Move over, turkey. Not too soggy and not too dry, perfectly moist cornbread dressing is what everyone really wants for Thanksgiving dinner.

Cornbread dressing is a beloved staple on Southern Thanksgiving sideboards. Culinary reputations are made (or broken) based on how well a cook can turn out a pan of cornbread dressing (is it too dry, too soggy, flat as a pancake, or light and airy?). Among the many classic holiday side dishes, cornbread dressing is so important that, when hosting a holiday potluck, the hostess will not wait for just anyone to volunteer to bring the dressing. No, she takes matters into her own hands and places a call to the one person on the guest list she knows is up for the task. Do you want to be that person? Study up on these tips so you can create the best cornbread dressing this season.

Use Day-Old Cornbread

The cornbread gives the dressing structure and goes a long way in determining the texture of the dish. Whether or not you put sugar in your cornbread (don’t worry, we aren’t opening that can of worms right now) or make your cornbread from a mix, this helpful hint is for everyone: don’t use fresh baked bread or you will wind up with a soggy bread soup. To make good dressing, your cornbread needs to be dried or “staled” first. To dry bread overnight, crumble cooled cornbread into small pieces and put it in a large plastic bag. Don’t seal the bag or you will trap moisture in the bag and the bread will not dry out. You can let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours. For a faster method, use the oven. You can dry out bread in just 30 minutes by toasting the crumbles in a 250° oven. Let the crumbles cool completely before you make the dressing. Store dried cornbread in a plastic bag for up to three days.

Don’t Oversaturate the Mixture

Cornbread dressing should be moist, not soggy and not dry. One of the secrets to a good dressing is using just the right amount of stock; add too much stock and you will be serving mushy dressing, and if you don’t add enough stock, your guests will be emptying their water glasses as they choke on your dry dressing. Follow your recipe and add the amount of liquid called for. But if you are winging it and trying to duplicate your mom’s dressing from memory, just add a little bit of liquid at a time. The bread should absorb the liquid without leaving a pool at the bottom of your mixing bowl. You can always add a bit more stock as needed.  

Go Easy on Seasonings and Add-Ins

Many ingredients in your dressing may already contain salt and other seasonings, i.e. your homemade cornbread, stock or broth, packaged bread cubes, sausage, etc, so you may not need to add any additional seasoning at all. Once again, follow your recipe and add only the seasonings (and amounts) that are called for. Once served, your guests can sprinkle more salt and pepper to suit their taste. Your recipe may also call for delicious stir-ins such as nuts, dried fruit, ham or sausage, but don’t think more is better and toss in extra nuts. The cornbread is the binder that holds the entire dish together, and if you overstuff the mixture with add-ins, it is hard for the dressing to hold its shape and stay together. For example, nuts absorb liquid, so if you use more than the recipe calls for, the nuts will soak up all the liquid that is necessary for a moist dressing. If you are tweaking a recipe, keep this in mind: use about twice as much bread as other ingredients, such as vegetables, nuts, and dried cranberries and apples, and adjust the liquid as needed.

Cornbread dressing is an ideal make-ahead dish. Prepare it the night before and store it in your refrigerator. Remove the uncooked dressing from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before cook time. This will bring the dressing to room temperature, allowing it to cook faster in the oven.