Stuffing or dressing?

What the hell is this? Dressing? Stuffing? I'm so confused!!!

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)

Roast Ducks.

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:


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)


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.


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14 comments on “Stuffing or dressing?”

  1. Tom 23 November, 2009 at 8:42 am

    I didn’t address this in the post but I am wondering: if anyone has any documented support for the dressing-stuffing distinction and what do people call this dish in their own families/traditions?

  2. Martha 23 November, 2009 at 8:53 am

    My family (Michigan/Pennsylvania) always called it stuffing. I didn’t hear the word dressing until a few years ago.

  3. Linda 23 November, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    My box of Kraft Stove Top calls it ‘stuffing mix’.

  4. Mike 24 November, 2009 at 2:27 am

    interesting analysis. it does seem like we are creating the distinction in our time (or some people are). i will now call it seasoned bread crumbs.

  5. Tom 24 November, 2009 at 8:30 am

    Two coworkers (one Minnesotan and one Wisconsinite) confirmed they call it dressing no matter what. For the record I was not the one who brought the subject up.

  6. Kenji Lopez-Alt 24 November, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    Interesting research – thanks for doing it!

    I may be wrong, but I believe that stuffing is a subclass of dressing. IE, “dressing” doesn’t become “stuffing” until it is actually stuffed into something. So if you use the word dressing, you’d never be wrong, but to call something that hasn’t been stuffed into anything “stuffing,” is inaccurate, whether Stove Top or or Lafcadio Hearn states it.

    If you look back over your supporting documentation, you’ll find that only in one case it is called “stuffing” when it is not actually stuffed into something (La Cuisine Creole), and even in that source, the terminology is a little ambiguous, since the first recipe claims to be a “stuffing for turkey,” indicating that it can, and should be used to fill the cavity in the turkey (despite the alternate he presents of frying it separately), and that the second recipe is titled, “nice forcemeat, for stuffings, etc,” indicating that the recipe is a recipe for forcemeat that could possibly be used as a stuffing, but not that the recipe itself is called a “stuffing.”

    Even in Miss Beecher’s recipe, the dressing is a dressing until it gets stuffed into something, at which point she refers to it as “stuffing.”

    So, to summarize:

    I was wrong in SeriousEats to claim that dressings are always a baked bread casserole, since a stuffing is clearly a type of dressing, to call something that has not been stuffed into something else a “stuffing” is incorrect.

    Kenji Lopez-Alt

  7. Tom 24 November, 2009 at 10:02 pm


    Thanks for the response! You’ve spotted the key weakness in my research: it was not often that someone called something “stuffing” unless it was getting stuffed in a cavity (although, again, it was not often that dressing or stuffing was cooked outside a cavity, period).

    I did omit from my post a few pieces of evidence that are relevant to the point because I thought they were a little tenuous. First, there was actually another reference to something as “stuffing” that was fried and served on the side of the bird, 20 years before Hearn. It is found in JM Sanderson’s The Complete Cook (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1864.):

    This stuffing may be used for a turkey, with an equal quantity of sausage meat parboiled; rub them well together, and keep out half a pound, to which add an egg to make up into balls and fry, and lay round the dish as a garnish.

    But your objection that Hearn doesn’t refer to these fried balls as “stuffing” applies here as well.

    More interesting is Rufus Estes’s Good Things to Eat (Chicago: Rufus Estes, 1911). He gives a recipe entitled “Stuffing for Fowls”:

    Trim off the crusts from two pounds of bread, put the crumbs into a basin of cold water, soak it for five minutes then turn it onto a sieve and drain well, pressing out the water with a plate. When nearly dry cut the bread into small squares and season it well with powdered sage, salt and pepper. Warm one breakfast cupful of butter, beat in an egg and three teacupfuls of warm water and pour it over the bread, stirring it lightly, but not mashing it. Allow it to soak for ten minutes and the stuffing will then be ready to serve. (42)

