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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Emma is a Food Writer & Recipe Developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 am, reviewing restaurants, and writing stories about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their cat, Butter.