Why do we cook stuffing only once a year? On any given weekend, a reasonably ambitious cook might roast a bird, mash some potatoes and bake a pie. But stuffing — beloved whether it is sausage or meatless, corn bread or sourdough, inside the bird or out — is cordoned off into a Thanksgiving-only category.
This is plain wrong, because bread stuffing is one of the most forgiving, fragrant, and inspiring dishes imaginable. When made from scratch and seasoned right, it is rich, moist, and savory, shot through with different textures and flavors that give cooks plenty of room to play. That basic amalgamation of starch, fat, and aromatics is indisputably delicious.
And not so long ago, it was a staple on the American table.
‘’Every Friday night, of course, roast chicken with bread stuffing,” said Sheila Brass, 75, who grew up in Winthrop, Mass. Brass, a culinary historian, said her mother always had leftover bread in a tin container on top of the refrigerator, drying out in preparation for the Sabbath meal. Rendered chicken fat, grated onions, plenty of black pepper, and an egg were added to bind and season the bread into a kind of savory bread pudding. “She would use Vienna rolls, bulkie rolls, cholly,” Brass said.
Bread stuffing in America originates on the British side of our culinary family; in England, it is inexorably seasoned with onion and sage and served at Sunday dinner. The dish lingered in our cooking tradition as a thrifty way to extract every savory bit of bird and bread.
But at some point in the 1970s, around the time low-carb diets and Mediterranean cooking came into vogue, a rich side dish of bread that had spent hours absorbing meat juices and fat was no longer so appealing.
Also, the Agriculture Department has become increasingly discouraging about stuffing. The spread of salmonella and other bacteria in the food supply has pushed the agency’s minimum temperature for safely cooked poultry to 165 degrees. (The magic number for meat is 145 degrees.) For a turkey larger than about 10 pounds, once the stuffing at the center of the bird hits 165 degrees, the bird itself is as dry as jerky.
But some expert cooks put the comfort zone for stuffing closer to 145 degrees, as long as the bird is fresh (rather than frozen and thawed) and from a trusted supplier. Slow cooking at a moderate temperature (about 350 degrees) and turning (admittedly not so easy with a turkey), so the heat and juices are evenly distributed, can bring the stuffing up to temperature. Stuffed birds and roasts need extra resting time, and the internal temperature can rise as much as 10 or 15 degrees after the roast comes out of the oven. (A long, thin instant-read thermometer, like a Thermapen, is useful around the holidays.)
And stuffing can be baked on its own, if moistened with stock and slicked with a little melted butter, in which case many people call it dressing instead.
I respectfully submit that bread stuffing, whether cooked in or out of the bird, is simply too good to save for Thanksgiving. Any of the recipes here would serve admirably on the holiday (though they are not exactly traditional), but can be used anytime for chicken, duck, game birds, crown roasts of pork or lamb, or even hollowed-out squash or peppers.
“Stuffing used to be a side dish, but now I like to think of it as a kind of condiment for the meat,” said Bruce Aidells, the meat expert who has recently revised his tome The Great Meat Cookbook. He said modern meat and poultry, which are bred to be lean, are particularly in need of the flavor and moisture that stuffing can bring to the table. Even a luxurious cut like rib roast, if it is cut from a grass-fed steer, benefits from a rich stuffing like his mix of bread, sausage, spinach, dried porcini mushrooms and garlic.
But good bread is the only necessity for a good stuffing. Southern cooks have long ensured a supply by using day-old homemade cornbread as the base for Thanksgiving stuffing.
Bread crumbs for stuffing should be made from slightly stale bread, which has lost some of its moisture and can absorb any flavorsome juices that happen by without becoming slimy or soggy. It’s best to buy a large crusty loaf (or two), cut off the crusts and then tear it up into chunks and leave those to become stale overnight. The next day, tear the bread into crumbs, or pulse chunks of it in a food processor with the aromatics for the stuffing.
Ismail Merchant, the filmmaker and a famously creative cook, particularly liked to experiment with Indian and American culinary mashups. He published many recipes for roast chicken, with stuffings made from leftover pancakes, rice biryanis or stale bread spiked with green chilies, fresh ginger, and chopped lemon — pulp, peel and all.
