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Unexpected ways to elevate your basic stuffing

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Come Thanksgiving, many people go all-out for the turkey, ham or mashed potatoes, but for us it’s all about unrolling that savoury side of stuffing. Because when else is it acceptable to basically eat fistfuls of dressed-up bread smothered in cranberry sauce and gravy?

Maybe that’s why it seems like every family has their own particular fondness for stuffing done a certain way. Whether you enjoy carrots and other veggies, sausage, nuts, extra grains or a little bit of sweet fruit, it’s true that no two dressings are ever quite alike. But they do all start with a really great base.

“Everybody has a variation of a very similar recipe,” says Fresh Market Dinners (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET) host Amanda Herrera.
“Any Thanksgiving dinner I’ve ever been to is normally quite basic. It is that celery, onions, herbs, salty bread. And that is it. You might get the odd raisin or cranberry thrown in there but normally people like to keep it pretty simple to please the crowd.”

Fair enough, but sometimes you just want a little extra oomph to your plate, and a stuffing can be a great way to do that. In that spirit, let’s break down all the ways to take your dressing to the next level this holiday season, with the help of Herrera.

Use fresh herbs

Dried herbs and seasonings like poultry seasoning are fine and well, but if you really want to punch up your plate then fresh herbs are where it’s at. Herrera recommends a few sprigs of sage, thyme and even rosemary if you want something different. Meanwhile if you’re converting from a recipe that calls for the dried stuff, a good rule of thumb is to triple the amount of fresh herbs since the dried ones are usually more potent.

Dry out that bread

A moist stuffing is desirable but you don’t want your bread cubes to taste as though they’ve had a broth bath. The best way to avoid that common mistake is to make sure you cube and dry your bread on the counter for at least 24 hours before setting about preparing your actual stuffing. Or, if you’ve forgotten to prepare fresh bread, be sure to cube and bake it in the oven on a low setting for a little bit so that it dries out first.

“Some people think that just chopping up bread and using that works just as well, but it does not pull in the flavour as much and it gets really, really mushy,” Herrera says.

Use stock and butter, not water and oil

There’s a time to be healthy and a time to indulge. The holidays—and your stuffing in particular—definitely fall into the “indulge” category.

Cook your dressing in the turkey

Unless you’re a vegetarian, Herrera recommends cooking your stuffing inside of the turkey in order to achieve maximum moisture level and to benefit from the full flavour of the turkey drippings. If you’re someone who likes a buttery, crispy outside on your stuffing though, simply transfer the cooked stuffing from the inside of the bird into an oven-safe casserole dish, put a few butter bits on top and then broil it for a few minutes until it’s nice and crisp—but not burnt!

Switch up the bread

If you’re going for a truly basic stuffing, Herrera recommends sticking to your run-of-the-mill white and whole wheat bread combo for a good density. But when she makes her stuffing, she likes to mix it up a little.

“I would probably go to a market and find a nice homemade bread that is really, really rich, so maybe something egg-based like a challah or a red fife. Something that was really dense and will absorb all of the flavours.”

Don’t want to mix things up too much? You can never go wrong with good old-fashioned sourdough.

Get grainy

MasterChef Canada judge Alvin Leung once told us that he always prefers to stuff his bird with rice. While it’s probably not a good idea to completely pull the bread rug out from your hungry family’s feet, you could certainly experiment with different grains and textures.

Herrera reveals she’s experimented with bulger in her stuffing to mixed results, but she much prefers a little bit of wild rice in her bread-based concoction when she goes beyond her norm.

Experiment with add-ins

This is where you can get really creative and take your dressing to the next level. Really anything goes, from fresh or dried fruit and nuts to ground meat or different veggies. Herrera is a purist and doesn’t believe that things like carrots or mushrooms belong in her stuffing, but her current “mild obsession” with fresh fennel means she’ll be sautéing some up and pairing it with apples and toasted walnuts in her dressing this year.

But don’t go overboard

Much like Channel warns you to take one piece of jewelry off before leaving the house, it’s very easy to overdo it with add-ins while cooking.

“You don’t want to muddy it so that’s why if the recipe is calling for like five or six different herbs I like to simplify it,” Herrera says. “A good rule of thumb is three additions: more than that and it might start getting confusing.”

Look for upgraded substitutions

Herrera likes to let the market guide her when it comes to planning any kind of meal, and the same goes for a holiday feast. If fresh fennel tickles her fancy, she’ll use that instead of celery. She’ll also plot out her fresh herbs based on what’s available, and think of other creative ways to infuse her stuffing with bright, local flavours.

“If your recipe calls for a basic yellow onion but somebody has a beautiful bunch of leeks? I mean a leek is an onion so just go for it,” she says.

Test it out in advance… if you want

If you have a brave new idea for a dressing recipe and you want to make sure it’s going to land, then there’s nothing wrong with stuffing a small chicken or doing a casserole to try it out before the big dinner, says Herrera. But don’t put too much pressure on yourself either. After all, if you’re cooking then chances are everyone else will just appreciate the effort.

“Stick to your basics (starting with this perfectly simple stuffing recipe), add maybe three extras and I don’t think you’re going to go too far off the path,” she advises. “As long as there’s no mushrooms or carrots!”

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