Stuffing or dressing?
It’s almost Thanksgiving,which means the various food blogs I read are dissecting every aspect of the annual feast. When the stuffing versus dressing debate came up on Serious Eats, I was taken aback by the certainty with which two authors brushed aside the controversy. First Erin Zimmer, in a post comparing boxed stuffing options, offered the caveat:
Technically this tasting involved “dressings” and not “stuffings” since we baked them in casserole pans, not inside the turkey’s hollowed-out body. And for the record, we’ll probably just keep calling it stuffing.
The next day, in his masterful turkey deconstruction, J. Kenji Lopez Alt was less forgiving:
First things first. Stuffing is what goes inside the bird. Dressing is a seasoned savory bread casserole that is baked separately.
Both authors seem quite confident that there is a clear, defined difference between “dressing” and “stuffing” and that this difference lies in the method of preparation. Growing up, I alway understood “dressing” and “stuffing” to be the same dish, prepared either inside or outside of the bird. I assumed the difference was regional since while my dad’s family always went with “stuffing” my mom’s family, whose cooking showed strong Ohio influences, served “dressing” on Thanksgiving. Since neither Serious Eats contributor bothered to provide references, I decided to do a little digging myself.
Starting as I often do with questions apparently lexicogriphal, I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary (free online access to anyone with a Hennepin county library card — thanks Hennepin county taxpayers!). Stuffing, in the sense we mean it at Thanksgiving (i.e. “b. Cookery. Forcemeat or other seasoned mixture used to fill the body of a fowl, a hollow in a joint of meat, etc., before cooking.”) is first noted in usage by the OED in 1548 and has citations up through the 19th century. This is pretty straightforward and seemingly in support of at least part of the definition of stuffing given above, that is, something cooked inside something else.
And what of dressing? On this the OED is less useful, since while “dressing” has many diverse usages in English, none of them seem to refer specifically to the Thanksgiving dish. The only given culinary definition is much more general, “4. concr. That which is used in the preceding actions and processes; that with which any thing or person is dressed for use or ornament: e.g. a. Cookery. The seasoning substance used in cooking; stuffing; the sauce, etc., used in preparing a dish, a salad, etc.” So a stuffing appears to be a kind of dressing, but a dressing could also be a sauce, salt, oil or anything else added to flavor or otherwise prepare a dish. No final word on inside the bird, outside the bird or wherever.
The OED was not going to be of help, perhaps because as an English publication it ignores some uniquely American usages or that as a general work it doesn’t have the space to delve into culinary minutiae. What I really needed was a corpus of texts on American cookery where I could look for evidence of both words. Luckily, my alma mater — Michigan State University — has made just such a body of works available online through the Feeding America project. The MSU library has an excellent American cookery collection; Feeding America makes many of those works available online, both as scanned pages and as transcribed text (a boon for the time-constrained blogger armed with Cmd+F). The books span the entirety of the 19th century, back from 1798 into the 1920s.
Throughout this century of cookbooks, the definition of “stuffing” appears more or less unchanged. It is always used to refer to a forcemeat, breadcrumb mixture, or other preparation used to fill openings in meat, whether the space left by a bone removed from a roast, the cavity of poultry or fish, or the filling for a roulade. We’ve been putting stuffing in our turkeys since at least 1803:
A turkey when roasted, is generally stuffed in the craw with forc’d-meat, or the following stuffing: Take a pound of veal, as much grated bread, half a pound of suet cut and beat very fine, a little parsley, with a small matter of thyme, or savory, two cloves, half a nutmeg grated, a tea-spoonful of shred lemon-peel, a little pepper and salt, and the yolks of two eggs. (Carter, Susannah. The Frugal Housewife: Or, Complete Woman Cook; Wherein the Art of Dressing All Sorts of Viands is Explained in Upwards of Five Hundred Approved Receipts… New York, Printed and sold by G. & R. Waite, no. 64, Maidenlane, 1803)
“Dressing” has a far more interesting history. Up until 1850, the word “dressing” was rarely used as a noun. Instead, cookbook authors used it as a verb roughly equivalent to “preparing.” Hence Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell’s 1807 New System of Domestic Cookery contains instructions for “An excellent Mode of dressing Beef” that consist only of cooking technique: “Hang three ribs three or four days; take out the bones from the whole length, sprinkle it with salt, roll the meat tight, and roast it. Nothing can look nicer. The above done with spices, &c. and baked as hunters’ beef, is excellent.” When dressing does appear as a noun, it is used to refer to salad dressing, as in, “Common dandelion is said to be very good. It may be eaten as a salad with the usual dressing” (Howland, Esther Allen. The New England Economical Housekeeper, and Family Receipt Book. Cincinnati: H.W. Derby, 1845).
