Cornbread dressing is a classic southern side dish for any holiday feast, but especially Thanksgiving and Christmas. Whether its an old-fashioned recipe handed down from your grandmother, or a more modern version, it’s very popular, and for good reason.
Because it’s so popular, there are different versions favoured across the south, and even more when you go further afield. As a result, there are hundreds of recipes out there, making it tough to pick one.
To help make sense of it all, I’ve gone through twenty recipes for cornbread dressing. I’ve figured out what’s popular, and what’s not, so that you can choose the best approach, or the right recipe, for your tastes.
But before we look at the recipes, we need to clear a little something up.
Is it called stuffing, or dressing?
If you’ve spent any time looking for recipes for dressing, or for stuffing, you’ll find that the two terms are used interchangeably by some people, have very distinct meanings for others, and leave some others a bit confused.
I go into this in more detail in my review of traditional oven-baked stuffing, but there are two major viewpoints to consider.
Arguably the most relevant view for this dish belongs to people from the south of the US. Cornbread dressing (and cornbread itself) is traditional southern fare. And to most southerners the distinction is clear – stuffing is what you put inside the turkey or chicken, and dressing is what you call it when you cook it separately. This makes sense and is easy to remember.
The other view is more of an evolution of the dish itself, and is more prevalent outside the southern US. It may not be stuffed inside the bird any more, but it’s still the same dish, with the same ingredients, so it’s still called stuffing. This makes sense too, and it’s easy to understand how it came about.
So what’s it all mean? One thing for certain – if someone calls it dressing, they definitely mean a separate dish. And if they call it stuffing, you still known what you’re going to get, but you probably can’t be sure whether it’s being cooked in the oven, or in the turkey. And if you’re making it, call it what you like. You know what you mean!
What is cornbread dressing?
Cornbread dressing is made from crumbled cornbread, eggs, onion, celery, and stock/broth, baked in the oven and served with roast turkey or other meats. It’s a very traditional southern side dish, with recipes passed down through many families for generations. The “old-fashioned” versions are typically simpler than the more modern versions, but both are very popular and very similar.
It’s also remarkably similar to traditional bread stuffing or dressing, which I’ll highlight as we go through the ingredients. Because it’s made from cornbread it has a different texture, and a different taste, but you can’t miss the similarity to traditional stuffing when you eat it either.
What goes into it?
There’s obviously some variation amongst the recipes, but there are a number of consistent ingredients:
- Normal bread
- Onions and celery
- Stock or broth
While a number of authors and their readers proclaim hard and fast “southern rules”, several of them are contradicted by someone else’s southern rules. So it’s clear the south ain’t the south. Like the regions of Italy, cross an invisible line and regional dishes change, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. Some of the contested “rules” for cornbread stuffing included:
- The inclusion of eggs.
- Cooking your onions and celery before adding them to the mix.
- Sweet or savoury cornbread.
I’ll touch on each of these as we come to them.
If you’re a southerner, or just a cornbread fan, you probably already have a favourite recipe for homemade cornbread that you’ll use in your dressing. But if you’re not so sure, the authors of these recipes offer a few tips and recommendations when it comes to what cornbread to use.
The preference is overwhelmingly for homemade cornbread, with many authors offering recipes to make your own. Some use box mixes, and others scratch-make it.
Cornbread comes in a couple of distinct styles – sweet, and savoury. Both types appear amongst these recipes, but if you’re going for a more authentic, traditional southern dressing, Michelle from The Gracious Wife explains it really well:
“Good southern cornbread means a salty savory cornbread. Not sweet. Closer to sandwich bread in it’s flavor than to the boxed mix cornbread. Plus, slightly crispy edges are a must to give it a little extra color and flavor.”
It’s also apparent from several comments and provided recipes that a good southern cornbread should be made with buttermilk, not plain milk.
If you’re making a bread stuffing or dressing, most recipes recommend drying or staling your bread first. With cornbread dressing, most of the authors seem to agree that you don’t need to stale your cornbread. A couple of authors like to make their cornbread the day before though.
