The Untold Chef’s Secret To Organizing Your Holiday Menu

Planning a large menu can be overwhelming especially during the holidays. Maybe there’s a lot of people in the kitchen or you’re running around before your guest arrive trying to get everything prepared. You have many irons in the fire. You may be wondering, how can it be easier and stress-free? I’m going to take you behind the scenes and show you how restaurants do it with one secret strategy that is easy to do.

Here’s the secret: It all begins by being organized; planning your menu and gathering your ingredients but with one important technique used by professional chefs, mise en place. Mise en place is a French cooking term that means “set up or everything in place.” It’s the foundation for every professional chef’s daily routine. And once you know how to make it work for you at home, it will be life changing.

The mise en place strategy is to spread a significant amount of work over time to make the job easier. This makes it the perfect game plan for large menus and even weekly meal planning. Mise en place includes preparing your ingredients and cooking them ahead of time. When done correctly, it doesn’t change the taste of your final recipe or how long you can keep your leftovers. In a restaurant, chefs prepare the food so that it can be ready in 5-10 minutes to serve each guest. So why not do this at home?

Mise en place includes preparing your ingredients and cooking them ahead of time

If you think about it, most ingredients take time to prepare. For instance mashed potatoes or risotto. If you go behind the curtain at your favorite restaurant, you’ll find all the ingredients pre-prepared. Chefs peel, wash, slice, debone, blanch, braise, bake and pre-cook the ingredients, so they are finished quickly for the guests. The final work that is done in the last 5-10 minutes is completing the delicate part of cooking like searing, frying, grilling, poaching or gently reheating.

In this holiday guide, you will find tips to easily prepare and organize your meal so you can spend more time with your guests and less time in the kitchen. You’ll also learn one of the most fundamental tools for cooking, mise en place. Here’s the step-by-step guide to creating your holiday meal, stress-free.

3 to 4 weeks until the event

  1. Determine the details. This including creating your guest list, budget, date & time. Invite your guests at this time.
  2. Order your bird (turkey, chicken, duck, etc.) Fresh meat always tastes better than frozen meat. When the meat defrosts, it loses its juice and moisture. The result is a less flavorful and tender bird. If you prefer a frozen bird, make sure you choose the best quality available. Free range, organic, heritage, and natural birds are recommended. They are grown under strict guidelines with the best diet and without antibiotics or additives.
  3. Select your menu. Collect and print your recipes for your menu. Looking for inspiration? Check out our recommended sides, sauces and stuffing and desserts. Don’t forget the bird or roast will take up a lot of space in your oven so be careful when planning other oven cooked dishes.
  4. Take an inventory of decorations, dishes, glasses and furniture that you have and what you’ll need to purchase.
  5. Create your grocery list and supply list.
  6. Make your broth/stock for your gravy and freeze it. This keeps for several months.

 

2 weeks until the event

  1. Stock your bar. Buy all your beverages, alcoholic and non-alcoholic.
  2. Buy your decorations, dishes, glasses, napkins, etc.
  3. Buy or borrow any additional cooking equipment needed from your menu.

 

1 week until the event

  1. Create space in your refrigerator and freezer, as needed.
  2. Inventory your pantry for ingredients to use.

Mise En Place Checklist

Now the fun begins! This is when you start to prepare your ingredients for the main event. By doing this ahead of time, you’ll be more relaxed and confident on the day of the event.

 

4-5 days before the event

Buy all your ingredients. This includes EVERYTHING that you need and store them properly. Don’t forget squash, pumpkin, potatoes, onions, and garlic are not stored in the refrigerator.

If you have a frozen bird, move it to the fridge to start thawing. Don’t thaw in water unless it’s an emergency because it loses a lot of flavors. Never defrost your bird at room temperature or under hot water because it creates bacteria. I don’t recommend cooking a frozen bird; this takes twice as long, and it will be very, very dry.

