A stuffing is a mixture of ingredients used to fill a cavity in a larger piece of food in order to add flavor and/or textural contrast. Notice the nebulous……”mixture of ingredients.” That’s because the sky is virtually the limit when it comes to the components of a stuffing. All kinds of meat, (meaning things that fly and swim too), breads, grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seasonings can comprise a stuffing. Many stuffings employ some form of starch, i.e., bread, grains, cereals, cornmeal, bulgur wheat, rice, crushed up crackers, etc. This is due to the binding properties of starches and in some cases, their ability to soak up moisture.
Recipes for stuffings can be found in old Roman cookbooks although certainly man was utilizing them even earlier. During the Medieval period stuffing was called farce, after the Latin farcire and the French farcir, meaning to stuff. In the 1500’s the actual word “stuffing” first appeared. During Victorian times the word “dressing” became in vogue and in some places is still used today.
Nevertheless, I think stuffable edibles fall into one of five categories. First are foods sold with their natural cavity pre-cleaned and excavated, such as poultry and often whole fish. Next are those where the cook must fabricate a globular cavity or elongated incision to receive a filling. Rounded vegetables like tomatoes or bell peppers are ideal for hollowing out. Other foods have a slit carved in them. In the case of shrimp this is done primarily to clean them but the crevice can than be exploited for stuffing. Or, a “pocket” can be made by cutting a thick piece of meat, such as a pork chop, along its horizontal axis. This creates a cavern for the stuffing of your choice. Third are foods that sport a natural concavity such as a clam shell, a de-stemmed mushroom, or a de-yolked hard cooked egg. The center of these morsels are often cooked, removed and blended into the eventual stuffing. Fourth are flat foods that can be rolled around, or folded over a stuffing. Meats can be pounded into a thin paillard and rolled around a stuffing like Italian braciola. Non-meat rollers include cabbage and tortillas. Or, items like wonton skins and other dough-based wrappers can be folded over a stuffing to make dumplings, ravioli, pierogis, etc. Finally, there are the foods that cooks produce and shape, completely from scratch, for the sole purpose of harboring a filling. Pasta shells and tubes, tartlets, and profiteroles come to mind.
First are a few food safety concerns. Generally it is best to make your stuffing as close to the time you plan to use it as possible. Endeavor to stuff the primary item just before cooking. Never stuff a bird for example, and then refrigerate it for extended periods of time. Be mindful of stuffing ingredients which need to be pre-cooked, as when the cooking time of the final dish is less than the cooking time necessary for the stuffing ingredients. A good example is a chimichanga. A chimichanga is a burrito that is briefly deep-fried to make it crispy. If you were making a chicken chimichanga, the raw chicken meat would not sufficiently cook in the brief time the chimichanga needs in the deep fryer. Thus, you should cook the chicken and other ingredients first, fill the burrito, and then deep fry it. Aside from food safety, this example serves as another reason to precook certain stuffings or ingredients thereof: To develop and meld the flavors of the ingredients. Also, based on the particular stuffing, and the cooking time required for the final dish, consider the moisture level of the stuffing. Few things are worse than a dry stuffing. Generally speaking, I like to be quite liberal with my addition of olive oil, stock, or whatever other fluids may be incorporated into the stuffing. Finally, refrain from overstuffing or compacting the stuffing excessively. Items like ravioli will burst during cooking if overstuffed. Overly compacted stuffing may not cook thoroughly.
Many recipes require the use of stale bread. Ages ago this was done to stretch a limited food supply for a technologically undeveloped population. Nowadays we’ve learned that there’s actually some science behind this practice. Bread goes stale because of a process called retrogradation. In essence, the starch molecules coalesce and squeeze out some of the water interspersed between them. The bread, quite simply, becomes harder. If you want the bread in your stuffing to maintain some its structural integrity, stale bread is the way to go. But there’s nothing wrong with using fresh bread. Personally I think it tastes better. But the stuffing will be mushier, although moister. It really boils down to the nature of the recipe and your personal taste.
One of the most common ways of employing a stuffing is also one of the worst, namely stuffing a bird. Since the stuffing has come into contact with the raw cavity of the bird, it must also be cooked to the same temperature that is safe for the meat. In the case of a chicken/turkey that is 165 degrees. The problem is that by the time the heat has penetrated the center of the stuffing sufficiently to raise its temperature to 165, the outer meat has been overcooked well beyond that thermal point. The larger the bird, the more overcooking that takes place by the time the stuffing is done, and that means drier, tougher meat. Loosely fill your poultry cavity with some onion, garlic, herbs, or lemon juice and make the stuffing separately. Your bird will be moister and tenderer.
There are zillions of stuffing recipes. My favorite is one of the most simple: A bread and sausage stuffing. I’ve never even measured the ingredients. It doesn’t have to be perfect to taste great. Simply sauté some ground Italian sausage. You can add a little onion if you like. Remove it from the heat, don’t drain the pan, and add fresh, crumbled white bread, Parmesan cheese, lots of parsley, salt and pepper, and olive oil until it’s nice and moist. Sauté it briefly or place it in an oiled baking dish in the oven for a while if you like it browned. Yum. Now that’s the stuff I think stuffing is made of.
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