    The “stuffing” will “be ready to serve”! But it hasn’t been stuffed in anything, except maybe into a bowl. You might respond that this is a stuffing recipe and “to serve” is shorthand that assumes the stuffing will be put inside the fowl before it is actually served. But, in the very next recipe –”Stuffing for Goose”– Estes concludes in a different way:

    Roast fifty chestnuts, using care not to let them burn, remove the inner and outer peels and chop them fine. Chop the goose’s liver, put it in a saucepan with one-half tablespoonful of chopped parsley, shallots, chives, and a little garlic and about two ounces of butter, fry them for a few minutes, then put in the chopped chestnuts with one pound of sausage meat, and fry the whole for fifteen minutes longer. The stuffing is then ready for use.

    “For use”! For use in stuffing a goose presumably, and not ready to serve. This is not an isolated case in Estes, either; in the long list of stuffing recipes he offers, some are for “use” and some “ready to serve”.

    Am I reading too much into these two words in Estes? I thought so when I wrote the post, which is why I left it out. On further reflection, though, it seems more significant. Then again, this is just one book among many. But if Estes thought stuffing could be cooked absent of any fowl, he would certainly be in line with the suits at Kraft and many cooks today – including your SE colleague Erin Zimmer, apparently. I will continue to maintain that people should call their broth and fat-soaked seasoned bread cubes –regardless of where they were cooked– whatever they want.

  8. Amy 26 November, 2009 at 8:28 am

    I think we need a compromise, perhaps “stressing”?

    Otherwise, I loved the references to measures of the size of a “hen’s egg” or “walnut.” Very interesting reading, Tom.

  9. William D. Lindsey 28 November, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    Great posting. I agree that there’s not a substantial difference between stuffing and dressing. In my view, however, the latter term may predominate in the South because some of the cookbooks influential in shaping Virginia cuisine were using the term “to dress” specifically to refer not only to preparation of meats, but to refer to preparations of meat using a forcemeat stuffing.

    In particular, notice Hannah Glasse’s recipe, “To dress a turkey of fowl to perfection.” It calls for making a forcemeat of pounded veal, suet, bread, mushrooms, morels, truffles, and herbs, binding it with eggs, and then (this seems implied, but not stated) stuffing and baking the deboned turkey with this forcemeat.

    The recipe does not use the term “stuffing” or “stuff.” It does use the term “force-meat..” And it specifically uses it in the context of “dressing” the turkey.

    Mrs. Glasse’s 1784 cookbook had a tremendous influence on Southern cooks. It’s possible to attribute the term “dressing” in Southern cooking directly to her, I think–if you accept that “dressing” a turkey is a logical linguistic step from “to dress” a turkey.

    I also think it’s entirely possible that Mrs. Glasse’s recipe for dressing a turkey is reflecting a usage that was common in some sectors of English cookery and culture at the time, and which was adopted by Virginians, whose culture became the template for Southern culture in general.

    My thoughts, for what it’s worth. I’m Southern, by the way, and have always called the accompaniment to the turkey the “dressing,” whether it was baked in the turkey itself or as a separate dish. My mother also used to tell me that turkey was far less common when she was growing up, as a holiday dish. What was common was chicken parboiled in highly flavored broth, then baked in a pan of dressing to which the chicken pieces were added.

  10. Beth Schaeffer 25 November, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    I heard the best explanation on a local call-in radio show yesterday. The first helping is dressing – the 2nd and 3rd helpings are stuffing.

  11. Bill Roehl 15 November, 2011 at 7:17 am

    FWIW, this was the post that made M&T a permanent fixture in my RSS reader under “Food” instead of under “Misc”. It was genius then and even better now.

  12. Heather 15 November, 2011 at 11:45 pm

    Hello ya’ll
    I founf this article very intresting I guess being from the south we were always taught that “dressing” was usually cornbread based or a sort of dense cornbread mixture each family is different, and stuffing was made with bread or breadcrumbs. |nyway thanks for the info } love to learn new things

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