Holiday

The Absolute Best Way to Make Thanksgiving Stuffing, According to So Many Tests

There's good stuffing—and then, there's the absolute best stuffing.

October 31, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis.

In Absolute Best Tests, Ella Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She's boiled dozens of eggs, seared more Porterhouse steaks than she cares to recall, and mashed enough potatoes for a lifetime. Today, she tackles Thanksgiving stuffing.


Ten years ago, my mother tried to mess with our family’s classic Thanksgiving menu. She billed it as “lighter” and “vegetable-forward” and “not a punishment, Ella, I promise.” On her blasphemous docket appeared swill like baked apples in place of pie, and puréed turnips in lieu of mashed potatoes. Most devastatingly, she suggested a ban on bacon in the stuffing.

“I’d rather eat hair,” replied my sister Zoe, by way of confirming she’d received the proposed menu. My dad read the list of dishes once, emitted a single, high-pitched shriek, and refused to come out of his room for hours.

“I think someone who lives on my dormitory floor has an extra seat at his Thanksgiving,” I wrote. “His aunt makes two kinds of pumpkin pie. I’ll see you guys at Christmas!”

Fortunately, my mother quickly relented, and we made a double batch of bacon stuffing. Our family remains intact to this day. (Thank god, since I was bluffing about that other invitation.)

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Stale cornbread works best - freezing it takes care of that). Pour in cooled vegetables, a couple of eggs, minced fresh sage, generous salt and pepper. Mix with your hands, add low-sodium chicken broth until mix is on the wet side, but not soupy. Taste for seasoning. Pack into a deep 9 x 12 casserole dish. Cover tightly with foil, bake at 325 until set - about an hour. Dressing should be moist but firm. Remove foil, crisp top under broiler. The crowd will go wild.”
— Susie W.
Comment

We aren’t the only ones out there with strong feelings about stuffing, it would seem. Recently, when I asked my readers for pressing opinions (best bread? Ideal carb-to-liquid ratio? Unmissable mix-ins?), dozens wrote back, seemingly within seconds:

“Can’t be soggy,” said one.

“MUSHROOMS DO NOT BELONG,” said another.

“Gimme crispy outsides and fluffy insides all day,” said a wise third.

Which made stuffing both a necessary and extremely daunting subject for Absolute Best Tests. I put it through three rounds of trials: first, a head-to-head bread-type face-off; second, a series of cook-method appraisals; and third, a test of make-ahead protocols.

By the end, I expected I'd never want to look at a mound of it again. But honestly? I could eat stuffing again right now. Especially the kind with extra bacon.


Control Factors

There are truly as many recipes for stuffing—aka, dressing—as there are appropriate moments to eat its leftovers.

To simplify my tests, I experimented with a few different mix-ins before settling on a classic combination: crumbled and butter-browned sweet Italian sausage, sautéed yellow onion and celery, sage, and enough chicken broth to moisten—but not soak—each batch. (A few trappings that were this close to making the final cut included leeks, green onions, mushrooms, and finely diced Jimmy Nardello peppers.) Every batch was seasoned with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, and bound with eggs.

Each contender loaf was whittled into bite-sized cubes and toasted before use—excluding the mix, which is already in gravel-sized pieces, and dry as any Thanksgiving small-talk. Trials were scored for overall ranking, as well as where they landed on the squishy-crispy spectrum (aka, the plush-to-crust range). For test rounds two and three, cook method and make-ahead protocol, I used cornbread based on the results of round one. And with that spoiler...


Round One: Bread Type

1. Pepperidge Farm Stuffing Mix

Overall Ranking

Of the bread trials, Herb Seasoned (Classic) stuffing mix ranked fourth, due to its low absorption of flavor and moisture. The resulting stuffing evoked crackers that had somehow been baked twice, plus some adornment.

The Squishy-Crispy Spectrum

The stuffing mix retained almost no moisture—perhaps it never really penetrated the bread-y pebbles to begin with, leading to more rapid evaporation—less than each of the cornbread, sourdough, and challah trials. It served as the crispy-side bookend on the squishy-crispy spectrum.

