Traditional Thanksgiving Dressing: Four Family Recipes

Every year I look forward to cooking and eating Thanksgiving dinner. I have hosted Thanksgiving more times than I can remember. I have felt the anxiety as a first-time host and I remember the year I compulsively decided to cook a vegan counterpart to every meat course so that my vegetarian guests would feel included. I have attempted a few modern-day tricks (i.e. blended celeriac with the mashed potatoes), and have fretted over uneven oven temperatures in rental home kitchens. Above all I have learned to enjoy the process of procuring, cooking and sharing the Thanksgiving meal. I used to cook “at” my guests. It’s now much more enjoyable to allow my guests to contribute to the meal instead of sweating the small stuff.

Last year's "no-frills" Thanksgiving Buffet

Last year’s brown Thanksgiving buffet (yes there were greens off to the side)

Turkey continues to play a central role in the traditional Thanksgiving meal. Even vegetarians have their Tofurkey. There are many different ways one can cook or season a turkey, from hoisin-glazed turkey, deep fried turkey, spatchcocking- all perfectly sane attempts to “improve” upon the traditional roasted bird. Some Thanksgiving experiments are so good, they are adopted as tradition (i.e. brining the turkey). Some people can’t stand turkey and have replaced the centerpiece with pork roast or leg of lamb. Turkey haters seem to be more prevalent this year, at least on Facebook. There is such animosity towards turkey. Who knew!

Thanksgiving is a secular north American holiday, so that gives cooks the permission to surpass the constraints of tradition, no matter how pervasive. The meal is not bound up in religious ritual or taboo. Cooks can strictly adhere to tradition, to tinker with ingredients and seasonings or to break free from tradition all together. My family has pretty strong Thanksgiving meal preferences. My own tastes and cooking knowledge compliments them. My own style lies somewhere between traditional and contemporary, inspired by the good home cooks that came before me.

I’ve always been fascinated by the number of dressing (or stuffing) recipes that exist across the country and even within groups or families. Dressing can be stuffed in a turkey carcass, rolled inside a turkey-flavored tofu ball, or baked separately in a pan. Dressings are made with white bread, cornbread or a combination of different types of breads, even rice. Dressings include chestnuts, hard boiled eggs, herbs, oysters, mushrooms and sausage. There are probably as many recipes for Thanksgiving dressing as there is for Korean kimchi. Every cook has their own “authentic” way to prepare it.

I asked my mother Linda, my sister Shawna and my cousin Janice to share their Thanksgiving dressing recipes with me for this blog. The following recipes include cornbread (preferential to white cornbread). Each use aromatics such as onions, celery and the herb sage (Janice uses breakfast sausage which has a strong sage flavor). All bake the dressing separately from the turkey instead of stuffing it.  Stuffing the bird with dressing and then cooking it would interfere with the most important Thanksgiving food: turkey gravy! Turkey gravy is made by cooking a slurry of flour and broth or water added to the caramelized pan drippings- and gravy can’t be made like this if the turkey is stuffed.

Each recipe below is clearly inspired by a loving mother or grandmother. Part of why I asked family members to contribute dressing recipes is because “doing Thanksgiving dressing right” in my family is  a big deal. I find a comfort in reading the stories and “rules.” Our recipes show that family food traditions are inherently flexible. Good food traditions don’t disappear, they are revitalized every time each person cooks Thanksgiving, no matter how much we experiment with tradition.

I make the choice to buy my turkey from a local farm (this year I got a “secret turkey” from Skagit River Ranch) instead of the grocery store. J and I love mushrooms in dressing. I also use a combination of cubed white cornbread mixed with crusty como or sourdough bread that I cubed and froze last month. My mother sends me a box from Texas every year containing 2 packages of white cornbread mix before Thanksgiving because I cannot buy it in Seattle grocery stores.

My mom and sister both wrote out their recipes instruction-style…the list of ingredients is embedded in the instructions and precise measurements and methods are qualified. Ingredients and preparations matter- there is a reason for it. I can almost hear their voices while reading.

I hope you enjoy comparing and contrasting each recipe.  If you don’t already have your own favorite recipe for Thanksgiving dressing, please feel to borrow one of ours. Making dressing can be pretty easy. If you use one of our family recipes, please let me know if and how you altered the recipe to suit your own tastes. Served with homemade turkey gravy, I look forward to eating dressing every Thanksgiving.

Main ingredients for my Thanksgiving dressing

Main ingredients for my Thanksgiving dressing

Dressing for Poultry, by Linda Almes (my mother)

I make dressing the way I recall Mama making it.

Make cornbread. We used white meal, flour, buttermilk, baking powder, soda and salt. It wasn’t sweetened and had no eggs in it.  During the depression, recipes were trimmed down to the essentials & some of those recipes stuck. Always use a heated cast iron skillet so you get a nice crust.

Make biscuits- regular buttermilk ones. You’ll need about 2/3 cornbread to 1/3 biscuit.  Mama always saved and froze the leftovers from dinner but if you need to, you can make fresh but leave it out to dry out for a while. If you are short on biscuits you can use a little light bread.

