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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Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist 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.

53 Comments

Dee C. November 25, 2020
After "growing up" and leaving the house, for three decades I veered from our family's traditional Thanksgiving stuffing. Every year stuffing was a variable: oyster stuffing, no-meat or meat stock stuffing, increased veggies stuffing, cornbread dressing, apples and leeks dressing, the stuffing was different every year. And now, at 57, I find that all I've ever really wanted was the family stuffing I tried to steer away from for thirty years.
 
viviancooks November 16, 2020
The next day we always make stuffing waffles and serve them with fried eggs and whatever fruit. Just take the left over stuffing and cook in your waffle maker until nice and crispy. Unbelievable treat!
 
Claudia November 16, 2020
I am not allowed to change the menu. Period. The turkey must be roasted. Not grilled, deep fried, rubbed and God forbid, brined. There must be sausage and pears in the stuffing, there must be Spiced cranberries, mashed potatoes, nothing different and candied sweet potatoes. There must be apple and pumpkin pies. The vegetable and rolls can change as long as they are there. There would be a mutiny and a coup if I did anything differently. After 38 years I don’t want to risk replacement. I have tried in the past- just don’t do it. You just don’t mess with my husband’s Thanksgiving dinner.
 
Jack November 10, 2020
I also cook my turkey splatchcocked, I put the dressing in a flat pan put a rack on top
With the turkey on it, cook it for thirty minutes to absorb juices. I have another pan ready to transfer the turkey to finish cooking. I finish cooking the dressing later, after the turkey is done and resting
 
Catherine November 26, 2019
This is blasphemous, I know, but I could never stand my grandmother's stuffing (well, technically dressing). It was one of those soggy, stock and mushy veg numbers that had both the appearance and taste of a grey, wet sponge (I am so going to hell for this). My mom and I now have adopted Thomas Keller's Leek Bread Pudding as our "stuffing" (again, really dressing). It is our platonic ideal of savory, herby, creamy, and crunchy and we look forward to it every year.
 
Catherine November 26, 2019
P.S. We do use challah, in lieu of the recommended brioche or pullman loaf, to great effect.
 
sajerd November 25, 2019
My hack for the In-bird taste: I do a large baking dish of stuffing in the oven with an open rack placed on top of the vessel (same one I use for cooling baked goods). On top of the rack I place one or two (depending on size) turkey leg quarters to roast while the stuffing is baking. The drippings, well, do what drippings do and flavor the stuffing right up- plus there is a little extra dark meat, which we all love!
 
Jo B. November 25, 2019
Last year we made stuffing in the crock pot. It was delish!! Creamy insider and crIspy top and sides. I'm not doing dinner this year but the next time I make stuffing/dressing, I'm using the oven-remove the crusts-olive oil-bake rather than the staling method. And can I tell you I gave found my new favorite food site. I ❤ food52.com!
 
S L. November 26, 2019
I'd like to try that. I've heard it works quite well and saves oven space. Any special hints?
 
S L. November 24, 2019
My family (including extended) have always made cornbread stuffing with a side of dressing so me had enough. We define "stuffing" as "in the bird" and "dressing" as "baked in a dish". It is always made from scratch and there must be leftovers to go on the turkey sandwiches the next day. The only variation is sometimes it has no sausage and sometimes it has Jimmy Dean sausage - original. Sometimes we do both. The one caveat is my father was from Iowa so we usually did a very small bowl of oyster stuffing made with bread for him. He liked both and ate both.

I have tried other stuffings over the years and they run from the simple to the over experimental with everything you can think of and none of them stood up to traditional corn bread.
 
viviancooks November 23, 2019
French bread. Onion, celery and sage heavy. In bird. Taken out while bird is resting and finished off in hot oven. Briefly broiled before bringing to table.
 
Abby H. November 23, 2019
You can certainly assemble the dressing the day before, refrigerate and then bake on Thanksgiving day. If you are worried about oven space on the big day you can also bake in advance then crisp up in the oven while the turkey "rests". You can make, freeze the stuffing a week in advance then defrost overnight and bake on the big day. Or what I am doing this year is to sauté and freeze all the 'add-ins" (applies, sausage, onions, celery, chestnuts) - defrost adding "bread" and stock to moisten either the day before or on Thanksgiving morning - baking on thanksgiving.
 
Carly B. November 23, 2019
Does anyone have experience making and assembling the dressing the day before, refrigerating, and baking it on thanksgiving?
 
pfluff November 23, 2019
I always make [cornbread and sausage] dressing the day before so the flavors meld!
 
