Oyster dressing is a traditional Thanksgiving side dish in the South. It also is pretty darn controversial.
That’s because people either love it or they hate it. I happen to love oysters, so I love the idea of oyster dressing (even though I grew up with sausage dressing for Thanksgiving). The only problem is that most classic oyster dressing recipes call for mostly white bread, cornbread and vegetables. Where are the oysters? Even worse is that many recipes call for chopping the oysters, which I think is sacrilege!
I like a more pure oyster experience, which is why I created my own version of oyster dressing that is heavy on the oysters and light on the breading.
The first time I made this particular oyster dressing, it was so good I had to make it again the next day. I was hosting a friend’s Thanksgiving weekend and by my guests’ request, I made oyster dressing to take to a potluck Thanksgiving dinner. The oyster dressing was gone in no time and my friends begged me to make it again the next day. Since I had riffed on the dish based on what I liked about oysters, I had to re-create my steps to develop an actual recipe.
And be forewarned: My oyster dressing is closer to an oyster stew with a bit of breading than to a traditional oyster dressing.
The next time I made it, I made it at my mother’s house and she thought that I was using too many oysters. I conceded to her wishes (as children often do...), and we spent the entire meal picking the (too few) oysters out of the dressing. That taught me a big lesson. If you like oysters as much as my mother and I do ‚Äî and you want a little bread with your oysters instead of a few oysters with your bread ‚Äî use a lot of oysters.
Because remember: Oysters shrink as they cook and bread expands as it cooks.
Most oyster dressings are bread with a smattering of oysters. I find that people pick through the dressing to get a bite with an oyster. So rather than turn this dish into a game of hide-and-seek, I use lots of oysters. Remember that the oysters are much larger raw than after they are cooked. It may look like you have too many oysters, but it will be just right when they shrink during cooking.
Start to finish: 1 hour 20 minutes (30 minutes active)
1/2 small loaf white sandwich bread (about 8 small slices)
2 sleeves (8 ounces) saltine crackers, crushed, divided
2 sticks unsalted butter, divided
2 large shallots, chopped
3 stalks celery, diced
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon dry thyme
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
Pinch of nutmeg
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
3 pints fresh oysters, drained
Cut or tear the bread into 1/2-inch cubes and let dry on a sheet pan overnight. Alternatively, dry the bread in a 200 F oven for 30 minutes.
Heat the oven to 350 F. Coat a 2-quart casserole dish with cooking spray.
In a large bowl, combine half of the crushed crackers with the dried bread cubes. Set aside.
In a medium Dutch oven over medium heat, melt 1 stick of the butter. Add the shallots, celery and a pinch of salt. Cook for 5 minutes, or until translucent. Add the pepper, thyme, onion powder and nutmeg. Stir to combine. Add the chicken broth and cream. Bring to a simmer, then remove from the heat. Ladle half of the mixture over the cracker and bread mixture, tossing gently to combine until just moist.
Add the oysters and gently toss to combine. Transfer to the prepared baking dish, then pour the remaining cream mixture over it. Sprinkle the remaining crackers over the top. Cut the remaining stick of butter into small pieces, then scatter those over the top. Bake until the top is lightly browned and crispy, 40 to 50 minutes. Serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving: 440 calories; 280 calories from fat (64 per cent of total calories); 31 g fat (18 g saturated; 1 g trans fats); 130 mg cholesterol; 440 mg sodium; 29 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 12 g protein.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a barbecue and Southern foods expert. She is the chef and pitmaster at online retailer CarolinaCueToGo.com and author of three books, including “Taming the Flame.”