Stuffing Vs. Dressing: What's the Difference?

Dish of baked stuffing

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The stuffing versus dressing debate isn't going away anytime soon. But what exactly is the essence of it? Is it merely about what word to use to describe the dish? Do the two words in fact represent different things? And if so, what are the differences?

Stuffing Vs. Dressing

The food in question is a savory holiday side dish made from diced, seasoned bread prepared with other ingredients, and typically served with a roasted turkey. Some folks call it dressing, others call it stuffing. 

Variations include whether to bake it inside the turkey as opposed to in a separate casserole dish; what type of bread (or breads) to prepare it from; and what ingredients, besides the bread, it includes. Some versions are soft while others turn out crispy.

So far, so good.

Logic would seem to suggest that if it's cooked inside the bird, it's stuffing, and otherwise, it's dressing. This would certainly make things easier. Unfortunately, the reality doesn't fit into such neat categories. Instead, what people call it is more a function of where they live than how they prepare it or what ingredients they use. 

For what it's worth, a 2015 survey by Butterball found that the term "dressing" predominates in 11 states (Washington, Nevada, Iowa, Indiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Florida), with "stuffing" more common in the remaining 39. This roughly matches the consensus that residents of the Northeast and West Coast states say "stuffing," while "dressing" is preferred in the South and Midwest.

What is Stuffing?

The practice of stuffing a whole-animal roast with some sort of filling before roasting it has been around for a long time. The earliest cookbook, dating from the 5th century and written in Latin, includes recipes for stuffed chicken and rabbit, with the stuffing consisting of chopped vegetables, meats and grains (but no bread). 

In America, serving stuffing as a side dish is a Thanksgiving tradition, but there's no evidence that the feast held by the European pilgrims at Plymouth in 1621 featured stuffing. Wild rice (a form of grass seed) yes, but stuffing no.

What we do know is that the word "dressing" emerged as an alternative for "stuffing" at the behest of Victorians who found the word "stuffing" to be vulgar. If this objection seems quaint to modern-day Americans, it might help to consider that if someone from the UK invites you to "get stuffed," they don't mean it in a culinary sense.

In any case, stuffing is a traditional American dish, and as such, given the size of the country, it's not surprising that there are myriad variations, most of them regional. 

Stove Top: The Great Unifier

Bear in mind that, as diverse and far-flung as we are, when it comes to stuffing, nothing is quite so omnipresent as Stove Top Stuffing. Made by Kraft Foods, this stuffing might not be everyone's favorite , but it is sold everywhere, and people everywhere eat it. 

It's worth noting that this product is named "stuffing," not "dressing," a fact which presumably does not cause undue confusion among American consumers.

Moreover, this brand of stuffing forms the basis for (if not the extent of) innumerable families' particular recipes, doctored up in countless ways, cooked in the bird, in a casserole dish, in the microwave, or even, yes, in a pot on the stovetop. The ubiquity of this line of products inevitably leads to a homogenization of regional differences and a kind of shared understanding, not to say agreement, of the basic parameters of what stuffing (or dressing) is. 

At the very least, for millions of Americans, it's the first stuffing they ever eat, and thus the baseline against which all future stuffings are judged.

Types of Bread

Southern versions of the dish typically use corn bread as the base, which, because of its texture, tends to be crumbled rather than cubed. Google returns about 23 million results for "corn bread stuffing," and over 65 million for "corn bread dressing." Google Trends shows that the top 5 states searching for "corn bread dressing" were Louisiana, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. So we can safely say that in the South, it's called dressing and made with corn bread.

And yes, Stove Top makes a corn bread version.

Other frequently used breads include white, rye, whole wheat and sourdough. The Pennsylvania Dutch version, called "filling," also includes cubed bread, but the main ingredient is mashed potatoes.

Other Ingredients

Besides bread, most stuffing recipes include chopped vegetables, typically onion and celery, as well as chicken or turkey stock and seasonings. Vegetables such as leeks, bell peppers, carrots, mushrooms, squash and greens also find their way in. Rice and other grains are another common add-in, as are dried fruits, like cranberries and raisins, and nuts, such as pecans, walnuts and pine nuts. Many recipes call for sausage, bacon, oysters and the chopped up turkey giblets. 

In the Bird Vs. Separate

Perhaps the most crucial distinction is whether to cook the stuffing in the bird or in a separate dish. In bygone days, it was normal to cook the stuffing inside the turkey. The problem with this is that the stuffing needs to be cooked to a minimum of 165 F in order to kill foodborne bacteria from the turkey juices. And doing that means overcooking the rest of the bird. These days, because of increased awareness of food safety, cooking it separately is more common.

Baking your stuffing in a separate dish means that the top will get crispy, which, for some people, is the whole point. For those in the opposing camp, baking it in a covered dish, on the stovetop, a slow-cooker, or even in the microwave will ensure it stays soft. Other than the regional differences, the crispy version does not seem any more likely to be called "dressing" as opposed to "stuffing."