Thanksgiving dressing or stuffing? Here’s the difference, and how to make it.

OSU Extension

By Nancy Lyons

Turkey is often thought as being the “star of the show” on Thanksgiving, but what about the one dish whose name is debated every year? Is it called stuffing or dressing? Do both words mean the same thing?

Stuffing is a dressing traditionally made with bits of bread and other ingredients (such as onion and celery) and seasonings, (such as herbs and spices). It’s also traditionally cooked by stuffing it inside the cavity of the bird, such as a turkey or chicken, which is then roasted. Stuffing a bird in this way is thought to enhance the flavor of both the bird and the stuffing.

Dressing is commonly used to mean the exact same thing as stuffing—including when it’s cooked inside the bird. Some people make the distinction that dressing is the proper name for the dish when it has been prepared outside of the bird—that is when it has not been stuffed and cooked inside.

There is also a lot of debate about how to make the best stuffing or dressing. Some insist on using stale bread, others swear by using box stuffing and “tweaking” it a bit to make it their own.

And then there is there is a lot of different opinions about what should be included in the stuffing/dressing. Common ingredients include sausage, dried fruit, carrots, celery, onion, mushrooms, butter, herbs, and spices. Stuffing enthusiasts also swear by other lesser-known ingredients like pepperoni, corn chips, plantains, oysters, popcorn, Twinkies, and White Castle Sliders. I’m not kidding.

Whatever you call this favorite holiday dish, it’s origin goes back centuries. A Roman collection of popular recipes from the first century AD mixed spelt (a type of early wheat used to make bread), spices, herbs, and vegetables, which was then stuffed into a variety of animals. Over time, this favorite dish has also been called farce (14th century), forcemeat (17th century), and most recently, the 19th century term dressing.

There is no clear record whether stuffing was present when the Pilgrims had their first Thanksgiving. While records indicate there were many turkeys and waterfowl present, there is no mention of whether these birds were stuffed for the meal. As Thanksgiving meals became more common over the years stuffing began to take a much more prominent place at the holiday table. Early Thanksgiving menus from the 19th century list stuffed turkeys and hams as main courses, indicating that by the 1800′s, stuffing had come to the forefront of most holiday meals.

Beyond serving stuffing as a side dish or cooking it in with an entrée meat try thinking “outside of the box.” Bake stuffing in muffin tins and serve as appetizers with a little mashed potato on top. Serve it on top of leftover sandwiches, use it inside baked peppers, or use it to bulk up your favorite meatball recipe. You can even serve it on top of pizza or stromboli.

Today, a holiday meal would seem incomplete without this classic side dish. Whether you call it dressing or stuffing, using dried fruit or Twinkies, buy a boxed mix or dry your own bread, enjoy the time with friends and family—and don’t forget to thank the cook.

Apple Cornbread Stuffing

Makes 16 Servings

183 calories per ¾ cup


6 large Granny Smith apples, peeled and chopped

1 package (14 ounces) crushed cornbread stuffing

½ cup butter

1 can (14.5 ounces) chicken broth


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine apples, stuffing, and melted butter. Add broth; mix well.
  • Transfer to a greased 13x9-inch baking dish. Bake until golden brown, 35-40 minutes.

Cranberry Cornmeal Stuffing

Makes 8 Servings


3 cups chicken broth, divided

½ cup yellow cornmeal

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

½ lb. Italian turkey sausage links, casings removed

1 large onion, diced

1 large fennel bulb, diced

1 garlic clove, minced

1 large egg yolk, beaten

4 cups soft French or Italian breadcrumbs

¾ cup dried cranberries

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon minced fresh sage

1 teaspoon minced fresh savory

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg


  • In a small bowl, whisk 1 cup broth, cornmeal, salt, and pepper until smooth. In a large saucepan, bring the remaining broth to a boil. Add cornmeal mixture, stirring constantly. Return to a boil; cook and stir for 3 minutes or until thickened. Remove from the heat; set aside.
  • Crumble sausage into a large nonstick skillet; add onion and fennel. Cook over medium heat until sausage is no longer pink. Add garlic; cook 1 minute longer. Drain. Stir in egg yolk and cornmeal mixture. Add breadcrumbs, cranberries, parsley, vinegar, sage, savory, and nutmeg.
  • Transfer to a 1 ½-qt baking dish coated with cooking spray. Cover and bake at 350 degrees or 40-45 minutes or until a thermometer reads 160 degrees.

Interested in free nutrition education lessons from OSU Extension EFNEP? Contact Nancy Lyons at 937-637-6540 or