Today on the Thanksgiving countdown: side dishes
It’s not Thanksgiving without the supporting cast of stuffing and gravy. Let us help you perfect them, so every part of the meal shines.
STUFFING AND DRESSING
For lovers of stuffing and dressing, Thanksgiving may be the apex of the year, though those dishes are welcome on the table anytime.
Although the two terms may be used interchangeably, as we do here, stuffing is generally understood to be cooked inside the cavity of the turkey, while dressing is baked alone in a casserole or other shallow dish. As a result, stuffing is tender and moist, suffused with the juices and any rendered fat from the bird. Dressing has a crisper top from being exposed more directly to the heat of the oven.
If you love the brawny flavor of poultry juices mixed with your side dish, or if you’re simply a traditionalist, stuffing the turkey is the way to go. ›
Stuff the turkey just before it goes into the oven. We know you want to do as much ahead as possible, particularly on Thanksgiving, but stuffing ahead of time encourages the growth of bacteria. Don’t do it. This said, you can make the stuffing up to four days ahead and keep it in the refrigerator, then put it inside the bird just before roasting. ›
If your stuffing recipe calls for shellfish or turkey giblets, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that these be fully cooked and kept hot before they are put inside the bird. So stir them into the mix immediately before stuffing the turkey. ›
Stuffing expands as it cooks, so fill the cavity loosely. ›
If you’re going to stuff your bird, you should truss it, or at least tie the legs together to keep the stuffing from falling out. ›
Bear in mind that stuffed turkeys take longer to cook than unstuffed ones. ›
Both the turkey and the stuffing need to be cooked to 165 degrees before they are safe to eat. Usually the bird gets there before the stuffing does. To avoid overcooking the turkey, pull it from the oven once the flesh hits the desired temperature. Then spoon the stuffing out of the cavity and into a baking dish and return to the oven (or stick it in the microwave). Continue cooking until the stuffing reaches 165 degrees.
Bread Stuffing: Any bread, from soft white sandwich loaves to chewy bagels to crusty sourdough rye breads, can be turned into a stuffing or dressing. No matter what kind of bread you use, it will absorb more of the seasonings if it is stale and dry. You can either buy the bread several days to a week in advance and let it dry out at room temperature, or cube it and dry it out in a low oven (250 degrees) until thoroughly arid.
Or consider making your own bread for stuffing. Cornbread comes together especially quickly, and you can control the amount of sugar in the recipe, depending upon whether you like it sweet or savory.
Easy breads like biscuits, soda bread, no-knead bread and white sandwich bread all make great stuffing, too. Bake them several days ahead so they have a chance to get
stale. Or bake them months ahead and freeze, then thaw them and let them dry out before making stuffing.
Grain Stuffing: Bread stuffing is the classic choice at Thanksgiving, but you could use rice or other grains such as quinoa, farro or barley. Not only are grain stuffings elegant and refined, most also are gluten-free.
Grain stuffings don’t need to adhere the way bread stuffings do, so you don’t need to bind them with egg. Basically, your aim is to make a tasty rice pilaf or grain salad, then cook it again inside your bird, which will give it an even more complex flavor rich with drippings.
You can use classic bread stuffing aromatics (sage, celery, onion), or improvise another flavor combination. Chances are that as long as it tastes good on its own, it will taste even better after taking a turn inside the bird.
Wild rice goes particularly well with the earthy autumnal flavors of a Thanksgiving meal. Or try sticky rice for something unexpectedly terrific.
Dressing is baked outside the turkey, which means it can achieve an appealingly crisp, browned top — a nice textural contrast to the softer layer underneath. And, with your dressing out of the way, you can add aromatics such as lemons, garlic and bunches of herbs to the turkey’s cavity for additional flavor. (Another bonus: An unstuffed bird will roast more quickly than a stuffed one.)
