The Great Debate: Is it Stuffing or Dressing?

The difference between stuffing or dressing isn't as much about technique or ingredients as it is about whether you say y'all, you all, or youse.

Grandmother Carter's Cornbread Dressing
Photo: Alison Miksch

When Thanksgiving rolls around, Americans love to dish about the essential sides that make up our holiday feast. Stuffing ranks in the No. 2 spot behind mashed potatoes as the most popular Thanksgiving side. But is stuffing the same as what we call "dressing" down South?

Some claim the distinction is whether the dish in question is stuffed inside the bird or baked in a casserole dish, but some Southerners do indeed stuff their birds with cornbread dressing and Northerners bake white bread stuffing in a dish.

Recipe Search Terms Reveal Regional Differences

So, let's go to the maps. Using Google Correlate, it's easy to see that the top states searching for dressing recipes and those searching for stuffing recipes, don't overlap. The top state searching for dressing recipes is Mississippi, closely followed by Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia. But the map for stuffing shows that Northern states like Maine, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Montana are the biggest searchers. In fact, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana barely search for the term at all.

Dressing Recipe Search Map
Stuffing Recipe Map Search

Now that we know there are regional differences in what we call this Thanksgiving side dish, there are more nuances to explore.

What Is Stuffing?

The term stuffing comes from the practice of filling the cavity of a bird with a mixture of ingredients before cooking. Stuffing is "a mixture used as a filling for an ingredient," according to the Larousse Gastronomique Culinary Encyclopedia. "Stuffing may be made from bread, rice or other grains, vegetables or fruit. They can be coarse or fairly fine in texture and are usually well flavored."

As food safety and standards have taken hold in our home cooking practices over the past few decades, stuffing turkeys for Thanksgiving is highly discouraged. "USDA does not recommend stuffing your turkey because it can be a breeding ground for bacteria if not prepared carefully," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website. The USDA provides guidelines and best practices for those who want to stuff their turkeys, but for many of us, the risk of making your guests sick from your holiday meal usually outweighs the benefits of preparing stuffing this way. However, we can still fill the cavity with a mixture of ingredients to add extra flavor to the bird while cooking, and then discard the filling after the turkey is roasted and carved.

As Google Search shows, Northerners still call this side dish stuffing, even though it's usually made separately from their big bird for health-safety reasons. The main ingredient used for stuffing outside of the South is bread.

What Is Dressing?

In the culinary world, dressing is "the preparation of fish, poultry and game for cooking," as the Larousse Gastronomique Culinary Encyclopedia describes when for example a whole bird is plucked, gutted, trussed, and larded (where extra fat is added to keep it moist).

But for the Thanksgiving side dish in the South, the term dressing was adopted in place of stuffing, which was viewed as a crude term, during the Victorian era.

Although dressing and stuffing are interchangeable terms, the signature ingredient of this Thanksgiving side dish in the South is cornbread.

"For Southerners, the foundation of dressing is cornbread, and the variations are endless from there, depending on what part of the South you call home," explains Southern Living Senior Food Editor Lisa Cericola.

Southern dressing recipes further differentiate within the region, adapted to local ingredients, such as the addition of pecans, oysters, sausage, crawfish, or apples.

Dressing and Stuffing Recipes

No matter what it's called, this popular Thanksgiving side is delicious whether made with bread, cornbread, or both!

When in Rome

If you're a Northerner heading to your Southern in-laws, you should make an effort to call it dressing, and if you're a Southerner heading up North for Thanksgiving, don't be surprised if everyone looks at you like you might as well be from Mars for not calling it stuffing. As for the Southern Living Test Kitchen, we're solidly on team dressing.

Still, no matter where you are and what it's called, the most important thing should be that it tastes great. So whether you're "stuffing" it into the turkey or "dressing" your sliced turkey with it, just make sure it's delicious!

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