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Stuffing: Impress both innies and outies this Thanksgiving

The great Thanksgiving stuffing debate usually comes down to this: inside the bird or out?

Bake the bread stuffing in a dish and you risk alienating traditionalists. Stuff the bird and you’ll have to fear the food safety police.

Thanksgiving cooks need not spend precious preparation time trying to decide whether this holiday staple should go in the turkey or in a dish (same goes for that whole stuffing vs. dressing discussion).

Like many holiday food conundrums it really comes down to family traditions and preferences. If your family can’t resist the ultra-moist stuffing that can only be produced from baking it inside the bird, then don’t spend a second worrying about it. Follow a few simple rules and it will be safe to eat.

If you and the loved ones you’re cooking for like their stuffing a little crispy around the edges, or you have found that getting the stuffing up to a safe temperature means your bird is overcooked, then ready the casserole dish.

The bird usually doesn’t hold enough stuffing for the eaters at our house, so we end up doing both anyway.

The basics

Many chefs default to packages of dried bread croutons. Others prefer cutting or tearing up their own bread cubes from rustic loaves, whole grain breads or cornbread.

Bread cubes, save cornbread, should be left out to dry overnight to ensure they’ll soak up enough liquid for the stuffing. They also can be lightly toasted in the oven before making the stuffing.

Use two parts bread to one part vegetables and other goodies. Use your imagination: Choose fresh herbs. Substitute chopped fennel bulb for some of the celery for a change. Toss in a few whole grains. Wild rice is a good addition for texture and nutty flavor.

Sarah Gates, owner of Coeur d’Alene Cellars Winery and resident chef, shares her recipes under the Culinarea tab at

Gates likes to add bulgur, quinoa or barley to stuffing for texture. She tosses leftover pasta into stuffing in her delicious Herb-Roasted Chicken with Pasta Stuffing.

That might not fly at your house on Thanksgiving, but Gates has other tips.

“I often look for leftovers in the refrigerator and start from there … I always start out sautéing chopped onions and celery, and often add dried fruit, nuts, herbs and seasonings,” she wrote in an e-mail message.

“Chopped squash and other vegetables are a good addition. It’s hard to go wrong.”

Gates loves to make stuffing year-round, putting it inside whole vegetables, pork chops, chicken breasts, pork crown roast and whole fish.

She likes the flavors it absorbs when it’s cooked inside something. Add more liquid to the stuffing to make sure that it doesn’t dry out if you’re baking it beside the bird.

In her family, oyster dressing (recipe follows) is the traditional holiday side dish.

“I can’t wait to have oyster dressing for Thanksgiving. That’s one I do in a separate casserole because not everyone prefers it,” Gates says.

Any meats added to the stuffing should be cooked before they’re tossed with the bread – sausage, Italian sausage, bacon and pancetta are favorites.

If you can’t come up with great flavor combinations on your own, pick up the November issue of Food Network magazine. It has a pull-out section with 50 stuffing ideas that start with one classic recipe, including: bourbon and pecan, apricot and hazelnut, mushroom and leek, roasted vegetable, wild mushroom, kale and garlic, chorizo and manchego, creole cornbread, and squash and pancetta.

Enough liquid should be added to soak the bread well. recommends adding two eggs per liter of liquid to help bind the stuffing.

Some recipes call for up to two sticks of butter for stuffing, but it can be easily reduced to cut fat and calories. Add more liquid to make up for the difference. Turkey stock, chicken stock (with a little wine) and vegetable stock are all great alternatives.

Jennifer Armentrout, who writes for the Fine Cooking website, says getting the moisture in the dressing right is key to good stuffing.

“In the end, the stuffing should be golden and slightly crisp on top and moist inside. You don’t want it to be soggy or dry,” she writes.

“Different types of bread will require different amounts of moisture to achieve this texture, so be sure to add the liquid gradually, evaluating as you go.”

If you’re not comfortable winging it, check out Fine Cooking’s fun, interactive stuffing recipe creator at articles/cyor/ bread-stuffing.aspx. Click and drag your ingredients to the bowl and a customized recipe is created.

