There is no recipe that reminds me more of my time at A Pinch of Thyme catering in Greensboro, N.C. than this Thanksgiving standard. I look forward to the aromas of each stage of this dish to this day, and about the time I start chopping celery, the memories come flooding back.
It was November 1994 and I was in the Pinch kitchen, elbow-deep in a humongous Cambro, mixing up the familiar flavors of Thanksgiving dressing — sausage, sage, onions, celery and fresh herbs. (You have probably seen a Cambro; it’s a plastic food pan about the size of a carry-on suitcase, used widely in restaurant and catering kitchens. Sometimes, when I’m in the throes of holiday food prep, I wish I had a stack of ‘em.) Chef Rodney had scribbled out some notes to remind me how to put this dressing together, but after making so much of it for the umpteen in-home holiday parties we catered, I didn’t need them anymore. Nope, I knew that recipe like the back of my hand:
Crumble up the flaky buttermilk biscuits and honey-sweetened cornbread that Kathleen, the pastry chef, had made the day before. They needed to be stale, but not dry. Pull the strings off the celery, then chop it with the onions and cook them in the drippings left in the pan after browning the crumbled sausage. Add fresh herbs, including the signature pinch of thyme and toss it all together in the Cambro. Beat the eggs in one of the large stainless mixing bowls from the side shelf and add it to the dressing mix with enough chicken stock to moisten it all the way through. Pour it into a couple of greased, stainless steel hotel pans and over-wrap them with plastic film and then foil. Label the order with the client’s name and date of their event and move it to the walk-in. The service team would handle it from there, baking it and serving it up for the happy holiday hosts.
Then, wash up and repeat the whole thing for another party.
Today, wearing the very same apron (which I wore home one night and never returned), I make a scaled-down version of this dressing for my own Thanksgiving meals and it is my all-time favorite. I still don’t need a recipe to make it, but I had to write it down several years ago because everyone I ever made it for wanted the recipe. Even my ex-husband asked me to leave a copy for him when we parted ways (and yes, I did). What makes it so addictively good?
Biscuits and cornbread.
Though the flavors of the dressing are all familiar, the texture of the flaky biscuits and grainy cornbread—the two most popular breads of the American South—make it different from a typical dressing made with seasoned yeast bread cubes. And it doesn’t really matter what recipe you use for the biscuits and cornbread. It only comes down to how much time and baking skill you have, and whether you have a sweet tooth.
For this version, which I made last year when it was my year for the turkey — my husband, Les, and I alternate years, just as we declared in our wedding vows — I used Bob’s Red Mill whole grain cornbread mix (which is less sweet) and I made my own biscuits, using a partial amount of whole wheat flour.
Over the years, I’ve made it with everything from supermarket bakery cornbread to Jiffy mix (the sweetest option). My only suggestion is to stick with a cornbread that has some amount of flour in it; the kind made with only cornmeal will be too grainy for this dressing. I’ve used frozen biscuits, bakery biscuits and even biscuits from a fast food drive-thru. Other than the twist-can variety (which don’t have quite the right texture), any biscuit will work as long as you pay attention to the sodium factor. The best sausage is a bulk breakfast-style pork sausage (such as Jimmy Dean’s), and I like vegetable broth but chicken broth is also great. For the most authentic Southern version, put your hands on a Vidalia onion from Georgia; otherwise, any sweet onion will do (or you can even use leeks, as I did for this version). The fresh herbs are up to you; in the Pinch kitchen, we added fresh sage and thyme, but you know what your people like so go with that.
Now, I suppose you could technically use this mixture to stuff your turkey, if you do that sort of thing. As in most commercial kitchens, the policy at Pinch was to never stuff the bird because of the risk of food borne illness, and that’s a battle that I still face every other year when my hubby takes his turn with the turkey (yep, he stuffs it). My at-home version relies on the same clean and easy method we used back in the day— only, at home I’m baking it in a buttered casserole dish rather than a greased hotel pan. Sometimes I even “accidentally” make more dressing than my baking dish can accommodate and I wind up with a second dish that gets baked the day after Thanksgiving. That way, I can savor it twice for its lightly crunchy topping and the warm and fluffy insides.
Just as we did back in the day, you can easily prep this dressing the day before and bake it on Thanksgiving morning, then just warm it when it’s time for dinner. It travels well, too, if you happen to be going to someone else’s house for the big feast. However you go about it, please take my advice and make a large batch. You’ll be thankful for the leftovers!
Southern Biscuit & Cornbread Dressing
I used to make this dressing by the busload when I worked holiday season at a catering company. This scaled-for-home version brings together two beloved breads of the American South into a perfect dressing for Thanksgiving.
- 1 batch cornbread (see recipe notes for suggestions)*
- 8 buttermilk biscuits (see recipe notes)*
- 1 pound bulk breakfast sausage
- 1 medium sweet onion, chopped (or 1 leek, white and light green parts)
- 3 ribs celery heart, strings removed and chopped
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Leaves from two sprigs of fresh thyme
- A few leaves of fresh sage, finely minced (optional, depending on how sage-y the sausage is)
- 2 cups chicken stock (or more, if breads are very dry)
- 1 large egg
- Cube or tear cornbread and biscuits into a large, open bowl or onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet. The pieces should be about 1-inch square; don’t make them too small or the dressing will be more like mush. Let the bread pieces sit out overnight to stale. Alternatively, you may choose to toast them lightly in the oven, but only long enough to stale them.
- Place a cast iron skillet over medium heat and cook the sausage until most of the fat has rendered and sausage is lightly browned, but not crusted. Transfer sausage to a large bowl and keep the drippings in the skillet.
- Saute the onions and celery bits in the sausage drippings until they are soft and slightly caramelized. If the drippings are skimpy, add a tablespoon or so of butter. Season this mixture with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer entire skillet contents to the sausage bowl. Sprinkle thyme leaves (and minced sage, if using) over the mixture and toss to blend.
- While the sausage mixture is still warm, gently fold in the cornbread and biscuit pieces so that the lingering sausage grease will be evenly dispersed. Set this aside to cool slightly.
- Whisk egg and broth together in a large glass measuring cup. Pour half of it evenly over the dressing mixture and fold to combine, and then pour in the remaining broth-egg mixture. The dressing should be wet but not dripping. After the breads soak up the liquid, feel free to add a little more broth if the mixture seems too dry.
- Bake at 350° F for 35 to 40 minutes. If you want a very moist, soft dressing, bake it with a foil covering. For a firmer dressing with slightly crunchy top, bake uncovered. I usually split the difference, covering it with foil for the first 15 minutes then removing foil to finish it.