Michael Popek is a seller of used and rare books in Oneonta, N.Y., who collects notes and recipes that he finds stuck between pages of books that come into his family’s store. He posts them on his blog, forgottenbookmarks.com, and has published a collection, Handwritten Recipes.
Recently, in an early edition of Gone With the Wind (first published in 1936), he found two stuffing recipes, typed by an unknown hand onto index cards. One is a simple “poultry stuffing” with bacon, onions, bread and celery — pleasant enough if you like canned corn and evaporated milk.
The other is a baroque concoction that may begin to explain why stuffing lost its place at the American table. Avocado stuffing starts off well: Soften the chives and mushrooms in butter, then add flour to thicken. (Many older stuffing recipes use flour rather than bread as a starch element.) Then things take a sinister turn as the cook is instructed to mix in one mashed avocado, some chopped pimentos, a cup of lemon juice mixed with beef broth and a teaspoon of poppy seeds. This simmers for a few minutes. Then some egg yolks are stirred in and the whole strange brew cooked down until thick.
What to stuff it in remains, sadly, unknown.
Shallot-Thyme-Black Olive Stuffing
4 ounces slab bacon or pancetta, diced
4 shallots, minced
2 chicken livers
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
3/4 cup oil-cured meaty black olives, preferably from Provence, pitted and halved
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Combine bacon and shallots in a large nonstick skillet. Turn heat to medium-high and cook, stirring, until the bacon is crisp and the shallots are wilted and lightly browned in the bacon fat. Using a slotted spoon, lift out the bacon and shallots and set aside in a medium bowl.
In the same pan, sear the livers for a minute or two on each side over high heat, just until crusty on the outside but pink in the middle. Remove to a cutting board.
When the liver is cool enough to handle, chop it finely and add to the bacon mixture. Add the thyme and olives and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Yield: Enough stuffing for a 3-pound guinea hen or chicken. To use as a Thanksgiving stuffing, multiply the recipe according to the size of your turkey.
Source: Adapted from Bistro Cooking, by Patricia Wells
Spicy Lemon-Ginger Bread Stuffing
2 fresh green chilies, such as jalapeno or serrano, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 lemon, halved and seeded (use organic because the skin will be eaten)
1 (2-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 1/2 cups large bread crumbs, torn from day-old coarse white bread
1 teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
3 tablespoons melted butter
In a blender or food processor, combine the chilies, half of the lemon (pulp, peel, and all), ginger and garlic. Pulse together until finely chopped. (Or, finely chop ingredients together with a large knife.)
Transfer to a bowl and add the bread, caraway seeds, and melted butter. If the stuffing seems dry, squeeze the remaining lemon half over the mixture and toss again.
Yield: Enough stuffing for a 3- to 3 1/2-pound chicken. Double the recipe if using a duck. To use as a Thanksgiving stuffing, multiply the recipe according to the size of your turkey.
Source: Adapted from Passionate Meals, by Ismail Merchant
Porcini-Spinach Bread Stuffing
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
2 mild Italian sausages, removed from the casings
1/2 cup chopped shallots
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2 cups 1/4-inch bread cubes, roughly cut from day-old coarse white bread (don’t use store-bought dried bread cubes)
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 cup cooked spinach, squeezed dry and chopped (frozen is fine)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the porcini in a small bowl and cover with boiling water. Soak for at least 45 minutes, or up to several hours, until soft. Lift porcini out of the liquid, drain on paper towels, chop, and set aside. Strain the soaking liquid, leaving behind any grit in the bottom of the bowl, and set aside.
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add sausages and cook for about 5 minutes, breaking the meat apart with a fork as it browns. Add mushrooms, shallots and garlic, cover, and cook for about 5 minutes more, stirring from time to time, until the vegetables are tender.
Transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Stir in bread cubes, rosemary, spinach, and egg and mix well. Moisten with about ¼ cup reserved mushroom liquid. The stuffing should be slightly moist but not wet. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside, or refrigerate if not using immediately. (The stuffing is best made a day ahead and refrigerated, but don’t stuff the meat ahead, as it can spoil.)
Yield: Enough for a 6-8 pound bird. Multiply the recipe according to the size of your turkey.
Source: Adapted from The Great Meat Book, by Bruce Aidells