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Dress your holiday bird for success

Each year at Thanksgiving, many weekend chefs grow dumbfounded at their lackluster performance preparing one key holiday dish: Stuffing.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Each year at Thanksgiving, many weekend chefs grow dumbfounded at their lackluster performance preparing one key holiday dish: Stuffing.

The recipes always sound simple. Virtually all stuffing recipes call for a combination of bread crumbs mixed with onions, celery, spices (often sage, sometimes thyme), plus water or broth, butter, salt, and pepper. Eggs may appear. A chef may swap in other liquids. Spices can vary, with flavors ranging from cayenne to cinnamon to poultry seasoning showing up in recipes. Crunch comes with the addition of nuts, particularly chestnuts. Raisins, currants, or apples lend sweetness. With mushrooms, sausage, or oysters, stuffing goes savory, marrying well with turkey gravy.

Bread, however, is the main ingredient. And bread is often the culprit when stuffing fails. It’s not the type of bread that matters, chefs say. It’s what you do with the bread that counts. Fail to toast the bread or let it dry out before you start preparing stuffing, and you may doom an otherwise solid recipe to a soggy fate. Forget to use enough liquid in your stuffing, and your recipe may turn out dry as a cracker crumb.

Then there’s the question of how you’re cooking stuffing — in the bird, or in a pan. (Note to deep-fried turkey fans: Don’t stuff a fryer!) Stuffing cooked in the bird will benefit from sufficient moisture, but if the stuffing is mixed with too many liquid ingredients the dish can turn out wet. Most chefs advise that stuffing cooked in a pan should go into the oven covered, preferably by parchment or foil coated with a thick layer of butter; the foil or parchment are removed during the last few minutes of cooking to allow the stuffing to develop a delicate crust.

Choosing your bread: Simple is sufficient
You can prepare stuffing with any bread — from white Wonder to sourdough to wheat, from slices or loaves, even from muffins. Many recipes recommend using day-old bread or cutting bread into cubes and toasting it into croutons.

Depending on a cook’s region, different breads are popular. Joe Randall, a Savannah chef and co-author of “A Taste of Heritage,” works with cornbread and brings out its savory flavor with a dash of cayenne and sage sausage — a preparation that he says respects his Southern heritage.

Meanwhile, in New England, Roland Palm, assistant head chef at in Meredith, N.H., says “plain old sandwich bread” is the secret ingredient in a basic stuffing served year-round at Hart’s restaurant.

“We just have one recipe for New England stuffing,” says Palm, who’s used it for over 20 years. “As a rule, we stick to it at Thanksgiving.”

Hart’s version of stuffing calls for day-old bread, eggs, onions, celery, water, and spices including sage, thyme, salt, pepper, or Bell’s Seasoning — a common New England spice mix that includes sage, oregano, rosemary, ginger, marjoram, thyme and pepper.

Go easy on the spices
Chef Randall says that one key to a good stuffing is chopping all ingredients (celery, onion) finely. Dried fruit should be plumped in warm water. And go easy on the salt shaker until you taste the dish — since salt levels can be impacted by whether or not you’re working with salted or unsalted butter or broth as well as your choice of bread.

Randall says a good stuffing can taste mild before it goes into the oven. However, that’s due in part to the nature of the spices used in common recipes. Stuffing cooked in the bird will gain additional flavor from the turkey’s juices.

“You should taste for salt and pepper,” he says. “It shouldn’t be bland, but it may seem a little underseasoned.”

Indeed, Randall and other chefs advise that it’s easier to add flavor later than to subtract flavor. A little sage, he and others say, can go a long way.

“Moisture is the biggest problem people have with stuffing at home,” Palm says.

One reason for this, he says, is that many home chefs pick a basic stuffing recipe, then add or substitute ingredients that alter the stuffing’s moisture content. Adding oysters or fruit, for instance, can make a stuffing slightly wetter and mean you should use less liquid or more bread, or that you should cook the stuffing longer to let it “dry out.” If you’re stuffing a bird, making sure the stuffing isn’t too wet is important. Bread crumbs should be moistened but not soaked.

