The Best Cornbread Stuffing with Sausage and Bacon. This cornbread stuffing (AKA cornbread dressing) pulls out all the stops. Sweet cornbread, salty bacon AND sausage, tons of herbs and aromatics, and crunchy toasted pecans make this stuffing the most popular side dish on your Thanksgiving table.
It’s about time that we all start ironing out our Thanksgiving menus, which means it’s time to make the big decisions: how we’re going to roast our turkeys, what sides we’re going to make, whether to smash or whip the potatoes, and of course, what kind of stuffing we’re serving up for the big dinner. And if you’re going to really impress your Thanksgiving guests, the very first resolution to make is that that stuffing will not come from a box or a bag this year.
This year, it’s going to be made from scratch. And it’s going to be the best damn stuffing you’ve ever eaten.
WHAT MAKES THIS THE BEST CORNBREAD STUFFING?
Whenever I decide to try to perfect a classic recipe, I start off with a list of what I imagine the absolute best version of the dish would taste like. For me, the best stuffing sounds just like this:
- Full of flavor, even in the base of the stuffing, by using cornbread rather than bland white bread.
- Just slightly sweet to balance all of the savory flavors.
- Generous but not overwhelming with the mix-ins, including meat, plenty of aromatics and herbs, and toasted nuts.
- Moist and tender, but relatively firm– not at all soggy or mushy.
- A side dish that you’d want to take seconds or thirds of, even if you’re full and there’s other food to eat.
Now, a lot of people believe that it’s important to keep stuffing “very mildly flavored” (AKA bland) because it’s supposed to be more of an accompaniment to the turkey and gravy than a feature dish of its own. I disagree. While I think it would be a bad idea to include outrageous or overwhelming flavors in your stuffing that don’t mesh with the overall mood of the rest of your Thanksgiving dinner, I think stuffing deserves to be as delicious as possible in its own right. After all, if it’s not, why even bother serving it?
So I took my checklist and got to work. After a few rounds of recipe-tweaking (and a crazy amount of stuffing consumption– oh the things I do for you guys), I nailed it. I made a stuffing that had everything I’d wanted: the perfect mix of textures from crumbly sausage to tender cornbread to crispy bacon and crunchy pecans; an uncomplicated but very present flavor profile; and a golden brown top with a tender center.
If that sounds like the perfect stuffing to you, too, then behold this baking dish of beauty and read on, my friend.
STUFFING VS. DRESSING
Yes, I said baking dish. This stuffing isn’t stuffed inside of a turkey, which to many people means it’s called dressing, not stuffing. To be honest, there’s probably even more debate over what to call this dish than there is about how to make it! In much of the South, it’s called dressing either way; while where I’m from, it’s always “stuffing”, no matter what. In Pennsylvania, it’s even sometimes called filling. Have you ever heard of that?
Semantics don’t really matter, though, if you ask me. You can call this “The Best Cornbread Stuffing” or “The Best Cornbread Dressing” and it won’t make a lick of difference, as long as you agree that it’s the best. (Because it is.)
But while we’re on the subject of stuffing vs. dressing, let me mention one thing that does actually matter:
Don’t bake your stuffing inside of your turkey. Not this stuffing, not any stuffing, not ever.
Stuffing, being made mostly of bread, is extremely porous. That’s what allows it to absorb all of the liquids we add in like melted butter, chicken stock, and drippings. But it also means that, as it sits in that not-yet-cooked turkey, juices that might contain salmonella soak into that stuffing, too.
In order to kill that bacteria and be safe to eat, that stuffing has to reach 165°F, just like the rest of the turkey. However, it’s smack dab in the middle of the bird’s cavity, where it doesn’t heat up nearly as fast. As a result, the turkey meat will be cooked before the stuffing comes to a safe temperature, which means you have to make a choice between undercooked stuffing or overcooked turkey. Neither sounds like a particularly good time to me.
The best choice here is to avoid that predicament all together and cook the stuffing (or dressing, if you prefer to call it that) separately.
HOW TO MAKE THE BEST CORNBREAD STUFFING WITH SAUSAGE AND BACON
Just because you’re cooking the stuffing separately doesn’t mean that you can’t infuse it with a ton of flavor. To do so, you just need to follow a few steps.
