Before a tailor can sew a suit, someone needs to pick the fabric. Before a surgeon amputates a limb, it's a good idea to confirm which limb needs amputating. And before you set to work making a cornbread dressing for Thanksgiving dinner, I strongly suggest you figure out what kind of cornbread you're planning on using.
There are a ton of cornbread recipes out there, some made with white corn, some with yellow; some with lard, some with oil, and some with butter; some have buttermilk, and some just have milk. But we'll put all that aside for now, because the real question you need to consider is whether you're reaching for a sweet Northern-style cornbread or a savory Southern one.
So let's start there, because everything else is just dressing...for the dressing. Dressing dressing. Get it? Okay, moving on.
The Cornbread: Go Savory or Go Bust (According to Me)
In the world of cornbread, the single biggest divide is between the sweeter kind more common to the North and the savory type you're more likely to find in the South. The Northern version tends to be made from a mixture of both cornmeal and wheat flour and sweetened with sugar, while the Southern version generally relies solely on cornmeal, without any additional sweetener or flour.
People tend to have pretty passionate feelings about which is most legitimate, and to cast aspersions on anything that doesn't match that idea. I'm something of a cornbread agnostic—any well-made cornbread is welcome in my mouth. Still, just because I'm an equal-opportunity cornbread eater doesn't mean I'm as open-minded when it comes to which cornbread I want in my stuffing. To gauge my own convictions on the subject, I prepared batches with both types of cornbread, and to my taste there was no debate: A dressing made from sweet, cake-like cornbread will have no place on my Thanksgiving table.
Now, I understand that just like cornbread itself, this is a very personal issue. Some of you out there may like that sweeter cornbread in your dressing, doused with gravy and supporting hunks of roast turkey. Even I could probably be convinced that a very mildly sweet cornbread can work, especially with something like roasted chestnuts mixed in, given their affinity for sweet things. If so, that's fine, because a cornbread dressing recipe works no matter what cornbread you use.
In my recipe here, though, I'm calling for unsweetened Southern-style cornbread. Making it is as simple as mixing good-quality stone-ground cornmeal with baking soda, baking powder, and salt, then stirring that together with buttermilk, eggs, and fat (butter, in this case, but you can also use lard, rendered bacon fat, or even vegetable oil).
A quick spin in a preheated cast iron skillet, and you'll be ready to proceed. In fact, my recipe makes a large enough cornbread for an entire batch of the dressing, which feeds about eight as a side dish.
As we know from making dressings with wheat bread, drying is a critical part of the stuffing-making process. We want to drive out as much moisture as possible so that we can then replace much of it with flavorful liquids like chicken stock, creating a custardy texture with crispy bits throughout.
When I first started working on this recipe, I assumed the same was true of cornbread, and I went about drying it in a low oven for a long time, until each cube was crunchy like a crouton. But as I tasted my way through test batches, I noticed that the dried cornbread wasn't being transformed by the liquid in the same way dried wheat bread is. That makes sense—cornbread is a very different beast from wheat bread, since it has little to no gluten and much of its moisture comes from fat in the batter, which doesn't evaporate like water moisture does.
To see whether the cornbread really needed to be so fully dehydrated, I prepared dressings made with some that was fully dried and some that was just lightly toasted. Interestingly, I could hardly tell any difference between the two finished dressings. Given how much faster it is to quickly toast than to thoroughly dry, I ditched the dehydrating step. If you have old, dried cornbread, you can use it, but you don't need to go to the trouble of drying the fresh stuff.
Say Good-bye to Gluten
Another interesting quality of cornbread is that it doesn't become custardy when moistened, like white bread does. Instead, it just crumbles. That's because it lacks the structure and elasticity that gluten gives to wheat bread. I happen to like that custardy texture of a wheat bread stuffing, so I was curious to see if there was some way to push a cornbread dressing in that direction.
The cornbread recipe I was using stuck to the Southern tradition, with 100% stone-ground cornmeal and no wheat flour. I thought perhaps I could hack it just for the dressing recipe by adding wheat flour to get some of that gluten benefit. The trouble, it turns out, is that given how short (i.e., fat-rich) a cornbread batter is, even a generous dose of wheat flour fails to form enough gluten to make any appreciable difference in the final dressing. No matter what, the texture is crumbly.
The biggest lesson here is simply to accept that cornbread dressing is inherently crumbly, not custardy. Still, I did bump up the eggs in my recipe from three to four, just to get slightly more custardy binding in there. It's a tricky line to walk, because too much egg will make the dressing taste like an overstuffed cornbread frittata—which is not good. One extra egg is okay, but no more than that.
This is the part where you have the most latitude. I stuck with sage sausage, removing the meat from its casing and crushing it as it cooked with a potato masher (much easier than trying to break it apart with a wooden spoon). But you might opt for country ham instead, or omit the meat entirely. Sautéed mushrooms would be good, as would roasted crumbled chestnuts.
Plenty of aromatic vegetables, like diced onion, celery, and garlic, plus herbs like sage and parsley, complete the flavorings here.
It all gets tossed together along with the beaten eggs and chicken stock, then baked in the oven until heated throughout and browned and crispy on top. If you have the time, I recommend mixing it all together a day or two before it's time to bake it, since the flavors mingle, meld, and improve as the dressing sits.
It's that kind of forethought that'll get you through Thanksgiving with ease...and without accidentally amputating a limb.