Turkey 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. So why, then, is stuffing so often a side dish that feels like either a scattered heap of disconnected bits of dry food or a sad lump of suspiciously damp croutons studded with big hunks of raw celery?

One of the first known roles of stuffing was to be a happy edible surprise hidden inside a (seemingly) plain and simple dish: A drunken feast in ancient Rome astonished its guests with a roasted pig filled with unexpected sausage, and Medieval recipes were said to hide an almond in the center of a meatball. But the early Americans took a more pragmatic approach: They generally followed the English style of mixing bread cubes with sage and onion to stuff a bird. The food-strapped pioneers also focused on carefully using up stale bits of bread, potatoes, or crackers, and stretching it with easy sources of protein such as oysters from the local shores.

Today we’re fortunate to have a world of interesting grains, fruits, nuts, meats, and breads to choose from and customize for our own tables. If you follow the set of guidelines below, then this Thanksgiving you’ll be able to surprise your guests too — let the feast begin!

The Freedom To Choose

Most turkey stuffing recipes have a similar collection of elements, but the details can be easily customized to suit your palate or to compliment the other flavors at the table. They share basic building blocks, but the end results seem endless, much like the elements of our world. To simplify things, here is a Periodic Table of sorts, albeit much simpler (and way more delicious):

The Periodic Table of Stuffing Elements

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A Simple Starch or Grain: Choices include bread cubes, whether wheat-based or barely sweetened cornbread; 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, barley, or freekeh (quinoa or amaranth might not provide the bulk a stuffing requires but could be mixed in with larger grains).

The Star Ingredients: These are the main one or two flavors in the stuffing, whether it’s bacon, leeks, mushrooms, sausage, apples, or oysters. They usually nab the headline in the recipe title and are what make your guests go, “Oooooooh,” when you set the dish down on the table.

The Aromatics: This is generally the Holy Trinity of vegetables, often the French mirepoix of onion, celery, and carrot. Caribbean and Cajun cooking use green bell pepper in the place of carrot for a little less sweetness and a little more edge.

Herbs and Spices: These help bring all the different flavors and textures together so it tastes like a cohesive dish. Are fresh herbs 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, like your classic poultry seasoning — though freshly-cracked black pepper 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, with a hint of sweet or tanginess, a bit of crunch, or a little unexpected acidity.

Stuffing Myths, Debunked

1). If you pack stuffing too densely into a turkey, the bird may explode. This one is definitely an old wives’ tale. Careful research has been unable to find even one angry granny whose Thanksgiving Day was ruined by a turkey blowing apart in her oven. While it’s important to follow certain safety steps to avoid dangerous bacteria in a stuffed bird (more on that later), no one’s kitchen is in danger.

2). There's a correct way to use the terms “stuffing” and “dressing.” No, there isn’t. You may 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 dish on the side, there are no stuffing… err, dressing police who have the final word.

3). It’s best to buy the pre-cut, pre-seasoned bread cubes at the grocery store. There isn’t a strong right or wrong here. While pre-cut cubes of bread do save time, or perhaps an Italian-seasoned crouton is what your family has always used, when you cut your chosen bread into cubes you do have much greater control over how the final dish will taste. And it’s easy to toast them in the oven to get that crunchy, stale effect (all the better to soak up the flavors). Just remember not to get lazy and cut huge cubes to speed things along. Do feel free to tear the bread into small pieces instead of cutting it; 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.)

Stuffing: In The Bird Or Out? Or Really: Safety First

There's a lot of anxiety and fear around whether or not to stuff your Thanksgiving 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. The juices from the turkey create a more flavorful, succulent stuffing than simply moistening it in a pan with some chicken stock. But it’s not required to produce a delicious result. Here are the pros and cons, for your consideration:

Pro: The stuffing from inside the bird tastes delicious.

Con: If the stuffing in the bird doesn’t reach an internal temperature of 165° F, bacteria can multiply and cause serious food poisoning. To reach that temperature, the bird will have a much longer cook time, possibly drying out the (already lean) meat and also making everyone cranky that dinner is delayed.

Solution: The days of my grandmother stuffing the turkey the night before, then storing the whole bird in the chilly fridge overnight, are gone. It took hours and hours for that stuffing to get hot enough not to cause serious illness. People got hangry. But the solutions are simple:

  • Stuff the bird right before you pop it in the oven.
  • Heat up the stuffing in a large bowl 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 a lot less time to get back up to 165°F than if you used cool or room temperature stuffing. Also, if you fill the cavity with very hot stuffing, then that heat can actually help the turkey start to cook a little more quickly on the inside.
  • Don't 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.

Pro: The stuffing from inside the bird tastes delicious.

Con: I can’t fit all the stuffing into the cavity. What do I do with the rest?

Solution: 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 2-quart casserole or gratin dish. And since it doesn’t require a slow roast, your baking dish can be popped in the oven once the roast turkey is resting, and should be ready just as Thanksgiving dinner is about to be served.

Pro: The stuffing from inside the bird tastes delicious.

Con: It’s hard to get the stuffing out of the cavity of the turkey.

Solution: You have two options: One is to accept that you will not be able to get every last delicious morsel out of the bird. Two is to purchase a thin organic cotton produce bag and fill it loosely with hot stuffing, then put the whole bag into the turkey. To remove, simply pull the bag out and pour into a serving dish. Voila.

Our Thanksgiving Stuffing Recipe Picks

Need some homemade stuffing recipes? Yummly has all the stuffing recipes a cook could dream of; here are a few to get you started this holiday season:

Oyster Stuffing Recipe

Oyster Stuffing

Oyster Stuffing Recipe by Saveur

Squash, Mushroom, and Farro Dressing Recipe

Farro Dressing

Squash, Mushroom and Farro Dressing Recipe by Better Homes & Gardens

Sausage, Cranberry, and Cornbread Stuffing Recipe

Sausage, Cranberry and Cornbread StuffingWild Rice Stuffing

Wild Rice Stuffing Recipe by Every Day With Rachael Ray

Fennel Sausage Stuffing Recipe

Fennel Sausage Stuffing