Dressing Up Thanksgiving - No. 167
A holiday stuffing/dressing recipe so good you might not even need the turkey
Happy Tuesday! A quick heads-up on today’s post, which is a little longish but loaded with turkey, dressing, and gravy tips plus the recipe. I also share my progress with this newsletter, something I’d like you to know.
MY FATHER WAS TOLERANT, but the holidays put his patience to the test. And it usually had to do with the noise level created once everyone on my mother’s side of the family showed up. He learned to swing by the kitchen counter bar on the way to the buffet table, grab a plate early, and find solace in cornbread dressing smothered in gravy.
But I recall one drive home from Thanksgiving when the conversation in the front seat was about turkey dressing, not pandemonium.
What was in the dressing, wondered my dad, who was not one to wonder about food. While our family extends forgiveness for a dry turkey as long as it’s cooked through, (because there’s always gravy), they fervently believed you don’t do bad dressing.
‘’She’s from Louisiana,’’ my mother defended. ‘’Maybe it’s a recipe from down there.’’ The dressing was dark, and it wasn’t burned, I remember that. As a child, I just avoided it. But thinking back, I’m guessing it might have been flavored with boudin, aka blood sausage, or even turkey giblets, too. And it didn’t contain cornbread, which threw off my dad.
Honestly, it took years before he agreed to have Thanksgiving anywhere else but home.
Dressing or stuffing? And THE TRICK
If you’re hosting the meal, it’s fair game to roast the turkey and make the dressing or stuffing your way, right? Dressing is a way to express yourself, your region, and your family story. I grew up on cornbread dressing lightened with white bread. It was that perfect ratio that my mother had down pat. And she had learned from her mother-in-law to add plenty of turkey broth to the dressing, even to the point that it looked too wet. That moisture would bake out in the oven.
She also learned THE TRICK.
To pull the roasted turkey out of the oven, stick a ladle down into the pan juices and pour a big ladleful right over the top of the unbaked dressing. Then it went uncovered into a hot oven, and when it was all crispy around the edges, it was done.
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The fifth child, my mother was the peacemaker. She settled sibling squabbles, her own and ours, and as I’ve mentioned before, her telephone was constantly in use consoling, advising, grieving, laughing. At Thanksgiving, why would my mother take a stand and risk half the room hating her ruling on dressing v. stuffing?
So the dressing was baked in a pan separate from the turkey, and the stuffing was spooned inside the bird to help it roast up plump and pretty. She stashed leftover hamburger buns from a package of 12 in the downstairs freezer for the dressing (and stuffing). She liked how soft and squishy they were, and they kept the dressing (and stuffing) soft, too.
How I’ve improvised on a family classic
The words "dressing" and "stuffing" have long been used to describe this bread-based savory mixture accompanying poultry of all types. But now that I have staged and participated in many Thanksgiving meals of my own, I see the genius in dressing, which slides unnoticed into the oven at the last minute to bake up hot, crispy, and flavorful. And it marries with roasted turkey, smoked turkey, and deep-fried turkey. It also goes with no turkey and can be made with vegetable broth and mushrooms instead of meat.
So the way I look at dressing/stuffing isn’t as rigid as my dad, and it’s got some peacemaking elements from my mom. It’s also got an eye on aesthetics. I like food to look beautiful.
Having taken food styling workshops and learned a bit on the job, I can look at roasted turkeys and tell you if they’re undercooked, overcooked, been sitting, raw and basted with Kitchen Bouquet, you name it. From Los Angeles stylist extraordinaire Judy Peck Prindle, I learned to stuff the neck cavity with instant mashed potatoes, hydrated just in water. That way, it stays rounded and plump and doesn’t shrink into a hollow like it does if you don’t put anything in there. (And it doesn’t burn like it does if you put your greasy stuffing in there.)
And now, the swimsuit competition…
The first of two photos from Getty Images is the unstuffed turkey, a bit scrawny-looking really. Nicely garnished, and love the platter work, but if they had filled the neck cavity with something, even half of an apple it wouldn’t have sunk so deeply. And it’s a smaller turkey, and smaller turkeys aren’t as platter pretty as bigger birds.
Here we have a big stuffed turkey, roasted beautifully, and I am sure it tasted delicious. But see what I mean on the left about that neck cavity packed with so much greasy stuffing that it swells up and burns. So the lesson is to not overstuff or do so with half an apple or try the instant mashed potato trick if you’re going just for show! It doesn’t matter what’s happening at the other end. If that stuffing in the body of the turkey browns too quickly, shield it with a piece of foil or try ye olde parsley trick: Throw on a handful of chopped curly parsley.
