Why It Works
- Using finer-holed white bread instead of a more open-structured artisanal loaf means better flavor absorption and retention.
- Bread that's been dried out in a low oven is more absorbent than stale bread.
- A mixture of sage, sausage, onion, garlic, and celery lends this stuffing classic flavor.
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 semantic 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.
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.
The Best Bread for Stuffing
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? (Check out the results of our stuffing bread taste test for more details.)
After you've got your bread and cubed it, the next stage is drying it out.
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. Bread that is dry but not stale 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 and 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. (For a more in-depth discussion of these phenomena, plus the results of our testing, read Daniel's article on the effects of refrigeration on bread.)
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 the stuffing 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.
2 1/2 pounds (1.25kg) high-quality sandwich bread or soft Italian or French bread (about 2 loaves), cut into 3/4-inch dice (about 5 quarts)
8 tablespoons butter (1 stick; 4 ounces; 115g)
1 1/2 pounds (680g) sage sausage, removed from casing
1 large onion, finely chopped (about 12 ounces; 350g)
4 large ribs celery, finely chopped (about 12 ounces; 350g)
2 cloves garlic, minced or grated on a Microplane grater
1/4 cup minced fresh sage leaves (or 2 teaspoons dried sage leaves)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, if needed (see note)
3 large eggs
1/4 cup minced parsley leaves, divided
Adjust oven racks to lower-middle and upper-middle positions. Preheat oven to 275°F (135°C). Spread bread evenly over 2 rimmed baking sheets. Stagger trays on oven racks and bake until completely dried, about 50 minutes total, rotating trays and stirring bread cubes several times during baking. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Increase oven temperature to 350°F (180°C).
In a large Dutch oven, melt butter over medium-high heat until foaming subsides (do not allow butter to brown), about 2 minutes. Add sausage and mash with a stiff whisk or potato masher to break up into fine pieces (largest pieces should be no bigger than 1/4 inch). Cook, stirring frequently, until only a few bits of pink remain, about 8 minutes. Add onion, celery, garlic, and sage and cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add half of chicken stock.
Whisk remaining chicken stock, eggs, and 3 tablespoons parsley in a medium bowl until homogeneous. Stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, slowly pour egg mixture into sausage mixture. Add bread cubes and fold gently until evenly mixed.
Use part of stuffing to stuff turkey, if desired (see note). To cook remaining stuffing, transfer to a buttered 9- by 13-inch rectangular baking dish (or 10- by 14-inch oval dish), cover tightly with aluminum foil, and bake until an instant-read thermometer reads 150°F (66°C) when inserted into center of dish, about 45 minutes. Remove foil and continue baking until golden brown and crisp on top, 15 to 20 minutes longer. Remove from oven, let cool for 5 minutes, sprinkle with remaining parsley, and serve.
If desired, dried or fresh fruits and nuts can be folded into the stuffing along with the bread cubes in step 3.
This recipe makes an excellent bird stuffing, producing enough to stuff several small birds or two to three 18- to 22-pound birds. Bake the extra in a buttered baking dish.
If using homemade or low-sodium stock, season to taste with salt and pepper before adding.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The stuffing can be prepared through step 3 and placed in a buttered baking dish a day in advance. Remove from the refrigerator and allow the stuffing to come to room temperature for at least 1 hour before baking the next day.
How to Scale Down This Recipe
This recipe can be scaled down by half. Divide all ingredients by two; use 2 eggs instead of 3; use 1 rimmed baking sheet instead of two to dry the bread; bake stuffing in a 10-inch cast iron or carbon steel skillet instead of a 9- by 13-inch baking dish.