Holiday Cooking: What to Freeze and What to Prepare Fresh

If you are getting ready to host a big holiday meal, your freezer can make the job a lot easier. Beyond their obvious advantage for food storage, freezers can help you stay ahead of the clock as you prepare for the big feast. Preparing certain dishes and freezing them in advance can be great for keeping your kitchen less busy and your stress level low as Thanksgiving and other major holidays draw closer. And your guests will never know the difference.

What to freeze is up to you, but you can freeze just about any foods you tend to find at a traditional holiday meal. We spoke with an expert, Lan Lam, senior editor of Cook’s Illustrated and a regular on America’s Test Kitchen to get her advice on what holiday favorites are best to freeze, and which are better to prepare fresh.

Turkey: We’ll start with the main course. Most people won’t be reheating frozen cooked turkey, but thawing a turkey is practically a holiday tradition in itself. Defrost it in the refrigerator, especially for larger roasts, Lam says. Give it enough time to thaw. “If they’re partially frozen, you’re going to run into food safety issues,” she says.

Mashed potatoes: Save time by preparing this beloved comfort food in advance. “Mashed potatoes are great for freezing,” Lam says. They might look a bit soupy during the reheating process, but don’t worry. “When you first defrost them, they’ll look like a soupy mess,” Lam says. Frequent stirring as you warm them up should take care of the problem.

If you opt for scalloped potatoes, consider making them the day of instead of freezing, as freezing can dry out the dish.

Sweet potatoes: The same rules apply. “If they are mashed or pureed, go for it,” Lam says. “If you’re scalloping them or putting them in a casserole, it’s not a great candidate for freezing.”

Stuffing: Whether stuffing should be frozen depends on the recipe and consistency. “If you have a stuffing that doesn’t contain a ton of cubed vegetables, you could fix that in advance” and freeze it,” Lam says. “If there are huge chunks of vegetables, you might end up with something that’s a little soggy.”

Dinner rolls: These comforting carbs store well in the freezer. Lam recommends warming them in a 300-degree oven and wrapping them in foil to maintain moisture and avoid charring. (Accept right now that you probably are going to eat one too many.)

Gravy: This one gets an enthusiastic “yes” on freezing. “Make it two or three weeks in advance if you can. It holds really well and saves you so much time,” Lam says. Need a recipe? Try Lam’s “Game-Changing Gravy.”

Fruit pies: “If you are going to make pies, you can prepare the dough, even up to six weeks in advance,” Lam says. “Make sure it is tightly wrapped so it doesn’t dry out in the freezer. Pull it out two days before you make your pie and put it at fridge temp.” Fruit pies also freeze well. “You can make your entire pie, start to finish, and pop it into the freezer raw,” Lam says, though she advises against egg washing a pie that will be frozen. “You can bake them frozen. Just follow the recipe.” Lam suggests adding 10-15 minutes cooking time and keeping a close eye on the pie as it bakes. “Cover the rim or entire crust with aluminum foil if it happens to be browning quickly.”

Pumpkin pie: Keep these out of the freezer. “I wouldn’t try to make that frozen,” Lam says. “When you freeze a custard pie, pureed in that way, the ice crystals kind of pull water out. When you defrost, the water isn’t perfectly incorporated. You end up with a curdled pie instead of something creamy and luscious.”

Lam stresses that there are recipes for these favorites that are designed to make the food easy to freeze. So, there are ways to freeze pumpkin pie and other dishes that she might choose not to freeze.

Ready for leftovers? They should be refrigerated or frozen within two hours, and generally, eaten or discarded within four days – about the amount of time it will take for many of us to eat what’s left over and swear off eating for the next few weeks.

Keep Your Freezer Organize

Preparing a holiday meal can be hectic, especially if you are serving a large crowd. Staying as organized as possible, so you can find what you need at the right time, will make your life easier. Label the dishes as you freeze them, and create “zones” in your freezer for certain kinds of foods (vegetables, desserts, etc.) Maximize space by freezing foods as flat as possible.

Freeze and Refrigerate the Thanksgiving Leftovers Safely

Leftovers are a treasured holiday tradition in many households. Whether you will be freezing or refrigerating leftovers, allow them to cool first. Freezers should be kept at 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and refrigerators at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Your Recipe for Safer Holiday Cooking

With the holidays in full swing, kitchen appliances, from major appliances like the oven and range to portables like the stand mixer and immersion blender, are being put to good use across the U.S. to turn out holiday favorites from turkey to cookies to pies. Appliances are extremely safe when used properly and are tested for safety long before they make it to your kitchen. However, the holidays are busy times in the kitchen, and it is easy to get distracted and lose sight of kitchen safety, especially if you are hosting a large group.

Unattended cooking is still the leading cause of home fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In fact, NFPA reports that Thanksgiving is the peak day for cooking fires, followed by Christmas Day and Christmas Eve.

While you’re putting together your menu and planning for the big meal, it’s a good idea to take a step back and review basic cooking and kitchen safety practices. Follow these steps to keep your kitchen safe and your holiday guests happy and well fed:

Always monitor what is cooking: If you have to walk away for a minute, ask a family member or guest to keep an eye on the range.

Wear close-fitting clothing or short sleeves to reduce the risk that clothing will catch fire.

Clean your oven and range before cooking to prevent food and grease buildup.

Turn pan handles inward to keep them out of the reach of children and prevent dangerous spills.

Watch out for dangling cords: Keep portable appliances unplugged when they aren’t being used, but make sure the cord is in a safe place and can’t be pulled or snagged.

Don’t use appliances near the sink to reduce the risk of electric shock.

Use the right microwave cooking times to avoid overcooking food and potentially starting a fire.

What to do if a cooking fire happens

Fires can happen even in the safest kitchens, and it’s important to know how to respond in the event a fire does break out.

Call the fire department, directly if possible. Often, a direct call (rather than calling 911) will allow the fire department to respond more quickly. Keep the number of the local department on hand.

Smother any grease fires by sliding a pan over the flames. Turn off the heat and leave the pan in place until it cools. Don’t try to carry it outside.

Keep a box of baking soda nearby to put out any other fires. Never use water or flour to put out cooking fires.

Keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, within easy reach. Make sure it is a type that will work on cooking fires.

Keep oven and microwave doors closed if a fire breaks out to smother the flame.

Stay organized, stay safe and enjoy the process of putting together the biggest meal of the year. And take advantage of appliances like your freezer to get a head start.

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