Stuffing or Dressing? To Stuff or Not? Which is IT?

Whether you choose to stuff or fill the bird or prepare stuffing outside of the turkey, each preparation is a personal preference or family tradition made with a combination of bread, vegetables, herbs, spices and perhaps a protein, dried fruits, and nuts. The difference between stuffing and dressing depends on how it’s prepared and regional or family traditions. Stuffing refers to filling the cavity, while dressing is a name for stuffing that is cooked separately from poultry, meat, or vegetables and served alongside it, rather than inside it. Which is it in your house?

With Thanksgiving Day just around the corner, November 21 is appropriately designated National Stuffing Day since we are already thinking about the stuffing, filling, or dressing to accompany the Thanksgiving turkey.  However, National Stuffing Day could also be in recognition of stuffing used in pockets of other cuts of meat, fish or vegetables that make excellent vessels for stuffing.

To stuff or not to stuff is the most often asked Thanksgiving turkey question?  The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends cooking the stuffing outside (external) of the bird for optimal safety; therefore, making it a dressing served on the side.  The safety concerns have to do with salmonella and other bacteria, which can come from eggs in the stuffing or from the interior surface of the turkey’s cavity. If the bird is removed from the oven before the stuffing reaches an internal temperature of 165°F, some bacteria could remain alive and make diners sick. 

There are pros and cons to both cooking styles.

In-Bird Stuffing. The primary advantages to an in-bird stuffing are that it is moist, sticky, and has all the flavors of the bird.  To be safe, it must reach an internal temperature of 165ºF, which means the bird is likely to cook longer or to an even higher temperature resulting in a potentially dry bird.  Stuffing cannot be prepared ahead; it must be prepared just before spooning the hot stuffing mixture into the cavity and placed in the oven.  The amount of stuffing in a cavity is limited to 1/2 to 1 cup of prepared stuffing per pound of raw poultry. Aromatics such as celery, onions, apples, oranges, etc must be placed on or around the bird.

Outside the Bird (Dressing).  When the stuffing is cooked outside the turkey, it may be prepared ahead (refrigerated or frozen).  The temperature of the dressing and the turkey can be measured more reliably. The cavity can be filled loosely with aromatics which steam and infuse heighten flavor and some moisture into the turkey. The turkey will also cook faster.  Dressing is the only option for turkeys that are prepared by frying, smoking, grilling or spatchcocking.  Dressing is often criticized as being dry or not-as-moist as stuffing.  This can be remedied with turkey or chicken broth/stock drizzled over the dressing before baking. Dressing can also be prepared in a slow cooker which frees up the oven for the turkey or other foods and tends to be moister and more stuffing like. (NOTE: Never place frozen stuffing or other frozen food in a slow cooker.)  Another benefit of cooking the dressing separately is that larger quantities of it can be made.  And it is also an option to let the dressing become a bit crispy as it is an excellent complement to the savory and juicy turkey and creamy mashed potatoes.

For complete how-to for safely preparing and cooking stuffing or dressing, check out the USDA website, Stuffing and Food Safety.  For all questions related to turkey preparations, check out Let’s Talk Turkey.

Because stuffing is an excellent medium for bacterial growth, it’s important to handle it safely and cook it to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165ºF as measured with a food thermometer whether prepared inside or outside of the cavity. As you plan for your Thanksgiving dinner, make your decision on whether to stuff or not based on safe handling and preparation.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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