Stuffing is a classic side dish for Thanksgiving, Christmas or frankly any family feast. There are lots of delicious variations out there, but sometimes you just want traditional stuffing – bread, onion, celery, herbs and butter. A reader of one of the recipes I’ve reviewed puts it perfectly – “as much as I love the gourmet versions with loads of different add-ins, I will always have a soft spot for the classic“.
And because traditional stuffing truly is a classic, there are oodles of recipes out there for it. To help make sense of it all, I’ve gone through the first twenty recipes for homemade traditional stuffing that I found on Pinterest. But I’m not trying to decide which stuffing is the best. I’ll show you what’s consistent amongst them, what’s different and why. Hopefully that will help you to choose an approach, or a stuffing recipe, that suits you best.
I’ve been picky about the recipes I chose too. They all needed to be for a true traditional stuffing. Which means I picked recipes for stuffing without meat, including sausage. And for consistency’s sake, I’ve excluded cornbread stuffing recipes because I think they’re different enough in taste and texture to warrant a separate review.
I also only chose recipes that include directions for cooking stuffing stand-alone, not stuffed inside the turkey. This is a bit of a personal preference for me because it’s far too easy to overcook your turkey, especially your breast meat, in the effort to get your stuffing to a safe 165°F/75°C. I dig into this issue a lot more in my review of twenty popular roast turkey recipes. I also excluded crock-pot recipes, simply because I don’t have one.
Is it called stuffing? Or dressing? Or both?
One thing I discovered very quickly is that cooking your stuffing outside of your turkey leads us straight into a naming issue. Some people refer to the recipes that follow as stuffing. Others are insistent that it’s dressing, especially in the south of the US. And some use the two names interchangeably! So, are stuffing and dressing the same thing?
At the risk of attracting some ire, arguably the best explanation is that this dish should really only be called stuffing when it is in fact stuffed into a turkey (or a chicken, etc). If it’s cooked separately, it is better called dressing. Several authors, and some of their readers, agree this is the right approach. That said, Ashley from Sweetpea Lifestyle mentions a rumour that southern belles found the word “stuffing” a bit crass, so they started calling it dressing. If that’s true it has nothing to do with how it’s cooked at all!
Still, most of these authors, and many of their readers, call it stuffing, and like the recipes, that’s probably born of tradition too. Michelle from Now Cook This says she’s always called it stuffing, and dressing is what she puts on her salad. I’m with Michelle on this one (and why the specific term is dressing is no doubt lost to history).
Regardless of what you call it, and how you cook it, the base is the same – small pieces of bread, finely chopped onion and celery, butter and herbs. And if you’re cooking it separately, some stock.
What bread should you use?
Bread is the foundation of good stuffing. If you’re wondering what bread to use, there are quite a variety of recommendations across these recipes.
Regardless of the style of bread, the authors all appear to favour white bread. I say “appear to” because only five authors actually specify white bread, but based on the photos accompanying the recipes they all mean white bread. Two authors do recommend brown bread, but in combination with white bread.
What style of bread should you choose?
As for the style of bread that you should use, there’s a lot more variation. The most common styles mentioned are Italian bread and French bread, but these are by no means dominant, only mentioned in four and six recipes respectively. A few authors recommend sourdough. Tiffany from Creme de la Crumb prefers the slight tang it adds to the stuffing, but others however avoid it for this reason. After that, there are a few broader styles mentioned, like rustic, crusty or heavy, but only once or twice each. And two authors don’t specify any type, instead recommending you use any type you like, or have available.
The last two authors are somewhat on their own with their advice though, because most of the others either specify, or mention in their write-ups, that you want bread that is sturdier than your typical sandwich bread. This is to ensure that it stands up to the liquids in the dish. Jessica from Together as Family advises the stock will soak regular bread or rolls into mush. If that’s how you like your stuffing, then this’ll work great. If you like your stuffing firmer, then firmer bread that has been well dried is the way to go.
Several authors also offer the option of using other breads, like dried hotdog or hamburger buns. Based on their commentary though, it sounds like this is offered more as a point of convenience than as a suggestion for great stuffing. These same authors usually recommend much sturdier breads, like French, Italian or sourdough. These types of bread would obviously stand up to the moisture of the mix much more effectively.
Preparing your bread
The first step in preparing your bread is making it into cubes. This may seem straightforward, but there’s actually a real split on whether to cut or tear your bread apart. On Bon Appetit, Victoria recommends tearing up your bread to give your stuffing more texture than cut bread cubes. And more than one author enjoys sitting with a glass of wine the night before the meal and tearing up their bread. But many others advise cutting it up, some for convenience and some for consistency of cube size. This is obviously going to be a choice based on personal preference because these recipes are all well-reviewed, so either approach will work. I’d probably go with tearing, for texture, but that’s just me.
