Let’s just get it out in the open: Turkey-shmurky -- stuffing is the thing we are really looking forward to this Thursday.
The mere mention of it gets people seven kinds of excited – from what goes in it (savory or semi-sweet? Sausage or oysters? Sour dough or corn bread?) to what it goes in (that is to say, the bird or a casserole dish—your gullet is a given), the combination of some kind of bread with myriad other seasonings and salivation-worthy sundries has gotten people gobble-day giddy for… well, how long has it been around?
“Some form of stuffing pounded, mixed up, seasoned, and crammed into things has been around practically as long as there been any form of a civilized eating,” laughs Sandy Oliver, a Maine-based food historian and writer and co-author of Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin (Clarkson Potter, 1989).
“I think there are certain universal impulses. And stuffing is one. Humankind sees something hollow and wants to put something inside it.”
Did the pilgrims actually eat stuffing? Probably. And you’d do well to think of the ingredients for your star of the savory side dishes the same way. Sure, we have a world of options at our fingertips, but some of the bits and bites those revolutionary settlers foraged for are still the same kinds of things many of use today.
“The people we call pilgrims who settled in New England inaugurated this autumn festival that evolved into what we all know as Thanksgiving. That first year they had a fairly limited array of foods to works with; we don’t even know that they necessarily ate turkey—it could have been venison or wild water fowl, like duck.”
But bread to break? That was most certainly on the menu.
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“They had bread or at least wheat to break up and use as stuffing. They also probably had a fair number of leeks, and probably parsley,” says Oliver. “Stuffing also often included bits and pieces of other parts of the animal, like offal -- or really anything they had a savory aspect to enliven the bread crumbs.”
But how do you make a really great stuffing?
For that holy grail of Thanksgiving wisdom, we checked in with venerable James Beard award-winning New York chef Alfred Portale, who has been cooking up a Thanksgiving feast at Gotham Bar and Grill in the Flatiron District for a quarter of a century.
“The bread is mainly the variable, depending on what kind you use and how dry it is. Corn bread, for example, is little moister. I like to mix that with a sturdy, stale white bread. The seasoning can be as simple as salt and pepper, and fresh thyme and sage are always great. I like a lot of chopped up parsley, too. With seasonings, I think simple is better.”
What’s really important, though, Portale says, is how much stock you add. “You need a lot of really rich turkey stock. I don’t think it can be too moist.”
True enough— a great stock can not only make a great stuffing, it’s also the key to that other Turkey Day staple, gravy. And it’s certainly not too late to whip some up—all it takes is 5 to 7 pounds of turkey parts (most grocery stores have wings and necks in the meat department now), a few quarts of water, the holy trio of carrots, celery, and onion, and a little salt and pepper simmered for a couple of hours, and voila.
But of course, if you don’t have the time between now and Thursday, a good store-bought stock will do just fine.
“Keep ladling it in until it has the consistency of bread soup -- that’s how loose I do it. Then it slowly bakes and the stock reduces and it becomes like a creamy bread pudding –it’s unbelievable!”
To up the ante for his customers at Gotham, Portale also tosses in dried sour cherries that he plumps in warm liquid (sultan raisins are great too, he offers) and house-made duck confit, but he also says sausage is a great addition, too. As to the annual conundrum of whether to stuff or not to stuff, a quick consultation with the United States Department of Agriculture holds the answer.
For safety, the agency recommends only doing it just before popping the bird in the oven to avoid possible bacterial contamination that could happen if you stuff the bird the night before. Also, stuff loosely into the cavity; don’t pack it in. If you do, it’s more difficult for your stuffing to reach a safe USDA-recommended temperature of 165 degrees F. If you stuff your bird, you also must factor in about an extra 45 minutes to an hour of cooking time.
“As a general rule, you don’t want to put raw meat or oysters in a stuffing,” advises Portale. “If we’re talking about oysters, or sweet breads, hearts, or livers, make sure you cook them first and then chill them before mixing them into your stuffing.”
Whatever you do call it, Portale recommends making enough to stuff, and enough to bake covered in a ceramic dish – just be sure to uncover it for the last 15 minutes or so, he says, to get a nice, crispy crust on top. And definitely make sure you’ve got enough for leftovers. But wait, there’s still the business of semantics; a topic that Oliver easily puts to rest.
“Of course, there’s the stuffing/dressing business. Stuffing is the word used for when you cram it into roasted meat. If you take the same set of ingredients and cook them in a dish on the side, then it becomes dressing.”
Which, of course, is largely dictated by where you grew up. And no matter how hard we might try to bust out of and break out of old habits, some traditions are well worth holding onto.
“The stuffing [I make] is sort of a take or play on what I grew up eating in a big family for our Thanksgiving dinners. I like to sort of respect tradition, and repeat things that I’ve done in the past and that I grew up doing—the things that remind me of Thanksgiving as a child,” says Portale. “That drives the menu to a great extent.”