Stuffing vs. Mashed

Mashed potatoes are great, really. But if I have to choose between Thanksgiving sides, it's all about the stuffing. A mountain of mashed is undoubtedly comforting, particularly as it nuzzles up against the turkey and other veggies on the holiday plate, but it's ordinary, no sparks.

Stuffing, on the other hand, screams Thanksgiving. Although nothing more than seasoned bread cubes that are reconstituted and baked, stuffing always feels festive. Perhaps it's the act of deconstructing a loaf of stale bread into puny dried cubes and transforming it into a baked bread salad, if you will, flavored according to mood and whimsy.

What's more, the creative possibilities are endless. Other than monitoring the bread-liquid ratio (should be 2-to-1 in most cases) to minimize the "goop" factor, there are no rules to making stuffing.

I always like to start with some sautéed onion, garlic and celery and build from there, depending upon my mood. I toss the bread cubes with the cooked aromatics and I add a hearty helping of chopped fresh herbs.

Meanwhile, I've got a bit of stock on the fire, at a simmer, and I'll ladle it over the cubes, gradually, allowing the liquid to be absorbed. I may add a splash of white wine for kicks. I add liquid until I'm satisfied with moisture quotient of the cubes and I taste for salt and pepper. Then I pour the mixture into a buttered casserole dish and bake for about 20 or so minutes until thoroughly warmed and a little crusty on top. And no, I don't add egg to my stuffing. It's not necessary.

If I want to make stuffing in advance, I hold off on the baking and simply allow the stuffing to cool, then keep chilled in fridge until dinner time.

Below is a flavor palette to help you get started as you build your very own stuffing. If I've overlooked one of your favorite fixings, by all means, share in the comments area below. And please, weigh in with those tried-and-true stuffing strategies!

Stuffing Fixins Bar
Bread: Cornbread, whole wheat, country white. Allow it to stale or dry it in oven for better absorption of liquid. Soft bread like Wonder white or dinner rolls do not yield a toothy stuffing.

Liquid: Stock, juice, wine, vinegar, milk, cream

Veg: Onion, shallot, garlic, celery, bell pepper, mushrooms, spinach, kale, collard greens

Herbs: Parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme

Nuts: Chestnuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans

Dried fruit: Raisins, cherries, cranberries, figs, dates, prunes

Fresh fruit: Apples, cranberries

Meat: Bacon, sausage, ham

Seafood: Shrimp, oysters

Talk stuffing and all the sides for one last time before Thanksgiving, today at noon ET.

By Kim ODonnel |  November 21, 2006; 10:42 AM ET Thanksgiving
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For me, it's called "dressing," not stuffing, and it's made with cornbread, a couple of biscuits to lighten it, chicken broth, sauteed onions, celery, and fresh sage. A good bit of pepper. And that's it! But you're right--it's the most Thanksgiving-y dish at the table. Just gotta have it.

Posted by: Dressing, please! | November 21, 2006 12:02 PM

I put apples and chestnuts in my stuffing and cook it outside the bird. But who says it has to be stuffing OR mashed potatoes? Thanksgiving is all about abundance, and it only comes once a year!

Posted by: Michael's mom | November 21, 2006 12:06 PM

How do you best "stale" the bread naturally?

Posted by: md | November 21, 2006 12:23 PM

I like your simple, flexible approach to dressing, but have one question. Is the two-to-one ratio of bread to liquid by volume or weight?

Posted by: anniespet | November 21, 2006 12:42 PM

"Herbs: Parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme"


I can't look at stuffing recipes without getting Scarborough Fair in my head!

I tend to cook all my fruits and vegetables (celery, onion, dried cherries/cranberries/raisins) together in the chicken stock with the above herbs. I deliberately use too much broth so that I have some left over to make gravy with. Then, once I've added the cooked stuff to the bread, I add two raw, diced Granny Smith apples before baking. The apples stay just a little crisp, which I love.

I heard that the Victorians came up with "dressing" because they found "stuffing" too provocative. Though in my opinion, if you get excited from stuffing your bird, you have bigger problems than nomenclature...

Posted by: Aimily | November 21, 2006 1:01 PM

My family adds grated carrots (and apples), and I do use an egg or two.

Posted by: lois | November 21, 2006 1:03 PM

have both and enjoy

Posted by: Anonymous | November 21, 2006 1:46 PM

Why does it have to be either? In our house it's always both - mashed potatoes and stuffing.

Posted by: amwhite | November 21, 2006 1:46 PM

I was under the impression that stuffing is the dish that is cooked in the turkey, and dressing is the one that you cook outside the turkey. So it is all about how you want to cook it.

Posted by: Stuffing or Dressing | November 21, 2006 2:04 PM

My mom's family figured out how to settle the mashed potatoes vs. stuffing debate - they make mashed potato stuffing. Basically, boil a bunch of potatoes then smash them, but instead of butter and milk, add turkey stock, plus seasoned bread crumbs with sauteed garlic, celery, onions, and mushrooms, and some herbs. It's the best of both worlds, just put a ladle of mom's gravy on it and enjoy!

