I've been trying to get my daughter to learn to make stuffing, but she insists that she just can't do it the same way I can. I suspect, since she's a fully competent and experimental cook, that she really just doesn't want to go through the work since she can talk me into making it for the family holiday get-togethers. After I retire and move to Arizona, maybe she'll get acquainted with the charms of a box of Stove Top.
But recently my son Paul, the one who was a cook in the National Guard and painstakingly translated the best of recipes for 100 into recipes for a normal family after he finished service, the same one who picks the backyard fruit and cans jellies as gifts for everybody, asked me how to make stuffing, and turned out a batch as good as anything I've made.
Back in 2009 I'd quit experimenting with it and stabilized how I made it. This is what I said about it then:
* * * * *
One of the first things my new mother-in-law taught me in order for me to be considered a PROPER member of the family way back when was how to stuff a turkey. It made no difference that I had been doing it with my own mother for years. It made no difference that there was a new product on the market for instant dressing called Stove Top. Sacrilege! I was to be shown the RIGHT way. I’ve made it ever since, making small adaptations but always following her core principles. It’s the one food my children expect from me every Thanksgiving, X-mas, and Easter. It’s now the one food I actually still cook, since my busy lifestyle lends itself to prepared, heat-em-or eat-em-cold fare. It became so ingrained that it was a total shock to me to find out after her death that the last years of my mother-in-law’s life she had actually started relying on Stove Top! (Now that arthritis has started attacking my hands, I’m more tolerant.)
I’ve tried writing it down as a recipe, so my own daughter can take over the tradition, but she tells me it never comes out right for her. While I consider that it might be just an excuse so that she doesn’t have to make it, since she is an excellent and adventurous cook, it’s possible that it’s simple truth. Later today I’m going to be in my kitchen, showing my other son and his teenage daughter all the steps and explaining the do’s and don’ts, in hopes that some day they can take over, and I can relax. Heck, I might even consider Stove Top.
The biggest problem with writing down my stuffing recipe is that the answer to every question about ingredients is “It depends.” So rather than writing a recipe, I’m going to attempt to guide you through all the different ways it depends and how to make your own choices.
Start with the bread. How much? What kind? How dry? What size? It all depends. How big a turkey? Will you cook the stuffing inside the bird or separately? How many do you want to feed, and do you want leftovers? I’ve found about 1-1/2 pounds of bread is fine for a 12–13 pound turkey, whether inside or out. Add more for bigger, more mouths to feed, leftovers. What kind varies, but always the more whole grain and less white, the better the stuffing. You can buy it right off the shelf, or save up for months with the heel ends and other bread scraps nobody in the family wants. In our family, one son loves raisin bread but hates the heels, so saves them up for his contribution to stuffing. It’s delicious! We also notice that the number of buns in a bag never matches the number of brats in the package, and the leftovers are stale before the next brat roast. For whatever tag ends, dry for a day, then re-bag and freeze. When you pull the bag out to thaw, open it briefly and knock out the frost that has accumulated inside the bag. Otherwise you have a nasty soggy mess. Even our dog won’t touch it.
All this bread has to be torn into bits. Not cut. torn. Anything between the size of the store croutons prepared for stuffing and the salad croutons served in a restaurant will do, but the smaller they are, the more the flavors mix and spread evenly. A very large mixing bowl or 10-quart roasting pan usually holds the smaller batches, but you'll find out as you go. I often spill over into two mixing containers, and then it is a challenge making the ingredients distribute evenly. While moist bread makes a better start and is easier to handle, if dry is what you have, just remember to add more moisture later. This will wind up being a moist dressing.
Speaking of moisture, that's the second item that requires advanced prep. Of course you could just open a can of chicken broth, or more if needed. But I like to take a couple of roasted chicken carcasses, including skin, bones, and remaining meat, and boil them in a pot full of water for about an hour. The broth will be dark and you will need a colander to separate the broth from the bits. Do whatever with the meat. The broth can stand in the fridge overnight to separate fat from gel, since gel is what your broth will be once cold. It can also be poured in leftover containers and frozen well ahead of time. You might just skip that whole bit if you're doing the stuffing in the bird, since that will provide plenty of moisture. Nowadays, however, worries about salmonella, or the desire to use pan drippings to make gravy, generally lead to the decision to cook the stuffing outside the bird. The moisture doesn't actually get added until just before the stuffing goes into the oven, and after all the other ingredients are added. How much to add then depends on what it still takes for a dressing that is moist and sticky, almost like bread pudding, before cooking.
The third thing taking advance prep are the cranberries. I have fallen in love with Craisins, the orange flavored variety. Orange peel has long been one of my secret ingredients, and this accents it. A few hours ahead of time, even overnight, the Craisins need to be rehydrated. I use the smaller 6-oz. pack for a 12-pound turkey. You can use orange juice, chicken broth, or in a pinch, just water. If you haven't used raisin bread, add some raisins to the same bowl to soak, just enough liquid to cover. If you have dried orange peel, sprinkle that on top. It all goes into the stuffing later. The fruit adds a special holiday touch to the turkey. If you like, you can also add blueberries, cherries, and/or apple pieces. My mother-in-law informed me that she always added apple to stuffing for ducks and geese, as it helps abate the strong gamy flavor that many people don't care for.