Then, in 1850, Miss Beecher published the book that changed the country forever; I’m referring, of course, to Catherine Esther Beecher’s Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book: Designed As A Supplement To Her Treatise On Domestic Economy (New York: Harper, 1850, c1846). Here, for the first time in the sample of cookbooks I examined, were references to “dressing” that were essentially interchangeable with what had been called “stuffing”:
Another à la Mode Beef.
If you have about five pounds of beef, take one pound of bread, soak it in water, pour off the water and mash it fine, adding a bit of butter the size of half a hen’s egg, salt, mace, pepper, cloves, half a teaspoonful each, pounded fine. Mix all with a tablespoonful of flour and two eggs. Then cut holes through the beef and put in half of this seasoning, and put it in a bake-pan with boiling water enough to cover it.
Put the pan lid, heated, over it, and a few coals on it, and let it stew two hours, then take it up and spread the other half of the dressing on the top, and add butter the size of a hen’s egg, heat the pan lid again hot enough to brown the dressing, and let it stew again an hour and a half. When taken up, if the gravy is not thick enough, add a teaspoonful of flour wet up in cold water, then add a couple of glasses of white wine to the gravy, and a bit of butter as large as a walnut. (37,8, emphasis added)
To Roast a Fillet or Leg of Veal.
Cut off the shank bone of a leg of veal, and cut gashes in what remains. Make a dressing of chopped raw salt pork, salt, pepper, sweet herbs and bread crumbs, or use butter instead of pork. Stuff the openings in the meat with the dressing, put it in a bake-pan with water, just enough to cover it, and let it bake, say two hours for six pounds. (45, emphasis added)
Wash the ducks, and stuff them with a dressing made with mashed potatoes, wet with milk, and chopped onions, sage, pepper, salt, and a little butter, to suit your taste. (emphasis added)
The verb is still “to stuff,” but the various animals are being stuffed with dressing! In subsequent cookbooks throughout the rest of the 19th century, the two terms were interchangeable when referring to what gets put inside the meat; some authors favored one or the other, but most used both in the same work, without any concern for any kind of technical distinction between the two. Writing in 1873, Marion Harland doesn’t hesitate to use both terms in the same recipe, in this case for roast turkey. First, prepare a dressing:
prepare a dressing of bread-crumbs, mixed with butter, pepper, salt, thyme or sweet marjoram, and wet with hot water or milk. You may, if you like, add the beaten yolks of two eggs, A little chopped sausage is esteemed an improvement when well incorporated with the other ingredients. Or, mince a dozen oysters and stir into the dressing; and, if you are partial to the taste, wet the bread-crumbs with the oyster-liquor. (Common Sense In The Household: A Manual Of Practical Housewifery. New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1873, p. 84)
But on the next line, that very same mixture is a stuffing: “Stuff the craw with this, and tie a string tightly about the neck, to prevent the escape of the stuffing” (Ibid., 85). Either the difference between dressing and stuffing didn’t exist in the pronounced manner presumed by Serious Eats in the 19th century, or authors of cookbooks at that time were not so persnickety about terminology.
Interestingly, the use of “dressing” to refer to a meat filling seems to have peaked during the 1870s. After that, while the word dressing appears even more frequently in cookbooks, it is almost always has to do with salad dressings (but it still is used in the filling sense!). Stuffing continues to be used to refer to “stuffing,” but recipes seem to be less common. Perhaps by the turn of the 20th century Americans were growing fond of lighter eating, trading oyster-stuffed roasts for greens touched with vinegar.