- Make your own croutons. The preseasoned stuff is overly salty and the texture is less-than-optimal. Instead, make easy homemade cornbread up to 3 days ahead of time, cube it (and tear some apart with your fingers for textural variation), and then dry it out in a low-heat oven. Little-known fact: the bread that’s been dried out in a low-heat oven actually absorbs liquid better than stale bread.
- Cook the meat and aromatics. Some people think that the meat, celery, and onion will cook when the stuffing bakes in the oven, but the best practice is actually to cook it in a pan first and then mix it all together to bake. I start with the bacon and sausage, and then I reserve some of the drippings for cooking the celery and onion in, so that they will absorb the flavor.
- Mix it all together. Now it’s time for you to mix everything together– not just the cornbread, meat, and veggies, but the drippings from the bacon and sausage, all of the herbs and seasonings, and both the melted butter and chicken stock to moisten it all. The key here is adding just a bit of chicken stock at a time to get the cornbread perfectly moist but not sopping wet. Start slow, you can always add more but you can’t undo it! The cornbread should absorb the liquid without leaving a puddle at the bottom of the bowl.
- Now bake! As I mentioned before, this stuffing gets baked in a baking dish, not the turkey. To make sure that the stuffing cooks and warms through before the top gets too dark, I start it off in the oven with foil to cover, and remove it at the end to promote browning.
- Garnish and serve. Stuffing itself isn’t the prettiest dish on the dinner table, so don’t forget to add a little garnish in the form of chopped parsley and a few sage leaves. Some added green really helps to break up the uniform golden-brown and makes your stuffing photo-worthy.
CAN I MAKE THE STUFFING AHEAD OF TIME?
You can absolutely make The Best Cornbread Stuffing with Sausage and Bacon ahead of time. If you’d like a head-start on your holiday cooking, I recommend whipping it up the night before Thanksgiving and leaving it in the refrigerator, unbaked. Pop it into the oven when the turkey is done, and that’s all you have to do the day of!
And while I recommend following the instructions above, you can also fully bake the stuffing ahead of time and reheat. It’s surprisingly good that way. Trust me, I ate this stuffing for almost a week straight because I made so much of it when testing!
(Don’t let me fool you, I loved every second of it.)Print
- 1 batch Honey-Buttermilk Cornbread
- 1 1/4 cups chopped pecans
- 1 pound peppered bacon, cut into lardons
- 1 pound sausage with sage (or uncooked breakfast sausage), without casings
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 3 stalks celery, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley, plus more to garnish
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary
- 2 tablespoons dried rubbed sage
- 2 tablespoons dried thyme
- Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
- 1 stick unsalted butter, melted
- About 3 cups chicken stock
- Fresh sage leaves, to top
- Place the oven rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 300°F. Cut the cornbread into cubes (tearing some apart with your fingers to create different textures) and divide between 2 large rimmed baking sheets. Toast, flipping halfway through, until dried and golden, about 45 minutes.
- Increase temperature to 350°F. Lightly butter a 13 x 9” baking dish and set aside.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, toast the pecans, stirring occasionally until fragrant and browned, about 5 minutes, and then transfer to a bowl. Set aside. Fry the bacon in the same skillet until crisp, then transfer to a separate bowl for later. Discard all but 2 tablespoons of the drippings. Fry the sausage in the same pan, breaking up with a wooden spoon until crisp, crumbled, and cooked through. Transfer to the bowl with the bacon, leaving the grease in the skillet.
- Saute the onions in the grease for 2 minutes, then add in the celery and continue until onion is fully softened.
- Mix the bacon, sausage, onion, celery, pecans, and herbs with the dried cornbread in a large bowl. Add the melted butter and mix. Taste and adjust herbs as desired.
- Add chicken stock, a half cup at a time until perfectly moist without any liquid pooling at the bottom of the bowl. Transfer to the prepared baking dish and top with a few leaves of fresh sage. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes, then remove foil and continue to bake until the surface is deeply browned, about 25-35 more minutes. Top with additional chopped parsley and sage to garnish, and serve warm.