› You can turn any stuffing recipe into a dressing by simply baking it outside the bird. Spread the mixture in a shallow pan and bake until the mixture reaches 165 degrees. Dressing is pretty forgiving, so feel free to bake it at whatever temperature you need for other dishes you’re cooking.
› Vegetarians take note: Because it doesn’t touch the bird, dressing can be utterly meat-free. A rice stuffing with walnut and pears is one good option.
› On the opposite side of the spectrum, you can add turkey stock or chicken stock, crisped poultry skin, schmaltz and/ or diced cooked gizzards, liver and shredded turkey neck to the dressing to give it a meatier flavor.
› If you’ve got enough extra turkey skin, drape it over the top of the dressing before baking. The skin will turn into poultry cracklings and render its luscious fat all over the dressing. Outstanding. If the skin isn’t crisp when the stuffing is done, run it under the broiler for a few minutes to finish. (You can often special-order turkey skin from your butcher — chicken skin will work, too — or trim off the extra skin at the turkey’s neck when you are getting it ready for the oven.)
› If you like a deeply golden top, dot the top of the dressing with butter before baking. And if the dressing cooks through before the top is brown, run it under the broiler for a minute or two before serving.
Good gravy is more than just a sauce for the turkey. It brings all the elements of the Thanksgiving plate together, elevating mashed potatoes, stuffing and turkey. You can use the classic method for making gravy, whisking it together at the last minute using the turkey pan drippings, or you can make the gravy ahead, then spike it later with the flavorful drippings.
Before You Start
› It’s helpful to have a fat separator, which looks like a measuring cup with a spout. It lets you pour off the gravy and leave behind excess fat.
› You can use a wooden spoon to make gravy, but a whisk makes things smoother.
› For silky gravy, or for added insurance against lumps, strain your gravy before serving. Have a sieve on hand.
› Drippings from brined and kosher turkeys may be too salty to use in gravy, particularly classic pan gravy. Drippings from dry-brined turkeys work in any gravy.
Whether you’re making classic last-minute gravy or one ahead of time, remember this: Great gravy can come only from great stock. It’s absolutely worth the time it takes to make your own turkey or chicken stock from scratch, but there are tricks to fortifying storebought stock.
Homemade: To make your own stock, you need poultry bones, either cooked or raw or a combination. Some of the bones should have meat on them, but most can be picked clean. Two or 3 pounds of bones is plenty, but even 1 pound will give you enough stock to make gravy. If you’ve got turkey giblets from your bird (heart, gizzard, neck, anything but the liver), throw them into the pot with the bones and a big pinch of salt.
Add some vegetables and aromatics: a carrot, a leafy celery stalk, an onion and/or leek, a few cloves of peeled garlic, a bay leaf and/or some parsley stems, and a teaspoon of peppercorns.
Pour in enough water to cover all the solids by at least 2 inches. Then bring it up to a very gentle simmer and let it bubble for a couple of hours. Strain everything, pressing down on the solids, and chill for up to three days, or freeze for up to six months.
Store-bought: If making your own is out of the question, you can come pretty close with a good-quality poultry stock bought either from a butcher shop or a specialty shop (preferably one made in-house). You’ll often find pre-made stocks in the freezer case.
If the supermarket is your only option, the rule for canned or boxed stock, or stock sold in Tetra Paks, is to taste before using. If it’s terrible, you’re better off with a bouillon cube and water, which is a low bar but marginally better than water. As a last-minute fix for weak stock, simmer it with the turkey giblets for an hour or two. That will fortify it.
A roux, which thickens a gravy, is made with equal parts fat and flour. If you’re making classic pan gravy, you’ll use the fat in the roasting pan. If you’re making gravy ahead of time, use butter, melting it in a medium pan over medium heat.
Gently whisk the fat and flour together for at least five minutes, long enough for the raw taste of the flour to disappear. Keep cooking, whisking all the while, until the roux has reached your desired color.
The color of the roux determines what its flavor will be, and how effective it will be as a thickening agent.
