Thanksgiving

This Shockingly Simple Stuffing Will Become Your New Standby

November 13, 2018

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big, BIG everything else: flavor, ideas, holy-cow factor. Psst: We don't count water, salt, pepper, and certain fats (say, olive oil to dress greens or sauté onions), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re making your new favorite stuffing—without most of your favorite ingredients.


What do you put in your stuffing? I cataloged the classic components, tallied the standard options for each, and did a little clickity-clackity on my calculator, all to conclude that there are over 1,920,000 ways to make what I will boldly call My Favorite Thanksgiving Dish. If you’re like me, all this picking and choosing and mixing and matching keeps you awake at night every November:

  • Bread. Stuffing is a lot of things, but mostly it’s an excuse to eat bread. I love enriched varieties, like challah (eggs, oil) or brioche (eggs, butter) because stuffings include those very ingredients: eggs and fat. Sourdough, deli-style rye, and ciabatta are also great.
  • Meat. Preferably a porky, fatty one, which will make the stuffing all the more flavorful, and avoid any dryness. Think bacon, pancetta, or, everyone’s favorite, sausage. Another meaty all-star: plump oysters.
  • Onion and celery. Finely chopped and sautéed. Most stuffing recipes treat these as non negotiable. As Bon Appétit’s November 2015 issue puts it: “No stuffing is complete without chopped onion and celery—they’re the building blocks.”
  • Bonus vegetables. Mushrooms, kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, fennel, leeks, squash, Brussels sprouts, and on, and on. Who’s to stop you? No one!
  • Fruits, dried or not. While fresh fruits are less common (it is November after all), they’re still fair game. Think apples or pears. Meanwhile, any dried fruit is in-season: raisins, currants, prunes, cherries, apricots, dates.
  • Nuts. Roasted, chopped chestnuts are the darling of Thanksgiving. I love their creamy texture and cozy vibe. But don’t let that hold you back from walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts—toasted in the oven for A+ flavor.
Photo by Rocky Luten
  • Herbs. Sage is stuffing’s MVP. But thyme, tarragon, rosemary, parsley are popular, too. Like the onion and celery, many would say herbs are a must-have.
  • Fat. Hey there, butter. For about 1 pound of bread, figure 1 to 1 1/2 sticks. Also eligible: margarine (dairy-free) or animal fats, like lard, bacon fat, or schmaltz, which bring big meaty flavor (perfect if you’re making a meaty stuffing!).
  • Stock. Overachievers will use a homemade turkey stock, but I’ve relied on boxed chicken or vegetable broth (or hydrated bouillon) for years and never felt that badly about it.
  • Wine. This is used to deglaze the pan after sautéing the meat/vegetables and snatch up all those flavorful bits (also known as the fond) stuck to the bottom.
  • Eggs. Our most controversial ingredient yet. Like many, my family skipped these for years, but after adding them once, I’m sold. Eggs help bind the stuffing, plus bring a custardy richness.

Most stuffing recipes lure you in with their creative combinations. This Food52-favorite by MrsWheelbarrow is all about challah, mushroom, and celery, plus a few herbs. Gena Hamshaw’s vegan version features butternut, Brussels sprouts, and apples. And my co-Recipe Developer Ella Quittner’s dad’s stuffing is a kitchen-sink masterpiece with cornbread, sausage, mushrooms, herbs, dried cherries, and pecans.

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This stuffing takes the exact opposite approach. It skips the meat, bonus vegetables, fruits of any kind, nuts, and wine. It even skips, dare I say it, the onion and celery. And it may just be the most confident stuffing I’ve ever met in my life.

Photo by Rocky Luten

Think about other Thanksgiving classics. Most of them are minimalist by nature. The turkey is all about the turkey. Mashed potatoes are all about potatoes. Cranberry sauce is all about cranberries. Meanwhile, stuffing is about all those extra doodads, while what I’m really after is: bread and butter.

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Top Comment:
“i have breakfast sage ground sausage as well as sage leaves, dried cranberries, walnuts to be toasted, white wine and smoked turkey wing homemade stock, sauteed onions, celery, and collards, and maybe some rosemary to add, also. homemade dressing is a dessert IMO. and i make scratch gravy to go with it. this time, since i'll be using all that butter in the dressing, i'll use the rendered sausage fat to make the gravy! but that's tomorrow or Sunday. tonight, i've got a spruce-wrapped Rush Creek Reserve wheel of cheese that i'm going to heat up, sprinkled with finely-sliced leek and garlic, and minced thyme, then topped with the yummy rind and gently baked. i'm serving salt-&-vinegar baby Yukon golds with it, and caraway-rye crackers, with a nice Guinness Extra Stout. every day is a HollisDay for me :) the rest of my holiday recipes are just as amazing -- such as the Dried Porcini Risotto with a select Coach Farms (Hudson Valley) Rawstruck raw goat milk cheese, as well as fresh-grated Parmesan, crumbled into it. oh, yeah, i'm cooking with the season that inspires me the most -- Autumn.”
— Hollis E.
Comment

Don’t get me wrong. I love the extra doodads. Flip through my family’s files of past Thanksgiving menus (can you tell how I got to be the way I am?) and you’ll find mushroom, kale, and chestnut stuffing, cornbread, sausage, and sage stuffing, chicken-sausage, cherry, and pecan stuffing. But this year, I wanted to find out if stuffing could hold its own without all these crutches. So I paired it down to what I consider the absolute essentials:

