Is it stuffing, or dressing, or filling? Oh my!

November 17, 2023

With barely a week until Thanksgiving, most of us have already made plans for turkey day. Your home may be the destination for a gathering of extended family members, or you may be headed to spend time with a friend who loves to host a holiday “friends-giving.” It’s always easier to bring a side dish or dessert than it is to make the entire meal. 

And, one of the more challenging dishes (since there are so many ways to make it and too many opinions about the correct way to make it) is stuffing, aka dressing or filling. By way of definition, all three terms are synonymous for the bread-based, highly seasoned side dish served with turkey dinners. The only difference is where it is cooked – dressing is baked outside the bird, while stuffing and filling are actually placed inside the bird and baked at the same time.

They’re all made with similar ingredients: some kind of stale bread, a savory element, some crunch and seasonal spices. While the terms are used interchangeably, regional tastes define signature ingredients. The most common version of stuffing is based on stale or toasted white bread. Even the grocery stores understand, offering dozens of bags of dried, seasoned bread cubes. Californians start with tangy sourdough, and the Amish include potato bread.

Wild rice stuffing is popular in the Great Lakes region of the country, where the nutty-flavored grain is widely grown. Oyster stuffing is a New Orleans favorite, often paired with crumbled cornbread and flavored with the oyster “liquor” from the package of shucked bivalves. For the stuffing in the photo, I combined crumbled cornbread with scallion, onion and garlic. Vegetable broth and beaten egg add moisture, while the seasonings included sage and thyme.

When we were growing up, my mother always made two types of stuffing: one for my father and one for the rest of us. He loved the giblets, while we cringed at the thought of eating slimy organ meats that arrived packaged in a paper tube crammed into the bird’s gullet. She chopped and sautéed the tiny pieces and stirred them into a mixture of cubed bread, butter and seasonings. He had the entire dish to himself.

The type of bread you choose will determine the texture of your stuffing. A stale, crunchy loaf chopped into cubes will make the firmest stuffing, while cornbread may disintegrate into crumbs or very small bits. You can buy a package of the hardened bread cubes or skip the seasoning step by using a stuffing mix that has already been flavored with herbs and a generous shake of salt.

But no matter what you call it or how you prepare this dish, my recommendation is to skip the stuffing step for both health and taste reasons. You’ll avoid potential food safety concerns associated with placing the mixture inside an uncooked bird, and your dressing won’t absorb added fat while the turkey roasts. I always have trouble getting all the filling out of the bird, so cooking it separately makes sure you can enjoy every bite.

I’ve included recipes for a standard bread dressing, cornbread filling and a stuffing-sausage appetizer. Happy Thanksgiving!

Bread Dressing

1 stale baguette 
1 T butter 
2 diced carrots
2 diced celery stalks
1 diced onion
1 T parsley
1 t sage
1 t savory
1/2 t marjoram
1 t salt
1/2 t pepper
3 beaten eggs
1 1/2 C chicken stock 
1/4 C melted butter

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Coat the inside of a baking dish with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil; set aside. Slice the bread in half lengthwise. then into quarters, repeating until the lengths of bread are one inch thick. Cut into 1-inch cubes and arrange on baking sheet in a single layer. Bake in preheated oven until lightly toasted, about 15 minutes. Remove bread and reduce oven temperature to 350 F. Melt 1 T butter in a large skillet over medium low. Add vegetables and sauté until softened, about 8 minutes. Add herbs and stir together to combine. Add toasted bread cubes and toss gently with a spatula to coat. Add beaten eggs and mix thoroughly. Stir in 1 C stock; if not completely moistened, add another 1/2 C stock. Pour in melted butter and stir to combine. Transfer mixture to prepared pan. Bake until puffy and golden, about 35 minutes. Yield: 6 servings.

Cornbread Filling

1/3 C chopped pecans
2 T butter
1 diced onion
3 sliced scallions
3 pressed garlic cloves
4 C crumbled cornbread
1 T parsley
1 t sage
1 t savory
1/2 t thyme
1 t salt
1 t pepper
1/2 t paprika
2 beaten eggs
2 C chicken stock
1/2 C shredded cheddar cheese (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat the inside of a large casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Toast pecans in a dry skillet until fragrant, about 5 minutes; set aside. Melt butter in a large skillet; sauté onion and scallion until softened. Stir in garlic and cook another minute; remove from heat. Place crumbled cornbread in a large mixing bowl. Stir in pecans, vegetables, seasonings, eggs and stock. Toss to combine thoroughly. Transfer stuffing to prepared dish and scatter with cheddar cheese (if using). Bake for 30 minutes. Yield: 6 servings.

Sausage & Stuffing Balls

1 box stuffing mix
1 C water
1 lb bulk breakfast sausage
8 oz shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. In a saucepan over low, combine the stuffing mix and water. Cook for a few minutes, just to incorporate all the liquid. In a large bowl, crumble the sausage meat. Add the stuffing mix and cheese. Using your hands, work the mixture together to combine completely. Roll the mixture into tightly packed 1 1/2- inch balls. Arrange on the baking sheet in a single layer. Bake until cooked through, about 25 to 30 minutes. Yield: 4 dozen.


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