I’m checking today to make sure I have everything I need for that good old southern Thanksgiving classic Turkey and Southern Cornbread Dressing. This is always the star of the show at our Thanksgiving dinners. The side dishes may change. The desserts may be varied. But there is always, always turkey and dressing on the menu.
Of course, I know that there are those who will debate the differences in dressing and stuffing. I suppose there are merits to each, but dressing is our tradition. Some people say that the difference is simply that stuffing is cooked inside the turkey and dressing is cooked in a separate dish. In my experience, there’s a great deal more difference than that.
The type of cornbread dressing that I grew up with was as different from stuffing as night is from day. Stuffing has cubes of bread or cornbread with other wonderful additions. Vegetables, sausage, even fruit. But dressing is of a completely different texture. The cornbread is broken down to be more homogenous with the other ingredients which are typically not much more than onions, celery and stock. It’s also given some “lift” during the cooking by the addition of beaten eggs. The result is more akin to what southerners would call “souffled,” the cornbread having been lifted and lightened by the addition of the eggs.
What follow is, with minor modifications, my mother’s recipe for cornbread dressing. Now my Mama is the undisputed Queen of Southern Cornbread Dressing Makers. She holds the title and everyone in the family knows it. We’re all crazy about her dressing and she always makes far more than is needed to feed the crowd because we all want to take home some of the leftovers. When BeeBop and I were newly married and living far away from our southern home, Mama wrote down her dressing recipe and mailed it to me (yes, mailed it; there was no email in those days). That was 28 years ago, and I’ve used her handwritten instructions ever since. It makes me feel like she’s right there in the kitchen cooking with me.
If you want to treat your family to some authentic southern cornbread dressing, give my recipe a try.
Start by making the egg bread. The egg bread should be room temperature, so it’s easiest to make it the day before you make the dressing.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Sift together the cornmeal, baking powder and salt.
Add buttermilk and eggs, alternately.
Pour the cooking oil into an iron skillet and place it into the hot oven. Let the batter rest while the skillet and oil are heating (about 5 minutes). Quickly pour the batter into the hot skillet and return immediately to the oven. Bake for 20-25 minutes.
Set aside the egg bread until you’re ready to make the dressing. I always make the egg bread a day or two in advance and refrigerate it until it’s needed.
To make the dressing:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Chop the onions and celery.
Melt the butter over medium heat in a large sauté pan. Yes, a whole stick of butter. This makes a huge dish of dressing so you probably won’t even get a half a tablespoon of butter in your serving. And anyway, it’s Thanksgiving, for Pete’s sake. Indulge! Add the onions and celery cooking slowly until tender but without browning at all. Sprinkle with the 1/2 tsp. salt while cooking.
Meanwhile, crumble the egg bread into a large baking dish. Just break it up as small as you can with your hands. Don’t worry about it too much, you’ll work out the finer texture a little later.
Add the soup and broth and then grab your potato masher. Yes, I said potato masher. Use the potato masher to break up the egg bread to a finer texture. You want as few lumps as possible.
Add the sautéed vegetables, salt, pepper and poultry seasoning. Mix well. Stop here and taste the mixture. You may need a little more salt. Remember, that’s a big dish of dressing to season.
Lightly beat the eggs and add to the dressing mixture. Your mixture should be fairly “soupy.” If you think it’s too thin, you can add some additional bread, crackers, etc. to thicken it. However, it’s rarely too wet. Even if you think it’s too wet, it’s probably not. It took me a long time to learn that. It’s just one of those cook-by-feel lessons that you acquire through making a traditional recipe over and over. If you do add more bread or crackers, be sure to crumble them well and incorporate them into the mixture.
Bake for 35-45 minutes or until the dressing is golden brown on top and cooked throughout.
Of course, Thanksgiving wouldn’t be complete without the turkey! Here’s my simple method for cooking a beautifully moist turkey with a golden, crispy skin.
If your turkey is frozen, allow it to thaw unopened in the refrigerator. Allow at least 24 hours for every 4 pounds. When thawed, keep in refrigerator until ready to cook.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Remove the turkey from its packaging and, using disposable paper toweling, pat dry very thoroughly. Just look at that turkey in the upper left! I opened the packaging to find the skin split in several places. Grrr…thanks a lot Publix. Anyway, if that happens to you, don’t panic. Just do some toothpick surgery like I did. Pull the edges of the split skin together and use toothpicks to secure it. Remove the toothpicks before serving. If using a whole turkey, tuck the wing tips underneath the body and tie the legs together with twine. Place the turkey on a rack in an open roasting pan. Rub the skin all over with a generous amount of softened, room temperature butter. Sprinkle well with salt and pepper, a seasoned salt mixture, or your favorite combination of spices.
Place the pan in the oven and set a timer for about 2/3 through the cooking time. When the turkey is about 2/3 done, check for browning. You may need to cover the breast and top of drumsticks with lightweight foil to prevent over browning.
Cook according to the following time table:
4 1/2 to 7 pounds 2 – 2 1/2 hours
7 to 9 pounds 2 1/2 – 3 hours
9 to 18 pounds 3 – 3 1/2 hours
18 to 22 pounds 3 1/2 – 4 hours
22 to 24 pounds 4 – 4 1/2 hours
24 to 30 pounds 4 1/2 – 5 hours
Test for doneness with a meat thermometer. A thermometer placed deep within the thigh should read 180 degrees when done.
Remove from oven and let stand at least 15 minutes before carving.