When every dish in the kitchen is in use and the turkey has been in the oven since dawn, having a make-ahead stuffing ready to warm up can make hosting Thanksgiving Day, well, gravy.
Stuffing can be very particular to households. My siblings prefer my mother’s giblet stuffing to my traditional version with sourdough bread. Most of us don’t bake our stuffing inside our birds anymore, opting not to add the difficulty of balancing the temperature of the turkey with the filling on an already complicated day in the kitchen.
So, if we are baking our stuffings in a casserole, a day or two before Thanksgiving, we want the dish to shine. We asked some of our most experienced Taste section cooks to prepare a variety of stuffings from popular chefs or websites. Here’s what we ended up with, and our opinions on each offering.
One of our cooks summed up the biggest takeaway from this tasting by saying, “You have to know your people and know if they are going to freak out if you do something different.”
Personal Chef Kay Hodnett took on one of the most challenging options — an Oyster Dressing with a Cajun twist. The dressing includes cooked bacon and four dozen shucked oysters. We used canned oysters but followed the remainder of the recipe from Food & Wine magazine’s website. This recipe had plenty of flavor and a definite wow factor.
One thing we would do is add more vegetables to the recipe. The dish had onion and bell peppers, but we decided it would be fine to add anything from leeks to carrots while we saute the bacon at the beginning of the recipe. Also, the recipe calls for finely diced vegetables, but we think it would be nice to have bigger chunks to give the stuffing more bite. The seafood lovers on our panel were especially impressed with this dish.
2 ounces slab bacon, cut into ¼-inch pieces
1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter
1 celery rib, cut into ¼-inch pieces
½ green bell pepper, cut into ¼-inch pieces
½ small onion, finely diced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 large baguettes (about 1 pound), diced into ½-inch pieces (12 cups)
4 dozen shucked oysters plus 1 cup oyster liquor, oysters halved (2 cups)
2 scallions, minced
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon hot sauce
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 10-by-14-inch shallow baking dish. In a large skillet, cook the bacon over moderate heat until crisp, about 5 minutes. Add the butter and let melt, then add the celery, green pepper, onion and minced garlic and cook until softened, about 8 minutes. Add the paprika, garlic powder and cayenne and cook for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
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Put the diced baguettes in a large bowl. Spoon the bacon mixture on top. Add the oysters and their liquor along with the scallions and parsley. In a small bowl, beat the eggs with the hot sauce and salt. Pour the eggs into the bowl and mix everything together. Scrape the dressing into the prepared baking dish and bake in the upper third of the oven for about 45 minutes, until heated through and crisp on top. Serve hot.
Note: Baked oyster dressing can be refrigerated overnight and reheated before serving.
Sourdough, Wild Mushroom and Bacon Dressing
Janet Keeler, food writing instructor at USF St. Petersburg and editor of the freelance writing team at The Penny Hoarder, prepared chef Bobby Flay’s Sourdough, Wild Mushroom and Bacon Dressing. The dish was a show-stopper for sure, but it wasn’t easy. “To me it would never be something to make on Thanksgiving Day, but if you were taking something special to a potluck this would be perfect,” said Keeler, who would also make this stuffing a day ahead if she was preparing an entire Thanksgiving meal. She also thought it would be acceptable to change up the type of mushrooms. Our tasters liked the crunch of the meaty mushrooms in the stuffing and the heartiness of the dish.
Unsalted butter for the baking dish
1 ¼ pounds sourdough bread, crusts trimmed, bread cut into ½-inch cubes (about 12 cups)
½ pound shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and coarsely chopped
½ pound oyster mushrooms, coarsely chopped
1 pound cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons canola oil
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
¾ pound slab bacon, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 large Spanish onion, finely diced
5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 to 6 cups chicken broth, as needed
½ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh thyme
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking dish.
Spread the bread in an even layer on a large baking sheet (or two smaller baking sheets). Bake, stirring a few times, until light golden brown, about 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool. Transfer the cubes to a very large bowl.
Increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees.
In a large baking dish or on a rimmed baking sheet, combine the mushrooms with 3 tablespoons of the oil and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Roast, stirring several times, until soft and golden brown, about 30 minutes.
While the mushrooms are roasting, in a large, deep saute pan over medium heat, warm the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Add the bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and the fat has rendered, about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate.
Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the rendered fat in the saute pan. Set the pan over high heat, add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add 3 cups of the stock, the parsley, sage and thyme and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer.
Add the roasted mushrooms and bacon to the bowl with the bread. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and then whisk in a few tablespoons of the warm stock mixture. Add the eggs and the rest of the stock mixture to the bread, season with salt and pepper and stir to combine. The dressing should be very wet; add more stock as needed.
Scrape the bread mixture into the prepared baking dish. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking until the top is golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes more. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes before serving.
Source: Adapted from Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain Cookbook
We invited former longtime Times editor Gretchen Letterman to prepare a recipe from her mother Dorothy’s cookbook, Home Cookin’ With Dave’s Mom. The book was promoted by her brother, former late-night TV host David Letterman. Preparing her mom’s recipe was more complicated than Letterman had anticipated, partly because some of the details in the printed version were missing. She made it three times to get the texture of the dried bread just right. “My mother’s stuffing is a favorite memory of the traditional Thanksgiving dinners she put on the table,” said Letterman. “In 2021, the old-fashioned recipe included in her cookbook needed just a few tweaks. I think she’d approve.” Interestingly, one of the things Letterman did was change the amount of onion to two large onions rather than three onions because “onions have become giant since her days” she said. Letterman’s recipe was the most traditional of the options, with a blend of flavors and sturdy pieces of bread. It had both crunchy and soft textures.
