Fun fact: my family actually never made traditional stuffing growing up (my mom makes a rice-based stuffing with Chinese sausage, mushrooms, cilantro, green onions and oyster sauce), so discovering “Thanksgiving stuffing” was a revelation. Pounds of bread baked into a savory, herby casserole? Sign me up. Since I had years of stuffing to make up for, a stuffing bake off seemed like the best way to catch up.
What is dressing vs. stuffing? If we’re going to be technical about it, stuffing technically means it was baked inside a bird while dressing is a bread casserole baked separately. But multiple sources seem to agree that the nomenclature is a bit tomato-tomahto, hence why I’m sticking with my preferred term–stuffing–for the purposes of this article.
“Most cooks interviewed said they are happiest and get the fewest complaints from family and friends around the table when the stuffing they make is close to the classic bread stuffing.” – NYT
All stuffings were assembled and baked the day of (though I made some of the components ahead of time). Around 26 friends participated in tasting and ranking for the below scores. Each taster ranked each stuffing on an overall scale of 1-10 and then ranked all stuffings in order of preference.
Ingredients: We used storebought bread (unless otherwise specified) and tried to standardize on Swanson vegetable broth and Diamond kosher salt.
Recipe selection: For this bake off, I stuck to bread-based vegetarian stuffings. All recipes were written as vegetarian recipes except for the Pioneer Woman (where we subbed in veg broth instead of the chicken broth). For a full list of the stuffing finalists I considered, you can view my Google Spreadsheet. Here are the final eight we tested:
- Smitten Kitchen’s Kale and Caramelized Onion Stuffing
- Alison Roman’s Kale & Cheddar Stuffing, via Buzzfeed
- The Pioneer Woman
- Clinton Kelly’s Biscuit Stuffing
- Epicurious’ Best Vegetarian Stuffing Ever
- Gwyneth Paltrow
- The Kitchn Classic Sage Stuffing
- Serious Eats’ Best Vegan Stuffing
What a satisfying yet unnerving feeling to see a last-minute addition from a sketchy-ish recipe source (ahem, Buzzfeed) take the top ranking! And by quite a large margin, see below:
As you can see from the chart, Alison Roman’s stuffing was the clear winner with high overall average and ratings distribution. I consider second place to be a mass tie between Clinton Kelly/Epicurious/Smitten Kitchen given the almost negligible 3 point spread. You can see that even though Epicurious scored a tiny bit higher than Smitten Kitchen, it was a more divisive stuffing whereas most people generally liked Smitten Kitchen. Same thought goes for third place (to Gwyneth and The Kitchn), and, well, then we have the bottom performers.
Pioneer Woman’s Basic Thanksgiving Dressing: I broke my rule of bread-based stuffings only for this recipe a) because it was still 67% bread-based and b) I was very curious to see if going to the trouble of making homemade cornbread would be worth it. The answer was a resounding NO, at least for my sweet cornbread-loving palate. The cornbread, made with shortening and no sweetener, is probably a fine rendition of true southern skillet cornbread, but to me it tasted a bit greasy and soapy from the baking soda. This stuffing calls for basically 3 loaves of bread (including the cornbread) to be staled for 2-4 days while most other recipes call for toasting the bread in the oven to dry it out without losing flavor. It’s dressed with a combination of onion, celery, parsley, broth and an alarmingly small amount of spices for the amount of bread used. Fittingly, the overwhelming feedback from tasters was that this was “bland,” “bready” and “soft.” One taster did exclaim that this “tastes like home”–given that there is plenty of positive feedback in the comments section, I think this would be a solid stuffing if you are accustomed to southern cornbread stuffing. Still, if you like cornbread stuffing, I’d recommend you skip the complexity of adding extra bread and just make a straight cornbread stuffing. If you like bread based stuffing, stay away as the cornbread easily becomes the overpowering flavor in this. Plus, the overall flavor is just a little bland.
Sorry Ree, I would not make this again!
