Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and while it may be a holiday rooted in colonialism, conquest, and racist exploitation, that describes literally everything else about America too. Thanksgiving is also a holiday where the only point is to eat a big meal and be with people you love, or, failing that, your family. There’s no religious component, no endless rituals to observe, you just get together and eat until you feel sick. And in my opinion, that’s a hard holiday to dislike.
My personal favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal is definitely the stuffing1. It’s almost impossible to really screw up stuffing, so if the mashed potatoes are lumpy and the turkey is dry, you can still usually count on the stuffing. And even box stuffing is pretty damn good! But if you want to updog your Thanksgiving game, make your own stuffing. What follows is based on a stuffing recipe I wrote way back in 2002, but rest assured, stuffing hasn’t changed meaningfully since then.
So look, stuffing is essentially just three things:
- Dry bread
- Some veggies and herbs or whatever
You can make it entirely from scratch if you want. Or you can make some parts from scratch and use whatever you have around for the rest. Stuffing doesn’t care. Stuffing forgives you. Because it’s Thanksgiving, let’s go ahead and make it all from scratch.
First we need to make the stock. You can use chicken or turkey or some of both, whatever you have around. Homemade stock is dead easy, as long as you remember the “skimming off the crunge” step. This is also being called “bone broth” now and sold for ridiculous prices to credulous city dwellers, which if you are one now, you won’t be when we’re done.
- Collect up leftover bits from other chicken or turkey meals. We roast chickens pretty frequently, and I always freeze the remaining carcass and neck/giblet bits. You can also go to any butcher and ask if they’ve got chicken carcasses for cheap. Get a package of extra giblets and hearts and livers too, any of those gross bits you normally wouldn’t eat. They’ll give it color. Or you can use a brand new raw chicken! Literally whatever.
- Hack up your pile of chicken scraps into reasonable-sized chunks. Very little in this recipe depends on precision, honestly. Use your best judgement. If you have a big cleaver, this part is fun. Re-enact scenes from your favorite slasher movie!
- Throw them all in a pot large enough to comfortably hold them. Put it on medium-high heat, drizzle in some olive oil, and salt and pepper liberally. Fry them up for a while, till they brown. You can skip this step, if you don’t mind (or desire) a lighter-colored broth. Broth from raw parts will be somewhat more chicken-ey in flavor. I like mine dark and hearty, personally, so I fry.
- Fill the pot with enough water to cover the chicken bits by maybe four or five inches? Again, don’t measure, just put a bunch of water in. Some of the extra water will come out in the skimming.
- Let it come up to a boil. Meanwhile, look around for a large spoon, shallow ladle, something like that. Every kitchen has its own perfect skimming implement. You’ll probably want to experiment with a few. Also, get a decent sized bowl and put it as near to the pot as you can.
- As the pot comes up to a simmer, you’ll start to see stuff floating to the surface of your water. Some of it is like little brown bits, some of it might be yellowish and oily, eventually a lot of it will be a nasty-looking gray foam. Anything that doesn’t look like water is your enemy. Skim it away. Don’t be too finicky if you get a little of the good stock water along with it. It’s no big deal, you put in extra. Just skim off the surface of the pot and dump into your handy bowl repeatedly. This process will continue for probably 20 minutes, at least. Be ruthless! Anything that looks the least bit sketchy, get rid of it. This is not the time to split hairs. The better you do here, the better your stock will be.
- After a while, you’ll run out of stuff to skim off. Stir the chicken parts around a few times and make sure there isn’t still gray foam trapped amongst them. If you’re sure you’re done skimming, take the heat back down to an active simmer.
- For a basic chicken stock, you’re just about done now. Taste it. It’ll probably need salt. Chicken stock is salty, so don’t be shy with it. Just salt, stir and taste till it tastes right. Saltless stock is, IMO, gross. If that’s all you want, cover and let it simmer for a good while. At least an hour or two, or however long you have other stuff to do. It’ll make your house smell fantastic.