Keep in Mind

I used the Herb Seasoned version of Pepperidge Farm's mix offerings here, since I was already testing cornbread separately, but would caveat that Pepperidge Farm's cornbread mix has a much better flavor and aptitude for moisture absorption.

2. Sourdough

Overall Ranking

Sourdough tied with challah for a two/three spot. It lent the stuffing a wonderful tanginess, and despite its inherent chewiness as a bread, made for a surprisingly silky batch, thanks to a quick and thorough gulping down of the stock.

The Squishy-Crispy Spectrum

Sourdough retained more of its moisture than the mix and the cornbread, and less than the challah, putting it a little left of center on the squishy-crispy spectrum.

Keep in Mind

Trials with each of a firmer boule and a more cushiony loaf revealed that the sturdier model stood up better to the stock, and facilitated a crispier top crust.

Gang's all here. Photo by Ella Quittner

3. Challah

Overall Ranking

Challah tied with sourdough for a two/three spot. Where sourdough stuffing was silky-light, the challah test was all custard and velvet, like a particularly excellent bread pudding. (Its crumb somehow yielded an eggier stuffing than any other trial, despite a consistent ratio of egg-broth-bread across batches.) And, the challah imparted some welcome sweetness into the mix.

The Squishy-Crispy Spectrum

Challah retained more of its moisture than the mix, cornbread, and sourdough. Its top crust, while existent, was more of a delicate matter—putting it far left of center on the squishy-crispy spectrum.

Keep in Mind

For best results with a challah stuffing, flip its pieces so they're crust side down if you plan to finish the stuffing at a high temperature—swaths of its crust burned more readily than with other breads.

4. Cornbread

Overall Ranking

Cornbread ranked first, thanks to its agreeable capacity for just enough moisture retention below the surface with an extra-crispy top crust. And, even more so than the challah, its slight sweetness played perfectly with savory elements (looking at you, sausage and sage).

The Squishy-Crispy Spectrum

Cornbread retained more of its moisture than the Pepperidge Farm mix, and less than both the sourdough and challah, putting it firmly in the middle of the squishy-crispy spectrum.

Keep in Mind

I conducted tests with both a softer cornbread and a drier, denser loaf. The fluffier specimen crumbled into smaller pieces despite gentle mixing and absorbed the broth better, which produced a much more desirable batch of stuffing.


Round Two: Cook Method

1. Sheet Pan

Overall Ranking

Sheet-pan stuffing—as in, a standard batch of cornbread stuffing packed into a shallow sheet pan and baked covered at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until warmed through, then briefly broiled till browned—ranked third among cook methods, due to its dryness and remote lack of any soft layer.

The Squishy-Crispy Spectrum

You already know: team crisp, barely any squish.

Keep in Mind

For those who live life with an all-crust, all-the-time mentality, this method would appeal.

2. Deep Dish

Overall Ranking

Deep-dish stuffing—as in, a standard batch of cornbread stuffing packed about three inches deep into a high-sided dish, and baked covered at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until warmed through, then briefly broiled till browned—tied with the in-bird batch for a first/second ranking among cook methods. A deeper baking dish produced the ideal combination of a soft, fleecy stuffing below and enough surface area for a crispy top layer.

The Squishy-Crispy Spectrum

Dependably, firmly in the very middle.

Keep in Mind

I tested with an eight-by-eight inch dish, but a nine-by-thirteen inch, or even a deep pie dish would work here.

Like the Capulets and Montagues, but way lower stakes. Photo by Ella Quittner

3. In-Bird

Overall Ranking

In-bird stuffing—as in, a standard batch of cornbread stuffing loosely packed into a bird, and baked until both the poultry and the stuffing reached 165 degrees Fahrenheit, for safety reasons—tied with the deep-dish batch for a first/second ranking among cook methods. Across all trials (bread-type round included), the in-bird stuffing had far-and-away the best flavor.

