Make-Ahead Cooking

5 Ways to Make the Most of Your Make-Ahead Meals

Your refrigerator—and a good night’s rest—will help take your make-ahead recipes from good to great.

Published June 22, 2017.

Ideally, your make-ahead meals will taste as good as—or better than—the meals you freshly prepare. While we were developing recipes for our latest cookbook, The Complete Make-Ahead Cookbook, we actively tested and tasted storing dishes along the way. We always tasted the food that had been stored in the fridge or freezer alongside a just-made version as our control.

Through our thorough testing, we learned a few tricks to guarantee the best possible results when it comes to preparing make-ahead recipes. Whether you are stashing food in the freezer, holding it for a couple days in the fridge, or prepping entrées ahead so they are ready to cook the next day, here are some tips to ensure the very best results. (And for more tips on make-ahead cooking, pick up a copy of the book.)

1. Build Flavor Overnight with Rubs and Marinades

Bold spice rubs and marinades infuse meat, poultry, and fattier fish (such as salmon and swordfish) with flavor, especially if you build in time for them to work their magic overnight. We've found that the most important ingredient in any spice rub or marinade is salt; not only does salt enhance flavor, it also helps proteins retain their natural juices when cooked and so prevents the meat from drying out. In a marinade or rub, salt draws the other flavors into the meat, seasoning the meat throughout. Most marinades and spice rubs are a snap to prepare and rely on pantry ingredients, and sometimes there's an added benefit beyond flavor: Applying a rub and air-drying a chicken in the fridge overnight will result in ultracrisp, crackly skin as well as incredibly moist, flavorful meat.

2. Loosen and Refresh

When trying to reheat things like soups and braises, they often become too dry or too thick. To solve this, add extra liquid as needed while reheating. A splash or two of hot water will refresh dishes like pasta salad. We also recommend storing cooked grains and their dressings separately to keep them vibrant. (Try it with our make-ahead quinoa recipe, which includes black beans and mango with a lime dressing.)

3. Chill Out

Of course you can use your fridge to store things like casseroles and salads for the next day, but in some cases, chilling a dish can actually improve it. A stay in the fridge helps flavors to meld, When developing recipes for The Complete Make-Ahead Cookbook, our tasters generally thought that reheated soups and stews tasted better the next day; after a stint in the fridge their flavors were more integrated and fuller tasting. Many burgers and seafood cakes also benefit from chilling; they firm up and hold together better when you cook them. And desserts like blueberry pie require some time in the fridge to set up properly—a fact you can use to your advantage when entertaining.

4. To Thaw or Not to Thaw?

We’ve done a lot of testing in the test kitchen to determine the best way to freeze and reheat casseroles, pies, and more. For the best results, we found that frozen raw casseroles need to thaw completely in the refrigerator before being baked; this helps to preserve moisture and flavor since freezing dries out food. Frozen casseroles are basically big blocks of ice; they can take up to 48 hours to thaw so plan accordingly. To test if a casserole is fully thawed, stick a knife in the middle. We found that unbaked double-crust fruit pies freeze well because they are relatively small and less dense than casseroles; they can go straight into the oven without defrosting first.

5. Add Certain Ingredients at the Last Minute

When making a dish ahead, we found it was best to wait to add certain ingredients until just before serving. The reasons for this vary: In some recipes, it was to preserve the texture of ingredients like cherry tomatoes, delicate greens, or toasted nuts; in other recipes, it was to ensure the best, brightest flavor of ingredients such as lemon zest and herbs. In still other recipes, such as some that called for oil-cured olives, we left them out until the end of cooking to make sure their potent flavor didn't overwhelm the dish on serving day. We add frozen peas last so they will retain their color, since they need only to be heated through.

The Complete Make-Ahead Cookbook

How many times have you wanted to make lasagna or chicken pot pie in advance, only to be discouraged by recipe after recipe that doesn’t tell you how? Should you make it, then store it, or vice versa? The experts here at America’s Test Kitchen have eliminated the guesswork of cooking in advance with 500 recipes that spell out all the make-ahead options.    
Buy the Book

What’s your favorite dish to make ahead of time? Let us know in the comments. And for advice on how to store your make-ahead meals, read this post. And for make-ahead meals you can make tonight, go here!

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