The right stuff for your festive bird
Once used to bulk up meagre proportions, stuffing is enjoying a revival with some deliciously modern takes on a traditional dish
Hattie Ellis gives advice and recipes
Stuffing is a great way to add extra seasoning and flavour to a roast
While many food dishes and traditions fall away from daily use, they tend to continue at Christmas. So it is with our densely fruity Christmas pudding, its origins in medieval feasting, and stuffing.
Stuffing used to go beyond Christmas, too. In many households, the Sunday roast would come with a dollop of homemade sage-and-onion, or else Paxo, the packet mix created in 1901 by a Lancashire butcher to sell something extra to his customers for their main weekend meal.
Yet the history of stuffing is more distinguished than these remnants suggest and it is now experiencing a revival that makes it anything but old-fashioned.
As well as being put inside the handy cavity of birds – game as well as poultry – stuffing was used to replace the bone and keep the shape of the joint, making it look good and be easy to carve.
Traditional butchers still find plenty of uses for this method of boning and stuffing, including the classic Christmas extravaganza of boned birds stuffed inside each other, a dish that harks back to the conceits of medieval and Renaissance chefs.
Stuffing, as a technique, was used to play culinary jokes: you’d cut into something to find the unexpected, such as the four and
twenty blackbirds baked in a pie from the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence.
Heston Blumenthal and Ashley Palmerwatt’s iconic Meat Fruit, served at the history-inspired London restaurant Dinner, continues this tradition. Chicken liver parfait is encased in mandarin jelly that is moulded to look like citrus skin, a dish that was inspired by Tudor cooking.
Home cooks keep their stuffing simpler. To start with the basics, today as much as for yesteryear, stuffing is a great way to add extra seasoning and flavour to a roast, as well as making the meat go further. Fatty mixtures, rich in belly fat and butter, lubricate the meat and hence its use in poultry and game.
Here we hit controversy. At one time, stuffing was always cooked within a bird, which meant it flavoured the meat and was, in turn, flavoured by the meat juices, gaining a delicious, slightly offally flavour.
However, some food safety advice is now to cook stuffing separately. Otherwise, it can encourage harmful bacteria because the roast heats up less quickly and may cook less thoroughly. Cooks also know that a longer cooking time can mean the breast meat dries out. Instead, cook the stuffing in a separate dish alongside the roast (see recipes below). Just make sure you put some butter on top to prevent the mixture drying out.
However, not everyone agrees. Food writer Catherine Phipps mounts a strong defence of internal stuffing in her excellent book Chicken. “I don’t always make roast chicken with stuffing but I always regret it when I don’t, it’s such a wasted opportunity not to bother,” she writes. “Stuffing outside the bird isn’t stuffing.”
What matters, says Phipps – and some other food safety advice – is to use a digital thermometer to check that the stuffing inside reaches 75°C, as well as roasting the meat carefully so it doesn’t dry out.
Stuffing doesn’t necessarily contain bread. The French term for stuffed, farci, gave rise to the old term ‘forcemeat’ and is associated with finer textured, elaborate mixtures used to stuff fish as well as meat. As well as breadcrumb or meat-based stuffings, Phipps explores using root vegetables and grains, including the modish freekeh (a delicious smoky wheat) and quinoa. Potatoes are a classic stuffing for roast goose – an interior, non-crispy version of goose-fat potatoes.
Then there are other ways of using stuffing. Smaller households can have a Christmas dinner by carefully cutting a pocket in a turkey breast, filling it with stuffing and tieing up this mini-roast to cook alongside roast potatoes and other trimmings. You can slide stuffings or flavourings under the loosened skin of a bird – herby butter, spices mixed into olive oil – or even slithers of truffle if you’re feeling flush.
French chef Stéphane Reynaud, in his book R™tis, gives many different options, including the ultra-simple. One of his drily written recipe reads: “This is a complicated process consisting of carefully unwrapping
I don’t always make roast chicken with stuffing but I regret it when I don’t
a Boursin cheese and stuffing it into the chicken.” The cheese melts into the cooking juices as the bird cooks.
Stuffing is not just for meat. “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom,” declared Shirley Conran in a rallying cry from the early days of Women’s Liberation.
But, nowadays, such kitchen work can be seen as resourceful and canny. Classically, you can use bread, rice, meat trimmings and leftovers to transform humble vegetables. Middle Eastern cooking is strong on stuffing vegetables and the ultra-fashionable Ottolenghi cookbooks are full of such recipes.
Alex Jackson of the much-lauded London restaurant Sardine takes his inspiration from southern French food, particularly dishes from Provence, where petits farcis, or stuffed vegetables, are a celebrated dish.
“Stuffing is a good way to make a vegetable the centre of a meal,” says Jackson. “It is quite an involved, labour-intensive process but it’s the maxium way of getting something delicious into a small parcel.”
For his petits farcis, Jackson uses an apple corer to take out the centre of courgettes and small aubergines. He removes the centre of medium-sized tomatoes, salts the pulp so the delicious juices drip out and puts this brightly acidic liquid into a baking tray with cream and tarragon. The hollowed-out vegetables are stuffed, perhaps with a mixture of veal and pork, or with a vegetarian stuffing based on fine bulghar wheat and herbs. Either way, it’s crucial that the texture is homogenous and slightly wet – and roasted with its sauce.
Sardine’s annual game dinner brings out some other stuffing recipes. Jackson crumbles up a Lyonnaise boiling sausage called cervelas into a soffrito of diced vegetables and red wine. This goes inside grouse. “Grouse is very strong but you get this rich, slightly porky and aromatic mixture that flavours the meat,” says Jackson. “You scoop it out and that’s your sauce.”
Another classic French dish using stuffing is a Chartreuse, which at Sardine might be pheasant but is most commonly made with partridge. A poached cabbage leaf ‘cake’ is cut open to reveal its stuffing of layers of
Stuffing is a good way to make a vegetable the centre of a meal
braised game, mushrooms and onions. The dish was created by the Carthusian monks and so named because their order was partly founded in the Chartreuse mountains. It was originally all vegetables – the meat version gives rise to the joke that monks would try to hide a bit of meat in a cabbage dish.
At its best, stuffing is about surprise, flavour, moisture, textures; about creating something special out of the apparently humble and packing a dish to the max. In other words, far more than a boring packet mix and definitely worth exploring well beyond Christmas.
In Rôtis: Roasts for Every Day of the Week, Stéphane Reyhaud offers such simple suggestions as stuffing a chicken with a packet of Boursin cream cheese
Top: if stuffing is cooked separately, ensure it doesn’t dry out. Above: stuffing at the centre of a three-bird roast