By Ann Taylor Pittman
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Master the art of corn bread dressing before your holiday dinner.

When it comes to classic Turkey Day sides, people typically fall into one of two main camps: Team Bread Stuffing and Team Corn Bread Dressing. As a born-and-bred Southerner, I staunchly fall into the latter category. When you taste a good version of corn bread dressing, you'll be sold on its hearty texture and savory flavor. But if you've ever had a less-than-stellar rendition, it can turn you off for good. There are certain mistakes I know I've tasted in those subpar corn bread dressings; avoid those, and you're well on your way to Thanksgiving greatness.

Photo: SunnyDaysNora

Mistake #1: You're sweetening your corn bread.

I firmly believe that good corn bread does not contain sugar. Instead, it tastes of corn and butter (or bacon drippings), with a slight lift from buttermilk. To paraphrase the great Southern chef Hugh Acheson, sweetened corn bread is actually cake. Now, that's not to say that I don't sometimes enjoy a toasted slice of buttered corn bread with a drizzle of honey — but that's a different thing.

Now, this no-sweetener rule is particularly crucial when it comes to making corn bread dressing. You want that casserole of starchy goodness to be deeply savory and herby, and sweetness just throws everything off. So start with a good, savory base. Skip those mixes that are full of sugar and whip up a good pan of corn bread.

Mistake #2: You're not using enough aromatics.

OK, sure, you want your corn bread dressing to reflect its starting point (the bread itself), but it should taste like far more than just corn bread and broth. You should include loads of sautéed onions and celery, and plenty of herbs (preferably fresh); my favorite herb combo for dressing is fresh parsley, sage, and thyme. Lots of it. More than you might think you need. Oh, and lots of freshly ground black pepper, too.

Mistake #3: You're not cooking your aromatics enough on the front end.

Ever take an eager first bite of dressing and crunch down on a chunk of raw onion? Yeah, that's not ideal. Instead, the onions and celery should cook — in butter or oil — until they are completely tender and their flavors soften a bit. It's best to go no higher than medium heat so that you don't risk burning or overly browning the veggies before they reach tenderness. And toss in the heartier herbs (thyme and sage) for the last few minutes so they can start releasing their fragrance and flavor and to take the raw edge off before combining with everything else.

Mistake #4: You use regular (super salty) chicken broth or stock.

You want to be firmly in control of the flavor of your corn bread dressing — but if you use salty broth or stock, your dressing may taste way too salty before you've even added any actual salt. There are great unsalted or low-sodium versions of chicken stock and broth at any grocery store, so take advantage of the convenience and flavor they offer. Or, if you're industrious, you can use your own homemade turkey or chicken stock.

Mistake #5: You don't taste the dressing before you cook it.

With anything and everything you cook, you should taste as you go and certainly before you reach the point of no return (in this case, before the pan slides into the oven). Go ahead and combine almost all of your dressing ingredients in a large bowl: crumbled corn bread; sautéed onion, celery, sage, and thyme; chopped fresh parsley; some freshly ground black pepper; and unsalted chicken stock or broth. Taste at this point, before you've added salt and before you've stirred in raw eggs. This will give you an accurate idea of the flavor of the finished dressing, as eggs won't really add any flavor. If you need more salt, now add it — a little at a time — until the dressing tastes just right. Then stir in the raw eggs and bake away. You'll feel good about what you're about to serve, and there will be no surprises at the table. If you avoid these pitfalls, you are sure to turn out a wow-worthy pan of corn bread dressing, the type where people hound you for the recipe. And, let's be honest, that's a pretty great feeling, one for which to be thankful.

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