For many Americans, the true star of the Thanksgiving table is not the big bird, but the stuffing (usually moistened with gravy). Given that, I believe the stuffing merits at least as much attention as the other key dishes.
So let's start with volume. How much stuffing should you make? Assuming you love it deeply enough to want some left over, you should plan on about a cup of stuffing per person. The problem is that you might not be able to fit that much stuffing into the bird. This brings us to the next question.
To stuff or not to stuff? It's called stuffing because you cook it by stuffing it into the cavity of the bird, then cooking the whole thing. This method results in a dish that's nice and moist and flavoured by the turkey's juices.
Lately, however, the government has been telling us that it might be unsafe to cook the stuffing inside the bird. That's because in order to kill any bacteria that gets into the stuffing from the bird, the centre of the stuffing must reach a temperature of 165 F. Unfortunately, doing that will likely overcooked the turkey.
There are two solutions to this problem. If the temperature of the stuffing hasn't reached 165 F by the time the turkey is done, you can just scoop it out and into a casserole dish, cover it, and bake it at 350 F until it reaches the required temp.
Alternatively, you could cook the stuffing entirely outside the bird. Admittedly, you are then making a dressing, not a stuffing, but the end result is the same. On the plus side, it's easier this way to take the dish to the right temperature. Even more enticing, the finished product will be crispy on the top and moist on the bottom. Then everyone's happy. The instructions below are for cooking the stuffing outside the bird.
Of course, there are plenty of ready-made stuffing mixes for sale at the supermarket. Why not buy one of those and forgo the trouble of making your own from scratch? Here's why: A recent visit to the market revealed that the second ingredient listed on the back of the package of one of the store brands is high-fructose corn syrup. The third is partially-hydrogenated oil. Not the healthiest ingredients. I say make your own.
What about how best to prep the bread cubes when you make your own? Do you leave them out overnight on the counter or dry them in the oven? Actually, leaving them out overnight doesn't dry them; it just makes them stale. Those cubes will absorb liquid as thirstily as fresh bread; the result is soggy stuffing. That's why you should always dry those bread cubes by toasting them in the oven.
How about add-ins? Can you just toss them into the mix uncooked or should you cook them first? It's safer if everything's cooked first, and the dish ends up tasting better, too. Raw sausage should not be slowly heating up inside the bird for hours. And raw vegetables will give off excess liquid and taste watery.
Finally, if you choose not to cook the stuffing outside the bird, can you stuff it the night before? Absolutely not. However, you can make the parts, bring them to room temperature on the big day, then combine them and stuff the turkey just before you slide it into the oven. When you pull it out, you'll have one more reason to be thankful.
Start to finish: 1 1/2 hours (30 minutes active)
For the stuffing base:
1 pound firm white, home-style sandwich bread
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 cups finely chopped yellow onion
1 cup finely diced celery
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh sage
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme
2 to 3 cups turkey or chicken stock
Salt and ground black pepper
2 apples, peeled, cored, diced and briefly sauteed in butter
1/2 pound sweet Italian sausages, cooked and cut into 1/2-inch-thick chunks
1 cup chopped toasted walnuts, almonds or pistachios
1 cup dried cranberries, cherries or chopped apricots
1 cup coarsely chopped roasted chestnuts
1/2 pound sliced and sauteed button mushrooms
Heat the oven to 250 F.
Cut the bread into 1/2-inch cubes, then arrange the cubes in single layers on 3 baking sheets. If you don't have enough baking sheets, work in batches. Bake the bread cubes until the edges are dried but the centres are still moist, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
When the bread is nearly done, in a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes.
Transfer the vegetables and butter to a large bowl. Stir in the sage, thyme, toasted bread and enough of the stock to moisten the bread. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in any additions desired.
If cooking inside the turkey, transfer the mixture to the bird's cavity and roast. If baking as a separate dish, stir in additional broth, then transfer to a baking dish coated with cooking spray, cover and bake at 350 F for 15 minutes, then uncover and bake for another 20 minutes, or until slightly browned and crisp on top.
Nutrition information per serving (without optional additions): 270 calories; 120 calories from fat (44 per cent of total calories); 14 g fat (8 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 30 mg cholesterol; 32 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 6 g protein; 580 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."