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A Quest To Make The Best Thanksgiving Stuffing On Earth

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Stuffing has as many recipes as your drunk uncle has hot takes on politics. There are so many variations that picking the “right” stuffing to bake on Thanksgiving can be as confusing as to whether to call it ‘stuffing’ or ‘dressing.’ Cornbread, cornbread/bread mix, sausages or bacon, oysters, fresh fruit or dried fruit, baked in a pan or in the bird are all choices you’re going to have to make in the next day or two. Any missteps and you’ll go down in holiday history as the one who ruined Grandma’s favorite dish.

To help you make tough choices, we’ve gathered our cooking battle team and added a special Thanksgiving twist. This time around, Vince Mancini will save us his “Bafangul Spaghetti Stuffing” and will act as a cutting judge instead. To replace the open slot in the challenge, self-proclaimed stuffing expert Dan Seitz is stepping in with some baked bread magic.

Let’s us know in the comments how we fared.

Check out our classic cooking battles here.

DAN’S “EVERYTHING BAGEL” STUFFING

As I started this stuffing, I realized something important: Even though this dish has become a household favorite and a Thanksgiving staple since the high holy day of “Thanksgivvukah” a few years ago, I’d never actually made it myself.

That fact would loom large, like a shadow over my stuffing — much like I do in these photos thanks to the lighting in my kitchen.

Step 1


Slice yourself some bagels. The best way to do this is to buy fresh bagels from a bakery you respect, cube them the day before, and let them dry out. But you can also stick them under the broiler if you want them a bit drier.

Step 2

Cube up and sautee some aromatics. Everything bagels, remember, get their flavor from seeds that burst on the tongue as you bite into them. The bagels themselves are just bread, so to distribute flavor through the dish, you’ll need an onion, a few celery stalks, and a few cloves of garlic. Don’t be shy about seasoning them, either. As weird as this will sound, even between the stock and the bagels, you’re still going to need salt, and probably a lot of it.

Step 3

Make your egg and stock mix, about 2.5 cups of stock and two eggs for every dozen bagels. A note on stock; traditionalists demand chicken, which is what I used here, but you can use a good homemade veggie stock and only the fussiest tongue will even notice. If you want even more richness in the mix, add a little heavy cream. Mix the aromatics, the bagels, and the stock in a baking sheet. You’re probably going to need to cram some bagels chunks in there, and you might want to cut these a bit smaller than I did. I like my stuffing thick.

Bake for half an hour at 400 covered in foil, and once a knife slides in easily, take the foil off and let it brown for twenty minutes to get a nice crust.

Finish and Serving

The glory of this stuffing is that it’s stuffing with an extra dose of Thanksgiving. Onions, garlic, sesame, salt, poppy; these are all flavors we find elsewhere on the table. This is a perfect stuffing on its own, in my humble opinion, but eat it with the turkey and you’ll find the garlic and onions you’ve seasoned it with will pop. The slight hint of sweetness from sesame will highlight that flavor in corn and root vegetables ever so slightly too.

Even better, this dish has got a strong, satisfying crunch on top, thanks to bagels — better able to put up with being under heat than the flimsy croutons usually used for stuffing. And the seeds, toasted twice, will give you more crispness and pop on the tongue. This is no wad of wet bread with flecks of good stuff in it. It’s stuffing traditional enough Grandma won’t complain, but unexpected enough to stand on its own.

Vince’s Verdict:

My God, Dan, did you take your picture of that stuffing through an old paper towel tube filled with fabric softener sheets? Like, were you smoking some weed and trying to keep your RA from noticing the smell and then you accidentally took a picture of it? Because that’s what it looks like, man.

Anyway, as an avid Zionist, George Soros and I heartily approve your everything bagel idea. I love an everything bagel, I can’t imagine it’s bad soaked in stock and eggs. And as an avid overseasoner, I appreciate your overseasoning. I guess my only note would be that it seems like it would be… a little bread-y? I imagine taking three bites of this and immediately developing Celiac disease.

But hey, it’s Thanksgiving. You’re supposed to fall asleep right after eating.

