Thoughts on Stuffing a Turkey

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 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 for prepared stuffing and the salad croutons served in a restaurant will do, but the smaller they are, the more 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’s 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’ll need a colander to separate the broth from the bits.  The broth can stand in the ‘fridge overnight to separate fat and gel, since that’s 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 other ingredients are added.  How much to add then depends on what it still takes for a dressing that’s moist and sticky, almost like a bread pudding, before cooking.

The third thing taking advanced 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.  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 apple pieces.  My mother-in-law informed me that she always adds apples 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 sautéed in a stick of butter.  Again, amounts are approximate for stuffing a 12-lb. bird. Sometimes the onion is cooked just until it goes translucent, sometimes browned in the frying pan.  While that’s cooking, I throw sage, celery seed, dill weed, and a bit of garlic in to flavor the butter.  (Don’t burn the garlic!)  How much again depends.  After I mix everything together, I rely on a sample taste to tell me what’s enough.  It starts with about 2 T sage, 1 tsp. each of the others, and sage should wind up being the strongest flavor.  That’s the only flavoring I will add at the tail end of everything.  Otherwise I find that adding seasonings to the butter spreads the flavor evenly throughout the stuffing, eliminating pockets of overwhelming flavor and large segments of “blah”. When the onions are done, this 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 onions are cooking.  You can use the heart if you prefer it, but it really doesn’t matter.  I have learned to, in order to save the rest for celery sticks that don’t get nasty in a few days, towel-dry the cut sticks and wrap (seal) in aluminum foil, not plastic.

I have through the years 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 a way around it, don’t care to try.  Giblets can be okay in stuffing, but personally, I love to munch on heart and gizzard myself, having no competition for them in the family.  And liver is only fit for the dog, who has learned to love when I prepare stuffing.  Slivered almonds are another thing that sounds better than the end result, and I haven’t checked on pecans to see if they fare better.  Walnuts gave my ex canker sores, 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.

Now that all the “dry” ingredients are prepared, they 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, and if questioned about it, can be justified as taste testing.  This is when you check sage levels, since so far you’re not risking your health over uncooked proteins. Uh, you have been scrupulously cleaning counters and cutting boards to avoid contamination, right?

This is now 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 mix them into the stuffing, and your end product holds its shape rather than falling all over your plate after serving.  If for any reason you can’t commit to cooking your stuffing immediately after adding the eggs, leave them out of it.  For example, if you prepare ahead, transport to another site for cooking, leave them out completely or wait until you arrive to whip and add them.  And if you chronically undercook your bird, leaving the stuffing at best luke warm, no eggs.  Better yet, no turkey!  Cook that bird!

After adding the eggs, or deciding not to, check for over-all moisture.  If it cooks in the bird, there will be plenty of liquid soaked into the stuffing by the time the bird cooks.  The butter and moisture in the fruits and veggies will be plenty.  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 have likely given up on managing the concoction with even the sturdiest spoon and have dug in with your (clean) hands to mix evenly and distribute.  As a bonus for this practice, once the mixing pan/roaster/bowl is emptied out and before you cover your stuffing for cooking, you get to lick those hands clean.  Well, unless you’re paranoid about salmonella in the eggs you used, of course.  But, hey, nummy!

Cooking temperature is 325F, with or without bird.  Slow but dependable.  Turkey gets tender; stuffing doesn’t dry out and burn if properly covered.  Stuffing alone takes around an hour.  In the bird, add time to the total for the extra weight.  Better, use a good thermometer.  If stuffing goes in a pan, cover with aluminum foil to keep in the moisture.  If you cook it in a small bird, I recommend the paper bag method: use a standard 9×13 cake pan, set stuffed turkey inside, carefully insert all inside a paper grocery bag (clean, of course), roll the opening closed, poke your thermometer through bag into the bird, and go.  The skin browns nicely this way, without letting too much moisture escape.  After cooking, the bag gets ripped off and discarded, preferably not where the dog can get into it.

Since I always make more stuffing than fits in the bird, I bunch the rest around the bird in the same pan to soak up the drippings.  This is the absolute best tasting stuffing in the world!  And no, I don’t do gravy.  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 proportions further yet, and cooked the stuffing in muffin pans, two different sizes.  Smaller muffins got paper liners, but there weren’t any I could find for the large muffin pan, so we made do with nonstick spray.  The smaller ones got about 25 minutes, larger 30 to cook.  The point was to avoid not just the hassle of cooking on the day, but the mess of extra dishes and leftovers to bring home, since Thanksgiving is always hosted by my daughter.  We’ll just take a bunch of each size out of the freezer, thaw on the trip down, and have them heated in the microwave before serving.  If you are wondering, we started with over 4 lbs. of bread, 3 large onions, etc., etc., and topped it off with 8 eggs.  I’ve already sampled one–okay, I ate the whole thing–and it worked like a charm.

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3 Responses to “Thoughts on Stuffing a Turkey”

  1. November 26th, 2009 at 9:05 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    When I do cook, I follow the “That Depends” model much closer than the actual recipe. It’s why I am often the only person that eats my “ingredient” (as opposed to “mix”) creations.

    I am not ever going to attempt this, but it sounds so delicious I really want to have it someday.

  2. November 26th, 2009 at 9:47 am

    Heather says:

    Mike, if there are “muffin” leftovers, I’ll ask Steph to freeze and send one your way.

  3. December 1st, 2009 at 12:56 am

    Greg Laden says:

    I would like to point out that all this blogospheric talk about turkeys and related items will continue to apply to holiday cooking for the next month.

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