Stuff It! Here Are All the Thanksgiving Stuffing Tips and Recipes You Need
Everyone loves a juicy bird, but a great Thanksgiving stuffing can steal the show on your holiday plate. This versatile side shines deliciously on its own — once you master the basics.
Photograph by Olga Ivanova
Stuffing should be simple to get right. Some cubes of bread, perhaps some sausage (or oysters if you’re old school), finely cut aromatics, and a handful of herbs, then a gentle roast in a casserole, or — if you’re daring — a juicy turkey, with deliciousness to follow: to be smothered in gravy, speared with a bit of turkey, and a swipe of mashed potato for a decadent bite that hits all the marks.
The early Americans had a more pragmatic approach: They generally followed the English style of mixing bread cubes with sage and onion to stuff a bird, though the food-strapped pioneers also ate stuffing to carefully use up stale bits of bread, potatoes, or crackers, stretching it with easy sources of protein, like oysters plucked from the local shores. In my childhood, stuffing was served as a colorful companion and textural counterpoint to the simplicity of the roasted turkey and mashed potatoes, a way to fill my plate with starchy comfort studded with sausage, or a bit of briny mollusk.
Today we’re fortunate to have a world of interesting grains, fruits, nuts, meats, and breads to choose from for our own tables. The guide below provides all the tips and tricks you’ll need, so let the feast begin!
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The stuffing questions you were too afraid to ask: Answered!
You will be a stuffing expert by the time you're through reading.
What is stuffing made of?
The short answer is: You have the freedom to choose. Most stuffings have a similar collection of elements, but the details can be easily customized to suit your palate or complement the other flavors at the table. They share basic building blocks, but the results seem infinite, much like the elements of our world — to simplify things, the section below is a Periodic Table of sorts (but this one is way more delicious).
The Periodic Table of stuffing elements
A simple starch (or grain): Bread cubes, whether wheat-based, barely sweetened cornbread or a loaf of gluten-free or keto compliant; wild rice, which is technically a grass that’s native to North America; regular long grain rice; or any number of today’s favored grains: farro, wheatberries, millet, or barley.
The star ingredients: These are the prominent flavors in the stuffing, whether it’s leeks, bacon, mushrooms, sausage, apple, or oysters. They usually nab the headline in the recipe title, and are what makes guests go, “Ooh,” when you set the dish on the table.
The aromatics: This is generally the Holy Trinity of vegetables, often the French mirepoix, which is onion, celery, and carrot. Caribbean and Cajun cooking use green bell pepper in place of the carrot for a little less sweetness and a little more edge.
Herbs and spices: These bring the different flavors and textures together. Is fresh best? It depends on the herb or spice itself; some hold up well in the oven (like sage, tarragon, or parsley), while others wilt (looking at you, marjoram or basil). In stuffing, sometimes dried is the better choice — except for freshly cracked black pepper, which is always the right choice. And while 11 herbs and spices might work for fried chicken, in stuffing it’s best to keep it simple.
Bells and whistles: These are the additional pops of flavor and texture that surprise and delight, add-ins of endless possibilities, with a hit of sweet or tanginess, a bit of crunch, or a little unexpected acidity.
What IS the difference between stuffing and dressing?
Is there a correct way to identify “stuffing” versus “dressing”? No, there isn’t. Please use whichever word you like. In Victorian England they began using the word “dressing” because “stuffing” had certain naughty connotations, but today it’s usually a regional preference. And while some may say stuffing is what goes in the bird, and dressing is what’s cooked in a casserole dish on the side, there are no stuffing… err, dressing police who have the final word.
How much stuffing per person should I plan to serve?
It’s important to keep in mind that Thanksgiving is not a meal like other meals. Even though it’s tradition for most people to overeat as a sign of our gratitude, side dishes abound and there are pies aplenty lying in wait for dessert time. Most diners will probably have between a ½- to 1-cup serving of stuffing. But trust the recipes below: They were designed for this annual feast.
One word of caution, though: Some folks (ok, especially me!) tend to get nervous and feel tempted to double recipes just in case an extra 10 people show up at the last minute. Even with my friendly, very American “All are welcome!” approach, I’ve never run out of food — quite the opposite! At this point, I ask guests to B.Y.O. to-go containers. So trust your recipe: You will have enough stuffing. I promise.