Cooking D. November 23, 2019
My son thinks Thanksgiving feast is just stuffing. I make it with a bit of challah and other artisan type breads from a local bakery. I’ve noticed that the better the bread, the tastier the stuffing. Other than that, cooked celery and onions in butter, fresh sage and parsley from
our garden. Salt and pepper. Moisten with eggs from the neighbors backyard chickens, and just enough turkey broth to moisten. I bake it in a sheet pan with turkey wings on top for more turkey flavor, cover with foil until turkey wings are done, and then uncover to crisp it.
 
Leslie November 23, 2019
Make mine with Pepperidge Farm seasoned ( not cubes)Soaked in chicken stock and butter per directions( not water) then mix ( after cooled) with eggs, Sautés onions, celery , cut up cooked turkey liver, and Cooked/crumbled Bob Evans savory sage sausage. A little poultry seasoning. Always loved. Always craved. I stuff it my turkey. Never had an issue. You just got my secret dressing recipe. Bon Apetite !
PS to this recipe you can add cranberries, nuts, heck I even tried water chestnuts.
 
Janet K. November 23, 2019
I remember my mother toasting her own crumbs in the oven from Pepperidge Farm sandwich bread. I think she cut off the crusts. She also threw in some Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix for flavor. Like a couple of comments below, she and then my sister who took over Thanksgiving, sauteed onion and celery in lots of butter and added dried herbs like poultry seasoning with extra sage and marjoram. We just kept tasting until it seemed right. Maybe a little broth. We like it crusty and soft inside. Chestnuts were added by my sister. We were purists, no fruit, no meats, no eggs. We stopped stuffing the turkey and started baking it instead. I do miss that flavor but my sister made turkey broth ahead of time and used that to flavor the stuffing and make gravy. Unfortunately, because of age and geography, I'm not sure when we'll all be together like this again. My mother is long gone and even my sister doesn't want to do Thanksgiving at her place, though she does it at her son's so he doesn't have to travel with young children. He lives across the country from me and I've only gone there once at Thanksgiving. I'm going to a friend's who has her own traditions.
 
Julie S. November 23, 2019
I’ve always used brioche or potato bread for our family’s sausage stuffing. Usually made TG morning with mirepoix, country pork sausage from the nearby Amish farmers market and with chicken stock. It always goes into a large casserole dish, since hub spatchcocks our turkey. Some of those lovely drippings get shared with the stuffing before it’s baked and with the mushroom gravy.
 
Robin November 22, 2019
Growing up, stuffing was the best part of Thanksgiving.
Found a recipe several years ago that uses a bag of Pepperidge Farm cornbread & a bag of their herb. It cooks in the crockpot. I'm never looking back.
Not forcing the stuffing to share oven space with the bird, genius.
The stuffing my mother made was pretty firm. How could it not be, it had mashed potatoes, celery, onions, eggs, stale cubed white bread, mashed (with potato masher) with broth from the turkey that was roasting. Still remember my parents debating how wet they wanted it to be before it went into the oven.
Mom also did a small dish of oyster dressing. It used those rock hard OTC oyster crackers, don't think you can find them anymore. I loved everything about it except the actual oysters.
 
Millie J. November 22, 2019
I usually bake a gluten-free cornbread the day before and let it dry out overnight, then mix it with the usual items and bake it in a loaf pan. Always comes out great. But this year someone offered me a box of GF stuffing mix and I thought of the 1-2 hours of work saved and accepted it, and I intend to use it next Thursday. I hope I won't regret it!
 
MB November 22, 2019
I grew up on the classic Pepperidge Farm Herb stuffing mix. I still like it but find the herb seasoning too strong. So I make it as directed with onion and celery but add in about half again as much torn bread of any type - Tuscan white, French, hot dog or hamburger rolls - whatever I have on hand. I throw in pomegranate seeds and pignoli for fun. I always cook in the bird. What's left over goes into a casserole but the flavor never compares with the bird. I think adding various other breads to the package mix both softens the flavor and makes the stuffing moist. All so easy. The hardest part (or most time-consuming) is opening the pomegranate. That's my little granddaughter's job.
 
Abby H. November 22, 2019
In an effort to make T'giving a tad easier.....I have sauteed the onions, celery, sausage, etc. Bagged and frozen - on Thanksgiving morning will mix in with "bread", chopped chestnuts and liquid (turkey stock simmer right now for use next week). Basically partial prep. but it will make Thursday speedier and less crazy! The turkey stock - will be cooked down, strained, and frozen to be defrosted and used with pan drippings for gravy and to moisten stuffing.
 
Cassandra J. November 22, 2019
50/50 from- scratch cornbread and sourdough, a generous hand with the sage and other seasonings, onions and celery slowly carmelized in plenty of butter, and you have my mom’s stuffing that is the gold standard in my family.