Classic Sage and Sausage Stuffing (Dressing) Recipe

Our traditional sausage and sage Thanksgiving stuffing owes its perfect texture to oven-dried bread.

A large copper-colored serving spoon lifting a spoonful of cooked stuffing out of a pan, which is in the background.

Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

Why It Works

  • Using finer-holed white bread instead of a more open-structured artisanal loaf means better flavor absorption and retention.
  • Bread that's been dried out in a low oven is more absorbent than stale bread.
  • A mixture of sage, sausage, onion, garlic, and celery lends this stuffing classic flavor.

I'm not going to come down on either side of the whole stuffing-versus-dressing debate, except to say that three reputable sources give three different answers:

  • The Oxford English Dictionary says that stuffing is stuffed in a bird or joint, while dressing is a more general term for seasoning that goes with food or sauce.
  • The Joy of Cooking at Amazon contends that they are one and the same, except that one is in the bird and one is out.
  • The Food Lover's Companion at Amazon, on the other hand, says the two terms can be used interchangeably.

With that out of the way, I expect to hear no more on that semantic discussion this holiday season, and certainly not in the comments of this post.

So, moving on: stuffing.

While it can be made with any number of bases, the most popular type (and my favorite) is made with bread, broth, eggs, and butter. Essentially, it's best to think of it as a savory bread pudding.

The key to great bread pudding is to use the bread as a sponge to soak up as much flavorful liquid as possible. At the same time, you don't want it to be spongy.

The final pudding should have a moist, custard-like texture. It should be firm enough to cut with a knife, but soft and tender enough to eat with a spoon, with a bit of space left over to soak up some gravy. Much of this has to do with how you pick and handle your bread.

The Best Bread for Stuffing

First off, you've got to decide what kind of bread you're going to use. Whole grain breads may have more flavor on their own, but they're rougher in texture than white-flour breads. Since the bread in a stuffing is more a vehicle for flavor than a flavor on its own, I prefer to use white breads—they achieve a more custard-like texture.

It's tempting to use a high-quality, crusty, chewy, large-holed, fancy artisanal bread, but the finer hole structure of regular, supermarket-style "Italian" or "French" bread (or just plain old high-quality white sandwich bread) makes for better flavor absorption and retention, and that's what stuffings are all about, right? (Check out the results of our stuffing bread taste test for more details.)

After you've got your bread and cubed it, the next stage is drying it out. 

Drying Versus Staling

Drying involves the evaporation of moisture from within a piece of bread. The structure of the bread remains more or less the same, though it becomes less pliable because of the moisture loss. Bread that is dry but not stale will be crisp like a cracker, and crumble into a fine powder.

Staling is the process by which moisture migrates out of swollen starch granules and into the spaces in the bread. The moisture-deprived starch molecules then recrystallize, forming tough structures within the bread. The moisture may remain trapped within the structure of the bread, giving you a loaf that's simultaneously moist and stale. It'll taste leathery and chewy, but not cracker-y or dry.

Staling occurs most readily at refrigerator temperatures, so it's best to store bread either on the counter or in the freezer—well wrapped, to prevent drying. (For a more in-depth discussion of these phenomena, plus the results of our testing, read Daniel's article on the effects of refrigeration on bread.)

Knowing this, we realized that despite all the recipes that call for stale bread for stuffing, what we're really after here is dry bread—bread that has had plenty of moisture driven out of it, giving it more room to absorb flavorful stock. Staling takes time. Luckily for us, drying is fast.

I dry my bread by toasting it in a low (275°F/135°C) oven for about 45 minutes, tossing it a couple of times halfway through. By drying the bread like this, you make enough room in two regular-sized loaves (about two and a half pounds of bread) to absorb a full four cups of chicken or turkey broth.

It's so much broth that it almost tastes like you baked the stuffing in the bird, even if you decide to do it in a separate pan. I recommend starting it with foil on top to trap some moisture, before removing the foil and crisping up the top.

The flavorings I go with are classic: butter (and plenty of it), sage sausage (you can get away with just sage for a less meaty version), onions, celery, and garlic. My sister likes to add dried cranberries, and my mother likes to add chestnuts. My sister and my mother, of course, are both wrong.