Fourteen of the recipes include some type of flour-based baked good, presumably for texture. The types vary considerably too:
- Six recipes use chopped or torn bread.
- Two use breadcrumbs, and two more use off-the-shelf herb stuffing premix, which includes breadcrumbs.
- Three use American biscuits. If you’re not familiar with biscuits, they’re quite similar to a scone, but more savoury, and have a flakier texture.
- Rosie from I Heart Recipes uses crackers (Ritz or Saltines).
Most of these authors recommend letting your bread go stale for a day or two, or drying it out in the oven.
The other six recipes don’t include bread, instead making their dressing only with cornbread, so you have several options if you want your dressing without bread. Be aware however that even these six either use flour in their cornbread, or they use store-bought cornbread mix which typically includes flour as well as cornmeal.
Cornbread dressing without flour
If you’re looking to exclude flour , your best bet is to choose one of the six recipes that doesn’t add bread to the dressing, and find a recipe for cornbread without flour. I did this using this flourless cornbread recipe and Anne from My Kitchen Serenity’s dressing recipe, and the result was excellent. The photos above show the cornbread and the dressing I made this way.
One of the most significant differences between the southern approach to dressing (or stuffing) and a more traditional stuffing is the inclusion of eggs in the mixture.
In my review of traditional oven-baked stuffing eleven of the twenty recipes included eggs, and a number of (presumably non-southern) readers questioned the inclusion of eggs.
Of these twenty recipes for cornbread dressing, sixteen include eggs in the mixture. A seventeenth, published by Sherry on All Recipes, doesn’t use raw eggs, but instead hard-boiled eggs chopped into the mix.
The number of eggs used varies from one to five, and although some of this is due to differing batch sizes, much of the variation is due to the authors preference for the texture of their dressing. The recipes with more eggs will have a more pudding-like texture, so you can choose a recipe based on your own preference.
No eggs, thanks
If you don’t like the eggy texture, the three recipes without eggs are listed separately at the bottom of the page.
If you can’t eat eggs, be aware that most cornbread has eggs in it, so you’ll want to find an egg-free cornbread recipe.
Good dressing (and stuffing) should be nice and rich. The most popular way to achieve this is with added fats in the form of butter or olive oil, which appear in eighteen of the recipes. Butter is overwhelmingly preferred, with only two of these instead choosing olive oil.
Onions and celery
These ubiquitous aromatic vegetables are found in almost every recipe here, with all twenty including onions and only one excluding celery. Interestingly the recipes I reviewed for traditional oven-baked stuffing were exactly the same in this regard, with only one excluding celery.
It’s easy to understand why. They are the foundational ingredients in so many dishes, adding a savoury flavour and an enticing aroma that’s hard to replicate with anything else.
Apart from variation in quantities, the only area of disagreement here is in how to prepare your onion and celery. Most authors advise you to sauté them before adding them to the dressing mixture, but not all, and a number of readers agree you shouldn’t either. This one will come down to personal preference for both taste and texture because either way will work. Sautéing them will soften the vegies, giving them a less noticeable texture. Putting them in raw will leave them crunchier, and the flavours of the onions and celery will be more apparent. If you’re looking to try something new, one reader puts her onions and celery in the slow cooker overnight before she makes her dressing, so they’re caramelised before they go in!
Since dressing is a savoury dish you might expect garlic to be a popular inclusion, but it’s not really. Only five authors use garlic, which again was the same as I found in with traditional stuffing.
Green Bell Pepper/Capsicum
Being a southern dish I though bell peppers might feature more prominently, but that’s not what I found. Only two recipes include chopped bell peppers/capsicum, although a couple of other authors mentioned them as a suggested addition. If you want to try green peppers in your dressing, check out Coop’s recipe on Cook Can Cook, or Stinkerbelle’s on South Louisiana Cuisine.
All twenty recipes use some form of stock or broth, with the overwhelming favourite being chicken stock. Turkey broth also makes an appearance, with four authors offering it as an option instead of chicken stock, and one including both.