In a big bowl break up the breads into chunks- about the size of a cherry tomato or smaller. Dice onions & celery -about equal amounts. For a big pan that would make 8 servings I’d add a cup or more of each.  Add that to the breads then add ½ Tbsp. of sage along with a bit of salt and pepper. (The amount of salt depends on the saltiness of your broth).  Mix together lightly as to not pulverize the mix. Heat chicken broth to the simmer. Add about ½ c. at a time slowly, mixing after each addition till the mix is thoroughly damp but not soggy. You should be able to make a ball of it if you tried.

Check & correct seasoning. we use a LOT of sage, probably a full Tbsp. (At this point we get little bowls and hand around to the kids who like it uncooked.) If they pronounce it good, put the rest into a baking dish, cover & bake at 350F till the onions and celery are cooked about 45 min.

Uncover for the last 15 min. to make a nice crusty top. Since it can be eaten raw there is no real worry except to heat through.

We’ve tried a lot of different add-ins over the years. Mushrooms, jalapeno peppers, pecans, boiled eggs etc. (yucko on the boiled eggs) I personally didn’t like any of them. We seldom stuffed the turkey as it was harder to get it cooked through with out drying the white meat too much. Happy Thanksgiving.

Dressing Recipe by Shawna Popp (my sister)

Make 24 Bisquick drop biscuits, recipe by direction on box. I find if I make 2-inch biscuits it has a better texture. Let them cool down. Make Martha White 24 white corn bread muffins, according to the box’s direction. I like to use butter to line muffin tins. The reason for muffins is it results in more crispy edges and it’s better for texture. Cool down. Crumble separately and be sure not to crumble too fine- no bigger than a dime pieces. Finely chop celery and onion- almost 1 cup each. Set aside. Get out rubbed dry sage, salt, pepper and 4 cups of Knorr chicken broth from cubes. Heat oven to 350. Prepare 9×13 casserole dish and coat with oil spray such as Pam.

In a very large mixing bowl you will 1st add crumbled cornbread, then add the biscuit crumbles. I think it is a 3 to 1 ratio. (3CB to 1B). Incorporate salt, pepper and sage to taste. Be careful not to add too much salt and remember that Knorr has loads of sodium and MSG. Add the celery and onion and incorporate throughout. Now the fun part: Start adding the broth. I look for a consistency of moist NOT mushy. Then taste and adjust seasoning. Once you are willing to eat the whole thing raw, it is ready for the oven. Add to pan then bake uncovered for, I think, 40 minutes. Check for that beautiful brown crispiness on top.

Understanding a lot of families have a lot of variations, you can always add to this recipe. This recipe is not completely accurate to my Grandma Patton’s, but it’s as close as I can get it. This recipe produces the taste and smells that make me thankful for my Grandma and the time and passion she put into everything she prepared.

Martha’s Cornbread and Sausage Stuffing,  by Janice Patton-Booth (my cousin)

Preheat oven 350

  • 2 bags cornbread stuffing mix (I prefer Pepperidge Farms)
  • 1 can chicken broth
  • 1 pound breakfast sausage roll (Jimmy Dean)
  • 1 medium onion (chopped)
  • 3 stalks celery (chopped)
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Saute chopped celery and onion in butter till translucent.

In a large bowl place stuffing mix, broth, raw sausage, sauté veggies, salt and pepper. Mix well.

Spray Pam into a 13X9 pan. Press stuffing mixture evenly into pan

Bake uncovered for 35-45 min. I even place under the broiler for the last few minutes to brown the top.

Lucy’s Thanksgiving Dressing

You can prepare bread cubes and freeze weeks in advance. You can then prepare the raw dressing up to 2 days before baking. No need to do prepare all the ingredients on the same day as you are juggling everything else.

  • 2  6 oz. packages of White Cornbread Mix (baked according the instructions), cut in half inch cubes
  • 1 loaf of crusty sourdough or Como loaf, cut in half inch cubes
  • 2-3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped mushrooms (foraged mushrooms such as chanterelles or porcini are best)
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and minced
  • 2 stalks celery, trimmed and minced
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1-2 tbsp ground sage
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 2 cups (more or less) homemade or prepared organic chicken broth
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a large skillet, heat about 1 tablespoon of oil and add the mushrooms. Cook on medium high heat for a few minutes until browned. Add the onions, celery and about ½ teaspoon of salt and cook until translucent. Then add the garlic and herbs and cook for about a minute. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, carefully combine the bread cubes and vegetable mixture and stir to incorporate. Add a half-cup of broth at a time and stir to make sure the all of the bread cubes absorb liquid. Depending on the bread you use, this may take up to 2 cups or more of broth. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed.

Heat the oven to 375F. Add about 1 tablespoon of oil and then coat a 9×12 baking pan. Transfer bread mixture and spread evenly throughout the pan. Drizzle olive oil over the top (about 1 tsp) and store covered in the refrigerator until ready to cook. Bake uncovered for about 30 minutes, or until the crust becomes golden brown. Remove the pan from the oven and cover until ready to serve. Remember to make gravy.

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3 thoughts on “Traditional Thanksgiving Dressing: Four Family Recipes

  1. Lucy,
    What a wonderful idea to have your womenfolk share stuffing recipes. (I didn’t grow up with a stuffed turkey, but we still call it stuffing). I think I’ll be making a batch when we get back home from our Thanksgiving trip since I like it so much.
    Thanks!

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