What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing and How Do You Make Them?
Without stuffing, Thanksgiving is just a turkey dinner. Most families hold tight to long-held favorites, as cooks reverently pass along beloved recipes for stuffing, dressing and, yes, even something called "filling," often influenced by regional traditions. Whether you're a fan of oyster dressing from coastal areas, dressing made with cornbread or sausage, potato filling from the Pennsylvania Dutch country or wild rice stuffing from the rural Virginia, we've got the full scoop on what it takes to make that side dish truly spectacular.
Browse our entire collection of Stuffing and Dressing recipes.
Stuffing vs. Dressing
It's often said that the country can be divided into two camps: Those who stuff and those who hold firmly to the tradition of baking dressing outside the bird. Stuffing on the inside, dressing out.
But there's a wrinkle. While Southerners are fond of calling the essential side dish of Thanksgiving dressing, sometimes, they stuff dressing inside Mr. Tom Turkey. So, just because it's called a dressing doesn't mean it's baked like a casserole. It all comes down to the recipe and traditions. Don't get hung up on whether it's labeled stuffing or dressing, it's all basically the same beast.
When stuffing a turkey, it's essential to stick to instructed cooking times for food safety's sake. To be extra cautious, use a kitchen thermometer to measure the temperature of the stuffing. It's properly cooked when it reaches 165 degrees F (75 degrees C).
Bread Dressings and Stuffings
Bread dressings and stuffings were invented as a delicious way to recycle day-old bread. Up your stuffing/dressing game with these easy tips:
- Use rustic European-style bread, sourdough or a hearty rye bread instead of a soft sandwich loaf.
- Leave the crust on for a fuller flavor and more interesting texture.
- Cut the bread into 1/2-inch cubes, knowing that they won't be exactly uniform and air-dry overnight.
- If you add vegetables, fruit or meat to your dressing, be sure those ingredients are roughly the same size as the bread cubes to ensure proper cooking.
- Saute vegetables lightly in butter or olive oil and season with herbs and spices from the recipe to add more character.
- Add enough liquid to keep the dressing moist but not so much that it's soggy. Homemade turkey, chicken or vegetable broth adds a deeply satisfying flavor. Reserve the liquid from jars of oysters, if using, and add that "liquor" into the dressing for extra complexity.
Cornbread Dressing's A Southern Thing
A time-honored staple in the American South, cornbread stuffing and dressing is another example of thrifty cooks using leftovers in clever, delicious ways. Try following these suggestions for memorable cornbread stuffing and dressing:
- Make a couple pans of cornbread in advance and then freeze. Or, collect a bag full of bits and pieces in plastic bags in the freezer throughout the year for use later.
- Crumble the bread into bite-size pieces and allow them to air dry overnight before proceeding with your stuffing recipe.
- Try building a robust flavor by adding crisp bits of cooked bacon, cooked and drained sausage, or smoked ham.
- Just before removing a dressing casserole from the oven, give a it a golden finish by turning on the broiler for 2-3 minutes.
- Check out our collection of Cornbread Stuffing and Dressing Recipes.
Pictured: Martha's Cornbread Dressing
Stuffing Goes Whole Grain
Rice and other grains provide excellent foundations for creating non-bread stuffing, and were part of the original Thanksgiving feast. A deep dive on whole grain dressings and stuffing reveals:
- Rice dressing often appears on holiday or Sunday dinner tables, mostly in the South. In Louisiana, a "Dirty Rice" version is typically cooked with onions, peppers, diced poultry giblets, or livers, and plenty of seasonings. It's the offal ingredients that give the rice its 'dirty' name that is often a love-it-or-hate-it quality.
- Adding a bit of cooked wild rice to most stuffing recipes adds a chewy texture and nutty flavor.
- Go exotic by swapping rice for ancient grains such as quinoa, farro, and freekah. In Scotland, skirlie is a stuffing made with coarse ground oats.
- Vegetarians can add protein to this portion of the meal by including cooked legumes such as lentils.
- The key to success when using grains is to avoid over cooking them. Like pasta, cook all grains al dente, that is, tender yet still firm and a little chewy.
- Browse our collection of Rice Stuffing and Dressing Recipes.
Potato "Filling" is A Crowd-Pleaser in Pennsylvannia
Pennsylvania Dutch Potato Filling is an interesting combination of mashed potatoes and stuffing, with roots that date back centuries to food-strapped pioneers making the best use of meager supplies. Even though it's called a filling, this mashup of potatoes, onions, celery, bread cubes and seasonings is typically baked in a casserole dish.
Clever Ways to Serve Stuffing
On the expansive Thanksgiving menu, stuffing and dressing offers the cook the chance to serve up some playful alternatives, including:
- One of the most popular to emerge in recent years is deep fried stuffing, especially on the day-after leftovers feast.
- Baking dressing in muffin tins is a hit among those who crave crispy bites, as there's more surface area to turn golden. Bonus points for looking cute on the plate.
- Instead of packing stuffing inside the holiday turkey, baking it in hollowed out squash makes for an ultra-seasonal serving dish.
Pictured: Deep-Fried Stuffing
Check out our complete collection of Stuffing and Dressing Recipes.