So it goes with most families: there seems to be one person who makes stuffing so superior, it leaves everyone else lusting for it year round. What is it with this mess of bread and seasonings? And does anyone really stuff it any more?

In my family it was my grandmother. I remember an Easter a few years back when my eldest son raved about my turkey stuffing. It was the first time he’d even commented on it. “Wow, this is just like great-gramma used to make,” he shouted with joy, shoveling in extra helpings. Unbeknownst to him, I mixed a small tin of foie gras into the stuffing. I’m not sure my little Italian grandmother ever used foie gras or even knew what it was, but it did the trick – I became number one that year!

Like bread pudding, stuffing is one of those special occasion foods that you either love or hate. Television star Alton Brown says, “stuffing is evil”. His rationalization is that stuffing goes into the inside cavity of the bird where it is extremely porous. To quote him from the SeriousEats.com website, “that means that as the turkey around it cooks, juices that may contain salmonella bacteria soak into the stuffing, which then must be cooked to a minimum of 165°F in order to be safe.”

Ok, this is just the kind of culinary fear-mongering I loath. Stuffing turkey has been done since the Pilgrims celebrated Thanksgiving!

I say, stuffing is not evil, but glorious! If you’re capable of handling a turkey properly, go ahead and stuff it because yes Alton, the turkey cavity is very porous and the juices do soak into the stuffing as it cooks, but isn’t that the point? That’s what gives turkey stuffing (or any other stuffing for that matter) its glorious flavour.

East Indian chef Suman Roy makes a glorious stuffing for his family that includes cumin, coriander, chile, turmeric and garam masala spices. If you’re a novice to Indian cuisine but love it, he recommends you pick up an Indian spice blend for Shish Kebab’s and add it to your stuffing with ground wild boar meat and dried cranberries. “The mix of spices in a Shish Kabab packet are the same as what I use in my family’s stuffing,” encourages Suman.

When asked about a vegetarian stuffing Suman excitedly begins talking about a brand new product he’s fallen in love with: kelp caviar. “It’s so innovative, environmentally friendly and has a beautiful texture when you cook with it.” Suman is in the process of perfecting his oyster and kelp caviar recipe. It includes carrots, onions and fennel sautéed with fresh herbs such as dill or thyme. Then he adds fish stock, oysters, chunks of bread and to finish it off, he has been experimenting with some of the other kelp caviar flavours like truffle and chili.

If you’re asking how a turkey stuffing can be vegetarian Suman doesn’t cook his inside a turkey. “It used to be that one turkey would do for a family, but now you have to cook a turkey, fish and meat to make everyone happy and so for convenience sake, I cook my stuffing in a large casserole dish so everyone can enjoy.”

If you’re feeling a bit adventurous with your stuffing this holiday, check out chefsuman.ca to find out how his stuffing recipe is progressing.

The best stuffing’s are moist for the most part, with crunchy (almost burnt) edges for textural excitement. It usually consists of dried bread, croutons or cereals with onion, celery, spices and herbs such as sage, summer savoury or poultry seasoning. Less popular today is the use of giblets because people are usually uncomfortable working with them. I find giblets give the foie gras richness to stuffing that makes it lustful.

“Stuffing is the connection to childhood, it’s what we grow up with” says Brian MacAskill, Executive Chef of the Eaton Chelsea (chelsea.eatonhotels.com) in Toronto, Canada’s largest hotel. “It’s my connection to my Mom who taught me how to make it.”

While Brian is cooking for many more people than his mother ever imagined, holiday cooking is still the time to go all out: especially when it comes to turkey and stuffing. Brian starts with a raw turkey and removes all the meat from around the bones. Then he stuffs the empty carcass with his prized stuffing. It’s a bit extreme, but it works.

Brian cooks the turkey meat separately to ensure it stays moist and juicy with a crispy skin. For the stuffing, he mixes brioche, ground veal, ground pork, fresh apples, dried cranberries, shelled pistachios, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme with cream and broth. I’m not sure whether it’s stuffing or a savoury bread pudding but one thing for sure is that it’s a real roll-your-eyes-back, fantastic stuffing.

When Brian stuffs his magic mixture into the cavity of the naked carcass he packs some ground meat around it to “give it some weight”. Then he roasts it knowing the juices are pushing his delicious combination of flavours over the top.

When asked about the controversy over stuffing a bird or baking stuffing in a casserole dish he agrees that it’s an individual issue but then laughs, “Moms just knew how to make it work didn’t they?”

Both chefs agree that today many people have dietary issues and it’s not just turkey that is being overlooked for vegetarian options but stuffing is now being demanded in gluten free versions. Chef Stephen Bonin of De La Terre Kitchen (delaterrekitchen.ca) in Vineland is the sandwich king of the Niagara Peninsula so he knows his breads. “Yes, bread plays a pretty crucial role in stuffing but more than that, it plays a supportive role,” explains Stephen. That’s why subtle flavours of bread like plain white or delicate egg brioche are used.

During the holiday season De La Terre Kitchen will be offering supremely flavourful turkey-stuffing sandwiches with cranberry sauce for his customers who needs their stuffing fix but it won’t be gluten-free. However, chef recommends when it comes to gluten-free stuffing, strongly flavoured gluten-free breads, especially ones containing bean flours or buckwheat flour are too strong and may compete for flavour attention and sometimes overpower the other ingredients. The best gluten-free bread to use is plain sandwich bread. Stephen suggests, “you can use rice or quinoa. Do it inside a turkey, it will absorb all the flavours.”
To get more flavour out of your stuffing, try adding fennel, leeks, mushrooms, apples, dried apricots or chestnuts to the mix. Use cream, port or red wine with broth. You can switch the traditional pork sausage to more distinct sausages such as chorizo, andouille, streaky bacon or pancetta. If you are using bacon, sauté the vegetables in the bacon fat to bump up the flavour or add a luscious texture with a little tin of foie gras.

Regardless of the bread you’re using, to make your prep easier, toast the bread cubes a few days before using them. This will allow them to absorb more of the liquid like broth, cream, port or red wine.

This year plan to experiment with your traditional stuffing and plan on being the “one” in your family to make the most spectacular and delicious stuffings you can lay before your loved ones. You will rein queen or king for the year!

Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to REV Publications. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.com.