- If you want to get fancy (I usually do, I’m a fancy lad), this is where you can add seasoning and veggies. I like celery, onion, carrots, and fresh parsley. I also usually throw in a bay leaf and some pepper or whole peppercorns. Chop veggies directly into the pot, and reminisce about all those Looney Tunes cartoons where cannibals tried to boil Bugs Bunny. Don’t cut your thumb off while doing this, although it probably wouldn’t ruin the stock if you did. Taste often. It’s yummy. As above, cover and simmer for a while.
- I sometimes also remove the cover and simmer uncovered for another half hour when I think it’s almost done. This tends to boil off some of the water and concentrate the stock. You can do as much or as little of this as you like, depending on what you’re going for.
- It’s done when it’s the color you want it to be, and tastes good. Take it off the heat, strain out all the stuff, and leave the liquid in a large bowl or container of some kind. Cover it and get it into the fridge. Ideally wait at least overnight, disturbing as little as you can.
- The next day, when it’s cooled down thoroughly, your container will have a layer of congealed fat that’s floated to the top and solidified. Scrape this right off. They make special kettle-type things for this step, but you don’t really need one. Just get rid of the remaining fat. This is important. Your stock will be greasy if you don’t do this. If you have to use it right away, it’ll be FINE, especially in stuffing where the bread is going to soak up the extra grease anyway. But for soup or whatever, you’ll want to chill and degrease it first.
- You’re done! You’ve got lovely homemade chicken stock that will taste fantastic in your stuffing, or anything else that calls for chicken stock or bouillon. I like to freeze it at this point a couple cups at a time in ziplock bags, for extra-easy use later on.
So that was step one. Good stuffing requires good stock. But it also requires good bread! Hey you know what, let’s make cornbread stuffing, with apples and sausage! It’ll be great. So now we have to make cornbread. What follows isn’t going to make Southerners or cornbread purists very happy, and if you have a favorite kind of cornbread, GREAT! Use that instead! Stuffing accepts all without question. Stuffing is catholic in the little-c sense. But this is a solid, basic cornbread that is easy and tastes good in stuffing. Ok! Away we go:
- Heat your oven to 400 degrees. If your oven is a sad half-working piece of crap from the 1940’s, heat it up to however hot it will get today, which in this case is 325 degrees. Curse it for the junkheap relic it truly is.2
- In a bowl, mix up 1 and 1/4 cups white flour, 1/4 cup corn meal, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. I usually add an extra pinch of salt. Incidentally, a pinch is about half a teaspoon.
- In a different bowl, beat one egg till it cries for its mama, then beat it some more. Froth is your friend. Add a cup of milk and 1/4 cup of vegetable oil and beat some more.
- Put a cast-iron pan on the stove and melt some butter in it. Get the pan relatively hot, but don’t let the butter burn too much.
- While your butter is melting, add the wet to the dry, and stir them together with a spoon as little as you possibly can. You can leave lumps of dry floury stuff, that’s ok. Just get it all hanging together. If you mix too much, your cornbread will be like a solid lump of granite. Don’t mix too much. Err on the side of mixing too little.
- Pour your batter in the cast-iron pan and spread it out to the edges.
- Stick the whole pan in the oven for 20 or 25 minutes.
When your cornbread is done, try not to eat it all before it cools down.
- When it’s cool enough to handle, cut it into crouton-sized cubes, spread them out on a flat pan, and put them in the oven, which you’ve left open and allowed to cool down a bit. You want your oven to be on, but not hot. Like 200 or 150 degrees or so. Leave the door open a little to let moisture escape. The point here is to dry your cornbread cubes completely.
- When the cubes are bone dry, take them out and put em in a ziplock.