1 Pepperidge Farm sandwich bread loaf (or any loaf equivalent to 9 cups of bread cubes)
6 ribs celery with leaves, thinly sliced
2 large onions, chopped
1 medium potato, peeled and cut into pieces
1 stick (½ cup) salted butter
1 ½ teaspoons dried sage leaves
1 ½ teaspoons dried thyme leaves
1 ½ teaspoons salt (added by Gretchen to the original recipe)
1 cup milk
½ cup chicken broth, more as needed
A day or two before making stuffing, spread bread slices on cookie sheet, covered with dish towel. Turn over at some point to ensure even drying on both sides. On cooking day, toast bread slices lightly in the oven, 8-10 minutes at 350 degrees. You can skip the drying and use the oven only, but the double drying makes the bread soak up the liquids without becoming mushy.
Stack three to four bread slices and cut into ¾-inch cubes.
While you slice celery and chop onions, put cut potato in 2 cups water and cook until soft. Drain water and mash potato, set aside.
In a large skillet, melt butter and saute celery and onion. Add bread cubes, sage, thyme and salt. Beat egg into milk and add potato, pouring mixture on top of the bread cubes. Add chicken broth, ½ cup at a time, mixing gently with a spatula over low heat until thoroughly combined and bread is desired consistency. If the mixture is too dry, add more chicken broth a little at a time; don’t let bread get soggy.
Bake in a casserole dish, 45 minutes at 325 degrees.
Source: Home Cookin’ With Dave’s Mom (Pocket Books 1996); revised by Gretchen Letterman
Carla’s Spoon Bread Dressing
I prepared chef Carla Hall’s Spoon Bread Dressing, which was a bit more like a corn/corn bread pudding that could be served in addition to a traditional stuffing. The texture was a heavenly combination of whole kernels of corn and finely stone-ground yellow cornmeal.
“This is the perfect recipe for folks with tiny kitchens or short on time,” said Hall when we told her we were making the dish. “Because it’s spoon bread-flavored like dressing, you’re more making the corn bread ahead of time. I also love the soft texture with turkey and gravy.”
We agreed. One note of personal preference: The bright yellow color of the dish mutes a bit with the addition of the poultry seasoning. I might cut that ingredient a little on my next attempt at this recipe because I liked the vibrant yellow color better. A couple of tasters suggested we could add cheese to this recipe as well.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
1 celery stalk, finely diced (½ cup)
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon poultry seasoning
2 cups whole milk
1 cup water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup fine stone-ground yellow cornmeal
1 (11-ounce) can whole kernel corn, drained
1 teaspoon baking powder
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use 1 tablespoon of the butter to generously grease a 3-quart rectangular baking dish. In a large saucepan, melt the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add the onion, celery and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 4 minutes or until just tender. Add the poultry seasoning; cook and stir for 1 minute.
Add the milk, water and sugar; bring to a boil. Continuously whisk the mixture while you pour in the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream. Cook, whisking constantly, for 5 minutes or until the cornmeal has absorbed all the liquid and is thick and smooth. Remove from heat and stir in the corn and baking powder. Cool for 20 to 30 minutes or until lukewarm, stirring often to avoid clumping.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs for 5 to 7 minutes or until pale yellow and very foamy with no liquid remaining. Add beaten eggs, one-third at a time, to the cornmeal mixture, folding gently until incorporated. Spread evenly in the prepared dish.
Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown and set and top springs back when gently touched. Cool slightly before serving (spoon bread may fall during cooling).
Source: Carla Hall
Slow Cooker Sausage Stuffing
Home cook Julie Overton made a slow cooker sausage stuffing that sounded like a great time-saving and pan-saving idea. Overall, the flavors were traditional and satisfying, but the stuffing was a tad soggy. We decided the texture was a result of the steam not being able to escape from the slow cooker. We thought it might be worth preparing ahead and crisping up in the oven before serving. Also, be sure to cut the sausage into bite-sized pieces so they are not so big that they overpower the dish.
1 pound loaf French bread, diced into 1-inch cubes and allowed to dry out for about 12 hours
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, diced into ¼-inch pieces
1 extra-large sweet Vidalia or yellow onion, diced small (about 2 cups)
1 cup celery, diced small
3 tablespoons fresh rosemary (sticks discarded), finely minced
3 tablespoons fresh sage (stems discarded), finely minced
2 tablespoons fresh thyme (sticks discarded), finely minced
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
1 ½ cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 pound ground Italian sausage (sausage should be raw and not precooked)
¼ cup fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley
Place bread inside a 6-quart slow cooker that’s been lined with a slow cooker liner or sprayed with cooking spray. Allow bread to dry out and become stale for about 12 hours (overnight).
The next day, add the butter, onion, celery, rosemary, sage, thyme, salt, pepper and chicken broth and stir to combine.
Evenly crumble the raw sausage in small, bite-sized pieces over the bread mixture.
Cover and cook on low for about 4 to 5 hours, or until vegetables are tender and sausage is cooked through. (Slow cookers vary in their intensity, so cook until done.)
Stir the sausage into the bread mixture, taste and check for seasoning balance. Add more salt, pepper or additional herbs if desired, to taste.
Add the parsley and stir to incorporate. Cover and cook for 5 minutes before serving. Adding the parsley at the end allows it to stay green.
Stuffing can be made up to 5 days in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container.
Source: food blogger Averie Sunshine at averiecooks.com