Gather & wash your dishware. Iron linens and gather your dishes, glasses, napkins and dining decoration for the table set up. Wash your dishes, serving ware and glasses.

 

3 days before the event

This is the time that you want to anticipate your menu. Think about the recipes that keep longer and steps that you can complete ahead of time.
(prep time: 1 hour)

Make the cranberry sauce (for Thanksgiving). You can keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Make the pie crust. Roll the shortcrust onto the pie tin ready to bake. You can freeze the shortcrust on the pie tin and keep up for a month or in the refrigerator for 3 days

 

2 days before

(prep time: 1 hour)

Bake your pie crust without the filling if it’s without crust on the top. This will give an incredible flaky pie crust. When you pour liquid onto raw dough, it remains wet while the rest of the pie.

Complete any last minute grocery shopping, if needed.

Wash, peel and cut all your dense non-watery vegetables. Vegetables keep for up to 3 days before cooking. If you peel potatoes, place them in a bowl of water that covers the potatoes to prevent oxidation.

Prep you pumpkin or sweet potato pie ingredients by cooking  & puréeing your vegetables.

 

1 day before

The goal of this day is to finish 80-90% of your meal!
(prep time: 1-1.5 hours)

Assemble your casserole to get ready to bake the next day. This includes precooking vegetables or pasta, as needed. Cover and place in the refrigerator. Don’t forget to cool down vegetables or pasta in ice water to stop the cooking process.

If your casserole has potatoes, bake it with foil on the top. The next day, finish the potato gratin with cheese on top for a nice gratin. Reheat it for 15-20 minutes until golden on top and warm inside at the same temperature as your bird. If you wait the next day to bake anything with potatoes, the potatoes will oxidize and turn brown/black.

Prepare the ingredients for your stuffing. Sweat your vegetables. Dice your bread. Wait until the next day to combine the broth, eggs with the bread because it will be extremely spongy and wet if you mix the day before cooking.

Blanch the vegetables, excluding potatoes. Immediately cool down in ice water to stop cooking and preserve the color.

Assemble and bake your dessert(s) and cornbread. It keeps well for up to 3 days. Place your dessert at room temperature before serving or reheat for 5 minutes in the oven if you want a warm dessert. Don’t use a microwave for reheating a pie. The crust will be soft and not flaky.

Set and decorate the table for the following day.

Chill drinks.

Event Day

(prep time: 1 hour)

4-6 hours before serving

Temper the bird or any meat about 1 hour at room temperature before cooking it. Tempered meat cooks evenly. Remember to remove the giblet bag before cooking.

Make the punch. Chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Bake your casseroles, gratins, and stuffing at this time, if you have a lot of things going into your oven. When they are finished, place foil over the top. Then when you are ready to serve, reheat in the oven for 10 minutes.

 

3-5 hours before serving

Cook your bird or roast. Refer to the recipe for the cook time. Remember this also depends on the size. When you place the bird or the meat in the oven make sure you calculate the serving time including time for a starter, aperitif, etc.

Cook your mashed potatoes. Reheat in the microwave when it’s ready to serve.

 

1 hour before serving

Temper the desserts by removing them from the refrigerator and temper to room temperature, as needed.

Assemble your stuffing, if you haven’t already done so.

Bake your casserole, gratin, and stuffing.

 

30 minutes before serving

Remove the bird or the roast from the oven and let it rest. It will be tender and warm.

Make your gravy while the bird or roast rests. This usually takes 10-15 minutes.

 

15 minutes before serving

Reheat all your sides, now that there’s more room in your oven. Reheat everything including all the sides, gratin, and stuffing that was made ahead.

Heat your blanch vegetables in a pan or in boiling water for 1-2 minutes until they are hot. You can also use a microwave for reheating the vegetables.

Carve the bird or meat and serve.

Remove the sides from the heat and serve.

 

When you are ready

Slice and serve your dessert.

Happy Holidays!

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