Stuffing Do's and Don'ts

Crispy, moist, sourdough, cornbread — every family has a favorite stuffing style, but these nine tips for making the essential Thanksgiving dish are universal.

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The Right Stuff

We now eat turkey year-round — turkey sandwiches, turkey breast on the grill, turkey wings at the big game, turkey leg soup. So dare we say it's the sides that make T-Day special, and there's none more comforting than stuffing. It would be a shame to mess it up. We've broken down the essentials so your stuffing earns its prized place at the table.

Don't Stuff Your Bird

The problem with stuffing a turkey is twofold: One: It often yields a soggy mass of unappealing mush. Two: It is really hard to get it up to 165 degrees F, the temperature at which the USDA says it is safe to eat. (Basically, if you do it right, you will end up overcooking your turkey.)

If you simply cannot resist stuffing the turkey, follow these guidelines: Prepare the stuffing at the very last minute and stuff the bird loosely (don't pack it) just before it goes into the oven. Letting it sit around leaves too much opportunity for bacteria to breed. Be sure that the stuffing — not just the turkey — cooks to at least 165 degrees F.

Don't Use Fresh Bread

Think about it: You mix bread cubes with seasonings and liquid, allowing them to soak up all the flavor like sponges. But fresh bread is so soft, that in the process of soaking, it will go completely to mush. Great stuffing starts with stale or dry bread cubes, the dryer the better.

Getting it just right is easy — you can leave out your cubes loosely covered on a baking sheet at room temperature for a few days, or simply toast them in a low oven for 30 to 45 minutes to dry them out.

Do Make Ahead

You can saute your stuffing base aromatics — onion, celery, chestnuts, herbs — days, even weeks in advance. Just toss the mixture in the freezer if Thanksgiving is more than 3 days away (otherwise refrigerate). When it's go-time, let it thaw, then toss with bread cubes, broth and egg (if using). Fuss-free, and food safe!

Don't Go Overboard

No one wants bland stuffing, but the impulse to cram it full of flavorful additions can ruin the comforting mojo that the best stuffing achieves. Remember, it has to play well with the other items on the plate, and perhaps most importantly, it must make an excellent vehicle for gravy.

Choose at most one animal protein (sausage or oysters) one hit of something sweet (squash or dried fruit) and one strong herb (rosemary or thyme). Finally, the starchy base should be the most plentiful — don't put more of the add-ins than the bread cubes.

Do Cut Ingredients Into Bite-Size Pieces

The magic of stuffing is the blend of, well, stuff — you want each mouthful to be a little bit different, but each should still contain a combo of a few things. Rustic stuffings with giant bread cubes may look beautiful, but in practice, a bite might leave you with nothing but a mouthful of a bread.

Similarly, don't cut the pieces too small. It's stuffing, not mincemeat.

Do Uncover Your Stuffing for the Last 20 Minutes of Cooking

The best stuffing varies in texture — a crisp crust at the top, yielding to creamy goodness beneath. If you leave your stuffing sealed in foil throughout cooking, the circulating steam will sog out all the crunch. The solution: uncover the dish at the very end of cooking for a top that is beautifully golden-brown.

Do Go For Extra-Crispy

Harness the browning power of butter and cut a few tablespoons into chunks to dot over the top of the stuffing for a toasty-brown, seriously-crunchy crust.

Do Consider Alternative Stuffings

Who says you have to use bread? Virtually any cooked grain is a candidate for a great base — barley, oats, quinoa and all the rices: sticky, wild and white. Non-white breads apply, too — there's cornbread, of course, but also consider pumpernickel, rye, potato bread or challah.

Don't Ditch the Leftovers

Even after you've tired of turkey sandwiches, that stuffing can be put to good use. Mix some into meatballs or meatloaf for an extra-savory punch. Crumble it over the top of macaroni and cheese with some butter chunks before baking for an even more irresistible-than-usual top. Bake it in mini-muffin pans to serve with eggs for breakfast. Whisk it into a frittata for a filling lunch.

Or just freeze it, to enjoy in a month or two when Thanksgiving is a yummy memory. Reheat with a little fresh broth, and serve alongside fish, chicken, pork, or — oh, okay — some freshly roasted turkey breast.