The Squishy-Crispy Spectrum

All squish, no crisp. (For crispness, the in-bird stuffing could've been packed post-cook into a dish and briefly broiled.)

Keep in Mind

The USDA would have me remind you that, "Cooking a home-stuffed turkey is riskier than cooking one not stuffed." The danger? That the stuffing itself wouldn't have reached 165 degrees Fahrenheit even when the thickest part of the turkey has, potentially resulting in food-borne illness (or, if you leave it in longer, an overcooked turkey).


Round Three: Make-Ahead Protocol

1. Bake from Freezer

Overall Ranking

The stuffing composed in advance, frozen, then baked straight from the freezer ranked second among make-ahead protocols. It was extremely wet, which created a soggy bottom layer that wasn't apparent in any other test (during this round or otherwise).

The Squishy-Crispy Spectrum

Mostly squish (plus a touch of sog), but with some top-crisp.

2. Freeze, Thaw, Then Bake

Overall Ranking

The stuffing composed in advance, frozen, then thawed overnight in the refrigerator before being baked was much better than the batch baked straight from the freezer. (Perhaps the thaw allowed the stuffing time to more thoroughly soak up liquid from the ice that formed in the freezer?) There was no discernible difference between this round and the cornbread stuffing baked fresh.

The Squishy-Crispy Spectrum

Firmly in the middle.


The Final Verdict

Photo by Julia Gartland

BREAD TYPE: If you're aiming for stuffing with a soft, plush texture beneath a crispy top crust—plus some light sweetness—cornbread's your best bet. Challah and sourdough are both excellent choices for a flavor riff, with the former leaning heavier and the latter leaning lighter.

COOK METHOD: A deep-dish bake-then-broil is ideal for texture, though if you're a flavor maximalist who's willing to overlook the USDA's advisories, cooking in-bird provides an extra boost.

MAKE-AHEAD PROTOCOL: And if you'd like to make your stuffing ahead, thaw from frozen before baking to avoid a soggy bottom.


Stuffing School, Part Two


How do you like your stuffing? Are you furious I didn't test a wild rice–clam version? Let me know in the comments!
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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a a writer at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.

17 Comments

Barbara B. November 17, 2019
I've always used a sweet cornbread (baked two days before), in a casserole dish made fresh the day of use. It's worked for 30+ years. The only things that may change are the added ingredients like dried cranberries, sausage, apple, pecans, etc.
 
Mary-Ann November 16, 2019
Love these trials and discussions. More please, Food52! I use challah, but will try cornbread to change things up a bit. My husband does not like sausage in the dressing. So I use bacon fat to sauté the veggies.
 
allen November 16, 2019
There are many other ways of dealing with bread to stock ratios, as well as baking method and temperature, etc. Therefore there is no "absolute best" here or anywhere, though the comparisons are interesting. Here's a caveat for Ella: caveat is a noun, not a verb, though it has been improperly used as a verb by some in recent years.
 
Allison November 7, 2019
I come from a family that loved stuffing!! The breads -yes, multiple- were dependent on what was on sale within 7 to 10 days before the drying/toasting process begins, but usually includes plain (cheap) wheat, French and cornbread. Sometimes, I add some of the hearty whole wheat that is usually in the house, When I bake the cornbread, be it recipe or box,I always add some sage, freshly ground pepper and dried cranberries. As to in bird or in deep dish, YES to both! After stuffing the bird to the appropriate point, including what is left of the neck, the remainder is put into an insulated 9x13 pan[remember those], extra stock added. It is then covered with heavy duty foil and baked along with the turkey at least 2 hours then removed. Because the turkey is roasted in the High-Low temperature method it takes several hours, so the stuffing pan is returned to the oven without the foil to heat and crisp toward the last hour of cooking time.
To serve, everything is mixed together. If anything has fallen into the pan, that and some of the remaining liquid in the pan is mixed in.
 
russeaime November 7, 2019
We always have multiple stuffings in my family. A spinach-bread stuffing in the bird and then we make an oyster stuffing on the side. The oyster stuffing is such a favorite we now make it through the holiday season as main course.
 
marnie.warner.7 November 6, 2019
We follow the classic recipe tested With cornbread almost exactly. Only difference is when I uncover the stuffing to place under the broiler to get crispy, I make 6-8 little wells and crack an egg in. After about 4-6 minutes you get a lovely crispy top with jammy eggs.
 
