One of the most helpful tools a home cook can have in their hosting tool kit is knowing how to maximize the make-ahead potential of a dish. However, learning and understanding the parameters around what can be made ahead without sacrificing quality is not intuitive.
I have learned a lot about making things ahead from trial and error in my own home kitchen as well as owning and operating a commercial kitchen at Hurley House. There are so many ways to save time once you know a few tricks and tips.
Today I want to equip you with a few of the most important tools I have learned so that you can know what you can make ahead and how to manage different categories of food when you are planning a menu or gathering.
To be very clear, this post is going to address the concept of making something a few day ahead of when you plan to serve it, but is not going to delve into the topic of freezing things in advance. Your freezer is a valuable tool that can be used to make things ahead, but that will be the topic for another post in the future.
For me, the point in making things ahead is to avoid having a lot of tasks to take care at the last minute. The last minute is when I want to be thinking about my guests, the drinks, the music, my children’s needs (which always crop up at inconvenient times), the candles, or whatever the situation calls for. The last minute is not when I want to be thinking about cooking or giving a lot of focused attention to tricky kitchen tasks.
Maybe you feel the same. If so, I want to equip you with tools to know what you can make ahead and how to manage different categories of food when you are planning. I have compiled a summary of everything I will be sharing in this post in a printable guide at the end of this post.
Let’s dive in!
Vegetables of all kinds can be chopped, minced, or prepped ahead. This includes garlic, onions, carrots, celery, or truly any other vegetable you can think of. Store them in plastic bags or containers for up to three days, depending on the vegetable.
Potatoes can be chopped ahead, but store them submerged in water to keep them from oxidizing.
Citrus can be juiced ahead, but not zested.
Cheese can be grated ahead.
Dry ingredients can be measured.
Bacon can be cooked and crumbled.
SOUPS & STEWS
I would argue that soups and stews are best when made ahead. Once prepared, allow the finished soup or stew to cool a bit, then store in your fridge for up to three days.
For Beef Stew or other dishes made with fatty meat, you can scrape off the chilled solid fat before reheating.
Yes, always make salad dressing ahead. There is no advantage to making a salad dressing right before you serve it (even though they are a cinch to throw together!). Vinaigrettes, creamy dressing, and even sauces for things such as cole slaw and potato salad can be stored in the fridge for days. Olive oil will solidify when chilled, so make sure you allow vinaigrettes to come to room temperature before serving.
Salsas, barbecue sauce, tzatziki, hummus, gravy (yes, gravy!), and cranberry sauces can all be made ahead. Depending on the condiment in question, I would say sauces have a very long shelf life of up to a week.
Casserole are the make-ahead queens! Anything that is going to be baked in the oven can be assembled ahead and held in the fridge for several days.
Another approach is to fully bake the casserole and then gently rewarm it before serving. Make sure it is covered if you take this approach, so that it doesn’t dry out. I use this tactic with my Cornbread Dressing at Thanksgiving.
BATTERS & DOUGHS
Pancake batter, muffin batter, cake batter, cookie dough, banana bread batter…all of it can be mixed on one day and baked the next. This is a huge time saver for weekend breakfasts. Allow a few extra minutes of baking time for the cold batter.
Gently heat on low heat on the stove, stirring in a bit of extra broth or half-and-half to thin it out if needed. The key is very low and very slow, covered, giving it a stir to evenly distribute the heat.
Marinating meat is an ideal way to prep something before. Dry brining chicken or turkey, rubbing ribs, slathering a pork but in spices, marinating flap steak for fajitas.
ANYTHING THAT IS GOING INTO THE OVEN
In case I have forgotten any categories, the basic answer is yes, you can make it ahead. If it is going to be finished in the oven, then you can do all the steps before the oven in advanced. I’m sure there are exceptions, but generally speaking, make it ahead!
THINGS I WOULD NOT MAKE AHEAD
Scrambled eggs, or eggs of any type.
Beef or any meat cooked to temperature.
Roasted fish (unless you are chilling something like grilled salmon to put on a salad later).
Pasta that is standing alone.
Cornbread (but I would mix the batter ahead).
Roasted vegetables (they will end up overcooking when you reheat them).
Herbs and citrus zest.
I hope this information proves to be helpful as you cook and prepare delicious food in your kitchen! Do not be afraid to make things ahead, and utilize this knowledge to your advantage to allow yourself more space to be present with your guests.
Below is a printable guide for quick access to all of my favorite make ahead tips!