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How to Make Stuffing Without a Recipe

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Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: Cathy Barrow -- author of Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry -- explains how to mix up your Thanksgiving stuffing routine.

People have opinions about stuffing. Cornbread? Ciabatta? Fruit? Sausage. Chestnuts. Oysters? Really? Ask any member of my family about the tussle over dried apricots. It wasn’t pretty. The house is full of hungry relatives and the food is scented with thyme and sage and expectations; this is the time you want to be able to proceed without a recipe. 

And as to opinions: I am firmly in the camp that bakes stuffing in a baking dish, not inside the turkey. 

Here's how to make stuffing without a recipe, to your own specifications:

1. A few days ahead, because stale bread makes the best stuffing, find a perfect loaf. (Even better than toasted, stale bread is firm all the way through. This adds to the crispness factor.) Cube the bread and let it sit out on baking sheets for a day or two. Choose your favorite. I prefer the eggy qualities of challah or brioche, but substitute cornbread, ciabatta, or a sourdough loaf. Go rogue (and gluten-free) and make a stuffing with cooked wild rice. Plan 8 cups of bread cubes (one large loaf) for every four people. This ensures leftovers.

Put all those crisp bread cubes into the largest mixing bowl you own. 

More: No stale bread around? Here's how to make it in a pinch.


2. Want a meaty stuffing? Breakfast sausage is a good choice (the sage works well with the other Thanksgiving flavors) but smoked bacon, mild Italian sausage, linguiça, and kielbasa also infuse the stuffing with exquisite flavors. Rather than meat, my New England relatives added oysters to the mix (which makes me think smoked oysters would be awesome). I once had a fantastic variation on stuffing with barbeque pulled pork and cornbread. It’s all good. Cook any meat before stirring it into the stuffing. 


3. Next, sweat the aromatics. In a large stockpot or Dutch oven, melt a copious amount of butter, bacon fat, duck fat, or lard. Sure, olive oil is fine to use, but we’re building flavor here. Chop and add one large onion, two or three celery stalks, and a handful or two of herbs (thyme, parsley, marjoram, lovage, rosemary, and a little bit of sage.) This can be done a day ahead.


4. Here is where opinions diverge. Vegetables. Fruits. Nuts. Straight up. Me? I don’t like much fuss. I’m a mushrooms-only kind of gal, but make them good mushrooms. Porcini and chanterelle. Morels. Shiitake. Dried or fresh, all mushrooms add the woodsy tones I love. If yours are dried, rehydrate them and use the liquid, too. If there are fresh fungi available, use the stems in the stuffing and the caps in the gravy. Add more butter to the onion and herb mixture and then add a fistful of chopped fungi. Sprinkle a pinch of cayenne over the mix because my mother always did. Mothers know things.

Some people include celeriac, parsnip, or carrot. Apples, pears, or dried cranberries. Toasted pecans, walnuts, or filberts. I won’t stop you, but that’s not my thing. You’ll need a good handful or two of any extras. Cooked vegetables work best. Fruit doesn’t have to be cooked, but dried fruit should be reconstituted by soaking in warm liquid.


5. Mix all the ingredients together (use your hands) and then taste for salt and pepper. Bathe the mixture with a couple of cups of stock, until it is just beginning to hold together. 


6. The final touch. Stuffing isn’t really tasty until we add some fat. There are many choices. When I’m cooking a vegetarian stuffing, I use plenty of melted butter. But hot bacon fat, lard, or duck fat are standouts. I have also wrapped stuffing in caul fat before tucking the tidy package seam-side down into a baking dish. If you can find caul fat, do this. 


7. Place a buttered piece of parchment, butter side-down, on top of the stuffing, then cover in foil. Bake the stuffing at whatever temperature you need the oven to be. Remove the foil and parchment when the turkey comes out of the oven, then, if not serving vegetarians, pour some turkey drippings over the top of the stuffing and pop it back in the oven uncovered. Bake at least 30 minutes until the edges are toasty. 

There are so many things to do with leftover stuffing. I like to warm up the stuffing at breakfast time and put an egg on it. Of course. Or layer it into my once-a-year indulgence, posted to this site five years ago. 

Tell us: How does your family make stuffing?

Photos by Mark Weinberg

Automagic Thanksgiving Menu Maker!
Automagic Thanksgiving Menu Maker!

Tags: Christmas, Entertaining, Thanksgiving, Holiday, (Not) Recipes, DIY Food, Holiday Entertaining, How-To & Diy