Every recipe lists a specific amount of stock or broth in their ingredient list, but many authors advise caution when adding it so as not to make your dressing mix too sloppy or soupy. Most advise aiming for a mixture that is moist but not wet.
Many things can influence how much stock your dressing mix needs – how finely you crumbled your cornbread, how roughly you tore your bread, how finely you chopped you vegetables, and so on. When I made it, I found that I needed just slightly less than the amount of stock Anne recommended. The best approach is to add a good amount, mix it through, check for consistency, add a bit more, check again, and so on. Jennifer from Plowing through Life sums it up well:
“The quality of dressing is really made by judgment calls at each step of the preparation process. If there’s too much liquid, add more bread, if it’s too dry, add more chicken broth.”
It’s also worth noting that the recipes without added bread/baked goods tend to use less stock.
This was one area where cornbread dressing was quite different from bread-based dressing or stuffing. I found many more seasoning choices and options in the recipes I reviewed for bread stuffing. There were several consistent choices here though.
Eighteen of the authors use one or more herbs, and two in particular were the most popular:
- Fourteen use sage, either fresh, dried or rubbed.
- Ten use store-bought poultry seasoning, which typically includes a mix of herbs and spices including sage, thyme, rosemary and nutmeg.
Three recipes each use thyme and parsley. Both of these herbs were significantly more popular in bread stuffing.
Chicken was not only popular as a stock or broth. Ten of the recipes include chicken as either cream of chicken soup, or cooked chicken meat.
The soup is easily the more popular, used by eight authors. And one of these adds chopped cooked chicken breasts as well. I’ve listed the recipes that use cream of chicken soup separately at the end if you’re interested in trying one.
Adding chicken meat elevates dressing a bit beyond side dish to more of a main. It would certainly be a delicious meal this way.
Cooking cornbread dressing
All twenty recipes are for oven-baked dressing and they all follow a very similar method:
- Make your cornbread.
- Sauté your vegies if that’s your preference.
- Combine your crumbled cornbread with the other ingredients.
- Pour it into a baking dish and pop it in the oven until cooked through and brown on top.
As you can see, cornbread dressing is pretty quick and easy to make. Just what you want for a side dish in a big meal.
Much like making bread stuffing, the most popular oven temperature for cornbread dressing is 350°F/175°C, with only a few authors baking theirs a little hotter, and just one a little cooler.
The amount of time your dressing needs in the oven will vary a bit with your oven and the temperature you choose, but most authors suggest it’ll take somewhere between thirty and forty-five minutes. This should be enough time to thoroughly cook the mixture and give the top a nice brown finish as well. It’s also important not to over-cook it because this will dry it out.
If you find your dressing is browning a bit too quickly, you can cover it loosely with foil to slow this down. A couple of authors actually start their dressing covered with foil and then remove the foil towards the end for the same reason.
Once it’s done, there’s no need to rest it, just serve it up.
Making cornbread dressing in advance
A number of authors offer advice on how to prepare your dressing in advance. The good news is you have a couple of options:
- Make the mixture up one to two days in advance and store it in the fridge, tightly covered. Don’t forget to allow a little more time in the oven because it’s cold going in.
- Make the mixture up further in advance and freeze it (for several months if you need). Then thaw it fully in the fridge for a day or two before baking it.
The essence of traditional southern cornbread dressing
If you’re looking to include cornbread dressing or stuffing as a side dish this festive season, you won’t go far wrong with the following approach:
- Make a batch of cornbread the day before your make your dressing.
- Crumble your cornbread and mix it with your other ingredients.
- The most popular other ingredients are bread, eggs, butter, onions, celery, chicken stock/broth and some sage.
- Bake it in a 350°F/175°C oven for thirty to forty-five minutes, until it’s just set in the middle and nicely brown on top.
And if you want a chicken-flavoured dressing, you can include a can of cream of chicken soup in the mixture.
So there you have it – the essence of southern cornbread dressing. Hopefully this has helped you choose a recipe, or an approach, that suits you the best.
And if you want to make more than just your sides quick and easy, check out my review of roast turkey breast.