While I think the historical record pretty clearly supports the use of either “stuffing” or “dressing” to refer to the mixture you put inside your Thanksgiving turkey, that only addresses half of the Serious Eaters’ (false) dichotomy. What of “seasoned savory bread casserole that is baked separately,” then? According Zimmer and Lopez Alt, this should always be called dressing.
This question was a little harder to address using the works I examined, either because they didn’t ever prepare such a bread casserole or if they did prepare it it wasn’t called “stuffing” or “dressing.” There are some references to dressings that spill outside of the stuffed meat, as when Stowe, in a recipe for a la Mode Beef, instructs cooks to “spread the other half of the dressing on the top” (Ibid.) of the joint of beef, or when Elizabeth E. Lea explains the when preparing a ham the cook should “fill up the place where it has been cut, and cover the top with the dressing” (Ibid., 17).
But what about preparations of stuffings/dressings done entirely independent of a large piece of meat? The earliest such dishes I found both came from Lafcadio Hearn’s La Cuisine Creole, A Collection of Culinary Recipes from Leading Chefs and Noted Creole Housewives, Who Have Made New Orleans Famous for its Cuisine. (New Orleans: F.F. Hansell & Bro., Ltd., c1885). He gives two stuffing recipes:
OYSTER STUFFING FOR TURKEY
Take three or four dozen nice plump oysters, wash and beard them, add to them a tumblerful of bread crumbs; chop up a tumblerful of nice beef suet; mix together, and moisten with three eggs; season with salt, pepper, a little butter, a teaspoonful of mace, and some cayenne pepper. Roll force-meat into cakes, and fry them. They are pretty laid around a turkey or chicken. (27)
NICE FORCEMEAT, FOR STUFFINGS, ETC.
Take equal quantities of cold chicken, veal and beef; shred small and mix together; season with pepper, salt, sweet herbs, and a little nutmeg, i. e., if intended for white meat or anything delicately flavored, but if meant for a savory dish add a little minced ham, and garlic; pound or chop this very fine (it is well, and saves trouble, to run it through a sausage chopper), and make it in a paste with two raw eggs, some butter, marrow or drippings; stuff your joint, or poultry, and if there is some not used, roll it round the balls, flour them and fry in boiling lard. This is a nice garnish for a side dish. (37)
Both of these “stuffings” can be prepared on the side by frying, and then serve as a garnish or side dish. Not quite a bread casserole, although very close to the now popular muffin-cup stuffings. In any case, Hearn doesn’t think that the fact that the mixture hasn’t been stuffed in something disqualifies it from being a stuffing. Nor does he refer to it as dressing.
Speaking of dressing, Edith M. Thomas advises against overstuffing the fowl with it. Instead,
put less in, and fill a small cheese cloth bag with what remains, and a short time before the fowl has finished roasting, lay the bag containing the dressing on top of fowl until heated through, then turn out on one side of platter and serve with the fowl (Mary At The Farm And Book Of Recipes Compiled During Her Visit Among The “Pennsylvania Germans,” By Edith M. Thomas. With Illustrations… Norristown, PA., Printed by John Hartenstine, 1915 p. 269).
Here dressing is used in the sense that Serious Eats writers would like, but it is also what got put inside the bird. Dressing refers to the mixture, not how — or where — it was prepared.
In examining over 100 years of American cookbooks, I found no evidence for a clear distinction between the terms “stuffing” and “dressing” when referring to the type of dish served with turkey at Thanksgiving. Instead, the terms appear to be interchangeable depending on author preference; most authors used both. This brief survey does not rule out the possibility of regional differences. My sample of books was not large or representative enough to make such a comparison. And, in limiting myself to 19th century cookbooks, I’ve ignored the possibility that the distinction might have arisen within the last century. Maybe future historians examining the Serious Eats archive one hundred years from now will use the posts in question as evidence that in 2009, Americans distinguished between dressing and stuffing (although the fact that the authors felt they had to address the subject suggests that no broad consensus exists). But if you find yourself doubting as you fill the cavity of your turkey with dressing or bake an extra pan of stuffing, fear not! People have been doing it that way for years.