, and certainly not in the comments of this post.
So, moving on: stuffing.
While it can be made with any number of bases, the most popular type (and my favorite) is made with bread, broth, eggs, and butter. Essentially, it's best to think of it as a savory bread pudding when you're constructing a recipe.
The key to great bread pudding is to use the bread as a sponge to soak up as much flavorful liquid as possible. At the same time, you don't want it to be spongy.
The final pudding should have a moist, custard-like texture. It should be firm enough to cut with a knife, but soft and tender enough to eat with a spoon, with a bit of space left over to soak up some gravy. Much of this has to do with how you pick and handle your bread.
First off, you've got to decide what kind of bread you're going to use. Whole-grain breads may have more flavor on their own, but they're rougher in texture than white-flour breads. Since the bread in a stuffing is more a vehicle for flavor than a flavor on its own, I prefer to use white breads—they achieve a more custard-like texture. It's tempting to use a high-quality, crusty, chewy, large-holed, fancy artisanal bread, but the finer hole structure of regular supermarket-style "Italian" or "French" bread (or just plain old high-quality white sandwich bread) makes for better flavor absorption and retention, and that's what stuffings are all about, right? (See the results of our stuffing bread taste test here.)
After you've got your bread and cubed it, the next stage is drying it out. It may surprise you, but drying and staling are not the same thing.
Drying Versus Staling
Drying involves the evaporation of moisture from within a piece of bread. The structure of the bread remains more or less the same, though it becomes less pliable because of the moisture loss. Dry but not stale bread will be crisp like a cracker and crumble into a fine powder.
Staling is the process by which moisture migrates out of swollen starch granules and into the spaces in the bread. The moisture-deprived starch molecules then recrystallize, forming tough structures within the bread. The moisture may remain trapped within the structure of the bread, giving you a loaf that's simultaneously moist but stale. It'll taste leathery and chewy, but not cracker-y or dry.
Staling occurs most readily at refrigerator temperatures, so it's best to store bread either on the counter or in the freezer (well wrapped, to prevent drying).
So, knowing this, we realized that despite all the recipes that call for stale bread for stuffing, what we're really after here is dry bread—bread that has had plenty of moisture driven out of it, giving it more room to absorb flavorful stock. Staling takes time. Luckily for us, drying is fast.
I dry my bread by toasting it in a low (275°F/135°C) oven for about 45 minutes, tossing it a couple of times halfway through. By drying the bread like this, you make enough room in two regular-sized loaves (about two and a half pounds of bread) to absorb a full four cups of chicken or turkey broth. It's so much broth that it almost tastes like you baked it in the bird, even if you decide to do it in a separate pan. I recommend starting it with foil on top to trap some moisture, before removing the foil and crisping up the top.
The flavorings I go with are classic: butter (and plenty of it), sage sausage (you can get away with just sage for a less meaty version), onions, celery, and garlic. My sister likes to add dried cranberries, and my mother likes to add chestnuts. My sister and my mother, of course, are both wrong.