I never really looked forward to holiday food… ever. Almost all of my childhood holidays — Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas — involved getting up early and driving to the bay area to spend the day at my grandparents’ house with our extended family. The cranberries were canned, the turkey was dry, the mashed potatoes were chunky and dry, and the stuffing was too moist, plain, and bready. Dinner was the worst part of the day.
Luckily my mom can cook, and even better, she can bake. She makes amazing desserts and treats, so my sisters and I just filled up on cookies, fudge, and sweets all day long so we were too full to eat dinner. When dinner came around, we covered everything in gravy and moved our food around on our plates a bit, taking only a few bites. Let’s just say that a lecture from my grandma about eating too many sweets before dinner was much better than eating the dinner!
Then when Brian and I started dating, I spent Thanksgiving with his family and ate his mom’s recipes for the first time. I’m not exaggerating, this was life changing. From the first bite, I was in heaven and in awe that holiday dinners could taste so good. It was as if the clouds parted and the sun shined down upon my plate, illuminating the magnificent flavors.
One of my favorite parts of every holiday meal is the stuffing.
Old Family Recipes
When Brian and I hosted our first Thanksgiving, June quickly wrote down her family recipes for Brian — from memory. She also came over to help cook and help him learn the timing of all the recipes so everything will be done at about the same time. Her recipes have been handed down generation after generation. She learned them from cooking with her father, a cook on a ship in World War II, and Brian learned them from cooking with her.
When Brian dug out the recipes so he could make stuffing for Christmas dinner, I realized that there were no measurements for some of the steps! They just know it. The only recipes we have are written on the backs of old envelopes and scrap paper. At that moment, I knew it was time that I documented each step of the old family recipes. I not only want to share them with you, but I want to have them documented for my children when they grow up too!
Brian cooked. I took notes and photos. We barbecued a turkey, and made stuffing, homemade gravy, and sweet potato casserole.
The Stuffing/Dressing Combo
While the terms stuffing and dressing are often used interchangeably, stuffing is stuffed into a turkey before it is cooked and dressing is baked in a baking dish. Called stuffing in the northern United States and dressing in the southern states, this delicious side dish is always made with crumbled, dry bread as its base. Most stuffing recipes also call for onion, celery, and poultry seasoning.
Some people make stuffing and others make dressing. Stuffing, because its is stuffed in the turkey, tends to be more squishy or mushy. Dressing, cooked in a baking dish, is a bit more firm and crunchy. Neither is right, and really how you make it just comes down to personal preference.
We make both stuffing and dressing and combine them to get the perfect stuffing texture — moist but still firm. Our stuffing recipe, with onions, celery, poultry seasoning, chicken bouillon, apples, and raisins, makes a lot of stuffing — enough to stuff the turkey completely and fill a 13×9″ baking dish.
When turkey is done cooking, we remove the stuffing from the turkey, transferring it to a large bowl. We then add all of the oven-baked stuffing to the same bowl. Using a turkey baster, we extract the turkey drippings from the pan, adding it to the bowl of stuffing. Then we mix it together with our hands.
The Perfect Stuffing Recipe
You get your hands dirty making this stuffing recipe. With that in mind, the first step is to bring three cups of water and three chicken bouillon cubes to a boil. Once boiling, remove it from heat and set it aside. This will give the bouillon/water time to cool before mixing it with your hands.
Next, chop the onion and celery, sauteing them in olive oil over medium heat. While the onion and celery are cooking, chop the apples and and place the apples, raisins, poultry seasoning, salt and pepper, and bread cubes in a large bowl.
When the onion and celery are done cooking, add them to the bowl along with the other ingredients and pour the cooled bouillon water over the ingredients. Mix the stuffing with your hands. It should still be relatively dry, not mushy. The apples will add more moisture during cooking.
After the stuffing mixture is mixed, it’s time to stuff the neck and cavity of the turkey with as much stuffing as possible. Brian really packs it in there! Place the rest of the stuffing in a 13×9″ baking dish, cover it in foil, and bake it at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes. (Ideally, time the oven-baked stuffing to be done cooking when the turkey is done cooking.)
When the turkey is done cooking, remove the stuffing and transfer it to a large bowl. Add the oven-baked stuffing to the same bowl and using a turkey baster, extract the turkey drippings from the pan, add it to the bowl of stuffing, and mix it all together. This combines the moist stuffing that was inside the turkey with the firm stuffing from the baking dish to create a stuffing with the perfect consistency — not too mushy, not too dry — with a ton of flavor.