Do I have to cut up the bread myself? And how do you dry out bread for stuffing?
There isn’t a strong right or wrong here— while pre-cut cubes of bread do save on total time, and perhaps an Italian-seasoned crouton is what your family has always used, it comes down to two factors: Personal preference, and if you have time to cube up a loaf or two of bread. Though when you cut it up and toast it, you get greater control over how the final dish will taste.
It’s easy to toast your freshly cut bread in the oven on a rimmed baking sheet pan to get that crunchy, stale effect (all the better to soak up the flavors); follow directions in the recipe, but do feel free to tear the bread into small pieces instead of cubing them. You’ll create more craggy corners that will crisp up in the oven, and it may be good emotional preparation for any unexpected political conversations that come later. (Better to get the frustration out now!)
The recipe calls for turkey stock! What if I don’t have any?
Some ambitious cooks will take the turkey neck and some of the giblets and make a homemade stock to use for cooking, but it’s definitely not required. If a recipe calls for turkey stock, feel free to swap in whatever canned or boxed chicken stock you have on hand. Your stuffing will still be delicious.
How to cook stuffing in the oven: In the bird vs. out
There is a lot of concern around whether or not to stuff a turkey, with adamant cooks on both sides of the aisle. The truth is, it’s ok to cook stuffing inside the bird as long as you follow some simple safety guidelines. It’s true that the juices from the turkey create a more flavorful, succulent stuffing, but it’s not required to produce a delicious result.
If you do stuff the bird, follow these simple steps to ensure food safety:
Heat up the stuffing in the microwave or get it piping hot on the stove right before filling the turkey cavity. Use your thermometer and get it as close to 165°F as you can before it enters the bird. The temperature will drop a bit once it’s inside, but it will take less time to get back up to 165°F than if you used cool or room temperature stuffing. (The USDA recommends it reach that temperature in order to kill any harmful bacteria.) Also, if you fill the cavity with very hot stuffing, that heat can help the turkey start to cook a little quicker from inside out.
Stuff the bird right before you pop it in the oven.
Do not densely pack the stuffing into the cavity. The mixture will expand a little as it cooks, and you want the hot air from the oven to be able to penetrate.
I can’t fit all the stuffing into the cavity. What do I do with the rest?
This is an opportunity for everyone to get their needs met. Whatever portion of the mixture fits loosely in the turkey goes there, while most of the stuffing can be cooked in a casserole or gratin dish. And since it doesn’t require a slow roast, that dish can be popped in the oven once the turkey is resting, and should be ready just as the meal is about to be served.
Ack! There’s no room in the oven for the stuffing! What do I do?
Fear not. A turkey needs to rest for 30 minutes after being roasted in the oven (or deep-fried!), and if you’ve been wondering how long to bake stuffing anyway, here is the lucky answer! Most stuffing recipes call for 30-40 minutes in the oven; while the bird rests and is carved, your stuffing has plenty of time and space to bake to perfection.
Can you freeze Thanksgiving stuffing?
As a pre-holiday time-saving measure, sauté and prepare any ingredients as instructed, assemble and place the stuffing in its prepared baking dish, then carefully wrap it to avoid letting air in and freeze it for up to one month in advance. On the holiday, the stuffing should go straight from the freezer to the oven; it’s safe to eat as soon as a food thermometer registers 165°F.
As leftovers, yes you can freeze stuffing. It’s best to separate it into smaller containers before freezing.
So then how do you reheat stuffing?
To reheat, place it in the oven (covered) at 350°F for about 15 minutes or until heated through. For leftover refrigerated stuffing, use a microwave or follow the baking instructions above, but check it after 10 minutes.
Never use a Crock Pot to reheat leftover stuffing, though you can safely reheat it in a microwave or oven and then serve it in a preheated Crock Pot if you’re feeding a crowd.
What to do with leftover stuffing: A delicious dilemma
Aside from having Thanksgiving Dinner: Part II over the weekend, stuffing presents a great opportunity for some creative leftovers. For brunch, heat up some stuffing, pop a fried egg on top, and voila! You’ve got a fast and fun hash.
