Debates over the best type of dressing or stuffing to make along with the holiday bird have been going on as long as Thanksgiving has been celebrated. Typically, the type of stuffing – or dressing -- people choose is based on family and regional traditions, and its use extends beyond one holiday. Whether to call it stuffing or dressing is a matter of intense and differing opinions. However, it’s all based on three main ingredients – bread, cornbread, or rice.
The main difference between stuffing and dressing actually has nothing to do with the ingredients used to create it. Put simply, it is stuffing if it is cooked inside the bird and dressing if it is cooked in a separate dish alongside it. There are pros and cons to both approaches. Stuffing tends to be more moist and can be more flavorful due to the infusion of juices from the bird as it roasts. However, there is an increased risk of food-borne illness if proper preparation techniques are not followed. Dressing, on the other hand, can be a more convenient option, since it can be prepared safely ahead of time, but care must be taken to avoid a dry and under-flavored result.
Stuffing or dressing made from bread may be the most common type found on Thanksgiving tables. Any type of bread can be used, but avoid prepackaged bread cubes due to their bland, uninspiring taste and texture. Instead, use cubes of a fresh Italian or French loaf or sourdough for a tangy, slightly sweet base. The key is to dry the bread cubes thoroughly to allow them to absorb the liquid and aromatic flavors of the mirepoix without becoming soggy. Mirepoix refers to the vegetables, cooked slowly in butter, added to the bread cubes along with liquid such as chicken or vegetable stock, possibly with a dash of white or red wine. The vegetables used to make the mirepoix usually include onion and celery, but carrots, mushrooms, leeks, and shallots are also common. Cook the vegetables only until slightly softened. To this mixture meat or seafood such as sausage or oysters can be added. Including well-beaten eggs creates a smoother, soufflé-like texture.
Cornbread used as a base for stuffing or dressing is most common in the South. It involves the extra step of baking the cornbread, which should be done well enough in advance to ensure it can dry out thoroughly. Avoid adding extra sugar to the cornbread. It can be crumbled or cubed and then treated the same way as a bread stuffing. Seasonings typically used include sage, thyme, and rosemary. Fresh herbs always impart the best flavor, but good-quality dried herbs work just as well. As with bread stuffing, meat, seafood, or additions such as dried fruit can be added.
The third type of stuffing or dressing is made with rice, either long-grain or wild. Rice-based stuffings have a nutty, crunchy taste and texture not found with other types and go especially well with less traditional additives such as nuts, dried fruits, and mushrooms. Make sure to not overcook the rice prior to making the dressing, since it will be cooked again, either inside the bird or alongside it.
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