ZACH’S CHORIZO PECAN STUFFING

Good stuffing is all about a nice, soft bread that has a hint of sweet to it to offset all the savory and nutty ingredients. I really like to use a challah or leftover dinner rolls. They’re both made very similarly with eggs and milk and have a small hit of sugar that makes the bread shine. Once you have a great bread base, then it’s really dealer’s choice as to what you want in there. I like a spicy Spanish chorizo, some pecans, and dried fruit along with a nice soffritto. It’s fairly straightforward and pretty easy to prep ahead and bake on the day.

Prep

First things first. I get everything at hand. For this recipe you’ll need two shallots, one carrot, one stalk of celery, half a bulb of fennel, two cloves of garlic, two large nobs of butter, half a pound of spicy chorizo, one cup each dried cranberries and pecans, fresh sage, rosemary, and thyme, and a day old challah. I got one with a few, sparse sultanas in it because why not. The extra dried fruit is always welcome. You’ll also need one cup of good and strong chicken stock.

Finely dice the onion, fennel, carrot, celery, and garlic. Then cube the chorizo. And, lastly, cut the challah into dice-sized pieces.

Get a cast iron skillet nice and hot with one of your nobs of butter in there. Bloom the sage, thyme, and rosemary until it turns nice and crispy but not burnt. Set aside.

Cook

Now that the butter is nicely flavored with the fresh herbs, add in your soffritto. The soffritto is going to soak up a lot of the butter — making it extra tasty. Once that nicely sweats and starts to brown, remove from heat and set aside.

Next, hit the skillet with a glug of olive oil. Drop in the chorizo and brown.

Once the chorizo is nicely browned, scoop it out while leaving as much of the render off fat in the skillet as possible. After the chorizo is set aside, hit the pan with the other nob of butter and melt.

Assemble

This is the fun part. Finely chop the fresh herbs that you already bloomed and add to the diced challah. Then you’re going to add all that butter and chorizo oil to the bread and thoroughly mix in. Make sure to leave a nice coating of the butter/oil mix in the skillet.

Now, add in the soffritto, chorizo, pecans, and cranberries. Mix together well.

Put everything back into the still buttery cast iron skillet and even out. Pour one cup of chicken stock over all the stuffing. I like to pour it in circles to assure it is evenly spread throughout the dish.

Cover with tin foil and bake in your oven for 45 minutes on around 325-350F.

Serve

Remove the skillet from the oven and let the stuffing rest for at least ten minutes. Once it’s rested, garnish the stuffing with some nice and fresh broad leaf parsley so Steve’s head doesn’t explode.

The stuffing will be super soft and moist in the middle thanks to the broth. The crunch of the pecans, tartness or the cranberries, umami spice of the chorizo, and buttery crunch from the bottom of the layer of the stuffing create a textural and flavorful side dish. There’s a lot going on here and it all ties together in a great stuffing that hits on accents across the meal from a nice Cosmopolitan cocktail to start off the day to the cranberries sauce to that slice of pecan pie you’ll be eating later.

Vince’s Verdict:

With all due (dis)respect to Steve, I don’t think a savory bread pudding with nuts, fruits, meat, and three kinds of herbs particularly needs an herb garnish, but hey, that’s just me. Christ, how much butter does this have in it? I know you kept saying a “nob,” but not all nobs are created equal. I wish your bread looked crunchier, but if it’s full of chorizo and butter I can’t imagine it’s not delicious. I’m not a big fan of dried berries in this (I say go with apple or stone fruit), but cranberries are better than raisins, so I’ll call that a wash. Whole pecans though? Cut those pecans, bro. I don’t want to be going to town on my stuffing and then have to chew through a whole pecan.

STEVE’S FOUR TIMES FOUR STUFFING

I love when Zach starts his pieces off with “__________ is all about ___________.” It’s a brilliant trick that sets a context for what comes next. Suddenly, you’re seeing the world through his POV and judging his food against the rules he laid down. Brilliant.

Related: Since Zach is waaaaaaay ahead of me in our food competitions, it’s a technique I’m more than happy to steal.

Stuffing is all about herbs, breads, fresh and dried fruit, and “savories.” Now I know you’ll call me muddled, but I picked four of each. Here’s why: Dishes don’t need clarity on Thanksgiving. They need depth. They need texture. They need rich, hearty, winter flavors. Leave the ultra-refined food for some other holiday. Arbor day, perhaps. This is Thanksgiving and I should be napping long before having to endure a boring game, played in a terribly-run league, where head trauma and murder are directly linked.