Inside the bird

Here are the keys to food safety for those who are stuffing the bird:

Stuffing inside the turkey must be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit to kill any harmful bacteria. Check the temperature at the center of the stuffing when the bird is done. If the stuffing isn’t, scoop it into a casserole dish and finish it there.

Prepare stuffing just before putting it into the bird. If you refrigerate it first, it might not have time to reach a safe temperature before the turkey is done.

Also, if you’re using any quick methods for the turkey (recipes where the oven heat is cranked up high to finish the bird in two hours), the stuffing isn’t likely to be finished before the meat is done.

Stuffing the casserole dish

The editors at Cooks Illustrated magazine went to great lengths in this year’s November issue to shape up the bread stuffing baked alongside the bird.

They suggest browning extra turkey wings (or chicken wings) in a pan, then adding sausage and vegetables to brown. Then the pan is deglazed with stock and added to the dressing. Finally the browned wings are put on top of the stuffing to help infuse the dressing with turkey flavor.

Whatever you do, just be sure to add extra stock to the dressing since it won’t be soaking up all the moisture from the bird. If the Thanksgiving crowd at your house prefers stuffing on the crispy side, consider recipes that call for baking it in individual servings in a muffin pan.

Just don’t forget to grease the casserole dish or muffin tins. Or, give thanks for help washing the dishes.

Apple and Onion Stuffin’ Muffins

Recipe courtesy Rachael Ray,

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 stick butter, softened, divided use

1 fresh bay leaf, available in produce department

4 ribs celery and greens, from the heart, chopped

1 medium to large yellow-skinned onion, chopped

3 McIntosh apples, quartered and chopped

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons poultry seasoning

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves

8 cups cubed stuffing mix (such as Pepperidge Farm)

2 to 3 cups chicken stock

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Preheat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add extra-virgin olive oil to skillet and 4 tablespoons butter. When butter melts, add bay leaf and add the vegetables as you chop them, celery, onions then apples. Sprinkle the vegetables and apples with salt, pepper and poultry seasoning. Cook 5 to 6 minutes to begin to soften vegetables and apples then add parsley and stuffing cubes to the pan and combine. Moisten the stuffing with chicken broth until all of the bread is soft but not wet.

Butter 12 muffin cups, 2 tins, liberally with remaining butter. Use an ice cream scoop to fill and mound up the stuffing in muffin tins. Remove the bay leaf as you scoop the stuffing when you come upon it. Bake until set and crisp on top, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove stuffin’ muffins to a platter and serve hot or room temperature.

Yield: 12 muffins

Herbed Bread Stuffing with Mushrooms and Sausage

From This recipe makeover helps slash the fat, calories and sodium from traditional recipes.

“Making your own bread cubes is easy and yields delicious results. You can prepare the toasted bread cubes two to three days before Thanksgiving; store at room temperature in a zip-top plastic bag. If there’s space in the oven, bake the stuffing while the turkey roasts. Otherwise, bake it in the morning, and reheat it while the turkey stands,” editors write.

1 1/2 pounds peasant-style white bread

4 (4-ounce) links sweet turkey Italian sausage

2 teaspoons butter

1 pound cremini mushrooms, quartered

Cooking spray

2 cups chopped onion

1 1/4 cups chopped carrot

1 1/4 cups chopped celery

1/2 cup minced fresh parsley

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

1 tablespoon minced fresh sage

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 large eggs

1 (14-ounce) can fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Trim crust from bread. Cut bread into 1 1/2-inch cubes. Arrange bread cubes in a single layer on 2 jelly-roll pans. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes or until toasted.

Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Cook sausage in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat 10 minutes, browning on all sides. Remove from pan; cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices.

Melt butter in skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms; sauté 4 minutes. Combine bread cubes, sausage, and mushrooms in a large bowl.

Heat skillet over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add onion, carrot, and celery; sauté 5 minutes or until lightly browned. Add parsley, thyme, sage, salt, and pepper; sauté 1 minute. Add to bread mixture. Combine eggs and broth, stirring with a whisk. Add to bread mixture; toss to coat. Spoon into a 13-by- 9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until browned.