A white or light roux, in which the flour is cooked briefly, will give you a mild mixture that lets the flavor of the poultry dominate. It’s also the most effective thickener. A dark, mahogany-colored roux adds an intense, caramelized, nutty flavor to the gravy, but sometimes at the expense of turkey flavor. Or strike a balance and cook the roux until medium-brown, which will give you a nuttiness that still allows the poultry character to shine.
Classic Pan Gravy
Time: 25 minutes Yield: 5 to 6 cups Here is a simple, elegant pan gravy that lends itself well to cooking in the very pan in which you’ve roasted your turkey. It calls for whisking flour with the fat in the bottom of the pan to create a light roux (no lumps!), then hitting it with stock and wine, salt and pepper. Some may wish to add cream or other spices. Decant the gravy into a warmed boat or beaker, rather than into a cold one, and serve immediately.
7 tablespoons turkey fat,
left in roasting pan 6 tablespoons flour, preferably instant or all-purpose
1⁄2 cup white wine
4 to 5 cups turkey stock or
chicken stock Kosher salt and black pepper
Pour off all but 7 or so tablespoons turkey fat from the roasting pan, and set the pan on the stovetop over medium heat. Sprinkle the flour over the fat and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is golden, 8 to 10 minutes.
Increase heat to medium
high and add a little white wine, whisking as you go to let it reduce. Slowly add stock, stirring constantly, until the mixture is smooth. Cook, continuing to stir, until the gravy has thickened, 8 to 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
— By Sam Sifton
Time: 1 hour
Yield: 6 to 8 cups Mark Bittman writes that this bread stuffing, based on a James Beard recipe, has been a staple on his Thanksgiving table for decades. First, you make fresh breadcrumbs: Just whiz a few cups of slightly stale cubes of decent bread (crust and all, unless it’s superhard) in a food processor. Keep the crumbs very, very coarse. Cook them with plenty of butter or olive oil, and good seasonings. Baked in a pan, this is delicious, with or without gravy. You could use it to stuff the turkey if you’d like — but once you’ve tried it cooked on its own, you won’t look back.
1⁄2 pound butter (2 sticks) 1 cup chopped onion
1⁄2 cup pine nuts or
6 to 8 cups coarse fresh
breadcrumbs (see tip) 1 tablespoon minced fresh tarragon or sage leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried tarragon or sage, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground
1⁄2 cup chopped scallions 1⁄2 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
Melt butter over medium heat in a large, deep skillet, Dutch oven or casserole. Add onion and cook, stirring, until it softens, about 5 minutes. Add nuts and cook, stirring almost constantly, until they begin to brown, about 3 minutes.
Add breadcrumbs and tarragon or sage and toss to mix. Turn heat to low. Add salt, pepper and scallions. Toss again; taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Add parsley and stir. Turn off heat. (You may prepare recipe in advance up to this point; refrigerate, well wrapped or in a covered container, for up to a day before proceeding.)
Pack into chicken or turkey if you like before roasting, or roast in an ovenproof glass or enameled casserole for about 45 minutes, at 350 to 400 degrees; you can bake this dish next to the bird if you like. (Or you can cook it up to 3 days in advance and warm it up right before dinner.)
Tip: To make the breadcrumbs, tear bread into chunks and put them in the container of a food processor; you may need to do this in batches. Pulse until you have coarse, irregular crumbs, no smaller than a pea and preferably larger.
— By Mark Bittman
For lovers of stuffing and dressing, Thanksgiving may be the apex of the year.
For many, cranberry sauce is a Thanksgiving must. For this recipe and more Thanksgiving sides, visit timesfreepress.com.
Pan gravy lends itself well to cooking in the very pan in which you’ve roasted your turkey.
If you don’t stuff your turkey, you really don’t need to truss it. But if you do stuff your bird, trussing helps keep the stuffing in its proper place, especially when you are moving the turkey from the roasting pan to the cutting board.