Turkey is the traditional star of the Thanksgiving meal, but among its essential supporting cast is one dish whose name is debated every year. Is it called stuffing or dressing?
Are these two words interchangeable? Or do they actually refer to different things altogether?
Pull up a chair as we explain the difference between these words as well as their overlap and origins—and the other word that some people use. And, if you’re having the stuffing vs. dressing debate around the Thanksgiving table at this very moment, feel free to read the rest aloud. (And tell Uncle Steve to stop hogging the gravy.)
What is stuffing?
Stuffing is a dish traditionally made with bits of bread and other ingredients (such as onions and celery) and seasonings (such as herbs and spices). It’s also traditionally cooked by stuffing it inside the cavity of a bird, such as a turkey or chicken, that is then roasted. Stuffing a bird in this way is thought to impart flavor to it—and to the stuffing itself.
But there are many variations of the dish, including those involving different ingredients and different cooking methods. Many people cook it completely outside of the bird by baking it or even cooking it on the … stovetop.
What is dressing?
In the context of Thanksgiving, the word dressing is commonly used to mean the same exact 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.
The history of stuffing vs. dressing
Whatever you call it, the dish variously known as stuffing or dressing did not originate with Thanksgiving (it may or may not have been featured alongside the fowl served at what’s considered the first Thanksgiving feast). Evidence from the ancient world, including from Rome and around the Middle East, suggests that ancient people roasted birds with all kinds of ingredients inside, including bread and spices. The word stuffing has been used in English to refer to such fillings since at least the 1500s.
The verb dress has been used since at least the 1300s to mean to prepare a food for cooking, often especially a bird (or other meat). It can also mean to season a dish, leading to the sense of the noun dressing that’s used in the term salad dressing.
In the 1800s, the word dressing gained popularity in some areas of the US as a word for the dish cooked inside a bird. The rise of this preference is theorized to be based in part on Victorian-era prudishness and a resulting movement away from more “graphic” terms for food preparation. The idea is that the word stuffing may not be so appetizing when you really think about it. (This sometimes happens with foods and terms considered perhaps too vivid for modern sensibilities—you rarely hear anyone using the word forcemeat anymore, for example.)
Over time, though, the straightforwardness of the word stuffing won out in most areas of the US. But debate around the appropriate term continues—perhaps most intensely around Thanksgiving tables where family members hail from different areas.
What’s another word for stuffing and dressing?
In some places, people refer to the dish as filling, but this is much less common than stuffing or dressing.
What’s the difference between stuffing and dressing?
Many families tend to have their own traditions around what makes a good stuffing or dressing. Some make it from a box, others insist that you have to use stale bread. Others add everything from dried fruit to sausage to their recipes. Some people make the dish even when they’re not roasting a turkey. Just as strong as these traditions, in many cases, are preferences about what it should be called.
Some people insist that it should be called dressing when it hasn’t actually been stuffed inside a bird. But many people insist on one term or the other regardless of how it’s prepared or what’s in it. The term dressing is most commonly used in the South, but it’s popular in pockets throughout the US. Still, not everyone in the South uses it, and usage varies from place to place, often based on family tradition.
Ultimately, the term stuffing is probably more popular—that’s the name the popular boxed stuff uses, and there’s even a National Stuffing Day on November 21. But proponents of calling it dressing are many and passionate. On Thanksgiving, we like to think there’s a silent majority too busy stuffing themselves with the stuff to be able to comment—or care what it’s called.
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