Who hasn't seen the golden-roasted turkey bursting with aromatic stuffing, on TV, in a magazine, or at Mom's table? For some of us, just opening a box that promises a fast track via stove top to stuffing the family will tuck into with gusto can feel a little like a cop-out.
No stuffing-shaming here, though. People are busy. Leisurely holidays seem less so. And some of those shows and magazines breathlessly insist we use an ingredient or two that may never have seen the inside of our kitchen cabinets.
But we turned to a few Northwest Indiana business owners whose restaurants serve savory stuffing often, some even daily, and they shared their methods along with a few tips. Turns out making a mound of the yummy accompaniment to turkey doesn't have to be all that complicated for those of us who don't hang out with Giada or Guy.
Think Outside the Bird
There's no jamming the stuffing into a slippery, raw turkey, either. “Our mothers did that, but it may not come to the proper temperature that way," cautions Joseph Trama, owner and executive chef at Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, located at 1040 Ridge Road in Munster. But a simple hack can bring home that savory stuffing-in-the-turkey effect: "Roasting the stuffing separately and covered in parchment paper produces stuffing like that baked in the turkey," Trama says.
Rick Smith is the general manager at Teibel's restaurant, located at the intersection of U.S. Highways 30 & 41 in Schererville. Smith says, “Baking stuffing separate from the turkey, we can bake it at a higher temperature and get that nice little crust on top, without drying out the turkey.” At Round the Clock, 217 East Lincolnway in Valparaiso, co-owner John Christodoulakis agrees. "We bake it to a little crispy on top, our customers like that."
Which means home cooks can remove the roasted turkey from the oven, crank up the temperature, and let the stuffing cook while the turkey rests and the gravy is made. This is the tricky part. The cook needs to set the timer for the stuffing, stir gravy, and spoon-smack any hands reaching for "just a bite" of the turkey. They need to leave the bird alone to rest while its juices get redistributed throughout. Otherwise it'll be dry.
As for the stuffing, buy a bag of dried bread cubes for starters, right? Whoa—here’s where to just wing it. Smith says, "We make it with fresh bread that we let dry out for about a day." Trama adds, "Some bread tastes better than others, so the quality of the bread affects the final product. You can use a good Italian bread and dry it out so it’s hearty."
Adding a dash of Alton Brown’s ("Good Eats") desire to inform, Trama instructs, "You want a higher gluten content, because its structure stretches, so that affects texture," in a good way. Christodoulakis says one- or two-day-old rolls work well, too. "Just don't use fresh bread, or you'll have a mushy stuffing." (And if the cook forgot to buy the bread early? "You could cheat and cook it in a toaster," Smith suggests.)
The bread does need moisture. At Teibel's, where the stuffing is made fresh every day, Smith says to save the juices from the roasted turkey. "That's one of the reasons customers come in here: They know that every day we roast in the a.m. and save all that juice."
Saving it for future pot pies or such? A chicken base works well, too, says Christodoulakis. At his Round the Clock, where an herbed stuffing along with a turkey dinner is on the daily menu, a chicken base creates a savory broth for the bread.
Trama prefers to use all the pan drippings. "When we roast off the turkey, we save the fat and chill it so the fat rises on the top, a golden fat. Then we sauté veggies in the gelatin to enhance the stock. We even make the gravy from it." (Wait, "gelatin"? Sure—that's the part of the pan juices that's not the fat; when it cools, it thickens like a gelatin. When it’s heated up, it becomes liquid again.)
Trama’s tip: "We also use the skin below the breast by the wishbone in the broth; it incorporates the seasoning of the turkey.”
What about all those extra ingredients some are bent on throwing in the stuffing? "We use good bread, eggs, fresh sage, house seasoning, and butter with the turkey drippings," says Smith, though exactly what's in the house seasoning isn't something he's ready to share. But a home cook can cobble together whatever seasonings, fresh or dried, that the family likes, including sage, salt, pepper, thyme, etc., and even double down with a prepared poultry seasoning.
Except for an 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday brunch spread, Center for Visual and Performing Arts is primarily a banquet venue, so the herbed stuffing is made in batches big enough to serve 300 to 400 people at a time, Trama says. So home cooks, there's a calming perspective on fixing a family-size batch. And everyone's "traditional" stuffing may be a little different. Round the Clock adds celery, onions, white pepper, sage—and applesauce and raisins. "The applesauce helps keep the stuffing moist," Christodoulakis says. The celery and onion are sautéed a bit, the chicken base and water are added and allowed to boil up a little, then bread and spices are mixed in.
Whatever the home cook’s take on traditional, serve the stuffing in the pretty dish it deserves, top it with a sprig of fresh parsley, and the family will murmur in admiration. And there won’t be any boxes of stuffing mix to hide.