Stuffing vs. Dressing: Is There Actually a Difference?
This piece originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.
In the same vein of the tomato, to-mah-to and potato, po-tah-to debate, I always seem to find myself engaging in some sort of meaningless linguistic feud. My friends up north fight me tooth and nail that our favorite carbonated drink is called “pop.” When, really, all my true Southern babies know that it’s clearly “soda.” Or to many Atlantans, it’s simply called “coke.” I only bring up the war of words on food terminology to prepare you for one of the biggest and oldest food fights of them all that’s coming to a dinner table near you this holiday season. If you’re lucky enough to have relatives visiting for Thanksgiving who were born in various regions of this country, I’m willing to bet you’ll duke it out (whether for the first time or as part of an annual tradition) on whether a certain side dish of starch and vegetables should be called “stuffing” or “dressing.”
Perhaps this just happens in my family, but right up there with all the heated political and football discussions (Mom, I love you, but screw the Cowboys), is the whole stuffing vs. dressing conversation. No other food talk–no, not even how to properly carve a turkey–seems to get people going as much as our bird’s most loyal companion. So what’s the appropriate way to refer to it? Is there really a culinary distinction between stuffing or dressing? Well, much like the whole pop vs. soda controversy, the answer to that question depends on where you live.
I can tell you it was always called dressing in my household in Georgia–cornbread dressing with an egg gravy to be more exact. No matter how many times I see Kraft’s Stove Top Stuffing Mix on the shelves, you’ll never convince me it’s anything other than dressing. And most residents below the Mason-Dixon Line and in the Midwest would agree, even when it is cooked stuffed inside the turkey.
It wasn’t until I went to college in Atlanta and was exposed to different a broader spectrum of ethnicities and cultural traditions that I learned that other people actually use the term “stuffing” at their tables. My peers who were from northern or northeastern states and the west coast typically leaned toward stuffing. Oh, and to throw even more confusion into the mix, all my friends from Pennsylvania actually call it “filling.” Yes, like that stuff we put in pies and doughnuts type of filling. Random. Point is, no one wins the Thanksgiving rivalry–geography does.
The one glaring technical difference I found between the two is how they’re cooked. According to most dictionaries, stuffing is defined as “a mixture used to stuff another food, traditionally poultry, before cooking.” Whereas dressing is cooked in a pan outside of the turkey cavity. Like I said above, the two common terms are used interchangeably depending on where you live, but if you want to get into the nitty gritty of factual accuracy to prove your way is the right way to your second cousins, the important thing to remember is that stuffing is stuffed inside of an animal before cooking (makes sense) and dressing is simply stuffed into your mouth from a separate dish. And we could go back and forth on whether using cornbread as opposed to a loaf of bread has anything to do with what the dish should be called (I’ve witnessed this argument play out more than once), but really, the starch is just a matter of preference and has no actual bearing on the title.
Now, if you have a particularly stubborn extended family and need more fodder to prove your authority on traditional Thanksgiving side dishes, look to history. By definition, stuffing was the first to appear, going all the way back to the Roman Empire. A collection of Roman dishes is documented in De re Coquinaria, which is translated as Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome, and featured within a kitchen anthology called Apicius. The term “dressing” was pretty much unheard of until the 1850s, when the Victorians changed it from “stuffing.” Our predecessors of peace, prosperity, and refined sensibilities apparently couldn’t stand behind such an offensively crude word as stuffing. Either way, it seems the South embraced the Victorians’ standards, while the North couldn’t be swayed. Even before the Civil War, it seems we couldn’t agree… and we’re still trying to make sense of the ambiguous nature of these two terms and regional divides. Typical.
Regardless of which side you’re on, one thing we can all agree on is that this iconic dish is damn delicious and a turkey day table isn’t complete without it. And that being that, here are some stuffing AND dressing recipes sure to please both the Northerners in your life and my fellow born-and-bred Southerners, too:
Personally, I don’t really care if it’s served to me inside from of the turkey or on the side in a casserole dish. It’s up to you whether you call it dressing or stuffing, but like most years, I’ll probably just be referring to it as “YUM. Will you scoop me some seconds?”