Yield: 12 servings (serving size: about 1 cup)

Approximate nutrition per serving: 208 calories, 6.2 grams fat (1.7 grams saturated, 27 percent fat calories), 13.6 grams protein, 25.9 grams carbohydrate, 68 milligrams cholesterol, 4.1 grams dietary fiber, 635 milligrams sodium.

Oyster Dressing

From Sarah Gates, Coeur d’Alene Cellars. “If you’re not an oyster fan, this is a good recipe for basic stuffing. Both dressings pair well with Coeur d’Alene Cellars Chardonnay,” she says.

1/2 cup butter

1 1/2 cup diced onion

1 1/2 cup diced celery (with leaves)

1 teaspoon minced garlic (optional)

1 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh sage

1 1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 teaspoon poultry seasoning

1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper (optional) 12 cups (1-inch) cubed Italian bread (16 ounces)

1 cup chicken broth (if cooked in casserole dish)

1 cup shucked oysters, drained

Cooking spray

Melt butter in a large skillet and add onion and celery; sauté for 5 minutes or until tender. Add garlic, sage, salt and red pepper, and saute for 5 minutes. Add bread and brown slightly. If desired, add oysters and spoon mixture into a large baking dish or stuff a turkey. If cooking in a baking dish, add broth. Cook turkey or bake 30 minutes, covered, then 30 minutes uncovered in casserole.

Yield: 16 servings

Bread Stuffing with Sausage, Dried Cherries, and Pecans

From Cook’s Illustrated, Published November 1, 2010.

Two pounds of chicken wings can be substituted for the turkey wings. If using chicken wings, separate them into 2 sections (it’s not necessary to separate the tips) and poke each segment 4 or 5 times. Also, increase the amount of broth to 3 cups, reduce the amount of butter to 2 tablespoons, and cook the stuffing for only 60 minutes (the wings should register over 175 degrees at the end of cooking). Use the meat from the cooked wings to make salad or soup.

2 pounds hearty white sandwich bread (20 to 22 slices), cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 16 cups)

3 pounds turkey wings, divided at joints (see photo) (see note)

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

1 pound bulk pork sausage

4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, plus extra for baking dish

1 large onion, chopped fine (about 1 1/2 cups)

3 celery ribs, chopped fine (about 1 1/2 cups)

2 teaspoons table salt

2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme leaves

2 tablespoons minced fresh sage leaves

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

3 large eggs

1 cup dried cherries

1 cup pecan halves, toasted and chopped fine

Adjust oven racks to upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 250 degrees. Spread bread cubes in even layer on 2 rimmed baking sheets. Bake until edges have dried but centers are slightly moist (cubes should yield to pressure), 45 to 60 minutes, stirring several times during baking. (Bread can be toasted up to 1 day in advance.) Transfer to large bowl and increase oven temperature to 375 degrees.

Use tip of paring knife to poke 10 to 15 holes in each wing segment. Heat oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until it begins to shimmer. Add wings in single layer and cook until golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Flip wings and continue to cook until golden brown on second side, 4 to 6 minutes longer. Transfer wings to medium bowl and set aside.

Return skillet to medium-high heat and add sausage; cook, breaking sausage into ½-inch pieces with wooden spoon, until browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer sausage to paper towel-lined plate, leaving rendered fat in skillet.

Heat butter with rendered fat in skillet over medium heat. When foaming subsides, add onion, celery, and ½ teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened but not browned, 7 to 9 minutes. Add thyme, sage, and pepper; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add 1 cup broth and bring to simmer, using wooden spoon to scrape browned bits from bottom of pan. Add vegetable mixture to bowl with dried bread and toss to combine.

Grease 13 by 9-inch baking dish with butter. In medium bowl, whisk eggs, remaining 1½ cups broth, remaining 1½ teaspoons salt, and any accumulated juices from wings until combined. Add egg/broth mixture, cherries, pecans, and sausage to bread mixture and gently toss to combine; transfer to greased baking dish. Arrange wings on top of stuffing, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and place baking dish on rimmed baking sheet.

Bake on lower-middle rack until thickest part of wings registers 175 degrees on instant-read thermometer, 60 to 75 minutes. Remove foil and transfer wings to dinner plate to reserve for another use. Using fork, gently fluff stuffing.

Let rest 5 minutes before serving.

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

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