The Right Stuffing (how to stuff a turkey)

Stuffing is the costar of the Thanksgiving feast. Many people prefer a traditional bread stuffing flavored with celery, onions, herbs, broth and giblets, but there are as many variations as there are picky eaters. For our guide to the stuffing basics, we consulted chef Allen Plungis of Katherine's Catering and Special Events in Ann Arbor and a cookbook standard, "50 Best Stuffings and Dressings" by Rick Rodgers (Broadway, $10). Here's your road map to great stuffing:

What kind of bread should I use? Use day-old unsliced white bread, a loaf or baguette of French bread, crumbled corn bread or even whole wheat bread. Some people like a mixture of breads. Some prefer a firmer white bread such as Pepperidge Farm. Whichever kind you choose, dry the bread first.

How do I dry bread? Cut the bread into 1/2- to 1-inch cubes. Spread the cubes out on a baking sheet and dry, uncovered, overnight. Or dry them in the oven at a low temperature (about 200 degrees) for about an hour. Dry bread soaks up moisture and makes a moist but not mushy stuffing. You can dry the bread a day ahead and store it in a plastic bag.

How much bread will I need? Generally, a 1-pound loaf will yield about 10 to 12 cups of bread cubes. That is enough to stuff a 12-pound to 15-pound turkey. If you have some left over, you can bake it separately.

What do I put in a basic stuffing? Choose chopped vegetables such as celery, onions and carrots and dried spices such as sage, thyme, oregano, salt and pepper. To save time, chop them a day ahead and store in bags in the refrigerator until you're ready to use them. You'll also need a liquid such as chicken, turkey or vegetable stock or broth, which can be bought at the grocery. It's generally not necessary, but some people prefer to use a binding agent such as egg whites or whole eggs to hold the stuffing together. If the stuffing is very dry, you may want to do this.

Where do I begin? First, saute the vegetables (celery, onion, carrots) in butter. Then add dried sage or chopped fresh sage and other seasonings of choice. (For details, see the recipe for Classic Bread Stuffing with Onions, Celery and Herbs, at right.) When the vegetables are tender, add the liquid (stock or broth) and simmer about another 10 minutes. Next, place the dried bread cubes in a large bowl. Pour the vegetable mixture over the bread. Mix it well to soften and penetrate the bread. Then check the seasonings and adjust to taste. You could toss in some fresh parsley or basil at this point, if desired. This also is where you would use egg whites or whole eggs to bind the mixture, if you prefer.

How much liquid do I need? That depends on how moist you want the stuffing. If using about 10 cups of bread cubes, you'll need at least 1 to 1 1/2 cups stock or broth. For a drier stuffing, use less liquid. Add more for a moister stuffing. Stir in the liquid just until the bread mixture is moistened; don't overwork it.

What else can I put in stuffing? Just before baking, you can add fully cooked pork sausage, drained and crumbled, or diced cooked turkey. You also can add dried fruits such as apples, apricots, cherries, cranberries, pears, raisins or currants. You can be as creative as you like. For additional fruit flavor, substitute orange juice for half of the broth. Other vegetables such as broccoli and mushrooms also can be added to please any vegetarians at the table, Plungis says. But if you add mushrooms, be sure to saute and drain them first. Mushrooms release a lot of water and would produce a watery stuffing if added raw.

How much stuffing goes in the turkey? Allow about 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. Always loosely fill the turkey cavities. By lightly filling it, you're more likely to have the turkey and stuffing reach safe temperatures without overcooking the bird, says Bessie Berry, manager of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hotline.

What should I do with the leftover stuffing? Place any stuffing that won't fit in the turkey in a casserole dish, cover and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Make sure it is heated through and reaches a temperature of 165 degrees.

Are there any dangers to stuffing the turkey? Bacteria can survive in stuffing that has not been thoroughly heated to 165 degrees. Even if the turkey has reached its safe temperatures (180 degrees in the thigh and and 170 in the breast), the stuffing may not be warmed enough to destroy bacteria. Always check it with a meat thermometer. The USDA says it's safer not to stuff a turkey. And, if you don't have a meat thermometer, you definitely shouldn't stuff the turkey, because you will have no way of checking its temperature.

How should I check the stuffing temperature? Once the turkey has reached its safe temperature, stick the oven-safe meat thermometer through the main cavity opening into the thickest part of the stuffing. Close the oven door and wait a few minutes before checking the reading. The stuffing is done at 165 degrees. If it's not done, continue cooking the turkey until the temperature is reached.

What next? Once the turkey and stuffing are done, remove the pan from the oven. Transfer the stuffing from the bird to a serving dish, cover and keep warm while the turkey rests for about 20 minutes. Always remove all of the stuffing from the turkey. It can be stored separately in the refrigerator for one to two days.

Printed by permission from the Detroit Free Press. 1999.

Please visit our free recipes pages 1, 2 & 3 for additional recipes to use for your holiday meal.

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