The Thanksgiving spread was designed to spur debate, or at least that’s how it seems. Should the cranberries be prepared fresh or gloriously jiggly and splorped (a technical term) straight from a can? Are the potatoes better mashed or crispy? Green bean casserole…or nah? With so many traditions on the table, arguments about the “right” way to feast are bound to come up. And chief among those hotly contested Turkey Day dishes is the crispy-gone-soggy side to rule them all: stuffing—er…dressing? Actually, what’s the difference between the two anyway?
Stuffing vs. dressing: Is there a difference?
The short answer: Yes and no. According to most dictionaries, stuffing is stuffed in the cavity of a turkey and then cooked. Dressing is a more general term for a type of seasoning or sauce that goes with food. The Joy of Cooking declares that they are the exact same thing, but one is cooked in the bird (stuffing) and one is not (dressing). Still others claim the terms are interchangeable. To further the confusion, good old Wikipedia says it’s also sometimes referred to as filling. (What?)
Scour cookbooks, dictionaries and the internet, and you’ll find there’s really no definitive end to the great stuffing vs. dressing debate. But for most, the answer depends on what part of the United States you’re from.
The regional argument:
You can think of stuffing vs. dressing like the dialectical soda-pop-coke feud: different names for the same food (well, with variances based on local ingredients).
In Southern states, it’s most often (but not always) called dressing and made with cornbread, a culinary staple in the region. In New England and the Pacific Northwest, it’s stuffing, and it sometimes contains seafood like oysters, clams or mussels. Midwesterners (including this editor) usually refer to it as stuffing, even if it’s cooked separate from the turkey. And if you’re from Pennsylvania, you probably call it filling.
But what about the technique?
OK, fine, let’s say the stuffing vs. dressing point is moot because it’s so subjective. The only problem? There’s still the matter of whether the dish is literally stuffed inside the bird or not. How can it be stuffing if it’s not cooked in the cavity?
It could have something to do with the fact that it’s no longer status quo to cook the dish inside the turkey. Until the 1970s and the birth of boxed Stove Top, everyone stuffed their stuffing, probably for the same reason they also rinsed raw poultry in the sink: Someone told them to do it (like their grandmother or a Norman Rockwell painting). More recently, a lot of pro chefs have come to the consensus that maybe it’s not the best way to cook the dish.
America’s Test Kitchen chef Jack Bishop argues that, while the stuffing will soak up some pretty delicious turkey juices (aka flavor), the method actually makes it much more difficult to cook that turkey properly. “It cooks a lot more slowly and unevenly, and obviously if you've got vegetarians then they're not going to eat the stuffing,” he told NPR. Alton Brown claims it dries out the meat. Julia Turshen cooks her stuffing on a sheet pan because it’s less messy and has a one-to-one ratio of crispy-to-soft. These are all valid points!
Oh yeah, and both the CDC and FDA now warn of the risks of food poisoning if you cook your stuffing inside your turkey. It will take a lot longer for the stuffing reach the recommended 165°F if it’s encased in a very large, slow-cooking turkey. (FYI, that’s not to say it can’t be done, if that’s your preference. Just make sure you thoroughly check the temp with a thermometer.)
It’s also said that the term dressing became popular during the Victorian era, when talk of “stuffing” a bird would have been…scandalous.
So here’s our take: Whether you call it stuffing, dressing or filling, at the end of the holiday, it’s still a casserole made of stale bread cubes mixed with seasonings and broth, and it’s still delicious. To be honest, it probably wasn’t served at the supposed first Thanksgiving to begin with…so call it whatever you want and serve us another scoop.