The next step, which is recommended in eighteen of the twenty recipes, is to proactively dry out your bread once it’s torn or cut up. And in fact a number of the authors point out that you don’t just want your bread a little dry, you want it properly stale.
Leaving your bread out, exposed to the air, is the most popular method of staling your bread. Across the nine recipes that recommend this approach, most recommend leaving it out overnight. A couple, however, have you leave your bread cubes out for two to three days before you make your stuffing. Seriously stale!
Almost as popular is the much faster process of drying the bread cubes in a low oven, although some authors note this is not their first preference. The time in the oven varies depending on the temperature.
And, just for good measure, a couple of the authors recommend doing both – oven bake your bread, then leave it out overnight. Again, seriously stale!
In spite of this, two recipes don’t dry or stale their bread. Michelle from Now Cook This says her family’s past generations have never done it, and they’ve never had mushy stuffing. And on her blog From House to Home, Wanda says that stale bread works just as well as fresh, so she’s not finding a difference either way.
Still, based on the weight of numbers here, it seems like you’re better off making sure your bread is nice and dry before it goes into your stuffing mix.
Aromatics – the key to great tasting stuffing
At the start of many different dishes, you cook a combination of vegetables and herbs in oil, or in this case butter. As they heat up, they release wonderful aromas, and form a flavour base for the dish. These ingredients are known as aromatics. The most well known are probably the Italian soffritto or French mirepoix of onion, carrot and celery.
What vegetables are popular?
Onion and celery are almost ubiquitous amongst these recipes, with onion appearing in all twenty, and celery only excluded in one.
And that’s essentially it for vegies. If you want your stuffing without onion, you’re out of luck here. Based on these recipes, it’s an essential ingredient in traditional stuffing. If you just can’t stand celery, or simply prefer your stuffing without celery, then the one stuffing recipe without celery is from Des at Oh So Delicioso. Hers is also different because she includes carrots and green bell pepper/capsicum in her stuffing (which happen to be the only other vegetables in all twenty recipes).
One thing that was consistent is that your vegetables should be in small pieces. Most authors finely chop them, but a few recommend grating your vegetables, either for ease or consistency.
What about herbs & spices?
It’s no surprise that the herbs that are popular in stuffing are also the ones that are popular for roasting your turkey. There are four consistent choices:
- Thyme is the most popular, used in fifteen recipes
- Next is sage, in thirteen recipes
- Not far behind is parsley, appearing in twelve recipes
- And rosemary appears in half of the recipes
And from these, eight of the recipes use all four herbs together. The ratios vary from recipe to recipe, giving each one a different flavour profile, but the foundations are very consistent.
The next most common inclusion is a store-bought poultry seasoning, which is used in seven recipes. Poultry seasoning is a blend of dried (and usually ground) herbs and spices. An example is the McCormick poultry seasoning, which includes thyme, sage, marjoram, rosemary, black pepper, and nutmeg. As you can see, there’s quite a bit of overlap with the herbs the authors choose. And a few of them use poultry seasoning together with fresh herbs.
Another two of the authors use homemade poultry seasoning, and both offer recipes for their blends (It is a Keeper and Spend with Pennies). Interestingly, both have the same ingredients as the McCormick seasoning. They each use different ratios, and only McCormick know the ratio of ingredients in their mix.
What about garlic?
Garlic appears in only five of the recipes, predominantly minced from fresh cloves. I say only because I expected it to be more popular. It would be such a great flavour with the rest of the ingredients. Clearly not traditional though.
After that, there’re only a small number of other herbs that are used:
- Marjoram appears in two recipes
- Oregano and savory are used in one recipe each.
For all of the herbs, the authors overwhelmingly recommend you use fresh herbs.
If you don’t have fresh, a good rule of thumb for substituting dried herbs for fresh is to use one-third the quantity. For example, if your recipe requires three teaspoons of fresh herbs, use one teaspoon of dried. And if you’re using ground herbs, you should be using even less.
If you are going to use dried herbs, make sure they’re as fresh as possible (pardon the pun). They lose their aromatic oil over time and with it their herbal goodness, becoming more reminiscent of hay!
It’s also worth noting that every single recipe uses at least one of the herbs and spices listed above. And those that use only one use poultry seasoning, which is a combination of almost all of these. The rest use two herbs as a minimum, but more commonly three or four. So don’t be shy with your herbs.
Stock – the secret to moist (or soggy) oven stuffing
All twenty recipes include some type of stock or broth. This added liquid is required for these recipes because they’re cooked on their own. For a traditional in-turkey stuffing, the drippings from the bird provide most of the moisture.
