Cornbread stuffing is a southern classic. I set out to make a cornbread stuffing with a toasted top, moist interior, and satisfying rich flavor. Over the years, I found that most cornbread stuffing are much too dry. The cornbread turns into stale, loose nuggets that refuse to bind with any of the other ingredients. On the other end of the spectrum are stuffings that are too wet. They simply turn into a damp sloppy mass. I wanted a moist and cohesive stuffing that wasn’t soggy or greasy. While most recipes use stock, butter, and eggs to bind the stuffing ingredients together and add moisture, I wondered if there were other options. Finally, there was quantity. None of the stuffing I had tried made nearly enough to handle a Thanksgiving crowd of 8 to 10 hungry people and provide ample allowance for leftovers.
I decided it would be easiest to begin by finding out which type of cornbread is best suited for stuffing and then figure out how it should be prepared. Although there were differences of opinion, many experts generally prefer the rather fluffy, slightly sweet Northern-style cornbread.
Next I focused my attention on what to do with the cornbread once it was made. Over the years I have made stuffing from cornbread that was whacked into small crumbs, cut into even-size cubes, and torn into bite-size pieces. The crumbs had a potent cornbread flavor, but the texture was mealy and unattractive. Although the cubed cornbread looked very tidy, it didn’t carry the same flavorful punch as the crumbs. Tearing cornbread into bite-size pieces, however, created enough crumbs to release the cornbread flavor, while the bigger pieces were toothsome and made for the most attractive dish.
I have also tried making stuffing using fresh, toasted, and stale cornbread. The fresh cornbread turned soggy and bland, while the flavor of the toasted bread was overpowering. The hands-down winner of the lot was the stuffing made with stale bread, with its potent but not bullish flavor and pleasingly moist texture. (Drying fresh cornbread in a warm oven accomplishes the same thing.) With the main ingredient in the bag, I now turned my attention to the binders.
Turkey or chicken stock, eggs, and pan drippings are the classic ingredients used to help moisten and bind a stuffing. After ruling out turkey dripping, which I use to make gravy, I tried eggs two years ago. As expected, the eggs thoroughly bound the ingredients so that each forkful of stuffing was cohesive. Before, I always used stock and found that it added the necessary moisture and distinct poultry flavor. So obviously, a mixture of these two ingredients was key, but I also wanted to add something to the stuffing that would make it a bit richer and softer without turning it greasy or wet. Recalling an old cornbread pudding recipe, I tried pouring a little half-and-half into the mix last year. This was the missing link, turning a second-rate side dish into a medal winner. The stuffing took on an extraordinary full, rich flavor without being oily or sodden.
Soaking stale bread is a classic technique. You are replacing the bread’s lost moisture with something more flavorful. Wondering if an adaptation of this idea would move my stuffing along, I soaked the stale cornbread in the egg, stock, and cream mixture overnight. I then baked it and noticed that the stuffing was remarkable. I always found that unsoaked stuffing tasted absolutely dull and lifeless when compared with the overnighter.
Now all I needed to do was round out the final flavors. Onions, celery and fresh thyme and sage were shoo-ins. As I had expected, they all needed to be sautéed lightly before being mixed in with the cornbread. I tried adding a little wine or whiskey but found that their boozy flavor meddled with the rich flavor of the cornbread.
Finally, some bulk pork sausage added nice pockets of texture and a meaty punch without overpowering the balance of flavors. Here was a cornbread stuffing that would match that of any Southern grandmother. It almost seems a shame to hide it under a reservoir of gravy!
To see my full recipe for cornbread and Sausage Stuffing, please click HERE.