This month on the Epicurious, we're answering your Thanksgiving questions. A few days ago, a commenter raised the issue of stuffing. This seemingly simple subject can actually get a bit complicated, so I thought I'd break it down. Here's the deal:
Thanksgiving cooks are split between those who stuff their turkeys and those who bake their stuffing in a casserole dish rather than in the bird. Why the disagreement? Part of it has to do with tradition and regional variations: Baking the stuffing outside the bird is more common in the South, where it's often called "dressing" rather than stuffing.
But there are also culinary and safety arguments behind each position. 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 165°F, some bacteria could remain alive and make diners sick. Getting the stuffing to 165°F is harder than it seems: It takes time for the oven's heat to penetrate all the way to the center of the bird, and by that point, the breast meat on the outside might very well be overcooked and dry.
For this reason, many experts recommend baking the stuffing outside the bird, where it can easily be cooked to 165°F and is less likely to harbor bacteria. However, many people who grew up eating stuffing from inside the bird find it lacking moisture and flavor when it's baked in a casserole dish, without the benefit of the turkey's juices.
Luckily, whichever method you prefer, there are ways to get around the problems. If you choose to bake your stuffing alongside the bird, drizzle 1/4 to 1/2 a cup of extra stock over it before it goes in the oven. This will replace the extra moisture and flavor the turkey would have provided. Using a rich, flavorful homemade stock, such as the Homemade Turkey Stock that Thanksgiving expert Rick Rodgers created for Epicurious, will also go a long way toward providing that indescribable roast-turkey-ness.
If you want to cook the stuffing inside the bird, you should take several precautions to ensure safety. First, do not stuff your turkey until right before it goes in the oven. Yes, when faced with a long list of Thanksgiving Day tasks, it's tempting to stuff the bird the night before, stow it in the fridge, and then just pop it in the oven the next morning. But this will create an optimal environment for bacteria to flourish: The moist stuffing, likely warm from the cooked veggies and stock, will sit in the fridge for hours before it gets below the "danger zone"-the range of temperatures in which bacteria can grow. This will allow any bacteria present, already thriving in the moist conditions, to multiply like crazy. Once the stuffing finally cools down, they won't be killed-they'll just stop multiplying as quickly. Then, when the turkey goes into the oven, the stuffing, now cold from the fridge, will take quite a while to heat up, again spending hours in the danger zone.
Instead of this risky procedure, cook any veggies for the stuffing the night before, but do not mix them with the bread, stock, and eggs. (Even if you don't stuff the bird, just mixing the wet ingredients and the bread can be too inviting to bacteria.) The next morning, heat the stock and combine it with the other stuffing ingredients, then immediately fill and roast the bird. Using warm stuffing and putting the turkey in the oven immediately will help the stuffing spend as little time in the "danger zone" as possible.
Finally, when the bird is done, take the temperature of the stuffing as well as the meat. Bacteria cannot survive above 165°F, so most recipes call for using a probe thermometer to verify that the thigh has reached this temperature before removing the turkey from the oven. (Some cooks prefer to remove their birds at 150°F on the assumption that the temperature will rise to 165°F as the meat rests; this is safer if you buy an organic or heritage turkey, which is less likely to contain bacteria. For more on this debate, see our complete turkey primer.)
However, just because the thigh meat has reached 165°F doesn't mean the stuffing has, too. So, be sure to insert your thermometer into the very center of the cavity as well. If the bird is done but the stuffing isn't, use this tip that Rodgers shared in his turkey recipe for Epicurious: Spoon the stuffing out into a bowl and microwave it until it registers 165°F. This will allow you to have moist, not overcooked meat and safe stuffing at the same time.
Who knew that such an old-fashioned and well-loved dish could be so controversial? But the bottom line is, you can have your stuffing-or dressing-however you want it if you follow these guidelines. And if you can't decide, you could always cook some in the turkey and some alongside. This is my preferred method-I love both the moist, tender texture from inside the turkey and the crisp, browned crust from the casserole dish.
Which stuffing camp do you fall into?
by Sarah Kagan
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