Anybody's who has read our staff picks of favorite Thanksgiving dishes knows how much we're into stuffing. (Full disclosure: we capped the number of stuffing responses on that list, otherwise we pretty much all would have picked it). There are few things better in the world than bread soaked in meaty, savory broth, rich butter, and herby, sausage-scented aromatics.
Making perfect stuffing is surprisingly easy (just follow our recipe here), but if there's one thing I've learned from 31 Thanksgivings spent with my family, stuffing is the most contentious dish on the Thanksgiving spread. First off, it's infinitely adaptable.
Like apples and celery? Go ahead and add them. Cranberries and chestnuts like my mom? It's your party. Are you one of those freakazoid who enjoys raisins? Go for it.
Even before we get to the add-ins, there's the age-old question of bread. Better to go with a rustic, open-holed loaf, or plain old sandwich bread? What about eggy challah, or perhaps potato bread?
While there's no way we can help you with the question of add-ins, we can help figure out what types of bread work and what don't.* We gathered up eight types of bread and made eight batches of stuffing:
- White bread
- English muffins
- Supermarket "French" style bread
- A real French baguette
- Martin's potato bread stuffing cubes
- Sourdough boule
*I'm happy doing this if only to prove my sister's poor choices wrong.
To make sure that everyone was on equal footing, we used a scale to ensure that we used the exact same amount of each type of bread in our testing. While a blind tasting would have been great, the breads were far too easily identifiable for it to have done any good, so all tasting was done in the open.
Here are our results, in order of preference.
#1: White Sandwich Bread
We used a high-quality white sandwich bread for this batch (Arnold brand, to be precise), none of that too-squishy Wonderbread-type stuff.
Texture: Because of its small hole structure but fluffy texture, it was the best at absorbing liquid and butter, gaining a very pleasing, steamy bread pudding-like texture. Some tasters would have preferred a bit more crustiness in the interior, but the top surface gained plenty of crisp crunch.
Flavor: We were very happy with the flavor—the white bread acts as a sort of blank, neutral palate with a very mild sweetness that allows the richness of the broth, the sage-iness of the sausage, and the vegetables to really shine through.
We bought our challah fresh from a local bakery. Eggy and mildly sweet.
Texture: Very similar to that of white bread with a nice, bread pudding texture. The crust on challah tends to be a little papery inside the casserole.
Flavor: Some tasters really loved the eggy richness of the flavor, though others felt it to be a bit too rich and overwhelming. Still, it allowed plenty of the other flavors to come out. Perfect for those who want their stuffing extra rich.
#3: Martin's Stuffing Cubes
This is the only non full-loaf bread we allowed in the tasting since Martin's has such a cult-like following. You can find the bag of dried cubes at some grocery stores. The cubes are actually the same bread as their regular sliced potato bread, so it wasn't really cheating.
Texture: Nearly perfect, just like the white bread. Spongy, fluffy, and absorptive.
Flavor: While there was plenty of sausage and broth flavor in the mix, many tasters found the potato bread's distinct sweetness to be distracting, despite the fact that most of us went into this tasting thinking that the potato bread would undoubtedly be our favorite.
As New Yorkers, we couldn't not taste bagels in our stuffing. These bagels came from Fairway, one of our favorite supermarkets in the city.
Texture: We were afraid they'd be overly dense and heavy for stuffing, but they actually absorbed broth quite nicely. Makes sense, considering how good your average bagel is at absorbing hot melted butter. Still, the stuffing was heavier than most. The bagel's crust also softened up nicely.
Flavor: Rather neutral in flavor, much like the white bread.
#5: "French" Bread
This is the stuff that's sold as "French Bread" in most supermarket. A relatively soft-textured loaf with a thin, crisp crust.
Texture: The bread looks more significant and sturdy than, say, white bread, yet when it gets moist, it collapses into mush, becoming soft and smooshy rather than getting the pudding-like texture of good stuffing. The crust turns papery in the mix. Paper mixed with mush = not so good.
Flavor: We had no complaints about the neutral flavor of this one.
#6: English Muffin
English muffins in stuffing? Why not? We love the combo of butter and English muffins, and they're a natural pair for sausage.
Texture: Firm, almost stale tasting, despite being soaked in butter and broth and being baked. English muffins are made for crisp nooks and crannies, not for softening.
Flavor: We ate the stuffing and it tasted like... English muffins. Unabashedly, undeniably, English muffins. We've got nothing against them in general, but in stuffing, they just didn't taste right.
We used a few mini French-style crusty baguettes baked at our local Whole Foods. Not the greatest baguettes in the city, but a good baseline for what's widely available across the country.
Texture: This was our first real fail in the texture department. Baguettes have a large, robust, open hole structure that's great on its own or in a sandwich, but horrible at absorbing broth. Rather than coming together into a cohesive dish, we ended up tasting a casserole dish full of individual buttery croutons. Not bad, but definitely not stuffing.
Flavor: The baguette just didn't absorb enough flavors to make this stuffing worth eating.
#8: Sourdough Boule
To be honest, we didn't have the highest hopes for this one. Sourdough has both a robust, distinctive texture as well as a flavor. How would it meld into our dish?
Texture: Like the baguette, our sourdough loaf wasn't a great absorber. On top of that, a super thick crunchy crust was distracting in the final dish, acquiring a texture something like moist cardboard.
Flavor: Whoa, sour! We know there are some sourdough junkies out there (a few of our tasters considered themselves amongst that crowd), but making stuffing out of it neither improves the bread, nor the stuffing. We'll gladly let this loaf sit on its own at the Thanksgiving table, but please, keep it out of our stuffing!
Now, we're sure you've all got your own opinions on the matter. So tell us, what do you like to use in your stuffing?*
*Aya—you don't have to answer this.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.