But wait, it would be a bad idea to make stuffing with only cornbread! The cornbread adds a lot of flavor but you want it to be at most half of the bread, because it tends to get soggier than white bread. So you also need a white bread. You can use almost anything here too, as long as it’s relatively rustic and you dry it out good. But if you really want to brag about your stuffing, make white bread too! This no-knead peasant bread is incredibly easy and shockingly good. The recipe goes on and on, much like this one, but essentially it’s:
- In a bowl, stir 4 cups of flour, 2 tsp of salt, 2 cups of warm water, 2 tsp of sugar, and 2 tsp of dry yeast.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a towel or whatever, leave it for an hour or so, till it’s about doubled in size.
- Rub a stick of butter around the inside of a couple of pyrex bowls or loaf pans.
- Divide the dough into these pans, cover them lightly again and wait till it rises again.
- Bake them at 425 degrees for 22 minutes, then turn the oven down to 375 and bake for another 22 minutes.
- Take them out, get the loaves out of the pans as soon as you can, and let them cool and crisp up a bit on a rack. Ideally you should let them cool completely before you cut them, but I mean, for stuffing? Whatever.
- Just like the cornbread, cut it up into chunks and dry them in a warm oven.
- PS: This bread is amazing for all white bread purposes. It makes the best grilled cheese sandwiches I’ve ever had, by a wide margin, and it is impossible to screw up. Use it for everything.
Now it’s finally stuffing time! This is by far the easiest part, and if you didn’t make anything from scratch the whole thing will take you like 15 minutes.
- Cut up some apples into small chunks
- Fry some sweet Italian sausage (the loose, lumpy kind, not the links). Or don’t, if you don’t want sausage! Or use some other kind of sausage! It’s your party and stuffing is here for it. When the sausage is pretty much done, add some diced onions and chopped up garlic. If you don’t add sausage, just sweat some onions and garlic in butter instead and use that. Maybe some celery too, diced small. Look at a carrot but then be like “naah” and leave it in the fridge.
- In a great big bowl or pot, mix your white bread and corn bread croutons in roughly equal proportion, or just use however much of each you have.
- Add the apples, sausage and/or onions and garlic, and some more melted butter.
- Then slowly add chicken stock until it’s all moist enough to be stuffing-ey. Be careful with the stock. Add a little and stir, then add a little more. It’s easy to drown it at this stage. Also put in some salt and pepper, maybe a bit of fennel, some sage, parsley? Give it a taste. Smell all the random spices you have and add any that remind you of stuffing! The Swedish Chef is your spirit animal here. You probably won’t screw it up. Have fun! Stuffing is a “whatever you’ve got lying around” type of food.
That’s it, you made stuffing totally from scratch, like a goddamn pioneer or something. You are now objectively better than people who haven’t done this, but noblesse oblige and all, we can just know that among ourselves and not make a whole thing of it.
If you’re making a turkey, all responsible food scientists will tell you not to put stuffing in it. And to be fair, they are right. It’s not necessary, and cooking stuffing in the bird risks the stuffing absorbing undercooked turkey juices full of gross bacteria that will make you sick. So you shouldn’t do it.
HYPOTHETICALLY though, if we were to just do a thought experiment here, and imagine cooking the stuffing stuffed inside the turkey, I would imagine that the aromatics in the stuffing would improve your turkey’s flavor, and at the same time, the turkey juices would add an extra kick to the stuffing, improving both parts of this unholy union forged in campylobacter. I guess it all just comes down to your tolerance for risk, really. I can’t tell you how to live.
If you play it safe and don’t stuff your bird, at least put some stuffing in a casserole dish and bake it for a while to make the top a little crispy. The crunchy bits are the best. A few pats of butter on top before you bake it wouldn’t go amiss here.
Happy Thanksgiving! Tabs returns next week, with a new intern! Who will it be? I don’t know yet! Maybe you! I’m taking applications until the morning of Saturday the 28th, so read this and apply if you want. And then don’t look at the internet until Monday. It’ll still be terrible and amazing when we all get back.
Sometimes you’ll see this called “dressing” by people who think they’re living in Victorian England. Please don’t call it that. ↩
The oven I have now is fine, but I left this in because it made me nostalgic for the oven I had in 2002, which really was trash, and Thanksgiving is about nostalgia in a huge way. ↩