Serious Eats Best Vegan Stuffing: I applaud the thinking and process behind Kenji’s vegan stuffing, using mushrooms and pecans to add umami and texture as well as a homemade vegetable broth to add even more flavor (we did not make the broth from scratch to be consistent with the other stuffings). Kenji was aiming for “deep, complex, savory flavors,” and I think he was right on the mark with a caramelized mixture of vegetables that soaked right into a pan of freshly toasted bread–tasters commented that this stuffing was “juicy,” “earthy,” “olivey” with plenty of umami. Even though I thought mushrooms, historically a divisive food group, would cause the most rifts (“did not like the mushrooms,” commented several tasters), interestingly it was the nuts that seemed to incite the most negative feedback. While some liked the crunch and added texture from the pecans, others called them “an interruption.” I personally didn’t love the texture, but if this sounds up your alley, many did enjoy them.
Make this if: you’re looking for a richly flavored and textured, very moist stuffing that will please vegans and meat eaters alike (must love mushrooms and nuts).
The Kitchn’s Classic Sage Stuffing: This stuffing is a classic mix of onion, celery, garlic, fresh sage and thyme, and toasted rustic bread moistened with broth and eggs. I’ve made this before and thought it was a very good rendition. Tasters agreed for the most part, calling it “classic,” “buttery,” and “moist” with “good texture.” However, some wished for “more flavor” and while some enjoyed the amount of onion, others were put off by it. Overall, people seemed to feel that this was an average stuffing–tasty, but not super memorable to most. This is probably the most classic stuffing of the bunch, and thus the safest if you are a traditionalist. If you season this to taste with your desired amount of salt, I have a feeling the complaints of blandness may be a non-issue.
Make this if: you’re looking for a solid, traditional stuffing with a good level of moistness without being soggy.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s Classic Bread Stuffing: I added this stuffing to the list when I saw it performed well in this Buzzfeed stuffing test. Gwyneth adds fresh rosemary, fennel and celery seeds to the usual onion and celery mixture, along with a whopping 15 cups of bread. Her recipe states and I quote “(I usually have challah, wholegrain and ciabatta in my bread bin).” Is this from the same woman who published a book that eschewed wheat, processed food, and pretty much everything good in this world?! But I digress. The headnotes also mentions “…this stuffing is hearty and satisfying but not soggy or heavy as stuffing can sometimes be.” Indeed, when I was making this, I felt there was not enough stock to moisten all the bread, and many tasters found it quite dry. “Good stuffing but too much bread,” “too dry but good flavor,” commented some. Interestingly, many commented that it tasted “traditional” yet “too herby” or that the seasoning was “too strong.” I think this was caused by the fennel/celery seeds contributing a more concentrated flavor than using fresh fennel and celery (an easy fix). Overall, it seemed to be an inoffensive dish, just a little dry.
Make this if: you like a drier stuffing (i.e. you hate soggy stuffing) and a herb-forward flavor.
Smitten Kitchen’s Kale and Caramelized Onion Stuffing: Deb alludes that this recipe was inspired in reaction to all of the very complicated stuffing recipes that exist–and with just 10 basic ingredients, I think she succeeded in making a very tasty one. She nudges caramelized onions into the “tart-sweet zone” with sherry vinegar, then adds wilted kale into toasted bread with just broth (no eggs! In fact, if you made this with just olive oil, it’s easily a vegan recipe) to bake. This was my personal first or second place stuffing depending on my mood. After taking a bite, one taster instantly said “oh there’s vinegar in there,” which did not sound appealing to me–but after taking a bite, the tangy, slightly sweet flavor won me (and other tasters) over. “Has a sort of vinegar taste, very different and good!” said one taster. “Delicious oniony goodness,” said another. This stuffing is VERY onion-forward, so if you don’t love onions (or kale), I would take a look at Deb’s apple-herb stuffing instead.
Make this if: you like a bold-flavored casserole with tons of onion and kale and just the right amount of moistness.