Or make Stuffing Stuffed Shells! Boil up some large shell pasta, mix your stuffing with cut-up turkey, shredded cheddar cheese, and some leftover sweet potatoes, spoon into shells, and drizzle with leftover gravy.
Traditional and meal planner-friendly stuffing recipes
Stuffing was originally defined as a happy food surprise, like an almond hidden in a meatball in Medieval times. But today, it’s a crucial piece of the Thanksgiving meal puzzle; these recipes deliver the most beloved traditional stuffing dishes, and most can be prepared ahead to reduce prep time on the day-of.
Wondering how to make homemade stuffing? Here is a classic Thanksgiving recipe, designed to deliver all the best flavors from wholesome ingredients to make a hearty, comforting accompaniment to a juicy bird. Feel free to swap out the bread for any variety you prefer — it’ll be delicious regardless. And it can be put together the day before, ready for the oven on the big day.
While this stuffing has a dozen ingredients, four of them are spices and one of them is butter. Purchase a bag of pre-cut dried bread cubes at the market, pop open a can of chicken stock, do a little chopping, and get ready for oohs and ahhs from up and down the table.
This recipe includes instructions for making the cornbread from scratch, but feel free to substitute purchased cornbread to speed the process. Pecans enhance its Southern flair, while pears give notes of sweetness. The dish can be assembled and refrigerated up to three days in advance, or for real convenience, you can fix and freeze it up to one month ahead! That’s preparation worthy of a Girl Scout.
Stuffing recipes, by featured ingredient
For some folks, it’s not a treasured Thanksgiving day without oysters in the stuffing, or sausage and leeks dancing amongst the bread cubes, or a kitchen redolent of sage… if you know X marks the cranberry spot and you just need the map, look no further than the recipes below.
This cornbread stuffing combines a variety of satisfying textures and sweet, tart, and savory flavors, the perfect foil to a carefully roasted Thanksgiving turkey. Corn is native to the Americas, and it shines in each cube of bread in this dish, and the leeks (use only the white and pale green parts) provide a delicate counterpoint to the hearty sausage and toothsome cornbread.
Sausage stuffing delivers an umami hit to your Thanksgiving plate, and this dish gets added dimension from both diced fennel bulb and fennel seed. Fresh thyme adds an herbaceous sweet, yet sharp note, and crusty, chewy baguettes ensure the texture is hearty and interesting in each bite.
Oysters were plentiful and easy to harvest for the pilgrims who prepared the first Thanksgiving feast, and they gratefully found creative ways to include the briny mollusks in a variety of dishes. This sophisticated stuffing celebrates those early New England traditions and releases an umami wave on the plate. Be sure to reserve a cup of the oyster’s “liquor” — the flavorful liquid found inside the shell — as you shuck them.
A fun fact to know and tell: Wild rice is native to North America, and is technically a grass, not a grain! Butternut squash is also indigenous to the Americas, making this dish a truly indigenous gem. Celery leaves serve as a pretty pale green garnish, and a mélange of mushrooms give it depth.
Sourdough bread adds an interesting counterpoint to the sweetness of the carrot, funkiness of the mushrooms, and zing of the fresh garlic in this stuffing. The holy trinity of onion, celery, and carrot ground this homestyle recipe, while parsley and sage leaves add a fresh element.
Fresh chestnuts give a meaty, toothsome edge to this classic stuffing recipe. Hearty enough for a vegetarian dish if you use vegetable broth instead of turkey or chicken broth, this recipe will satisfy a crowd of grateful eaters. Save time by boiling and peeling the chestnuts a few days in advance and storing in the fridge.
These carefully portioned out stuffin’ muffins add some fun to the Thanksgiving table, and ensure everyone gets some crispy edges to bite into — no more fighting for the corner! This buttery stuffing is redolent with sage and gets a sweet-tart counterpoint from dried cranberries.
Italian sausage and apple offer a nice compare and contrast taste experience in this holiday recipe, and because it calls for ciabatta bread (ciabatta means “slipper” in Italian because the long rectangular loaf resembles a flat shoe), it’s an excellent make-ahead dish. Ciabatta is dense and chewy, and won’t turn to mush overnight in the fridge.