Posted by: Dee | November 21, 2006 2:21 PM

No one in my family really loves stuffing or sweet mashed sweet potatoes, so this year we're going with sweet potatoes mashed with butter, a little cumin, and about a tablespoon of chopped chipotle in adobo. This is a recipe everyone likes, and goes well with the corn muffins that will stand in for stuffing.

Posted by: baltimore | November 21, 2006 2:31 PM

Well, I must admit that I use the stuffing bread that I get at my local Giant. It has the seasonings already that my family likes. I crumble it and then add onion, celery, raisins, apples, butter, etc. Yummy.

Posted by: peapod | November 21, 2006 2:47 PM

Can I use croutons instead of bread cubes to make stuffing? I have several boxes in the pantry, I'd hate to use fresh bread if those will work!

Posted by: novice | November 21, 2006 2:50 PM

One of our Turkey Day side dishes was always -- ALWAYS -- sauerkraut. My grandmother was German so we had sauerkraut with the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy. She always cooked her string beans with bacon and onions. Try it sometime -- delicious.

One of my favorite comfort dishes is chicken baked with Stove-top dressing and mushroom soup poured over top. I know it's not 'gourmet' and food snobs will turn up their noses, but after a hard day and long commute, it's quick to prepare in one dish. Relax with a glass of chardonnay while it bakes. Makes the whole house smell like Thanksgiving.

Kim: Winter is coming -- how about a collection of favorite comfort foods to get us through the snow and bitter winds?

Posted by: Southern Maryland | November 21, 2006 3:12 PM

I don't choose between stuffing and mashed potatoes, I have both. Mom's cooking it, so I have no clue how she makes her stuffing, but it's quite tasty.

Posted by: Glen | November 21, 2006 4:04 PM

I love reading all the variations of stuffing, but this year, my soon to be 19 year old daughter has announced that she and her boyfriend will be making the turkey dinner. She has been learning to cook all this past year. Recipes come out tasting good, but she still can't accept that not everything needs a roaring flame under it. After she is done with the kitchen I come in and hose the walls down.
She also doesn't understand that it doesn't take ten pots to make pasta. I willkeep you posted as to how this meal comes out. After I'm done shoveling the kitchen out.

Posted by: Lucie | November 21, 2006 4:30 PM

I LOVE stuffing, and my recipe is pretty similar to Kim's. I tend to use both a crusty white bread and cornbread with homemade turkey stock. Tonight I need to make the cornbread so it can be just right for the stuffing on Thursday. In my family growing up though we had rice instead of mashed potatoes - mostly my preference (being the most stubborn of the four kids) but also I think because we're from the South where rice is more of a staple. And as much as I love stuffing, Thanksgiving will not be the same this year without rice (going to a friend's).

Posted by: Mary | November 21, 2006 6:42 PM

If you find mashed potatoes a little boring compared to your stuffing/dressing, then put as much creativity into the potatoes as you do the stuffing. Mash in a bit of cooked turnip, fresh chives, cream, garlic, mushrooms (fold them in), or other ingredients that go with the Thanksgiving theme. Even Idaho spuds can be exciting if you get creative.
As for the sweet family's recipe with brown sugar and pecans has always seemed at odds with the main course to me. I make tzimmes instead, the Jewish recipe that combines carrots and apples with the sweet potatoes. (Tzimmes goes particular well with fruit glazed pork loin...go figure.) Save the brown sugar recipes for the sweet potato pie.
Mmmm....I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.

Posted by: Christina | November 21, 2006 8:10 PM

Mashed, definitely. Yukon golds, boiled with a few smashed garlic cloves. (Make sure to salt the water adequately.) A few tablespoons of butter, and you can even get away with skim milk.

Posted by: Reine de Saba | November 24, 2006 6:09 PM

Stuffing vs. potatoes?? P-shaw! Both are delicious and essential to the Thanksgiving table. In my family the potatoes were always the vessel to hold the gravy, which is probably second in importance only to the turkey on my family's Thanksgiving table growing up. (For her gravy, my mother always saved the water used to cook vegetables and the potatoes so we always had gallons of gravy leftover!) The most my mom ever did for her mashed potatoes was add onion powder, cheddar or American cheese, and milk. Very simple. Her stuffing was/is from storebought bread crumbs that she dresses up with onions and celery sauteed in margarine (Egads!). As it was always cooked inside the bird, it was moist and flavorful. In fact, I love my mom's Thanksgiving dinner so much that it would be my last meal request should I ever be in such a situation!

Now that I've done a few Thanksgivings myself, I've settled on a "dressing" made with herb cornbread--which my mom raves about--carrots, oinion, celery, fennel, turkey bacon, and chestnuts. I also add an egg or two, to this savory cornbread pudding. I also make my yukon gold mashers with celery root, parsnips, roasted garlic, buttermilk, half and half infused with fresh thyme, and roasted scallions. These dishes are familiar enough to my family but a bit more contemporary and just as satisfying as my Mom's family classics, if I do say so myself.

Posted by: Sean | November 27, 2006 11:02 AM

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