Chicken stock is almost unanimously used, appearing in nineteen of the recipes. Turkey stock and vegetable stock are the other options, used in three and four recipes respectively. And if you’re wondering why these numbers add up to more than twenty, it’s because some authors offer a choice. In fact vegetable stock is never included as the only option – it is always listed as “chicken or vegetable stock”.
How much stock?
The amount of stock used varies quite considerably, ranging from half a cup to four-and-a-half cups. A lot of the variation is due to differing recipe sizes, which range from serving five people to serving twenty people. As a result, the quantity of bread varies from one to three loaves, so the amount of stock will be quite different for different recipes.
Although all of the recipes list a specific volume of stock, averaging about two cups, many of the authors recommend adding the stock bit by bit until the bread mixture is damp, but not wet or soggy. If you’ve previously found that your stuffing was too soggy, the culprit was almost certainly too much stock.
It’s also worth noting that the recipes with the most stock, such as the one on Delish, did attract a few negative comments about the result being too soggy or wet. Personal preference will obviously play a significant role here, and these comments will may help you make this assessment.
One of the keys to a rich, delicious stuffing is clearly butter, included in all but one of these recipes. There is quite a bit of variation in the quantity, ranging from as little as six tablespoons to as much as one-and-a-half cups. And this variation can’t be explained away by differences in the quantity of bread either. So if you’re looking to make your holiday meal a little bit healthier, you can dial it back a bit and you won’t leave yourself with a bland side dish. And if you’re keen to go all out for that special meal, have at it! Based on these recipes either approach can result in a great stuffing.
As for how it’s used, there are a couple of main approaches. In some of the recipes, all of the butter is used to cook the onions and celery. In others, some of the butter is kept aside, and the stuffing is topped with small pats of butter before going into the oven.
Traditional stuffing without butter
The one standalone recipe here is by Lyuba at Will Cook for Smiles. If you’re looking for a recipe for stuffing without butter, this is it, because she doesn’t use any butter at all. Lyuba’s recipe is also unique in the inclusion of chopped apples with her aromatics, and a small amount of apple juice with her stock. The flavour profile of this recipe will obviously be quite different to most of the others here, no doubt a little sweeter and less savoury. Could be worth a try if you’re looking to try something new!
The recipes are split almost exactly down the middle with regards to their inclusion, or not, of eggs in the stuffing. Eleven of the recipes include either two or occasionally three whole eggs to bind the stuffing together as it cooks. The inclusion of eggs also attracted comments from a number of readers, some decrying it, some advocating for it and some keen to try it. Melissa from The Olive Blogger says eggs bind the dish, and without them it’s just bread with seasoning. I’m not sure the nine authors who don’t use eggs would agree!
The addition of eggs will obviously create quite a different texture in the finished product, making it more pudding-like than the egg-free versions. Des from Oh So Delicioso prefers eggs in her stuffing specifically for the fluffy texture they impart.
Again, personal choice will be important here. If you want stuffing without egg, you’ll find success amongst these recipes. And similarly, if it’s just not stuffing without egg, you’ll be good here too.
And who knows. If you’ve only ever had it one way, the fact that there are so many successful stuffing recipes here done the other way, it may be worth a try for something new.
Other flavour options
Although my focus here is simple traditional stuffing, there were so many great suggestions offered by different readers of these recipes that it feels remiss not to share some of them. Some of the most interesting were:
- The use of herbes de Provence comes up more than once. The addition of herbs like tarragon, bay leaves and lavender would certainly add a different flavour profile to your stuffing.
- One reader swears by the addition of a “smidgen” of allspice for a warm, nutty aroma
- A variety of fresh and dried fruits come up, including:
- Chopped apples appear frequently
- One reader swears by dried cranberries and chopped apple, no matter the recipe
- Another reader loves raisins in her stuffing
- If you like Hawaiian pizza you’ll love this suggestion – crushed pineapple
- Chopped black olives appeared in a couple of different comments
- One adds chopped apple, prunes and apricots that they soak in port! I am loving the sound of this!
- Nuts are a common addition, with suggestions including cashews and cooked chestnuts
- There were also some vegetable variations offered, like:
- Mushrooms came up more than once
- One reader replaces celery with a can of water chestnuts, chopped, to give the same crunch
- Mashed potatoes!
- It’s no surprise that turkey drippings appeared. A couple of suggestions came up if you want your stuffing to taste like it was cooked in the turkey:
- One reader bastes their stuffing in their turkey drippings for the last fifteen minutes.
- Another reader uses turkey drippings instead of stock or broth. This would obviously be amazing, but will depend on your timings.
- Extra eggs instead of broth came up several times (up to six eggs)
- Adding some white wine while sweating your onions and celery
- One reader added rice, although didn’t specify whether this was cooked or not.