An abundance of mushrooms shines in this interesting take on a traditional Thanksgiving stuffing. Farro replaces the bread, while pancetta offers a sophisticated swap for bacon. Butternut squash adds a textural contrast and natural sweetness that fits right in on an autumnal table.
Stuffing recipes, by diet
Thanksgiving can be a stressful time when you’re trying to eat healthy, or you have certain dietary guidelines that can’t be compromised. Fear not! We’ve got you covered: keto, gluten-free, grain-free, vegetarian, and vegan cooks, stuffing is for you, too.
This gluten-free stuffing takes advantage of the excellent options in celiac-friendly bread available at most grocery stores now to ensure you can cook up a delicious Thanksgiving dish. The stuffing has the traditional textures everyone expects and comforting notes of rosemary, sage, and thyme. Feel free to stir in savory cooked crumbled sausage, or a chopped apple for a hint of sweetness.
Seek out the lightest loaf of keto bread you can find for this healthful update on a traditional Thanksgiving stuffing recipe. Cauliflower, leeks, and celery deliver flavor while being light on carbs, while garlic and fresh sage ensure classic holiday flavor so you can balance health with comfort food nostalgia.
Thanksgiving Stuffing (Vegan)
This cheery and sophisticated vegan dressing recipe gets its umami from shiitake mushrooms (though feel free to use any assortment of mushrooms you have on hand) and a dash of balsamic vinegar. The cipollini onions bring a natural sweetness, and a bit of kale ensures an iron boost so everyone walks away from the table feeling good.
Dried Fruit and Toasted Nut Stuffing (Vegetarian)
This balanced and elegant vegetarian stuffing delivers what everyone hopes for in an iconic Thanksgiving dish: a tangy sourdough French bread mixture, exciting textural contrast thanks to the toasted walnuts and pecans, chewy sweetness from dried figs and apricots, and lusciousness from a bit of chopped chestnut. Fresh rosemary, sage, and thyme deliver a bright astringency in tiny pops, for a truly balanced stuffing that’ll have everyone asking for seconds.
This hearty low-carb stuffing delivers the flavor of the traditional bread-based dish, but with lots of veggies served up instead. Crumbled pork gives it body and heft in the mouth, and riced cauliflower adds a starchy quality sans a high glycemic index. Sage and poultry seasoning ensure it tastes like a holiday — what are you waiting for? Grab that spatula.
Stuffing recipes, by appliance
The kitchen can be a mighty crowded place in the run-up to Thanksgiving dinner; the more oven and stove space you can spare, the better the cooking goes! Press your Crock Pot, Instant Pot, and even air fryer into service and get all the dishes to the table on time.
Who doesn’t want a set-it-and-forget-it Thanksgiving side? This stuffing has the potential to truly be a one-pot dish because, if your slow cooker has a sauté setting, everything can be made in the slow cooker itself. It’s a quick chop of some yellow onion and stalks celery, then a gentle sauté in butter (vegetable or olive oil would work, too), and everything goes into the Crock Pot until it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F. A smattering of chopped parsley before serving ensures a fresh quality to the final dish.
This zesty stuffing uses the pressure cooker capability of the Instant Pot with great aplomb; the initial sauté is done in this handy appliance as well, making it a great choice for a crowded kitchen during a busy holiday. Using pre-seasoned stuffing cubes speeds the process, and the fun selection of optional ingredients to add— dried cranberries, nuts, apple, mushrooms, and bacon— makes this customizable dish sure to be a hit.
Get a nice crisp golden brown top on your stuffing and open up a little more precious space in the oven with this Thanksgiving dish full of traditional flavors; and with an air fryer, you’re guaranteed to avoid any soggy bread. Using poultry seasoning ensures your stuffing will be the perfect complement for the crisp and juicy turkey, and because it’s a blend means it’s the only spice jar you’ll need to grab. Plus, this vegetarian stuffing is easily made vegan if you swap out the butter for a little oil.
Ready to plan the rest of your Thanksgiving menu?
Now that you've found (and hopefully conquered!) the very best Thanksgiving stuffing for your taste buds and needs, round out your meal. Yummly has all the recipes a cook could dream of. Here are a few to get you started: