Get Stuffed! -or- Leave Me Alone, I’m Dressing!

What do you call the dish that is almost as symbolic of Thanksgiving as the turkey and the pumpkin pie?

Is it dressing, or is it stuffing?

Is there a difference? Does it matter?

There seem to be as many opinions of which is the “proper” name to call it, as there are infinite variations on recipes for this quintessential Thanksgiving dish.

The charmingly named Hillbilly Housewife shares the opinion of many food bloggers, that stuffing is the *stuff* that gets *stuffed* into the cavity of the turkey [or chicken or duck] before cooking the bird.  Dressing, she says, gets mixed up on the side, and cooked in the oven separately from the main course.

[Other bloggers and historians disagree – they posit that the origin of the word dressing stems from old culinary instructions about *dressing* the newly-dispatched poultry, cleaning the feathers and otherwise preparing [‘dressing’] it for cooking. An alternate take is that dressing dresses up the ho-hum bird.]

The British call it dressing, as do folks in the southern part of the United States, whether the dish gets cooked in the turkey or not.  Stuffing seems to be a more popular name in New England and the west. Our very Midwestern family uses both dressing and stuffing interchageably. [Can’t we all just get along?]

If you get tired of dithering about which is the more proper term, you could chuck them both and just call the dish forcemeat, another synonym for the Thanksgiving staple. Except the word forcemeat just sounds, well, really unappetizing.

The earliest mention of stuffing is sometime between 200 BC and 100 AD. The Roman cookbook, Apicius’ “De Re Coquinaria”, contains recipes for stuffed chicken, hare, and pig, made from vegetables, herbs and spices, nuts, and spelt (an ancient Mediterranean gran), and “frequently contain[ed] chopped liver, brains, and other organ meat” [mmm, sounds almost as tasty as “forcemeat’].

Chances are, whatever you call the dish, you probably don’t make it like Apicius: with brains and spelt [not that there’s anything wrong with that]. But, otherwise, despite what your grandma told you, there are no requirements or must-use ingredients for dressing.

Almost anything can serve as a stuffing. Most stuffing recipes contain bread or cereals. Cornbread is a popular Southern dressing-base; cubes of crusty white bread are more popular elsewhere in the US. We’ve even heard of rye bread stuffing [if you have a recipe, please share!].  The dried-bread dressing base is usually combined together with vegetables, herbs and spices, and eggs.

For an exotic twist, you might try a Middle Eastern vegetable stuffing, based on seasoned rice, minced meat, or a combination.  Some types of stuffing contain sausage; oysters are sometimes used in Thanksgiving turkey stuffing. Fruits and dried fruits are often added to stuffing including apples, dried prunes, apricots, and raisins.

Suggested Herbs and Spices for stuffing [or dressing] [or forcemeat]:

  • Rubbed sage
  • Thyme
  • Onion
  • Celery
  • Oregano
  • Marjoram
  • Rosemary
  • Parsley

Sometimes you’ll even see a dressing recipe that calls for ginger, or green bell or jalapeno pepper [though not in the same recipe!]. Get creative and add in some apples or cranberries, pecans, walnuts or chestnuts, or even mushrooms, to change up the tastes and textures.

A drizzle of infused oil, such as our Wild Mushroom and Sage Olive Oil, can add a pleasing mouthfeel and complementary flavors to your dressing. Moisten your bread-herb-delicious-other-stuff mixture with broth [vegetable, chicken, homemade turkey] or water [which is kind of dull] and pat into an oiled pan.

Whatever ingredients you choose, your stuffing mixture may be cooked separately and served as a side dish.

You may want to do this for food safety reasons: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) claims that cooking animals with a body cavity filled with stuffing can present potential food safety issues. These can occur because when the meat reaches a safe temperature, the stuffing inside can still harbor bacteria (and if the meat is cooked until the stuffing reaches a safe temperature, the meat may be overcooked). For turkeys, for instance, the USDA recommends cooking stuffing/dressing separately from the bird and not buying pre-stuffed birds (stuffing is never recommended for turkeys to be grilled, smoked, fried, or microwaved).

A 9″x13″ pan of dressing , covered with foil, cooks in a 350F oven for about 30-45 minutes. [Your mileage may vary; check your recipe for exact cooking temps and times.]

A fantastic stuffing recipe is our own Chef Amy’s classic Farmhouse Herbed Stuffing.

photo credits: Thanksgiving Turkey by Antonellomusina [top], and stuffing [dressing?] by Found Drama [bottom] on Flickr