I usually add one large onion, chopped and sauteed in a pan with a stick of butter. Again, amounts are approximate for stuffing a 12-lb. bird. Sometimes the onion is cooked until it just goes translucent, sometimes browned for flavor. While that is cooking, I throw sage, celery seed, dill weed, and a bit of garlic in to flavor the butter. (Don't burn the garlic!) I don't add salt. How much again depends. Sage should be the predominant flavor, and I often add more after everything is mixed and I've tasted it. I start with about 2T sage, 1 tsp of each of the others. Mixed in the butter, the flavor spreads more evenly through the stuffing, eliminating pockets of overwhelming flavor and large pockets of blah. When the onions are done, the mix gets poured out of the pan over the bread, and I use still-dry bread crumbs to mop the pan and soak up the last of the butter and spices.
Half a stalk of celery gets washed, chopped, and added straight to the bread crumbs while the onions are cooking. You can use the heart if you prefer, but it really doesn't matter. I have learned, in order to save the rest for celery sticks that don't get nasty in a few days, to wrap and seal them in aluminum foil. Don't know why it works, but it does. Plastic lets them rot.
Through the years I have learned what I don't like to add. Wild rice sounds good, but it upsets the flavor balance for me, and I haven't figured out a way around it, don't care to try. Giblets can be OK in stuffing. but personally I love to munch heart and gizzard myself, having no competition from the rest of the family. And liver is fit only for the dog, who has learned to love when I prepare stuffing. Heck, when I prepare anything, actually. Slivered almonds are another thing that sounds better then the result, and I haven't bothered to check pecans to see if they fare better. Walnuts give canker sores to some members of the family, so I didn't ever try those either. Some years I have added blueberries and cherries, but their flavor tends to get lost in the mix, so I seldom bother anymore. Since they're not in season when turkey dinners are traditionally prepared, you need dried or frozen, anyway.
Now that all the dry ingredients are prepared, they and the onions/butter get thoroughly mixed together. It always takes a much bigger pan/roaster/bowl than I planned on, but I figure what spills on the counter is fair game for nibbling (aka taste test), so long as I've scrubbed the counter well first. This is when you check sage levels, since you are not risking your health over uncooked proteins. If it's not the predominant flavor, add more, cautiously, until it tastes right.
This is now the time for those final decisions. If cooked in the bird, your stuffing is pretty much done, ready for, well, stuffing. My mother-in-law would disagree, because she insisted the last part was unskippable: adding eggs. Whip up 2-3 eggs and blend them into the stuffing, and your end product holds together on your plate rather than falling all over after serving. If for any reason you can't commit to cooking your stuffing immediately after adding the eggs, leave them out completely, or keep them around cool and whole for adding at the last minute. And if you chronically undercook your bird, leaving the stuffing at best lukewarm, no eggs. Nada. Better yet, don't even eat that bird! It the meat's not falling off the bones, it just ain't done.
After adding eggs or deciding not to, check the stuffing for all-over moisture. If it cooks in the bird, not to worry: there'll be plenty of liquid soaked in by the time it's cooked, added to the moisture in the fruits and veggies. If you cook it separately, then add enough broth to make your uncooked stuffing moist and sticky. You will know this because by this time you will likely have given up on mixing your concoction with a large spoon and have resorted to digging in with your (clean) hands to evenly distribute the flavors. As a bonus for this practice, not only do you already know about moisture levels, you get to lick those hands clean before covering the cooking pan with aluminum foil, ready to be cooked. Well, unless you're paranoid about salmonella from the eggs you used, of course. But, hey, nummy!
Cooking temperature id 325F, with our without the bird. Slow but dependable. Turkey gets tender, stuffing doesn't dry out if properly covered. Stuffing alone in a single pan takes about an hour. In the bird, follow the cooking time directions that come with the bird, adding time for the extra weight. Better, use a good thermometer. Regardless, I'll repeat: if the meat doesn't fall off the bone, it's not done.
If it's a small bird, I like the paper bag method. First, go shopping at a grocery store that offers (clean) paper shopping bags. Set the bird in a standard 11x13 cake pan, set the whole inside the paper bag, close the ends by rolling them tight. The thermometer gets poked through the bag so you can read it without disturbing the bird. The skin browns nicely this way, while keeping much of the moisture in. After cooking, tear open the bag and toss, preferably not where the dog can get into it.
A large bird goes into a roasting pan with a cover, removing the cover for the last bit of cooking to brown the skin.
Since I always make more stuffing that fits inside the bird, I bunch the rest in the bottom of the pan around the bird to soak up pan drippings. No gravy, but the best dressing in the world that way! And no, I don't do gravy anyway, Ever.
This year we took making stuffing to a new level, and I'm not just talking about teaching the next generations. We made a super-sized batch, increased the egg proportion further yet, and cooked the stuffing in muffin tins. We used two different sizes, adjusting time accordingly, generally 25-30 minutes, depending. Smaller muffins got paper liners, larger ones got no-stick spray. (Buttering the pan works too.) The point was not just to avoid the hassle of cooking on the day, but taking a bag of already cooked muffins and a serving bowl saved the mess of hauling cooking dishes, and cleanup instead of conversation. Leftovers were no problem, since the muffins were simply left behind at my daughter's house (our host) to go with other leftovers for future meals. We had plenty at home. After cooking, the muffins were bagged in the now-empty bread bags, and either refrigerated or frozen, depending on plans for use. A bag could always be pulled out of the freezer for the next holiday meal, or a few pulled out at a time to go with a roasted chicken. They can thaw on the drive to the party, and get microwaved for warming just before serving. In case you are wondering, the batch started with 4 lbs. of bread, 3 large onions, etc., etc., and got topped off with 8 eggs. They worked like a charm, and will likely be cooked and served that way often in the future.