Randall says that cooks who follow a recipe for a stuffing designed to go into a bird may want to add a cup of extra broth or water to a version that’s going into a pan.

“You can always dry it out more in the pan,” he says. “Stuffing holds moisture inside the bird much better.”

To make sure the stuffing isn’t getting too wet, especially if it’s going to cook inside the bird, add liquid ingredients in small batches, touching the stuffing with your hands to make sure the bread cubes aren’t becoming soaked through with liquid. The goal is to moisten them, but not wet them through and through.

Our method: Cooking in the pan
At my house, stuffing needs to borrow from both the savory and the sweet list. It needs to be firm enough to hold its own on a plate teaming with juices from the bird, cranberry sauce, and vegetable accompaniments, and it should absorb some gravy but not turn soggy from it. That’s why we’re fans of pan-baked stuffing: Soft inside, crusty on top, it works well.

Working with sourdough bread prevents the stuffing from growing too sweet under the influence of shredded orange peel, currants, cider, and an apple, while plenty of butter, walnuts, regular chicken broth, onions, celery, salt, pepper, and sage do their part to bring out the tastes of autumn.

The Perfect Stuffing

  • 1 cup butter (2 sticks)
  • 1 ¼ cup diced onions
  • 1 diced apple
  • 1 ½ cups diced celery
  • 10 cups sourdough bread, cut in small cubes
  • ½ cup dried currants
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 cup chopped parsley
  • 1 Tbsp. grated orange peel
  • Salt, to taste
  • Pepper, to taste
  • 11/4 cup chicken broth
  • 1 cup apple cider
  • 1 Tbsp grated orange peel

1. Toast cubed sourdough bread at 450 degrees for eight minutes, until bread is crusty but not hardened. Let cool for 10 minutes before mixing with other ingredients.

2. Melt butter and add onions, celery, and apple. Saute for up to 10 minutes, till softened.

3. Blend bread, sage, parsley, orange peel, currants, chopped walnuts, salt and pepper. Add butter, onion, celery and apple mixture and mix well.

4. Add broth and apple juice in ¼ cup to ½ cup increments, testing to make sure that the bread does not grow soggy.

5. Butter a 13x9x2 baking dish, fill with stuffing, and cover with buttered foil.

6. Cook at 350 degrees for 50 minutes. Remove foil and cook another 15 to 20 minutes, or until a light crust forms on the top of the stuffing.

The next two recipes are from Recipes from A Taste of Heritage: The New African-American Cuisine.  Copyright © 2002 Joe Randall and Toni Tipton-Martin. Reprinted with permission by Wiley Publishing, Inc.

The following recipe is for a cornbread stuffing to be cooked inside poultry. The recipe as published is designed for use in a four-pound bird, so we’ve tripled it to create enough stuffing for a 12-pound turkey. (For guidance on how long to cook a turkey, the United States Department of Agriculture provides .

Corn Bread Dressing

  • ¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) of butter
  • 6 small onions, finely diced
  • 6 ribs celery, finely diced
  • 1 Tbsp. poultry seasoning
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 4 ½ cups stale bread, cut into ¼ inch cubes
  • 4 ½ cups crumbled Country Corn Bread (see recipe below)
  • 3/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter and sauté 1 diced onion, 1 diced celery rib, and the poultry seasoning for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the stock and simmer 2 minutes. In a large bowl, combine the bread cubes, corn bread, vegetable mixture, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper to taste. Mix lightly, but well. Stuff poultry.

Country Corn Bread

  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. salt
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • ¼ cup (1/2 stick) butter

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. In a small separate bowl, combine the eggs and milk. Combine the liquid and dry ingredients. Place the butter in a 9-inch cast-iron skillet and place in the oven until the butter is sizzling. Pour the hot butter into the batter and stir well. Pour the batter into the hot skillet and bake until a wood pick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20 to 25 minutes.

Jane Hodges is a writer in Seattle.