Dressing and stuffing: What’s the difference?

Both are considered a side dish, the key is to making them safely.

Stuffing prepared in a slow cooker.
Photo: Lisa Treiber, MSU Extension. This is Lisa’s adaptation of her great-grandmother’s recipe. (She substitutes apples for gooseberries). The ingredients are prepared separately the night before Thanksgiving, mixed Thanksgiving morning and baked in her roaster.

Both dressing and stuffing are considered side dish items that are traditionally served with some type of poultry dish. How dressing and stuffing are prepared is what makes them different. Dressing is prepared separately from the bird, while stuffing is made by stuffing the mixture into the cavity of the bird and cooking them in the oven together. We quite often use both terms interchangeably, but regardless of what you call “dressing” or “stuffing,” the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has these guidelines for making it safely:

  • Many holiday dishes are prepared in advance, but stuffing should not be one of them. The dry and wet ingredients can be prepared ahead of time, but do not mix them together until just before spooning the mixture into a poultry cavity, or into a casserole. Keep in mind stuffing and dressing should be moist, not dry, heat will destroy bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment.
  • After preparation, immediately place into an oven no lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a food thermometer to ensure that the stuffing reaches the safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees, whether it is baked separately or inside a bird.
  • Never pre-stuff a bird, because this provides a medium for bacteria to grow. Stuff just before baking.
  • If your stuffing recipe includes raw meat, poultry or shellfish, including oysters, you should precook the raw ingredients before adding them to the stuffing to reduce the risk of foodborne illness from bacteria that may be found in the raw ingredients. Make sure the stuffing reaches a finished temperature of 165 degrees F.
  • When stuffing whole poultry, allow about a half-cup to one cup of prepared stuffing per pound of raw poultry. It is safer to under-stuff than to overstuff a turkey. Stuffing tends to expand during cooking. If you need more, prepare a casserole dish of “dressing” for additional servings.
  • If dressing is prepared ahead of time, it needs to be frozen or cooked after preparation and cannot then be used as a stuffing of a whole poultry. If cooked, cool in shallow pans, refrigerate within two hours and use within three to four days. When reheating, cook to 165 degrees. If dressing was frozen, do not thaw, before cooking as the high moisture content increases the risk of pathogen growth. Cook in an oven from the frozen state until it reaches a temperature of 165 degrees.
  • If you are preparing a turkey breast, it is safe to stuff following the same guidelines for stuffing a whole turkey.
  • Frying your turkey? Don’t stuff it. This cooking process takes place very quickly, meaning adequate heat may not reach the center of the bird and destroy the bacteria that could be present.
  • An instant-read food thermometer is an important tool to confirm that the stuffing has reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees. Even if the meat itself has reached this temperature, the stuffing may not have reached this temperature inside the cavity of the bird. Further cooking will be required for the stuffing to reach a safe temperature of 165 degrees.
  • Dressing may be made in a slow cooker following the directions below:
    • Dressing must be very moist.
    • Fill slow cooker no more than two-thirds full. Do not pack dressing into the vessel.
    • Start cooking at high setting for at least one hour, and then you may reduce to low.
    • Cook until the center of the dressing reaches 165 degrees. When checked with a food thermometer
    • Never place frozen dressing or other frozen food in a slow cooker, it will not reach proper safe temperature fast enough.

Michigan State University Extension recommends keeping the stuffing or dressing out of the “temperature danger zone” of 40 degrees to 140 degrees.” It is in this range that bacteria will grow most quickly. By following these tips from the USDA, you will be working to avoid potential problems that could result in a foodborne illness.

For more information on food safety, call the MSU Extension Food Safety Hotline 877-643-9882, or the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854. You can also email questions to MPHotline@usda.gov, or contact your local MSU Extension office.

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