Let’s start things off with my two favorite savories: Browned butter and bone broth. Any reader of the cooking competitions knows that BB & BB is my #brand. Here’s why: Those shits are delicious. I don’t know any dish where nutty, clarified browned butter is not better than regular butter or where rich, healthy, flavorful bone broth isn’t better than bouillon cubes.

I make my own. Note how my opponents went hazy on the details when it was time to “add stock” — that’s a classic chef’s tell (one Vince caught me in last challenge when I didn’t make pasta from scratch).

I use breakfast sausage, taken out of the casing. This may be the whitest thing about me, but I love breakfast sausage. I like it more in a dish like this than I like Italian sausage, which practically oozes out of me when I cut myself, or chorizo, which is just too oily for me to ever fully love (unless it’s buried in some huevos rancheros).

There’s a maple note to this Whole Foods sausage that I like. It’s a gentle sort of sweetness but, since the sausage is the chewiest thing in the whole dish, it lingers.

As everyone knows, I’m all about the herbs. In this case, everything you need to know about Thanksgiving dinner you can learn from a Simon and Garfunkel song — parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Last week Zach said something insane and weird about putting in herbs last. That’s not my vibe, I want my herbs to develop flavors, yo.

I cook them off with my sausage, add some bone broth, a little browned butter, some celery ribs, onions, shallots, green onions…

This is my favorite part of life in the kitchen: I’d rather spend five hours developing flavors and an hour eating than vice versa. A little pepper, a little broth, some more sage, on and on.

Thanksgiving is the ultimate “cook by feel” holiday. That’s why I love it.

Do you see what I’m dealing with there? This is alchemy. If I ever lose this job, I plan on pureeing that mix above and putting it in pudding packs. “Sausage in a Cup” — I’ll be a bloody zillionaire.

Okay, let’s get to the bread: Neither Dan nor Zach made theirs so I refuse to act like it’s a big deal that I didn’t crouton-ize my own loaves. I bought them at Whole Foods, where they sell organic croutons made from their own bakery fresh bread — allowing me to mix rye, white, challah, and sourdough.

Also please note that my croutons are reasonably sized, unlike Dan’s which are each little mini-meals unto themselves.

Here’s a nice little sweet element: Candied pecans (almost, but not quite true pralines). I make these myself and jar them, for snacking and ice cream topping. Unrelated: I’ve gained 60 pounds in two years.

You’ll see that I dice them up because I’m not a monster.

Around this time, I add some broth to deglaze the sausage pan and put in some dried fruit: Yellow raisins, cranberries, apricots, and cherries. Not many. Just a few of each. They rehydrate a little, which I like.

Later, I mix in some fresh fruit — two apples (Fuji and Honeycrisp) and pears (bosc and Bartlett).

There you have it, the rule of four:

4 dried fruits
4 fresh fruits
4 herbs
4 savory elements: Bone broth, browned butter, sausage, and sweated down veggies (the onions and celery)
Plus a little sweet note with the pecans.

Next, I pour my broth into the pan with the sausage mix (which contains my other ingredients). I mix it a few times, then into the oven where it bakes until it’s good and ready. Crunchy on top; soft in the middle.

Top it with some fresh thyme sprigs and then…

and then…

and then…

I FORGOT TO TAKE A PHOTO OF THE LAST STEP!

Listen, I was working on my dish for the other contest (stay tuned!) and the guests were hungry and… Oh jeez, I’m totally screwed here. Better luck next time Bramucci. Vince, I guess you’ll have to give the win to Dan’s humongous bagels or Zach’s crack-a-tooth special.

Vince’s Verdict:

Steve, I know you just had a child, so this is probably related, but I feel like I just read you have a breakdown. I didn’t know something like that was possible before today. I want to give you credit for… something… here, but I’m basically looking at a giant pile of nuts and meat and bread and sweated aromatics. And oh yeah, bone broth. That said, I’m impressed that you used eight fruits. I can almost guarantee you there were fewer than eight different fruits than the last fruit salad I ordered. Points for… I don’t know, complete insanity?

It’s really hard to judge without a picture of the finished dish. I award you zero points and may God have mercy on your soul.

IN CONCLUSION: This is really tough. I’m basically weighing Dan’s bread pie vs. Zach’s uncut pecans. I think I have to give Zach the slight edge on account of chorizo. Steve… better luck next time, man.

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