Whether you’re cooking for a few people or a crowd, the key to a successful Christmas dinner is often down to the preparation. Fortunately, there are some easy ways to get ahead and save precious minutes on the day, so you can spend more time with family and friends and less time slaving in the kitchen.
Having the right kit is key, so make sure your kitchen is equipped with everything you need, from roasting tins to a gravy separator and baster. Then write down the cooking times of each food so you can work out what needs to be started when, and what can be prepared ahead of time. Then try the handy tips below for getting ahead on the more tedious tasks and speeding up things that are running behind:
1. Put a poultry plan in place
If you’re a first-time turkey cook and already having nightmares, take the pressure off and do a practice run with a large chicken ahead of time. Then make sure your turkey is defrosted ahead of time – allow at least 8-12 hours per kg if you’re defrosting it in the fridge, 3-4 hours per kg in a cool room and 2 hours per kg at room temperature. Once thawed, remove all the packaging, any liquid, and the giblets and store in the fridge until you’re ready to cook (it’ll keep for up to two days like this). Then take it out of the fridge two hours before to bring it up to room temperature.
On the day, steer clear of filling the cavity with stuffing and invest in a meat thermometer, such as the excellent smartphone-connected Meater Probe Wireless Thermometer. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the bird, it’ll tell you precisely when the turkey reaches the right temperature to be cooked, neatly sidestepping both dangerously undercooked meat or a dry, unappetising dinner. If you’re short on time and it’s still undercooked, remove the breasts, wrap them in cling film and microwave them.
2. Fill the freezer
Your freezer is your friend at Christmas as there are plenty of trimmings that can be made ahead of time and frozen. Food that freezes well includes: stuffing (especially if you store it in an oven and freezer-safe dish so the dish can be defrosted in a microwave then popped in the oven to brown), gravy (which can be supplemented with juices on the day), pigs in blankets, parboiled parsnips (freeze in a single layer so they’ll defrost faster), Yorkshire puddings, cranberry sauce and bread sauce. Mince pies can also be made in advance and frozen.
3. Chop like a pro
Any chef will tell you that a sharp kitchen knife is a great time-saver when you have multiple chopping jobs ahead. Equipped with an all-purpose cook’s knife, you can dice root vegetables and potatoes with ease, trim green beans and sprouts and thinly slice red cabbage in half the time you’d spend sawing at them with a blunt blade. A chef’s knife can also slice turkey or meat joints just as precisely as a carving knife and often with more control. Don’t forget to invest in a knife sharpener if your favourite blade is starting to snag or tear food.
4. Expand your oven space
While enough room in the oven is rarely an issue year-round, at Christmas fitting everything in can feel like a really hot version of Tetris. Instead of swapping dishes in and out, make sure you have a microwave helper on hand. It’ll supplement your oven’s capacity, plus shave minutes off cooking times, so food can be mostly cooked and popped in the oven after to finish off browning.
Jobs perfect for your microwave include part-cooking potatoes before roasting them, defrosting almost anything and blitzing the Christmas pudding, which is far faster than steaming it. You can also use it to reheat vegetables that have been prepared the day before – simply blanch them in boiling water for a few minutes, then plunge into cold water to stop the cooking and reheat when required. Alternatively, add a microwave steamer accessory to your kitchen kit for easily cooked veggies from scratch. Most of your vegetables can be cooked or reheated while the turkey is resting so there’s no need to multitask either.
5. Stock up on essentials
Make life easier where you can with a few well-chosen gadgets and additional basics. A kitchen timer will help you keep track of how long pans have been simmering on the hob, while a set of smart scales can recalculate a recipe to cater for unexpected guests or suggest substitute ingredients if you run out of something you need – a great idea on Christmas Day when the shops are shut. It’s also a good idea to add extra-wide foil, cling film, baking parchment and freezer bags to your shopping list should you run out of lidded containers for leftovers destined for the fridge or freezer. Remember to label them on the day as working out what a frozen lump is later on can be a challenge.
6. Plug in and power through
A hand whisk or blender is another time-saving preparation tool on the day – use it for saving your arms whipping cream, brandy butter or brandy sauce, working any lumps out of gravy or incorporating juices, and making smooth dressings or Yorkshire pudding batter. Some hand blenders will also have mashing attachments for perfectly puréed potatoes with minimal effort, or mini choppers that can blitz small amounts of herbs and spices for seasoning.
7. Smooth and shred in seconds
Press your blender or food processor into service – they’re ideal for making everything from easy starters, such as soups, pates and parfait to dips for nibbles and fillings for tartlets. Use it in the morning to make a pancake mix or tasty nut butters, or while the turkey’s in the oven to whip up a simple chocolate mousse for dessert. This can then chill in the fridge until the main course is finished. Plus, with all the time you’ve saved, you can also use your blender for whizzing up a chilled festive cocktail or two. Cheers!