4:25

How to Make Classic Sage and Sausage Stuffing

November 2010

Recipe Facts

4.6

(27)

Prep: 15 mins
Cook: 2 hrs 15 mins
Active: 45 mins
Total: 2 hrs 30 mins
Serves: 10 to 14 servings

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Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 pounds (1.25kg) high-quality sandwich bread or soft Italian or French bread (about 2 loaves), cut into 3/4-inch dice (about 5 quarts)

  • 8 tablespoons butter (1 stick; 4 ounces; 115g)

  • 1 1/2 pounds (680g) sage sausage, removed from casing

  • 1 large onion, finely chopped (about 12 ounces; 350g)

  • 4 large ribs celery, finely chopped (about 12 ounces; 350g)

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced or grated on a Microplane grater

  • 1/4 cup minced fresh sage leaves (or 2 teaspoons dried sage leaves)

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, if needed (see note)

  • 1 quart low-sodium homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken or turkey stock (4 cups; 1L), divided

  • 3 large eggs

  • 1/4 cup minced parsley leaves, divided

Directions

  1. Adjust oven racks to lower-middle and upper-middle positions. Preheat oven to 275°F (135°C). Spread bread evenly over 2 rimmed baking sheets. Stagger trays on oven racks and bake until completely dried, about 50 minutes total, rotating trays and stirring bread cubes several times during baking. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Increase oven temperature to 350°F (180°C).

    A two-image collage. The top image shows two sheet pans containing cubed white bread inside of an oven. The bottom image shows the two sheet pans, side by side on a tile surface, containing the now-dried and browned cubes of bread.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

  2. In a large Dutch oven, melt butter over medium-high heat until foaming subsides (do not allow butter to brown), about 2 minutes. Add sausage and mash with a stiff whisk or potato masher to break up into fine pieces (largest pieces should be no bigger than 1/4 inch). Cook, stirring frequently, until only a few bits of pink remain, about 8 minutes. Add onion, celery, garlic, and sage and cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add half of chicken stock.

    A four-image collage. The top left image shows the meat being cooked in a dutch oven and being broken up with a potato masher. The top right image shows the cooked and broken up meat being stirred with a wooden spatula. The bottom left image shows chopped vegetables and herbs being added into the Dutch oven using a hand. The bottom right image shows liquid being poured into the Dutch oven containing the cooked ingredients.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

  3. Whisk remaining chicken stock, eggs, and 3 tablespoons parsley in a medium bowl until homogeneous. Stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, slowly pour egg mixture into sausage mixture. Add bread cubes and fold gently until evenly mixed.

    A two-image collage. The top image shows the Dutch oven filled with cooked ingredients, with whisked eggs and herbs being poured into it from a glass bowl. The bottom image shows the dried bread cubes, now added to the Dutch oven, being stirred into the wet, cooked ingredients.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

  4. Use part of stuffing to stuff turkey, if desired (see note). To cook remaining stuffing, transfer to a buttered 9- by 13-inch rectangular baking dish (or 10- by 14-inch oval dish), cover tightly with aluminum foil, and bake until an instant-read thermometer reads 150°F (66°C) when inserted into center of dish, about 45 minutes. Remove foil and continue baking until golden brown and crisp on top, 15 to 20 minutes longer. Remove from oven, let cool for 5 minutes, sprinkle with remaining parsley, and serve.

    A four image collage. The top left image shows the wet ingredients being added into a baking dish. The top right image shows the baking dish covered in aluminum foil. The bottom left image shows the baking dish inside an oven, with the foil removed. The bottom right image shows the baking down from the top down, containing the now browned and fully cooked stuffing.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

Special Equipment

Rimmed baking sheets, Dutch oven, 9- by 13-inch baking dish or 10- by 14-inch oval dish, instant-read thermometer

Notes

If desired, dried or fresh fruits and nuts can be folded into the stuffing along with the bread cubes in step 3.

This recipe makes an excellent bird stuffing, producing enough to stuff several small birds or two to three 18- to 22-pound birds. Bake the extra in a buttered baking dish.

If using homemade or low-sodium stock, season to taste with salt and pepper before adding.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The stuffing can be prepared through step 3 and placed in a buttered baking dish a day in advance. Remove from the refrigerator and allow the stuffing to come to room temperature for at least 1 hour before baking the next day.

How to Scale Down This Recipe

This recipe can be scaled down by half. Divide all ingredients by two; use 2 eggs instead of 3; use 1 rimmed baking sheet instead of two to dry the bread; bake stuffing in a 10-inch cast iron or carbon steel skillet instead of a 9- by 13-inch baking dish.

Nutrition Facts (per serving)
473 Calories
23g Fat
47g Carbs
21g Protein
Show Full Nutrition Label Hide Full Nutrition Label
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 10 to 14
Amount per serving
Calories 473
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 23g 29%
Saturated Fat 9g 46%
Cholesterol 99mg 33%
Sodium 1131mg 49%
Total Carbohydrate 47g 17%
Dietary Fiber 3g 9%
Total Sugars 6g
Protein 21g
Vitamin C 5mg 23%
Calcium 79mg 6%
Iron 4mg 24%
Potassium 454mg 10%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)