Holiday stuffing hot takes and endless inspiration from 16 Canadian chefs

The pros have strong feelings about how to make this all-important side — and they want you to know it.

The pros have strong feelings about how to make this all-important side — and they want you to know it

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

I have absolutely no interest in a turkey dinner without stuffing; it is vital to my meal, and therefore vital to my holiday happiness. Whether or not you personally agree, stuffing is the pièce de resistance for so many diners this season. However, the fact that we can't even settle on a name for it (are you team stuffing or team dressing?) is only the beginning of the debate around this contentious seasonal side. Should this savoury scene-stealer appear by turkey's side — or in it? And, most of us have strong feelings about what it should be made with, too, since stuffing elicits a lot of nostalgia for holiday meals past. I think Dan Kutcher from Summerside's South Central Kitchen & Provisions put it best: "stuffing is an emotional food." In fact, I turned to 16 chefs across Canada for their thoughts on stuffing. If you think you're going to get any resolution on the great stuffing debates, you're absolutely not. But what you will get are some amazing tips and lots of inspiration to make your tastiest stuffing yet.

Shahir Massoud, Chef and restauranteur of Levetto, host of CBC Life's "Man of the Kitchen",Toronto, Ont., says:

My main tip would be to get creative with the type of bread you use! Try using day-old focaccia, cornbread, or even brioche for a stuffing that takes flavour to the next level.  

Dan Kutcher (baker) and Ian Gass (chef), Co-Owners of South Central Kitchen & Provisions, Summerside, P.E.I., says:

First, skip the preservative-laden grocery store bread and get to a bakery for some sourdough boules or loaves. The complexity of the crust and creaminess of the crumb in sourdough will elevate your stuffing no matter what else you do. Rough cut or tear the sourdough, toss the bits in a paper bag for 2-3 days. The day before you make your stuffing take 1/3 of them out and soak them in milk overnight in the fridge. Second for yummier stuffing, fix a common stuffing problem —  the lack of fat (you are preparing your stuffing outside the turkey, right?). Our secret to increase fat, yummy content and the emotional connection of Christmas is with breakfast sausages from your local butcher. Remove the casing and discard. Break the interior apart and cook the sausage meat. Reserve the meat and the rendered fat and add both to your stuffing.

Bryan Satterford, Chef and Co-Owner of Juke Fried Chicken, Vancouver, B.C., says:

It is still stuffing even if you don't cook it inside the turkey. Instead, cook it in a buttered baking dish covered with foil. The stuffing will cook faster and more evenly. Bacon makes everything better. Smokey and delicious, render some bacon and add it to the mix. I also like to reserve the bacon fat and use it to cook all the diced vegetables for the stuffing. Spicy or mild pork sausage is also a good choice. Use the guts; every turkey comes with that little package including the liver and the heart. Don't throw them out, chop them up finely and fold them through your stuffing. Stuffing holds up incredibly well. I usually assemble my stuffing the day before, placing it in the oven as the turkey cooks the next day, an hour or so before dinner. It can even be cooked beforehand and simply reheated. Just be sure to keep the dish cover with foil as you reheat.

JP Pedhirney, Chef and culinary director at Bridgette Bar and Double Zero, Calgary, Alta., says:

I don't cook stuffing the traditional way by stuffing it in the cavity of the bird while it cooks in the oven, simply because I love stuffing and there just isn't enough room in the bird. I do mine as a savoury bread pudding, torn loaves of good sourdough with sautéed onion, garlic, fresh chopped sage and parsley, with a couple eggs mixed with a few cups of whole milk and some grated Gruyere cheese. I mix it all together in a large loaf pan and bake it in the oven at 350F degrees until the bread pudding is firm and golden brown on top. The mixture of egg, milk and cheese keep the stuffing moist with little notes of cheesy crispy crust to add some depth of delicious flavour.

Matty Kane, chef at Shelter Restaurant, Tofino, B.C., says:

Stuffing is one of the most commonly misunderstood holiday dishes. Everyone's mother has a different idea of what should go into a stuffing. However, there are three ingredients that no stuffing is complete without; bread, onions, and herbs. These are the baseline ingredients. Without them, call it what you will, but do not call it stuffing.