  • Challah. Maybe I'm biased because I've been eating challah my whole life. This fluffy, eggy variety is halfway to damn good French toast or bread pudding. Consider using it in stuffing as fulfilling its greatest destiny.
  • Butter. Like, sooo much butter. Since we’re ditching sausage and friends, butter here does double duty, and makes up for the lost fat from rendered meat. What’s more: We’re not just melting it. We’re browning it. Your kitchen will smell like hazelnuts and your stuffing will taste way more complex than it actually is (shhh).
  • Fresh sage. Turns out, if you cook a bread pudding-y situation with sage, it tastes like stuffing. It’s just one of those brain tricks. (Sort of like how if you add pumpkin spice to pumpkin anything, it tastes like pie.) Pouring the just-browned butter on top sizzles the sage, amplifying its autumny flavor.
  • Vegetable stock. You can’t have stuffing without a lot of liquid. Because we’re skipping the onion, celery, and other vegetables, vegetable stock serves as a ready-to-please proxy. It hydrates the stuffing, but also flavors it. And makes the stuffing vegetarian-friendly to boot.
  • Eggs. This was a doozy for me. Was I really going to spend one of my Big Little ingredients on something that many people don’t even include? Well, yeah. To me, eggs take stuffing’s texture from good to great, and when a stuffing is as super-simple as this one, texture is crucial.

That’s it. In other words: No browning meat. No sautéing vegetables. No toasting nuts. No chopping dried fruit. Just crispy-edged, custardy-centered stuffing that’s all about the bread and butter. That’s what you came for, isn’t it?

Do you have a go-to stuffing? Tell us its ingredients in the comment section below!

18 Comments

Hollis E. December 14, 2018
i just bought some holiday groceries yesterday, including a challah, a ciabatta, and a sourdough. the challah is definitely intended for this Brown Butter Dressing, but i'm not this simple. i have breakfast sage ground sausage as well as sage leaves, dried cranberries, walnuts to be toasted, white wine and smoked turkey wing homemade stock, sauteed onions, celery, and collards, and maybe some rosemary to add, also. homemade dressing is a dessert IMO. and i make scratch gravy to go with it. this time, since i'll be using all that butter in the dressing, i'll use the rendered sausage fat to make the gravy!<br /><br />but that's tomorrow or Sunday. tonight, i've got a spruce-wrapped Rush Creek Reserve wheel of cheese that i'm going to heat up, sprinkled with finely-sliced leek and garlic, and minced thyme, then topped with the yummy rind and gently baked. i'm serving salt-&-vinegar baby Yukon golds with it, and caraway-rye crackers, with a nice Guinness Extra Stout.<br /><br />every day is a HollisDay for me :)<br /><br />the rest of my holiday recipes are just as amazing -- such as the Dried Porcini Risotto with a select Coach Farms (Hudson Valley) Rawstruck raw goat milk cheese, as well as fresh-grated Parmesan, crumbled into it. oh, yeah, i'm cooking with the season that inspires me the most -- Autumn.
 
Janet K. November 18, 2018
My Dutch husband and I are doing Thanksgiving on our own in Pretoria, South Africa and this might hit the spot if I can find challah. I'm Jewish so I have been stalking it on occasion. Except for chestnuts, our family is rather purist about stuffing but we still toast breadcrumbs, chop onions and celery, etc., too much for two people. No Pepperidge Farm here. My husband, needless to say, is oblivious and scheduled an important business lunch for us down the road in Johannesburg on November 22. Might be doing T-day on Friday.
 
Barb November 18, 2018
Next year, just celebrate Canadian T-day, which is in Oct. Although I sell T-day meals this year, and I swear, I can't believe how many of my customers are celebrating either early or later than actual 22nd. It makes sense, really.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 19, 2018
Hi Janet! If you're up for making your own, challah is one of my favorite breads to make from scratch. Here's a great recipe: https://food52.com/recipes/3983-my-great-grandmother-s-challah
 
Hollis E. December 14, 2018
challah is indeed a great bread to make yourself. i used to barter fresh-baked challah for karate lessons, many moons ago in New Orleans.
 
Mary L. November 18, 2018
What's the name of the cake that's in the Thanksgiving teaser? Looks like nuts or pepitas on top? Thanks!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 19, 2018
Hi Mary! Here's the recipe to the cake: https://food52.com/recipes/30963-pumpkin-cake-with-cream-cheese-icing-and-caramelized-pumpkin-seeds. (And yes, those are caramelized pepitas on top!)
 
Gumbamania November 18, 2018
Ooops, sorry, just read "no browning meat" . Thanks!
 
Gumbamania November 18, 2018
Do you cook your sausage before adding to stuffing and baking or stir in uncooked?
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 19, 2018
Hi! If you want to add sausage to this recipe, do brown it before stirring into the bread mixture.
 
lovett November 16, 2018
I love this website! What type of sausage would you suggest for an addition to stuffing?<br />
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 16, 2018
Aw yay! Really, whatever sausage you like best. I especially like sweet Italian sausage in stuffing.
 
Valerie G. November 14, 2018
Sounds great and I will make this for Thanksgiving. Would I be a terrible person if I add onions and toasted nuts?
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 15, 2018
Hey Valerie—of course not! I love how stuffing is one of those recipes that everyone makes their own. For a stuffing this size, I'd estimate about 2+ cups diced onion, lightly sautéed or even caramelized, and about 1+ cup chopped, toasted nuts.
 
Eric K. November 14, 2018
Delicious.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 14, 2018
Thanks, Eric!
 
KR November 13, 2018
Thanks so much for this lovely, simple recipe! We've had Thanksgiving here in Canada, but I plan to put this on the table at least once during the Christmas holidays.<br />My memories of my mom's turkey stuffing are not good: pork sausage, butter & the usual suspects, baked in the bird, which often turned out gummy...neither tasty nor texturally appealing. So, I'm really looking forward to trying this lovely recipe.<br />Happy holidays!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. November 13, 2018
Thanks! Hope you enjoy it and happy holidays to you!