Lastly, I know food scientists and bacteriologists tell us stuffing a turkey is risky, but in the scheme of things, is it?
Riskier than attending a Covid-spiked holiday party this year, or what about a wedding?
In spite of the eggs in the stuffing and bacteria roaming around the inside of the turkey, if you cook the turkey long enough and you put up the leftovers promptly after the meal, no worries. Remove any leftover stuffing from the cavity before storing.
Before the recipe: What you need to know
The bread. Use the bread you love—cornbread, white bread, French bread, biscuits, whole wheat, rye. But use a mix of it, not all one kind, and make sure one of the bread components is squishy soft. Otherwise all that crusty, thirsty bread will drink up your broth and you’ll have dry dressing.
Really Good Cornbread is essential. I bake cornbread the day in advance so it will be nice and dry on Thanksgiving. Plus, it’s one more thing to check off the list! So, if you think about it, dressing is perfect for do-aheaders.
The crunch. To give flavor and crunch to dressings, you will saute some aromatic vegetables in butter. Always onion and celery. Sometimes a sweet addition like chunks of apple is nice. You might add golden raisins or dried cherries. And here is where you can add a good local sausage to the mix. Or mushrooms.
The extras. Shrimp or oysters. An aromatic herb or two adds depth. I love fresh thyme. And if you want a bold dressing, crumble in a few fresh rosemary leaves, but don't add too many as rosemary can hijack the recipe in an instant.
The binders. Eggs and turkey broth. We make the latter by boiling the neck of the turkey with water and seasonings to cover for nearly an hour, then strain and cool. Or, make the day ahead from turkey wings or legs. Or just use chicken broth, but it won’t be quite as good, sorry.
And THE TRICK. Ladle a big spoonful of turkey pan juices— the drippings—over the top of the dressing before it goes into the oven. That’s dressing of another level. And that’s dressing no one will ever complain about.
Happy Thanksgiving from my kitchen to yours!
- xo, Anne
What does your turkey dressing/stuffing say about you?
A Progress Report & This Thursday for Paid Subscribers
We’re nearly at the end of the year, and I cannot believe it sneaks up so quickly! In the spirit of transparency and also gratitude, I share a membership plea. I have been hoping to hit 450 paid subscribers by year’s end but am shy of my goal by 21 people. Between the Layers has seen steady growth this year thanks to all of you telling your friends and my being a part of Substack’s Food Intensive and also sharing with other Substack writers how I have collaborated and grown. I’m grateful for this opportunity to write in a candid way each week, and your support in becoming a paid subscriber (more than 20,000 of you are free readers) will keep this newsletter going. So, that’s the business side of the meeting, and now to the lighter stuff…
This Thursday is Sweet Potato Pie day. Oh yes, it’s much better than pumpkin, and I will tell you why. In December, my holiday posts will be on Thursday for paid subscribers. Free readers, no worries, I will be back in January. (I’m getting a book finished and putting it to bed for a long winter’s nap!)
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My Favorite Turkey Dressing
When the turkey is out of the oven and resting before being carved, you can pop the dressing in the oven. And if you want to make this dressing vegetarian-friendly, omit the sausage and use vegetable broth. This feeds a dozen people. And I haven't forgotten folks who prefer stuffing! It is enough mixture to stuff into an 18- to 20-pound bird. Follow the directions that come with the turkey for stuffing and roasting, by the way. This recipe can be easily doubled - you just bake two casseroles or bake one casserole and stuff a turkey with the other.
Makes 12 to 16 servings
Bake: 42 to 45 minutes
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
2 cups chopped onion (2 medium onions)
2 cups chopped unpeeled apple (2 medium apples)
1 cup chopped celery
1 pound Italian or breakfast sausage, or 1 pound mushrooms, chopped
4 cups crumbled cornbread
3 cups crumbled soft bread, such as challah, potato bread, sandwich bread or hamburger buns
2 cups crumbled French bread
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves (or 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves)
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
About 2 cups turkey or chicken broth (see how to Roast the Turkey below. And buy some extra turkey legs or wings if you need to make enough broth for the gravy as well)
1. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer the onion to a large mixing bowl, and place the skillet back over the heat.