Bacon Lover’s Stuffing
The first time I had this stuffing, when I fell in love with the recipe, it also had bacon in it. YUM! We made it with bacon for years, but after Brian was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer, we cut out all red meat and pork from his diet, which also meant no more bacon and baconless stuffing.
If you’re a bacon lover, adapt this stuffing recipe to use the instructions below, and this will be the only stuffing recipe you ever use:
If you’re adapting this recipe to use bacon, you’ll need to buy a one pound package of thick cut bacon and freeze it. When you’re ready to make the stuffing, remove the bacon from the freezer and chop it while still frozen (this makes it easier to cube the bacon). Cook the cubed bacon in a large skillet over medium heat. When just cooked, remove the bacon from the skillet and set it aside.
Important: Don’t cook the bacon too much. This isn’t the time for crunchy bacon, because it will continue to cook in the turkey and in the oven.
Drain half of the bacon grease from the pan and cook the onions and celery in the remaining bacon grease. This adds a much richer flavor to the onions and celery. When the onions and celery are done cooking, add the bacon pieces, onions, and celery to the large mixing bowl with the rest of the ingredients, and follow the rest of the instructions as is.
Tips When Making Stuffing
- Don’t overdo the ingredients. While apples, raisins, bacon, and other add-ins add a lot of flavor, too much of them can cause texture problems. If the add-ins overpower the bread, the stuffing won’t stick together and it will be more of a crumbly pile of ingredients.
- Use just enough liquid, but not too much! No one likes to eat soggy, mushy stuffing. You want to use just enough liquid to get a good mix of soft and firm bread pieces. Add your liquid a little at a time. You can always add more liquid if needed.
- When cooking the onions and celery, you’re not caramelizing them or even browning them. You’re just cooking them enough to soften them up.
- Stuffing baked inside a turkey will not dry out as it cooks.
- Some stuffing add-ins, like chopped apples, also add moisture.
- If you prefer dry stuffing, use prepackaged, dry bread cubes and a smaller amount of liquid.
- Skip water for your liquid. Instead use broth, stock, or bouillon water.
- For stuffing with a lighter, fluffier consistency, add a beaten egg to the stuffing mixture.
- Consider bake half of your stuffing inside the bird and half in a baking dish covered with foil like we do, then combine and mix together before serving.
- For stuffing with a crispy crust, bake stuffing in a 13×9″ pan covered with foil. Uncover stuffing during the final 15 minutes of cooking.
Grandpa Hill's Savory, Loaded Stuffing
With celery, onions, apples, and raisins, this stuffing is packed with flavor, and because it combines oven-baked stuffing and traditional stuffing, the texture is perfect.
- 2 bags seasoned bread cubes
- 2 apples, chopped with peel on
- 1 1/2 yellow onions, corsely chopped
- 3-4 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
- 1 1/2 - 2 cups raisins
- 3 cups water
- 3 chicken bouillon cubes
- 1 tblsp. poultry seasoning
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Boil 3 cups water with 3 chicken bouillon cubes. Let cool.
- Chop onion and celery, sautee in olive oil over medium heat. While the onions and celery are cooking, chop the apples.
- Place the apples, raisins, poultry seasoning, salt and pepper, and bread cubes in a large bowl. Add onion and celery when just cooked (not browned).
- Pour bouillon water over the ingredients and mix the stuffing with your hands. The stuffing mixture should still be relatively dry, not mushy. The apples will add more moisture during cooking.
- Stuff the turkey neck and cavity with as much stuffing as possible. Really pack it in tightly. Put the rest of the stuffing mixture in a 13x9" baking dish, cover it in foil, and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. (Ideally, time the oven-baked stuffing to be done cooking when the turkey is done cooking.)
- When turkey is done cooking, remove stuffing and transfer it to a large bowl. Add oven-baked stuffing to the same bowl. Using a turkey baster, extract the turkey drippings from the pan, add it to the bowl of stuffing, and mix well with your hands.
You can substitute broth or stock for the water/bouillon.
Not making a turkey? No problem. You can oven-bake all of your stuffing.
ALTERNATE RECIPE: Add one pound of chopped bacon. Freeze one pound bacon in advance (makes it easier to chop raw bacon). Chop frozen bacon into cubes and cook in a large skillet over medium heat. Remove cooked bacon from pan and set aside. Drain half of the bacon grease and use the remaining grease to cook the onions and celery. When combining all ingredients in a large mixing bowl, add the bacon too.