I will be one of the few people filling my plate on Thanksgiving who doesn't claim to love turkey dressing or stuffing or whatever we choose to call it. Part of the problem is that I don't "get" stuffing. At the risk of overanalyzing a side dish, I think this is a timely subject, worthy of our consideration.
While I understand how dressing probably evolved, I never have been persuaded that dressing is logical. It would not have occurred to me, had I been cooking centuries ago, to deposit dried bread and other pieces of food into the carcass of a bird. You had to be there, I guess.
I will concede that there is a certain ingenuity in allowing the roasting bird to season the dressing, but dressing that is baked inside a moist bird is often mushy. Now that the food safety people have sounded the alarm about dressing cooked inside a turkey, one would expect dressing to fall off the Thanksgiving radar.
Nope. On most Thanksgiving tables it endures as a deeply revered side dish, absent the flavor imparted by the roasting turkey. I suspect the casserole we encounter at Thanksgiving today bears little relationship to the dressing of yore. It certainly is a departure from the dressings cooked inside the bird that I sampled as a child.
Then, the cook typically stuffed the bird with dressing and also made a separate casserole of the same dressing, because the amount of dressing cooked inside the bird was not sufficient to feed all of the dressing devotees. Even though I wasn't a fan, I could clearly recognize that the flavor of casserole dressing was always a poor imitation of the carcass dressing.
The flavor, and the fact that the casserole dressing was often dry, more than made up for the mushiness of the carcass dressing.
I suspect that many people see dressing as an obligation rather than a dish that is pleasurable to cook and eat. This would account for the popularity of the quickie mixes marketed by Pepperidge Farms and other brands.
Some people use the expectation that dressing will be served to experiment or to serve a side dish that only coincidentally contains bread. A lot of people serve oyster dressing or dressing that contains sausage, nuts or fruit, all of which inject new flavors into the holiday meal. But most Thanksgiving feasts still feature the traditional bread dressing.
One of the best bread dressings I have eaten was prepared on the fly on a Thanksgiving morning a few years ago. We had thought the dressing was already taken care of and had to throw something together with ingredients on hand. We had fresh herbs and turkey stock available, as well as celery, onions, garlic and mushrooms.
What made that particular dressing a success were the fresh rosemary and sage and the fact that we carmelized the onions, in addition to sauteing the celery and mushrooms, before combining ingredients. Happily, bread now can be dried in a microwave, and we had a way to create crusty bread cubes in a pinch.
Because most people will pour gravy on a bread-based dressing, there's a huge margin for error in seasoning. If you add oysters, fruit or, especially, sausage, which usually contains herbs, you'll need to take that into account when balancing herbs, salt and other flavors.
The main concern in preparing bread dressing from scratch is with the moisture level. Figure that you'll need about 8 cups of crouton-sized bread cubes to feed eight people. The bread will expand when liquid is added.
For the sauteed ingredients, the proportion might be 2 diced onions (or a combination of onion and shallot), 3 pressed garlic cloves, 2 or 3 ribs of celery, chopped, and a cup of sliced mushrooms. You decide.
When moistening the bread, it's always best to err initially on the dry side. Gently toss the dried bread cubes and all the ingredients in a bowl and drizzle the stock over the mixture, then stir. Start with a half cup of stock and add more in small increments, stirring gently until all the bread is just moistened.
The moistness of the dressing is a matter of preference, and the amount of liquid required will depend on the density of the bread and the nature of the other ingredients. Celery will add moistness, for example. Also, if you dot the casserole with butter, you will need less liquid. You will be able to drizzle additional stock over the dressing as it cooks, if it appears to be too dry.
Bake the dressing, uncovered, at 350 degrees in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish for about 30 minutes.
If you do still cook the dressing inside the turkey, be sure you have an accurate meat thermometer. The dressing will have to reach 160 degrees before the bird can be removed from the oven. Until you get the reading of 160 degrees, you must keep roasting, even if the turkey appears to be done.