2. Add 2 more tablespoons of butter to the skillet and when it melts, add the apple and cook, stirring, until lightly colored but not mushy, 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer the apple to the mixing bowl with the onion.
3. Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in the skillet. Add the celery and cook, stirring, until it softens, 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer the celery to the mixing bowl.
4. Place the skillet back over the heat and crumble the sausage into it, or add the mushrooms. Cook, stirring to break up the sausage, until it is lightly browned and has cooked through, 7 to 8 minutes, and half that time for the mushrooms. Drain the sausage on paper towels, then add it or the mushrooms to the mixing bowl with the other ingredients and stir to combine.
5. Add the corn bread, soft bread, French bread, thyme, parsley, and eggs to the bowl and stir just to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour in enough broth to really moisten the dressing. If you need more than 2 cups, add it! Spoon the dressing into a greased 13- by 9-inch glass baking dish. (If desired, spoon a big ladleful of the roasted turkey’s pan juices from the cooked turkey on top.)
6. Bake the dressing, uncovered, until it browns lightly on top and is firm to the touch, about 45 minutes. Let the dressing cool 5 minutes, then cover with foil to keep warm.
How to Roast a Very Basic Turkey (for beginners, no brining, no fussing):
Remove the neck and giblets from the turkey.
Place the turkey neck in a medium saucepan and add 4 cups water, bay leaf, handful of chopped onion, rib of celery, and salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer covered until the neck has cooked through and the broth is flavorful, from 45 minutes to an hour. Strain and cool, discarding the solids. Use 2 cups in the dressing recipe. Use another cup around the turkey for roasting. You will need extra to make gravy, and if that’s the case, double the broth, using some turkey wings or legs. The broth can be done a day ahead and the turkey kept in the fridge.
Back to the turkey while the turkey stock simmers. Discard the giblets. Rinse the bird in cool running water and pat dry inside and out. Season the cavities with salt and pepper. Place in a large roasting pan that is about 2 1/2 inches deep. Fold the wing tips back underneath the turkey if you wish so the turkey has something to rest on. Or not. I have a roaster that belonged to my mother, and the wings seem to stay upright and not flop over because of the pan’s narrow width. (You can also tie around the bird with kitchen twine to keep the wings fixed to the side, but this will leave string marks on the top of your bird.)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F and lower your oven racks as needed so the turkey has enough clearance to slide in. Rub the skin of the turkey with a stick of room temperature butter, unsalted or not. Sprinkle with kosher salt. If desired, stuff the turkey, and tie the legs together with kitchen string. Loosely tent the bird and pour 1 cup of the turkey broth around it. Roast about 15 minutes a pound unstuffed and 20 minutes a pound stuffed, uncovering after 2 hours for a 16-pound unstuffed turkey, which needs about 3 1/2 to 4 hours total cooking time. Stuffing a turkey requires a bit longer cooking, so consult the times that come with your bird. And as always, use an instant-read thermometer. Not touching a bone and inserted in the thigh, it needs to read 180 degrees F. Remove from the oven, and let rest in the pan 15 to 20 minutes. Carefully transfer it to the platter and tent loosely with foil to keep warm. Let the turkey rest 30 minutes before carving. Place the roasting pan on the stove to make gravy, or if it’s not able to go over heat, transfer all the drippings into a heavy pot to make gravy. Pull out any bits of skin or bone.
To Make Simply Delicous Gravy
Let that roasting pan of drippings and juices come to a simmer over medium-low heat. Pour about 2/3 cup of whole milk into a measuring cup and whisk in about 1/3 cup of flour. This is called a slurry. You can also use broth instead of milk or even water. While the pan drippings are simmering, whisk in the slurry, stirring constantly and let simmer until thickened to the consistency you desire. If it’s too thin add a little more slurry, with two parts liquid to one part flour. Some people use cornstarch, but I find flour less problematic. Taste for seasoning. Do not add salt until you taste the gravy first. Adjust as needed. Serve hot.
By the way, I might cross-post this to Brunette Gardens.
You just solved a mystery for me about the moist factor. So it seems you should either a) forgo a stuffed bird or b) use a stuffing with some parts soft, fluffy bread, such as hamburger/hotdog buns. Thanks for the clue! I do have a question for you, though: Do you not chill the bird in the fridge uncovered first, after tucking in the butter and herbs? I just read of this method in Cook's Illustrated and was planning to try it next week.