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As iconic Thanksgiving dishes go, stuffing is likely runner-up only to turkey as the dish most often on the dining table. Whether you call it stuffing or dressing or whether you cook the dish inside the turkey or as its own separate casserole is typically a matter of personal family tradition – it’s a collective tradition that’s been part of the holiday for hundreds of years.
“The close association between the American Thanksgiving holiday and roast turkey and stuffing is typically acknowledged as an early 19th century phenomenon,” said Paula J. Johnson, curator of food history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.
The concept of stuffing and cooking an animal with other meats, breads or vegetables has been part of culinary history since at least Roman times. However, as Johnson explained, it was women’s magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale who was “key in bringing together and popularizing the Thanksgiving holiday with the menu featuring turkey and stuffing.”
Hale began campaigning to make Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1827, Johnson noted, and “influenced and shaped ideas about the components and ingredients of a proper Thanksgiving event” through her vivid descriptions of what we now consider the traditional meal in her novel “Northwood: A Tale of New England.” “By the 1840s,” Johnson said, “the menu of ‘turkey, stuffing, squash and pie’” was the standard.”
While Hale’s vision of an ideal Thanksgiving dinner included stuffing cooked inside the bird, many cooks now choose to bake it on its own. (If you’re going with the in-turkey method, USDA food safety guidelines call for an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit to kill any potentially hazardous bacteria that could transfer from the meat to the stuffing.) I prefer to cook my stuffing outside of the bird, and even bake it in advance to take one more thing off my list on Thanksgiving day. It has enough time to reheat in the oven while the turkey rests.
Whatever way you cook it and whichever name you call it, I’d argue that stuffing should be the modern Thanksgiving’s centerpiece dish – and I’m saying this as a person who also enjoys brisket mac and cheese as their Thanksgiving main.
It can be tweaked and adjusted to suit almost any food preference or restriction; it has so many ways to be flavorfully distinct that you could even have three stuffing dishes at the table and no one would complain about casserole overload.
Stuffing can be vegetarian, completely vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free and even a main course unto itself. It can appeal to the most basic cravings with a poultry broth-and-butter base, it can be gussied up with dried or fresh fruit, spiced with everything from hot sausage to Hatch chiles, and even studded with seafood.
A traditional bread and herb stuffing is a fan favorite for many reasons. It’s savory, simple, (mostly) inoffensive to even picky palates – and, frankly, it’s my favorite version because it’s the one I grew up eating. However, it’s not the only way to make stuffing.
Think of this basic stuffing recipe as a jumping-off point for bringing more main dish energy to the table (especially if you’re considering a turkey-free or plant-based Thanksgiving this year). With a base of crusty bread and a classic aromatic blend of onion, celery and herbs, this stuffing’s flavor profile can be steered in several directions.
Add more ingredients – something green, something more aromatic, and something meaty and salty – to make it a more substantial casserole. Kale, leeks and bacon are a hearty combination, but this trifecta is open to interpretation. Try spinach, shallots and diced ham, or a chard, fennel and chorizo combination.
Oyster stuffing is one of the most popular variations on this theme. While the idea of including oysters may turn some stomachs, the soft shellfish add a more savory, saline element to the dish.
You can also swap out the crusty white bread for other loaves to change your stuffing’s taste and texture. Rye or pumpernickel, whole wheat, sourdough, herbed focaccia or the almost-as-traditional cornbread cubes all add their own individual flavor. Want to get really experimental? Leave the loaves on the shelf and grab some everything bagels.
The quickest and simplest way to turn a classic bread stuffing into a vegetarian-friendly dish is to substitute vegetable broth for the chicken or turkey broth typically called for in recipes. For other vegetarian add-ins, the world is your oyster. Or rather, your oyster mushroom or shiitake or blend of wild mushrooms, which add umami flavor in place of meat.
In place of meat-based ingredients, nuts, seeds and dried fruit can also bring in flavor and textural interest. Chestnut stuffing was once as popular as oyster stuffing, as the meaty but tender nuts give the dish a subtly earthy and sweet undertone. No need to roast and peel individual chestnuts when jarred chestnuts are readily available.
Toasted pecans or walnuts also add a roasted element to stuffing, or, for nut-allergic guests, substitute toasted pepitas, sunflower seeds or pine nuts, which are not, in fact, tree nuts but seeds.
In place of butter, vegan substitutes or olive oil can be used interchangeably. Egg is traditionally used in stuffing to bind the ingredients and add moisture to the overall casserole, but it’s easy to replace or omit.
A slurry of flaxseeds and water can replace eggs in most baked recipes: Use 1 tablespoon ground flaxseeds soaked in 3 tablespoons water for 5 minutes. Add additional broth for moisture. (If you do leave the egg out entirely, your stuffing might be a bit more loose and crumbly in texture.)
With a number of gluten-free bread recipes and pre-baked breads on the market that are virtually indistinguishable from gluten-full bread, making the switch in your favorite stuffing recipe is no big deal.
Cornbread can be a naturally gluten-free choice for stuffing, whether by substituting an all-purpose gluten-free flour blend for the flour called for in your usual recipe or by making a specifically developed recipe.
Wild rice has traditionally been a base for stuffing (or dressing, as it’s popularly known in the region) in Minnesota and the Upper Plains for generations. Manoomin, as it’s called in the language of the Ojibwe tribe, is a biologically aquatic grass seed that is naturally gluten-free and high in protein. Using this nutty, toothsome grain instead of bread cubes makes for a “wildly” different stuffing experience.