Adding meat to your stuffing
The addition of meats is also a common theme amongst the readers of these recipes:
- The most common by far was sausage. There are a ton of recipes for stuffing with sausage on Pinterest, so I’m going to do a separate review on those, because not only are they clearly popular – they sound amazing. Sign up to my email list if you’d like to know each time my new reviews go live.
- The cooked, chopped giblets (heart, liver and gizzard) from your turkey were another common addition.
- Several readers commented they always added oysters to their stuffing! This was new to me, but is apparently absolute tradition in some families. Whether you use canned or fresh oysters seems to be a matter of personal choice. A quick Pinterest search for oyster stuffing proves that this is pretty popular, especially in the south of the US.
Cooking your stuffing
In doing my search I didn’t specifically select oven-baked recipes, but it turned out that nineteen of them were just that. One recipe, from Jessica at Together as Family, is cooked on the stove. Because there’s only one, I’m only going to focus on oven-baking your stuffing here.
All of the oven-baked recipes are cooked in a wide, shallow baking dish, with 9 x 13 inch (23 x 33 cm) the most commonly quoted size.
As for the oven itself , the most popular temperature by far is 350°F/175°C, with fourteen authors cooking at this temperature. There’s not much variation beyond this though. Three of the other authors cook theirs at 325°F/165°C, and the remaining two at 375°F/190°C.
Covering your stuffing in the oven
The only other thing to consider is whether or not to cover your stuffing while it bakes. And there are two camps on this one.
Ten of the authors cover their stuffing for the first thirty to forty-five minutes. These authors all then uncover their stuffing, and nine of them bake it for a further ten to forty-five minutes. That means the total cooking time on these recipes varies from forty-five to eighty-five minutes. Huge range, I know! And there’s no hard-and-fast rule as to why the authors vary so much. The recipes with eggs tend to be cooked longer, but not always by much. And oven temperature doesn’t explain it either. I can only assumer it’s mainly about the authors’ personal preferences for the finished texture of their stuffing.
Rather than baking it longer once uncovered, the tenth author in this group, Bernice from Dish ‘n’ the Kitchen, broils/grills her stuffing until it’s golden brown on top. And just to remove any confusion over regional terminology, this refers to heating from above, in the oven.
The other nine authors don’t cover their stuffing at all. There is again quite a bit of variation in cooking times, ranging from thirty minutes to an hour. And again, this variation is not neatly explained by cooking temperature or the inclusion of eggs in the recipe.
Cooking stuffing inside your turkey
Although it’s not my focus here, stuffing originated as a filling for turkey or chicken, and cooking it this way is still favoured by many people. And most of these recipes can be done this way. The authors usually offer guidance on how to do this, typically by simply omitting some or all of the stock. If you are going to do this, make sure that the centre of the stuffing reaches 165°F/75°C with a meat thermometer.
Can stuffing be made ahead of time?
Absolutely. And if you need, or prefer, to prepare your stuffing in advance, almost every recipe here offers advice on how to do so the day before (or even earlier in some cases). Some give guidance on cooking it in advance too.
What about leftovers?
You may scoff at the idea of there being leftover stuffing, but several authors intentionally make more than they need for the meal just to make sure there’re leftovers. And based on some of the ideas on how to use them, I can see why!
- Michelle from Now Cook This uses her leftovers in turkey soup in place of noodles.
- Melissa from Persnickety Plates has a recipe for turkey and stuffing eggrolls that she uses for leftovers.
- One simple but great idea came from a reader of one of the recipes. Fry up your leftover stuffing (if there is any!) the next day in a bit of butter until it’s lightly browned and crispy. I can only imagine this is delicious.
- Another reader advances on the previous idea by making stuffing waffles!
The essence of homemade, oven-baked traditional stuffing
If you’re looking to oven-bake a traditional stuffing for Thanksgiving, Christmas or simply just because you love stuffing, here are the most popular ingredients:
- White, crusty, dense bread, chopped or torn into pieces
- Finely chopped onions and celery
- Fresh thyme, sage and rosemary, or a good quality poultry seasoning
- Butter, to fry up your aromatics
- Enough chicken stock to moisten your bread, but not make it wet through
- And whether or not you include eggs is up to you – either way works.
And as for how you put it together and cook it, you won’t go far wrong with these tips:
- Cut up or pull apart your bread in advance, giving it time to dry out and become stale, at least overnight
- Bake your stuffing in a wide, shallow dish at 350°F/175°C. It’s up to you whether you cover it for a while in the oven, or bake it uncovered the whole time.
So, there you have it – the essence of a traditional stuffing, oven-baked outside your turkey. I hope this helps you to either choose how you’re going to approach your stuffing, or maybe choose from amongst these great recipes. I’d love to hear what you decide, so feel free to add a comment at the bottom of the page.
Remember – no matter what you call it, it’s still delicious!