John Proctor, writer, teacher and our Dad For All Seasons, brings us all his foodie wisdom. Vicarious cooking is my favorite kind.
I’ll admit it. For first twelve years of my life, I thought stuffing was a magical concoction that came pre-made in a red box. I remember believing with great conviction that the freeze-dried celery and onions were essential ingredients. I also had no idea that the wonderfully dense, moist globular substance was one step removed from croutons. And as long as we’re being completely honest, I remember the day I learned, at my junior high salad bar, the origin of the strangely shaped, most-delicious-ever croutons they served there.
“Where can my mom buy some of these?” I asked one of the lunch ladies.
“Honey, those are just yesterday’s buns,” she replied. “We spray ‘em with cooking spray, throw ‘em in the oven, and let ‘em sit overnight. You want me to pack some up for you?”
And so began my love affair with repurposed bread. There’s a strange alchemy at work in taking something as boring as old bread, letting it go stale, then remoistening it, adding some leaves, cloves, stalks, and bulbs, and turning it into something indescribably filling, savory, and thoroughly Thanksgiving.
Much to my adult surprise, cracking the code on the basic ingredients and their interplay doesn’t absolve the mystery, it only deepens it. If you’re not already in on it, here’s the matrix.
The Basic Parts
Croutons, of course. There are a number of ways you can come by them, but I can’t emphasize enough how much fuller-flavored the stuffing will be if go the Junior High Lunch Lady route and process your own. It’s much easier than you might think: just take a couple loaves of bread, preferably but not necessarily stale, break or cut them into pieces, toast them lightly in the oven, and let them sit overnight in the oven. Open your oven in the morning, and viola! Croutons! I strongly encourage you to mix bread types too, as they all bring their own flavor and consistency to the stuffing; the denser varieties make more a fuller, more dense stuffing, while the lighter, sandwich-bread types serve well as binders, soaking up the liquid into a paste-like consistency before cooking. I love to add about a third total of potato bread crumbs; their final chewy consistency makes a fun variation for the palate. I also like to add some rough-ground cornmeal, though not too much. And if all of this sounds like too much of a hassle, you can of course just buy croutons and/or bread crumbs pre-made.
Onion, garlic, and celery, sautéed in butter or olive oil (you can guess which of these two is the healthier choice). You can do this ahead of time, and make sure it’s nice and soft, so it blends right in. And technically, I guess the garlic is optional (though it’s never optional in our house), and I also like to throw in some chunked-up mushrooms.
Spices: The essentials are sage and thyme; as with the onion, garlic, and celery, it just won’t be stuffing without them. The second tier, all of which I typically use, are rosemary, basil, parsley, and bay leaf. I’m undoubtedly missing a few that entire subgroups of stuffing-makers consider essential, so just remember the sage and thyme and go your own way from there.
Liquid: This serves the obvious purpose of softening and binding the bread with itself and the other ingredients. You can simply use water, or add a bit of flavor with your favorite broth, stock, or bouillon.
Add-Ins: This is the art of the matrix, where the stuffing truly becomes yours. I’m a crabber and my wife’s pescetarian, so I tend to go for seafood: crab, oysters, shrimp, calamari, and crawfish all go wonderfully. Sausage (especially sage sausage) and sliced apples or pears go well together. I’ve also heard that adding beaten eggs makes for denser, more filling stuffing, though I’ve never bothered. But seriously, I encourage you to think of your favorite food, slice or chunk it, and throw it in. The worst you can do is ruin Thanksgiving!
After softening the onions, celery, and garlic in butter or olive oil, pour it over the croutons (roughly 10 cups, though you might want to keep a bit extra to even out the consistency, depending on whether your family prefers it on the moist or the firm side) in a large mixing bowl with the spices. Once the stuffing is moistened to your desired consistency, mix in whatever add-ins you prefer, pre-cooking any meats or seafood beforehand (calamari excluded).
This will fill a medium-sized turkey or a casserole dish. If cooking it with the turkey, follow your turkey-cooking procedure but add on about a half-hour to account for the stuffing. If cooking it in a separate casserole dish, cook it in a preheated 350 ° oven for roughly 40 minutes.