Choose your bread carefully — understand that it is the main ingredient and will impact your result. For instance, a chewy sourdough loaf will result in a chewier stuffing. Whereas using a rich brioche will result in a softer texture. If you are going to introduce moisture to the party (i.e. stock, eggs, or juices from the bird), you will want to concentrate the flavour by removing moisture from the bread. Lightly toast your bread. This will allow more absorption of whichever delicious liquid you add to the mix.

Cut your onions small. Don't use red onions. Be generous — onions are the second most important ingredient. Don't use more than three herbs in your stuffing, choose one headliner and be liberal. Have up to two background singers to round it out. For example, you could go heavy on the summer savory (classic stuffing herb), and back it up with thyme and sage, my favourite stuffing combo.

Turkey, its juices and therefore your stuffing, must be cooked to an internal temperature that is 'safe' for poultry. So, unless you want to give your entire family salmonella for Christmas or have everyone at the table say "it will make a good soup" — do not stuff your bird. Cook your stuffing in a separate pan.

Jonathan Gushue, Executive chef at Fogo Island Inn, Fogo Island, N.L., says:

Stuffing is much debated in these parts. In Newfoundland, stuffing is dried savory, onion, fresh bread crumbs and perhaps a bit of butter and/or celery. For me though, I can not resist adding a bit of grated apple and minced bacon to our traditional stuffing. I feel the addition of the apple and bacon add depth of flavour and make the stuffing more versatile, lending itself to most poultry. Though, there is a chance it may partially be to get a rise out of my mother-in-law. I love her dearly, but she gets most upset and I just can't resist.  

If there was one action or ingredient that I would deem necessary for a great stuffing it is cooking the stuffing, hence the name, in the bird. Stuffing not cooked in the bird just isn't stuffing.

Chuck Hughes, Celebrity chef, restaurant co-owner and founder of My Kitchen Staples, Montreal, Que., says:

Stuffing is the best part of the holiday feast. Here are some easy ways to make sure it's a success. [First…] there is never enough! You need to stuff the bird and have a whole pan of it. I like my stuffing as a savoury bread pudding — nice and moist on the inside and nice and crispy on the outside. My mother's key ingredient [for] stuffing is Italian sausage, which has fat and great flavour. It is that fat that keeps the stuffing nice and moist. She adds the turkey neck, liver and she also uses onion, chopped mushrooms, cubed potatoes, her secret spices and good chunks of celery, which I love.

Jeff Park, Executive chef at The Salted Vine Kitchen + Bar, Squamish, B.C., says:

When my Korean family discovered that I had started making my own turkey dinners with all the trimmings, it became a frequent request of theirs when I would host them during my own holiday gatherings.

My first tip to creating a 'humble' stuffing that everyone will enjoy is to blend the traditional and nostalgic with something unique. But don't be afraid to incorporate a unique and personal flavour profile that makes each stuffing dish stand out as a highlight of the meal. Beyond using a variety of fruit, nuts or sautéed mushrooms, I often uses a 'culinary shortcut' on spices and herbs by using meat from pre-made fresh sausages.

[...] Prepare the dish a day ahead and then re-heat it in a non-stick pan with olive oil in order to brown each side before serving, which caramelizes the stuffing. To ensure everyone at the table gets their fair share of the crispy and flavourful crust, I roll the stuffing into a log, slice it into equal-size rounds and then pan-sears each piece for a truly toothsome and crowd-pleasing holiday side dish.

Emily Wells, Chef at The Mill in New Glasgow, New Glasgow, P.E.I., says:

The vast majority of my experience with Christmas stuffing has been cooking for large groups at church fundraisers so my stuffing recipe is actually for 150+ people. Since I'm cooking for a large crowd I keep the stuffing very traditional but I think these are the key details for a good classic stuffing:

Toasting the bread beforehand is so important! Whether you toast it in the oven or use stale or air-dried bread, this keeps the stuffing from being too soggy and gives the texture some substance. Sauté the onions and celery properly so they're soft and sweet and not too strong in flavour. A combination of butter and good chicken or turkey stock to moisten and for flavour. The toasted bread cubes will absorb the liquid but 'stand up' to it! And on PEI, season with good old summer savory — it's crucial to PEI stuffing!