Lisa T. November 6, 2019
I prepare my stuffing and stuff my turkey loosely with about half
the stuffing. When the turkey is done I remove the stuffing, mix it with the remaining stuffing and bake it off while the turkey rests.
 
Becky C. November 5, 2019
For our 2018 Thanksgiving we tried something new. We changed up the protocol from my mom’s in the bird stuffing (sister has a young daughter she didn’t want to risk getting sick) standard, apples, celery, sage and onions.
We added fantastic local ground pork (sautéd with sage, thyme etc) and used a really good bread (normally it’s white just plain sliced white)
We used the crock pot! As a chef I rarely use a crock pot but it was perfect! A good moist flavor (I always make a good flavorful turkey stock) then finished in the oven. It was by far the best we had ever made. It was like having it in the bird but less chance of getting sick
 
Aileen N. November 4, 2019
I use stuffing bread. Love that stuff, and it is above all else for stuffing. Also, plain pork sausage not Italian. I always make two stuffing, the first plain bread (bread, celery, onion, parsley, apple) and the other is sausage stuffing (sausage, bread, celery, onion). Both down in the oven in a deep dish pan for maximum crust.
 
AnnaMaria C. November 3, 2019
Sourdough in bird ALL DAY. But for best results, slice off the crust. For outside bird, cornmeal in deep dish with sausage and apple. YUM.
 
Torym November 3, 2019
We save heels of brioche in the freezer for several months before Thanksgiving. Then we cube them up, with freshly made cornbread, onions, cooked sweet Italian sausage, etc. We bake it in a deep casserole, and make stuffin’ muffins by packing the mixture into buttered standard muffin cups.
 
Kiki K. November 3, 2019
I always use a mixture of sourdough, cornbread and Italian breads.
 
Susie W. November 2, 2019
In the South, we don't stuff the bird - we make "dressing". I often make cornbread - medium-grain stoneground cornmeal with a little white flour and (heresy) a little sugar. A few weeks before TG, I start stashing cormbread in the freezer. I make dressing the way my grandmother did: generous amounts of very finely diced onion and celery (equal amounts of each) sweated in lots of butter until soft. (I roughly chop onions and celery, pulse in the food processor - sorry, Grandma!) Let cool. Crumble 4 to 6 cups cornbread into a big bowl. (Stale cornbread works best - freezing it takes care of that). Pour in cooled vegetables, a couple of eggs, minced fresh sage, generous salt and pepper. Mix with your hands, add low-sodium chicken broth until mix is on the wet side, but not soupy. Taste for seasoning. Pack into a deep 9 x 12 casserole dish. Cover tightly with foil, bake at 325 until set - about an hour. Dressing should be moist but firm. Remove foil, crisp top under broiler. The crowd will go wild.
 
Janet H. November 4, 2019
My recipe almost to aT. I add browned hot bulk breakfast sausage (Jimmy Dean). Bell’s seasoning and loads of fresh black pepper to spice. I also bake my cornbread and freeze. Everything else is done day of and baked in a deep dish, dotted with butter.
 
Elaina H. November 1, 2019
My favorite cook method is actually crockpot! You get a really nice crisp/ squish ratio, and it frees up your oven for the bird
 
Hannah R. October 31, 2019
Is there an actual recipe for the final verdict cornbread version?
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. October 31, 2019
Hi Hannah! The final verdict cornbread version was a little bit simplified (in terms of mix-ins), but a similar one I love is this—just skip the mushrooms and add an egg to the mixture to make it map to the version I tested, if you like:
https://food52.com/recipes/78112-josh-quittner-s-cornbread-sausage-stuffing