When it comes to turkey dressing, it pays to think outside box–and that means cooking the dressing outside of the bird.
In the restaurant business, we usually cook the stuffing separate from the turkey. Some people may call that sacrilege, but to a chef it makes more sense for reasons of taste and timing:
1. It allows heat to enter the cavity to cook the breast meat from inside and out. When you put all that cold soggy bread inside a turkey, you need to cook it through so by the time the heat gets to the center the breast is dry. Instead, I loosely pack large pieces of carrots onions and celery inside the cavity for moisture, flavor and circulation. I imagine heating the stuffing first would help cook the bird, but I have never seen anyone do that. I then cook my stuffing on the stove and then pop it in the oven to heat it for serving.
2. You’ll get your turkey into the oven more quickly on Thanksgiving morning as you can start preparing the stuffing a day in advance.
1 large or 2 small loaves of bread. I use live breadcrumbs rather than stale bread you have to soak. Pick a type that most people will like but will not take over the flavor of the stuffing–for example, I love rye bread but would never use it for stuffing or croutons.
1 large onion
4 stalks of celery
1/2 cup of olive oil (or fat of your choosing)
1 cup broken walnuts, pine nuts or chestnuts
2 tbsp rubbed sage
2 tsp thyme
Salt & pepper to taste
1/2 cup cranberry sauce (optional)
1 cup turkey gravy or pan juice (you can substitute chicken stock or chicken and beef stock if you don’t want to share the pan drippings)
Preparing turkey stuffing:
1. Feed the bread into the food processor a few slices at a time until you have enough. One large or two small loaves should suffice. I use the equivalent of one large white loaf for about 14 people; add more if you’re hosting a larger horde of guests. You can do this ahead of time and cover it.
2. Chop one large onion and four stalks of celery; add grated carrots and/or mushrooms for variety. Cook in the turkey fat if you wait to the end, otherwise use olive oil, butter or bacon fat. If you want to add sausage, you can use the rendered fat.
3. Then sauté the vegetables. I like to add nuts when the vegetables are soft. I am known to use walnuts, pine nuts and chestnuts, depending on price and mood. Walnuts I break up with a rolling pin or bottom of a heavy pan and then chop a little more with a knife. You can save money and buy the broken ones if you are shopping for them. One year I bought a bag of chestnuts and roasted them for hors d’œuvre. I then peeled and chopped a dozen and added them to the stuffing so the little crunches add a nice texture.
4. At this point, also add thyme, rubbed sage, salt and pepper. Add the breadcrumbs to the pot or this mixture to a larger pot or bowl with the breadcrumbs for mixing. Mix well. My wife always makes fresh cranberry sauce so I always throw a spoonful or two in to give the stuffing a hint of cranberry without sweetening it too much.
5. Put the stuffing mix aside and wait for the gravy. If you do it a day or two ahead, take it out of the refrigerator an hour before the turkey’s coming out of the oven to get it room temperature.
When the turkeys is out and resting, you will use the pan drippings for the gravy. You can use the finished gravy or just a nice ladle or two of the turkey juice to add to the stuffing to moisten it. It still won’t be soggy like you’re used to so don’t waste all the gravy trying to achieve that.
6. Put it in a pan, cover it and put it in that hot oven while you get everything else ready. It does not need to cook; it just needs to be warmed for serving.