I cannot say for certain, but it is my opinion that this basic dressing recipe came from my paternal grandmother. I do not remember either grandmother making this dish but I recall Mother putting it all together with the assistance of my father. He was the taster. “A little more salt”, he’d say, or “Needs more sage”. He enjoyed his role! I don’t remember Mother ever tasting the dressing until it was cooked and on the table.
We had turkey and dressing twice a year: Thanksgiving and Christmas. As an adult who has cooked many of these dinners, I know why. It is a lot of work!
I understand that every family has their special favorite recipes. Here is one of mine, with commentary, handed down from my parents.
Roasted Turkey – served at a mid-day meal
If, like most people, you have a frozen bird, safely thaw it out in the refrigerator according to directions. This may take several days. If you have a fresh, newly slaughtered turkey, there is much less prep time.
When my children were very small, we lived on an acreage and each year raised a few turkeys, specifically for the dinner table. If you prefer organic and have physical space for them to roam, this is a good way to guarantee that you will get what you want. Free-range birds are sometimes hard to find on the market unless you know someone who raises them. Our turkey-raising escapades are stories for another day, however!
I always purchase cheap, throw-away foil pans to cook my turkey and dressing in. There is enough work involved in preparing this dinner without adding to the clean-up load. So, my best advice is, no matter how nice a roaster you may possess, use foil ones and throw those babies away when dinner is over.
The secret to my turkey, which is always fall-off-the-bone tender, is that I cook it all night. This, of course, adds to the workload. But if you are preparing a large bird, it is a practical way to cook. I begin the process by placing the turkey in said foil container, making certain the pan is large enough the hold the turkey and any subsequent juices, wrapping it tightly in several layers of aluminum foil, and cooking it in a 350 degree oven for about three hours. Then I turn the oven down to around 250 degrees and let it slowly cook all night. I get up a couple of times to check on it but otherwise, I just leave it wrapped in its foil cocoon to cook until it is done.
A Word of Warning: Every oven is unique. Gas and electric appliances cook differently. If you do not use your oven often, be cautious with this method of cooking overnight with lowered temps. I once ruined a turkey by cooking it at too low of a temperature in a new, untried oven. If you are unsure, use a meat thermometer to check the internal temps of the bird. Raise or lower the oven temperature as needed. Using a thermometer is a good idea, anyway, if you are not an experienced cook.
If you plan to have a beautifully intact, large-breasted, glistening, perfectly-browned carve-able turkey setting in pride of place on the table, this is not the way to do it. I always take the meat off the bone and serve it on a platter, white meat and dark meat separated for those who have a preference.
Nor do I “stuff” the bird with the dressing. I have deep southern roots and, in my house, we say stuffing and it is served on the side, along with mashed potatoes and giblet gravy and cranberry sauce.
Another word of caution: always remove the neck and packet of giblets from the cavity of the bird before cooking. Save these items for later use in making the giblet gravy.
There are some people who will, after cleaning, put an onion or an apple inside the cavity. Some add spices or herbs. That is merely a preference, and I don’t put anything inside. Nor do I salt or pepper the outside of the bird before wrapping it in foil for cooking. The turkey served at my table is just that; turkey cooked in its own juices.
I let the cooked turkey cool for a bit on the counter, then I remove it from the bone and carve into serving-sized pieces. Cover and keep warm until time to serve. Reserve the cooking juices for later use in the dressing and to make giblet gravy.
Always keep food safety in mind. I can’t stress this enough. It’s easy to lose track of how long items have been out of refrigeration. Just as it is possible to cook pies and other desserts ahead and keep them refrigerated, cooking the turkey like this makes it a practical way to prepare the day before, if that is what you prefer. By taking the meat off the bone, you can keep it in the refrigerator overnight, then warm it in the oven just before serving.
And what do I do with all those bones, you might ask? Well, I make my own dog food. So those bones are saved for a later date when I have time to boil them down for broth. Then they go in the trash, safely stored away from any little creatures who might want to chew on them.
Dressing – served as a side dish
As with many family recipes handed down through the generations, there are no set directions written down for this one. No standardized measurements. Just “some of this” and “a pinch of that”. So don’t hold me to anything specific. It is all a matter of taste. And experience.
Begin with a loaf of old, dry bread. The dryer the better but make sure there is no mold! I have been known to lay the slices out on baking sheets and place them in a low temperature oven to dry. Break or cut the bread into small chunks. Do not make bread crumbs. There should be some ‘body’ to the finished dressing. Some people butter the slices first, but I do not.
Bake two pie pans of cornbread and let cool. Crumble.
Cook together in a saucepan, several stalks of celery and a large onion, sliced and cut into pieces.
Hard boil four eggs. Cool and peel.
Now to assemble the mixture. In a large foil roaster, combine the dry bread chunks, the crumbled cornbread, the eggs, chopped, and the cooked celery and onion, drained. Add 1½ cups of milk and enough of the reserved turkey broth to make a soupy mix. (Save some of the broth for the giblet gravy.) Add salt, pepper, and sage to taste. Stir well but not so much that the bread loses its shape.
At this stage is where the tasting begins. Keep in mind that cooking enhances the taste of the sage so proceed with caution. Bake, covered, in a 350 degree oven until the center is set.
This is my basic dressing recipe. I have sometimes added small, chopped up pieces of turkey, canned mushrooms, and/or oysters. But my family prefers unadulterated dressing, so I give them what they want.
Loaf of any kind of plain white bread Great Value White Round Top Bread Loaf, 20 oz – Walmart.com
2 boxes of cornbread mix (You can make your own, but this is a slight time saver.) Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix, 8.5 Oz. – Walmart.com
1 bunch celery Celery Stalk – Walmart.com
1 large white or yellow onion White Onions, each – Walmart.com
Salt and Pepper
2 disposable foil turkey roasters EZ Foil Roaster Pans, Up to 20 Pound Capacity, 2 Count – Walmart.com
Heavy duty aluminum foil Reynolds Wrap Aluminum Foil, Heavy Duty, 50 Square Feet – Walmart.com
Keep in mind that this recipe feeds 10-15 people. Reduce the recipe by using only half of the loaf of bread and only one box of cornbread. Adjust other ingredients accordingly.
Good luck and let me know what you think of my favorite family recipes. I hope you like them!