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October/November 2018

Packaged Stuffing (Stovetop Stuffing Mixes)

In just 10 minutes, you can have a side dish for a holiday roast or weeknight dinner. But will it be any good?

How We Tested

We've devoted countless hours and hundreds of pounds of bread to developing stuffing recipes. Whether we make it with a simple combination of herbs and vegetables or include extras such as dried fruit or sausage, we know how to get perfectly moist, chewy-tender bread with the ideal distribution of flavorings. Homemade stuffing isn't particularly difficult to make, yet Americans still spend $258 million on packaged versions each year. Part of the appeal is how easily and quickly the box stuffing comes together—it can be ready in 10 minutes—and the rest is nostalgia. For Thanksgiving dinner or a quick weeknight meal, which store-bought stuffing is best?

We first identified six top-selling brands and then narrowed our focus to stuffings made with white bread or a mix of white and whole wheat. Each company sells several poultry-flavored or traditional seasoned options, so we held preliminary tastings to identify our favorite from each brand. Our final lineup of six stuffings, priced from $1.65 to $4.14 per container ($0.21 to $0.41 per ounce), included two chicken-flavored stuffings and four “traditional” or “seasoned” options. We prepared each stuffing on the stove according to the package directions and asked panelists to rate them all on flavor, texture, and overall appeal.

Most Packaged Stuffing Isn't Very Good

We were surprised at how much the boxed stuffings varied—and at how much some missed the mark. A few were bland, tasting only of bread and salt. The rest were intensely seasoned. Our tasters liked both “chicken-y” and “herby” stuffings, but even the best from each category had an “artificial” quality. Tasters thought they seemed “chemically designed to taste savory,” more like a “Lipton soup packet” or “instant ramen” than real stuffing.

They also varied in texture and, more important, moisture. One product was so dry that tasters asked, “Is this plain bread cubes?” Another was very “wet” and “mushy,” and a third was “moist in some spots and dry and crouton-like in others.” Worse, some had a weirdly “gluey,” “slimy” quality. Tasters much preferred stuffings that were evenly moist. Our favorites struck a balance between wet and dry, with visible pieces of bread that clung together to form a “cohesive” texture.

Flavor Boosters to Make Box Stuffing Taste Better

After reviewing the results of our tasting, we compared the package instructions. Most required heating butter and water to a simmer, stirring in the stuffing, and letting it sit for a few minutes to rehydrate. Two lower-ranking products replaced the water with broth and called for first softening diced celery and onion in the butter. Neither addition made for better or more flavorful stuffing, and some tasters thought the vegetables “overwhelmed” the mild bread.

As it turns out, the higher-scoring stuffings already contained plenty of flavor boosters. All six products had a fair amount of sodium, from 263.5 to 530 milligrams per serving, and our top two were in the middle of that range with 390 milligrams. The best also had slightly more sugar per serving. Most important, our favorites contained a slew of additives to amp up their umami, or savoriness, including hydrolyzed soy protein, monosodium glutamate (MSG), disodium guanylate, and autolyzed yeast extract. Their dry mixes also contained dried chicken, chicken broth, vegetables, and herbs. Our least favorite stuffings, deemed “bland,” had fewer umami-enhancing ingredients and no dried chicken broth or meat.

What to Add to Stuffing Mix: A Look at Liquid and Fat

There were two more big variables: the amount of butter and the amount of liquid used to rehydrate the dry stuffing mixes. Although stuffings with more butter generally scored better, one butter-heavy product landed at the bottom. The amount of liquid, however, showed a clear trend. Our top two products contained the same amount of liquid: 3 cups of water for 12 ounces of stuffing. (We used a standard 12-ounce serving size for comparison.) The stuffing that had been “almost pudding-y” in consistency called for more water, almost 3½ cups. And the dry ones contained 1½ to 2 cups, roughly 30 percent less than our favorites. It's no surprise that more liquid makes for wetter stuffings and less liquid makes for drier stuffings; the best were right in the middle.

Can You Make Bad Stuffing Better?

We wondered if we could improve low-ranked stuffings by tweaking the amounts of butter and liquid, but we learned that it's not quite that simple. With a bit less water and butter, the wet stuffing was less soggy, but one dry stuffing actually got worse when we added slightly more water and butter. It didn't rehydrate evenly, so the cubes stayed firm on the inside and became unpleasantly squishy and soggy on the outside, like marshmallows softening in hot chocolate.

Although most could probably be improved with some fiddling, there's no one-size-fits-all solution to achieving the perfect texture. We also think that a convenience product such as packaged stuffing should have reliable instructions and be at its best without any tweaking.

Our Winner for Best Stuffing Mix

We're able to fully recommend just one product, which had “good, moist texture” and the big, bold flavor we were after. StoveTop Stuffing Mix—Chicken ($2.29 for a 6-ounce box) beat the competition with its intensely “meaty,” “savory” flavor. We don't think it will convert people who are used to homemade stuffing, but if you like the ease and familiarity of the packaged stuff, this is the one to buy.

Methodology

We identified six top-selling brands of packaged stuffing, using data from the Chicago-based market research firm IRI. To narrow down each brand's offerings, we held preliminary tastings; the top-scoring stuffing from each brand was included in our final lineup. The products were priced from $0.21 to $0.41 per ounce. In a blind tasting, a panel of 21 tasters sampled the six stuffings prepared on the stovetop according to package directions. We rated each product on flavor, texture, and overall appeal. Ingredients and nutrition information were taken from product packaging; the latter represents a 28-gram serving (roughly ½ to ⅓ cup) of each dry stuffing mix. Prices were paid in Boston-area supermarkets and online. Products appear below in order of preference.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.