Christine Tizzard, Chef, food stylist, and recipe pioneer from Newfoundland, says:

I have done a lot of different stuffings over the years but my family always demands the traditional 'East Coast' version that includes these must haves: Lots of onion and celery sautéed in lots of butter. For herbs, savory is a must, specifically Mt. Scio Savory Farm in Newfoundland. And it must be cooked in the turkey.

I personally like the addition of a cup of cranberries or wild blueberries scattered about. Both I have on my freezer, and I just toss them in before stuffing the stuffing in the turkey. I crisp up chopped chorizo or an extra layer of flavour. So good! And don't be afraid to use gluten-free bread — it works just as well. And there are always a few gluten sensitivities when having a big feast.

Joshna Maharaj, Chef & activist, Toronto, Ont., says:

My family definitely loves stuffing! In fact, it's one of the few recipes that has been passed down from my grandmother to my mom to me. Our family stuffing is rich and full of aromatics like thyme, scallions and parsley, and it's vegetarian. Since this was all I knew as a kid, I was surprised to discover that most other stuffing contains some kind of meat/shellfish. The secret to the greatness of this stuffing is mashed potatoes, an obscene amount of butter, and some intense and consistent stirring that requires you to share the job with someone else.

Robin Wasicuna, Chef/owner at Twin Pine Diner, Yellowknife, N.W.T., says:  

Like a lot of people, I grew up with bread stuffing. The fight to keep it moist usually resulted in dense, egg-heavy, burnt-around-the-edges stuffing that required lots of gravy. Lots.

Thirteen years ago, my new wife introduced me to her family's traditional stuffing. Sausage stuffing with bread crumb and egg for binding. The result is a dreamy, melt-in-your-mouth, meatball-like stuffing. The best part? The next day when you're making sandwiches, you can slice it and add it to your sandwich with some cranberry sauce!

Christine Cushing, Celebrity chef, Toronto, Ont., says:

I am very vocal about stuffing, maybe too much so, but I believe stuffing should be made and cooked separately and not inside the bird. Cooking the stuffing in a separate vessel shortens the cooking time of your bird, allows the heat to circulate throughout the entire bird (including the cavity) and is less likely to cause bacterial issues for your holiday gathering.

[There are a few] additional things I feel very strongly about. Some kind of fruit in stuffing really is a great accompaniment to turkey, something fresh like apples or dried like prunes, currants and apricots. Some kind of textural contrast using wild rice, barley, nuts, seeds, etc. will really wow your guests and let them know that you splurged a bit because you care. Use a boat load of herbs. The more the better and a variety will give your stuffing much more depth. [And finally] I find it hard not to use some kind of alcohol such as white wine, vermouth or brandy to deglaze my onions, which should be in every stuffing.

Zane Caplansky, Chief Fresser at Caplansky's Deli, Toronto, Ont., says:

My wife's family in Tofino, B.C. is obsessed with stuffing. They make both stuffing and dressing to make sure there's enough at holiday time. Their recipe was lifted from Joy of Cooking and it works every time. Leftovers are used for grilled challah bread sandwiches along with turkey, brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce. Cheddar cheese is optional. The eggy bread was my idea — it grills up like a poor-man's brioche. Pro tip: use mayo instead of butter when grilling. The challah is buttery enough.

Roy Flemming, Chef and co-owner of Tuc Craft Kitchen, Vancouver, B.C., says:

My keys to a great stuffing are simple. A couple of weeks before cooking your bird, start collecting any bread ends or leftover bread in your freezer; yes, sourdoughs and French baguettes are my favourite because they have firm crusts and hold up better. I always brine my bird in a solution of water, juniper berries, bay leaves, kosher salt and sugar for 24 hours prior to cooking. I prefer to stuff a cooked bird to ensure no possibility of food borne illness. [When cooking the turkey,] line a roasting pan with peeled, washed and coarsely chopped aromatic vegetables such as onion, celery, carrots, garlic. Once the turkey is cooked, remove the ‎bird and retain the juices from the pan. Dice the bread that you have been saving and in a large skillet or pan add the roasted vegetables, bread and pan juices. Cook to desired texture and add any dried berry and/or nut of your choosing in the amounts you prefer; cranberries, blueberries, currants, pecans, walnuts or even raisins all work. Add a large pinch of Italian parsley and season with kosher salt and pepper to your liking, then stuff your bird.

We would love to hear your thoughts on what makes this dish so delicious. Tell us you tips and tricks in the comments below.