Raise your game: stuffing
Questions and answers about the best bit of the Thanksgiving - and Christmas - meal.
“I would give up the sprouts, the chestnuts, even the little sausages and bacon of the extended family roast rather than go without generous amounts of stuffing.”
I’m with Nige 100%. In fact I can’t see why we don’t have stuffing more often. If we have Yorkshire pudding with each and every roast these days why do we not have stuffing too? It’s also the perfect solution for these hard times - as it was in the past.
“Having enough meat to stuff anything into let alone make stuffing of was a rare thing for much of the population for much of the past” writes Annie Gray in At Christmas We Feast: Festive food throughout the ages. “Even at Christmas when meat was the aspiration, for most families stuffing was the thing used to eke out the rabbit, mutton or brisket and recipes were basic using oats, breadcrumbs and suet as the base flavoured with cheap spice and herbs”
The people who have most of the answers are our friends over the pond who take the whole subject much more seriously than we do, Thanksgiving being a bigger holiday in the US than Christmas.
I stumbled across a great YouTube video by Eric Kim of the New York Times where he runs 20 different stuffing recipes through their paces
The best recipes are here though you will have to sign up to the New York Times to access them if you don’t have a subscription. It doesn’t cost a lot to subscribe and the New York Times food pages are excellent.
Having made the same recipe, a smooth pork and chestnut stuffing crammed into the neck of the turkey, for years I learnt a lot so hopefully this will help you raise your stuffing game too.
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Stuffing Q & A
Inside or outside the bird (or the joint)
Inside results in more flavour both for the bird and the stuffing though there’s a danger that neither will cook through or that your turkey gets overdone to accommodate it. You certainly won’t have the gorgeous crisp edges you get from cooking it separately though it will be easier to slice.
The downside of cooking it in a separate dish that is that your stuffing can dry out which you can overcome by spooning over some of the roasting juices or pouring stock over them as Ina Garten does here. (Other recipes use milk or cream which is possibly overdoing it and obviously a no-no for vegans.)
Personally I like a bit of both - some in the neck of the turkey (my stuffing is similar to this Delia recipe) plus another alongside. That, it turns out, is known as a ‘dressing’ especially in the southern states and gives you a lot more scope for creativity
A bake or balls?
So you can cook stuffing in a tin or a dish like a traybake but you can also form them into meatballs, rolls or even muffins as Ottolenghi does here. Genius idea.
Nigel who is surely The King of Stuffing, if that’s not too offensive a description, offers a recipe for stuffing balls with minced turkey, lardo and fennel (above) and serves them in a sweet sticky cranberry and orange sauce or these plainer but attractively rough-edged sausage, chestnut and cranberry ones he posted recently (scroll down this feature to get the recipe).
Nigella cuts her panettone stuffing into squares which she serves as a canapé. (Not so sure about that one. More ‘cos of the panettone than the squares which is an ingenious thought.)
I also love Jamie Oliver’s idea of baking stuffing in a pudding bowl
What kind of bread?
For a traditional sausage and chestnut stuffing I like a classic white tin loaf which is easy to blitz into crumbs but sourdough is the bread of choice for those chunkier stuffings/dressings. Or ciabatta - here with rosemary - for a lighter effect
Cornbread is popular in American stuffings witness this delicious sounding chorizo, kale and cheddar stuffing from Nik Sharma. Nigella uses gingerbread which would work really well with pork or ham though again it might be a touch sweet. Any of you tried it?
Oh and a general tip: your bread shouldn’t be too fresh or it won’t soak up enough of the pan juices or liquid that has been added. I’d say 2 days old or dried out in a low 150C/Gas 2 oven. Not stale as in, er, stale …
Chunks or crumbs?
Obviously it depends if it’s a smooth or a chunky stuffing. Crumbs (fresh, rather than dried I suggest) if you want a smooth, sliceable stuffing. Chunks for a rougher one
Which begs the question should your bread be torn or cut into cubes?
Up to you but tearing is more satisfying and gives you more rough edges to crisp. Nigel again. “I like my stuffings rough-edged, generously seasoned and deeply savoury”. Ditto.
Stuffings are mainly about bread but potato is good especially for goose. Simon Hopkinson has the best recipe or there’s a simpler version here. (The rest of the menu which includes some irresistible little roquefort pastries to make while you’re grappling with your goose is amazing too.)
Sweet potato has become increasingly popular (Nigel, again) while many American cooks go for wild rice. I can’t really see that going down particularly well in Surbiton.
Meat, fish or veggie
While most stuffings are based on pork it actually makes more sense to make them meat-free (and cook them outside the bird) so you have an instant main course for the veggies and vegans in the party.
Alison Roman’s delicious-sounding buttered stuffing with celery and leeks would be fine for the former so long as they weren’t celery loathers
while Chantelle Nicholson’s caramelised onion, pear and chestnut stuffing would be great for vegans. As would Ben Tish’s sourdough stuffing balls with wild rice, dates and almonds if you made them with a plant-based milk. (Yup, I know that contradicts what I just said about wild rice. There are always exceptions.)
And I don’t think I’m going to attempt one but some American stuffings/dressings are based on oysters like this oyster stuffing with bacon-scallion cream. Depends on a good supply of cheap, fresh oysters which isn’t the situation here. Sound delicious though.
What else should go in it? Fruit, nuts, booze?
Diana Henry goes for all three in her pork with brandy, prune and pecan stuffing (Nuts are almost essential in a vegan stuffing which is really nut roast by another name.)
Cranberries and sour cherries, which Sabrina Ghayour uses in her pork, sour cherry, pistachio and herb stuffing (behind a paywall in the Telegraph but you can join free for a month at the mo), give a welcome pop of colour and sourness. I love apples in a stuffing too.
Greens, especially cavolo nero, are also on trend in stuffings. Molly Baz uses a shedload of them in in her gratin
along with a whole lot of dill. Not really a stuffing in my book more like a separate meal but rather gorgeous.
Speaking of herbs - which I haven’t - sage, of course, is the classic stuffing herb as in probably the cheapest stuffing of all, sage and onion but rosemary runs it a close second.
Anyway I hope this inspires you to experiment. I’m still going to stuff the neck of the turkey - the family would be outraged if I didn’t but, embarking on a new Christmas tradition this year, make a stuffing I haven’t tried.
You do the same - maybe tomorrow for Thanksgiving - and let me know how you get on.
Tell me about your favourite stuffing!
By the way I’m starting my pre-Christmas coverage this Friday. I’ll still keep some posts, like this one, free but for the ones that will actually save you money you’ll need to take out a paid subscription which is honestly not that expensive. You’ll save the money on the wine recs alone! Watch out for a pre-Christmas (can’t bring myself to say B***k F****y) offer in the next couple of days. Or just sign up for a trial