Dressing Versus Stuffing in Your Turkey - Or Is It On the Side?

Posted on 06 Dec 2013 21:35

You have dressing with your turkey on Thanksgiving and Christmas (why Christmas? - that's another story) and your neighbor has stuffing. You're from the South, and folks down there call it dressing pretty much all the time. Yet, you both put it inside the turkey. You stuff the bird.

Okay, I don't do that, I think it's nasty. But, in this hypothetical situation, you both stuff the turkey, only you stuff it with dressing and your neighbor stuffs it with stuffing. And you've heard endless debates about what a stuffing is and a dressing is and that a dressing goes around the turkey, not in it, and yada yada. Plus, your dressing and their stuffing are different recipes. Well, everybody's stuffing/dressing is different! There are endless variations on the theme of what to put inside a bird, or serve alongside it. So, the question is whether dressing and stuffing really are the same thing, and why we use these two interchangeable terms.

If there is a quintessential basic stuffing in the US, then it is the white bread with onion, celery, sage, and maybe sausage that we got from Anglo traditions. But this is also dressing, and we will darn near put anything in our recipe here in America.

Stuffing and dressing, then, ARE the same thing. There is absolutely no evidence that the word dressing has ever been used to denote a fundamentally different thing than stuffing. Stuffing, in most of the US, is the predominantly used term. Dressing, as I already mentioned, is popular with people in the South and the Southeast.

In some parts below the Mason Dixon line, you might find cornbread as the base. I'll be honest with you, I hated cornbread stuffing growing up. My family made a soupy cornbread stew with boiled eggs in it and a ton of dried sage. It was awful, which was weird in a family of excellent cooks. While I'm sure there are some excellent cornbread stuffings out there, I preferred the basic white bread mixture they served in the school cafeteria.

I'd like to point out, as well, that cookbooks are not a good source for information such as this. Many people would consult a cookbook to find out whether dressing and stuffing were different things, and they'd get 20 different answers. But cookbooks, by and large, are very poor sources of food history or etymological information. Cookbooks are often simply a handed down version of what one or two famous and influential cookbook authors said on a subject. But often, those authors were simply stating opinion and had no particular expertise as food historians, etc. This does not mean that all cookbooks are wrong on this, or similar subjects, but that you should not rely on them as your main source of information.

turkey dinner with dressing in baking dish

The 'stuffing' is in a separate dish.

turkey dinner with dressing in baking dish

The 'stuffing' is in a separate dish.

Anyway, historically, the term used for the stuff crammed into the carcass of the bird was stuffing. But, we're talking about cramming stuff into the carcass of a bird. Stuffing it in, as it were. Some folks decided, at some point, that this was not exactly a prim and proper thing to be doing. We are two sophisticated to "stuff" anything with "stuffing," they thought. Let's call it dressing, instead. You know, we are dressing the bird, not stuffing it. At least that's how it went in Victorian England, where the term dressing seems to have originated.

In Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, Andrew Smith makes the further point that the things we do to a turkey, chicken, or other bird to prepare it, like trimming it and cleaning it, etc. is "dressing the bird." And by that extension, putting stuffing around the outside of the bird could be seen as dressing the bird, a verb distinction, while stuffing is the stuff you put inside it. If true, this would go along with the general notion that it's dressing when you put it around the outside and stuffing when you put it on the inside. However, in general use, stuffing and dressing are interchangeable. Less and less people actually put stuffing, or dressing inside their Holiday turkey anymore, due to fear of food poisoning, however, and it could be that the term dressing will win out, as why would we keep calling it stuffing if we never stuff it?

Also, more and more, despite my tongue-n-cheek ramblings, the stuffing or dressing has become dissociated with the turkey altogether, and it baked in a separate dish, such as a casserole. But it is quite possible that the term stuffing will live on and on, except for us sophisticates of the South. Stranger things have happened in language.

Still, it is a common notion among cooks, both amateur and professional, that stuffing is some crappy, unsophisticated gunk, nothing more than some moistened bread, and dressing is some complicated gourmet delight born on Mt. Olympus when Zeus had a Turkey dinner. That is poppycock. Dressing is stuffing, stuffing is dressing: Get over it.

This article contains one or more Amazon affiliate links. See full disclosure.

© 2016 by Eric Troy and CulinaryLore. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permissions.