Epicurious’ Best Vegetarian Stuffing Ever: With many glowing reviews, this recipe seemed like a clear winner, though it was a hard pick between this one and this other Epicurious porcini stuffing which more than one commenter claimed was their new “best ever stuffing” (in the end, I decided I had enough mushroom representation). This stuffing errs on the sweet side with chopped apples, craisins and carrot in addition to onion, celery, sage, and a LOT of butter. It definitely won people over with a great buttery flavor, but it was a little too sweet for me. Interestingly, one of the top themes of this stuffing was the good “bread to veggie ratio”–i.e. multiple commenters noted that they liked “that it’s not all bread” (though of course some tasters, including me, could have done with a little more bread as it is quite heavy on the craisins and other vegetables). Many enjoyed the “sweet and fruity” and “salty sweet” notes, though a couple commenters noted that it was a bit soggy (so you may look at reducing the butter a bit to keep it a little less soggy!).
Make this if: you tend to like sweet/savory things, and especially if you love craisins and don’t want the bread to overpower your stuffing.
Clinton Kelly’s Buttermilk Biscuit Stuffing: If having extra biscuits on hand tends to be a regular problem for you, this is your answer. And even if you just enjoy biscuits, this can still be your answer as long as you have an extra hour to dedicate to making biscuits from scratch (trust me, it’s not nearly as intimidating as it sounds, and they’re easy to make a few days ahead). Clinton uses a base of mushrooms, celery and shallots seasoned with sage and thyme. He gilds the lily with a splash of cream into the mixture, resulting in a fork-tender, pillowy stuffing that melts in the mouth. Tasters didn’t necessarily recognize that this stuffing was made with biscuits, but many commented that the bread was “flavorful and yummy,” and a “unique, sweeter choice.” Some loved the mushrooms (“seasoned and cooked to perfection!”) while of course others noted that it “threw off the texture” or that there were just too many shrooms. One overwhelming theme was that it was lacking in salt or bite (the texture is rather one-note, aside from the mushrooms), so if you make this, make sure to season it well. A few called it bland, while another noted it had the “right amount of herb,” so just know that as written, it tends towards the milder end of the flavor spectrum.
Make this if: you’re looking for a rich, but mildly-flavored stuffing. What it lacks in crispy, textured edges, it makes up with pillowy biscuits.
Alison Roman’s Kale and Cheddar Stuffing: On the opposite end of the flavor spectrum, here is Alison Roman’s cheesy rendition. Alison has made quite a splash in the past year with her Dining In cookbook (she of the chocolate chip shortbread cookie fame), and though I don’t believe stuffing is included in her cookbook, there are luckily several versions available on Buzzfeed. I had never heard of using cheese in stuffing before, but in similar fashion to her introduction of salted chocolate chip shortbread unto the food world, I will never look back. An onion is jazzed up with a fennel bulb, kale, your choice of rosemary, thyme or sage, and then–AND THEN, a cup of parmesan cheese, half a cup of cheddar cheese, and a teaspoon of crushed red pepper. I don’t know if it’s the cheese or the amount of crushed red pepper or just my friend Isabel’s magical touch (she made this casserole for the tasting), but this was an absolute symphony of flavors. “Herbaceous and spicy,” said one taster. “Cheesy and toasty and has a kick,” said another. Virtually everyone commented on the “kick” in this stuffing, but noted it was the perfect amount. The only complaint? “The bread is firm and crispy. The cheese gives it really good flavor. But it is basically just bread and cheese.” No complaints here.
Make this if: you’re looking for a slightly offbeat, VERY delicious, unique contribution to the Thanksgiving table for those with adventurous tastebuds. If you want a more traditional flavor, check out this “stovetop”-style recipe.
Alison Roman and Smitten Kitchen were my personal top two favorite stuffings. Which one I would make in the future simply depends on the occasion–I would probably make Smitten Kitchen for a more traditional family gathering and Alison Roman’s for a Friendsgiving. Though if I was really craving some straight up traditional stuffing, I might revert to The Kitchn’s recipe (and if I had leftover biscuits, I would make Clinton’s stuffing!).
All of these stuffings were fairly different, so I don’t have many general “lessons learned” this time around. My top tip would probably be: toast, don’t stale, your bread: Some recipes recommend leaving your bread out to stale before using it in stuffing. Kenji explains the science and difference between staling/drying out bread here–the short version is, drying bread via toasting is superior because a) it is faster and b) the flavor and texture will be better.
Happy Thanksgiving cooking!