I am not here to tell you what to do.
Let’s get this out of the way first. You are a grownup. You can put whatever you want on your Thanksgiving table. You can serve chili with beans and I will roll my eyes and silently judge you because you do not put beans in chili, but that’s not the point. This is your dinner, and you can serve it however you want and whenever you want. You have control over everything except how Jason Garrett’s inexplicable lack of coaching skill will wreck the Cowboys game.
This is not me telling you how to make cornbread dressing. You can follow whatever recipe you want, whether it’s your grandmother’s sacred text or Stove-Top’s. (My grandmother’s dressing was unmemorable, but she would put chopped hard-boiled eggs in the gravy, and good Lord, don’t do that.)
What this is trying to be is behavioral analysis: what do people actually put in their dressing? Specifically, what are search engines and recipe sites telling people to put in their dressing?
METHODOLOGY: I started by clicking on the first thirty recipes for “cornbread dressing” on Google. This is not exactly scientific, and shut up, but it does tell you what the popular online recipes look like. (I specifically left out the New York Times recipe — these, you know, are the people who insisted that you could make guacamole from mushy peas.) Then, I put the ingredients into a spreadsheet.
The spreadsheet follows a simple pattern, one that I remembered from an old Alton Brown Good Eats episode — basically, how Alton defines a casserole. (Yes, cornbread dressing is a casserole. Shut up.)
- Starch. This, of course, in cornbread dressing, is primarily… wait for it… cornbread.
- Protein. (This isn’t in Alton’s rubric; he says “main ingredient,” which in cornbread dressing is… wait for it… cornbread, but that’s the primary starch.) Some recipes have a protein, some don’t.
- Aromatics. Flavorful vegetables like onions and celery, you know.
- Seasonings. Sage is the traditional seasoning, but there are variations.
- Binder. This is what holds the casserole together. In traditional Southern post-war cooking, this is cream of mushroom soup (please tell me you’re not putting cream of mushroom soup in your cornbread dressing).
- Liquid. This, again, is not in Alton’s rubric, but with all that dry cornbread you need something to keep your dressing from drying out.
The results are as follows:
All of the cornbread dressing recipes include cornbread.
Now, because this is essentially a libertarian article, I am not going to tell you that you have to make your cornbread from scratch, in a cast-iron skillet, the way that God and Martha White intended. I am not going to tell you to put sugar in it, or buttermilk. You do it your way. (I use Jiffy Brand and am not ashamed.) I specifically did not document what the different recipes used for cornbread; no need to stoke that fire. Make cornbread how you want.
A little under half of the recipes in this survey include white bread. If there was ever evidence of the total collapse of decent society, it is here.
Three recipes include biscuits instead of white bread. This is also wrong. But it is, somehow, less wrong than just putting a big hunk of Mrs. Baird’s in your dressing. I don’t recommend this but you can do it.
One recipe suggests adding a box of Stove-Top to your cornbread. I do not endorse this or the people that do this. You can try it! You can try lots of things. But there are better options, like admitting you can’t cook and going to Waffle House.
All kidding aside, really, please don’t put white bread in your cornbread dressing. You can! No one is saying you can’t. But all you are doing is adding extra carbs and no flavor.
One third of the recipes included sausage as a protein. I always include sausage in my dressing; but that’s a minority position and I’m okay with that. Two recipes included chicken breast; I think that would probably be okay if you weren’t making this for Thanksgiving; chicken in dressing plus turkey sounds like poultry overkill.
I am a Texan living in New Jersey, so I made a special order for Elgin sausage. Sage sausage is excellent if you can find it. Some recipes call for breakfast sausage, others for Italian sausage. I say you can’t go wrong with whatever you like.
Every single recipe had onions. This is as close as you get to unanimity in this world, and it is a good thing. I am not a huge fan of onions, but even I put onions in my dressing (heavily diced, nearly caramelized).
29 of 30 recipes had celery. The other one had cream of celery soup. I honestly do not know what to tell you about this. I suspect that someone, years back, opened their refrigerator on Thanksgiving morning, saw that they were out of celery, looked in their pantry, saw a lonesome can of cream of celery soup, and said to themselves, “Well, what’s the worst that can happen?”
As far as other vegetables, several recipes called for garlic. I think this is fine. I think you probably need to like garlic a lot to make this work. Similarly, one recipe included fennel. Again, if you like fennel, that is fine, too, although I think that you’d do better off with Italian sausage if you wanted that flavor. A couple of recipes called for bell pepper, which I think doesn’t add enough flavor, but you can try it. One recipe suggested jalapeno peppers, which I would personally be OK with but everyone else in my house would rebel.
The easy winner here is sage, with almost every recipe including this particular herb. Those that didn’t list sage included poultry seasoning, which just so happens to include sage. So my sage advice is to make sure you have some sage. (Yes, I know.)
So what else you got? A lot of people use parsley, and thyme, and even rosemary, to go with the Scarborough Fair joke I made in the caption. Any of that is fine, I suppose. There were a couple of people who use nutmeg, why not. I have used ginger before. It’s pretty good, but you can’t use too much of it.
So just about everyone uses chicken broth. Which is fine. A couple of recipes use cream of chicken soup as well (and one, dear God, does use cream of mushroom on top of that, why would you). I think cream of chicken soup is a little bit overkill but without ever having tried it I am not going to mock it that much.
Three recipes use milk — two use just regular milk, but one uses Eagle Brand, and I have to admit, I am a tiny bit curious about this. I think it would be too sweet, but I like sweet. I’m a little afraid to try it out. You might try using evaporated milk to make the cornbread — but when you look up that recipe, the first link is from the people who make evaporated milk. Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.
One recipe recommended using wine as a liquid. I am just going to leave that with you.
Almost every recipe used butter — sometimes as a medium to brown the aromatics (this is what I do) or just for the hell of it. So, yeah, butter.
Other Stuff You Can Try, Why Not
Apples? I mean, sure, why not. Mushrooms? I mean, I guess. Bon Appetit suggests corn nuts, which just sounds weird. Pecans and cranberries could work but you are going to have cranberry sauce and pecan pie, aren’t you? AREN’T YOU?
There is a good bit of variety in these recipes, but you know, really not that much. Getting the basics right is more important than the variations. If you can make cornbread, that’s half the battle. Then all you need to do is add butter and onions and celery, add in some sage, drown it with chicken stock, bake it, and you’re golden. Anything else is just gravy.
And please don’t put hard-boiled eggs in the gravy. I am begging you.
Links to recipes used in this article:
- A Little Pinch
- AllRecipes (note: this is the most basic of recipes, and the easiest — everything you need, nothing you don’t)
- Bon Appetit
- Cafe Delites
- Country Living
- Dessert for Two
- Dinner at the Zoo
- Divas Can Cook
- Food Network
- Grandbaby Cakes
- Just a Pinch
- Martha Stewart
- Melissa’s Southern Style Kitchen
- Once Upon a Chef
- Platter Talk
- Sally’s Baking Addiction
- Serious Eats
- Show Me The Yummy
- Southern Bite
- Southern Living
- Syrup and Biscuits
- Taste of Home
- Tastes Better from Scratch
- Tastes of Lizzy T
- The Spruce Eats