Make-Ahead Cooking
07-18-2017

Essential Equipment for Make-Ahead Cooking

These are the pots, pans, gadgets, and tools you need for successful make-ahead cooking.

America's Test Kitchen

We’ve already told you how to store make-ahead recipes (here and here), and how to get the most out of make-ahead cooking (here). Now we’re here to tell you what gear you’ll need to equip your kitchen with to maximize your make-ahead cooking.

Fortunately, you don't need a lot of specialty equipment to make food ahead—but there are definitely things that will make your job easier and more efficient. An array of casserole dishes, baking sheets, and wire racks is essential. And if you plan to make big-batch stews, chilis, pasta sauces, and braises, a good Dutch oven is a must-have. A slow cooker is an added bonus, to use as a hands-off way to get ahead on future meals or when entertaining. Here's a rundown of what you need to stock your make-ahead kitchen.

Casserole Dishes and Pie Plates

When it comes to making casseroles, classic 13 by 9-inch casserole dishes are essential. While the straight sides and sharp corners of a metal baking pan are ideal for making bar cookies and sheet cakes, we prefer glass dishes for casseroles; our favorite is the Pyrex Easy Grab 3-Quart Oblong Baking Dish. [Buy on Amazon]

We also prefer glass dishes for pies; we like the Pyrex Bakeware 9 Inch Pie Plate. The tempered glass of our low-priced favorite Pyrex dishes won't react with acidic foods, it's safe for use with metal utensils, and its transparency easily lets you track browning. Plus, Pyrex can safely go directly from freezer to oven, while ceramic dishes can't—the sudden temperature change will cause them to crack. So if you're planning to freeze your casserole or pie, use Pyrex. However, keep in mind that Pyrex is not broiler-safe. While this shouldn't matter for pies, we do sometimes broil casseroles to crisp the topping. In these cases, we like the HIC Porcelain Lasagna Baking Dish. This dish has large, convenient handles and straight sides for easy serving.

Kitchenware Shop

Pyrex Bakeware 9 Inch Pie Plate

Good crisping and browning, a see-through bottom to monitor the bottom crust, a half-inch rim, shallow, angled sides, and a low price made this our winner—again.

 

HIC Porcelain Lasagna Baking Dish

This porcelain baking dish has large handles for secure gripping and straight sides for easy serving. It’s deep enough for dishes like Chantilly Potatoes, but not so large that the butter burned as we broiled scrod. Finally, it was not too heavy, even filled with potatoes.

 

Disposable Pans

When making and storing pies and casseroles, our winning glass Pyrex dishes are our preferred option. But in some cases, we realize that disposable pans have value, such as when bringing a casserole to a friend or to share at a party, and perhaps even for storing food in your own freezer so that your glass baking dishes are free to use when you need them. For those occasions, we like Glad Ovenware, which are made from oven-safe plastic (safe to 400 degrees), not aluminum. We know that disposable pans can be flimsy, making it difficult to transfer them in and out of the oven, especially when they're hot. Plus, food cooked in disposable pans tends not to brown as well as it would in metal or glass baking dishes. We solve both problems by putting the disposable pan on a metal baking sheet in the oven. [Buy Glad Ovenware on Amazon]

Dutch Oven

A good Dutch oven comes in handy whether you are making soup or doing some big-batch cooking. We put our Dutch ovens to work making hearty stews, braises, and pasta sauces. Because it's heavier and thicker than a skillet, a Dutch oven retains and conducts heat more evenly and effectively, so it's perfect for dishes that have long simmering times.

We like a Dutch oven that holds at least 6 quarts, with a wide bottom for more efficient browning. Our favorite Dutch oven is the Le Creuset 7¼ Quart Round Dutch Oven, while our Best Buy is the Cuisinart 7 Quart Round Covered Casserole; it's a little smaller but offers excellent performance at a more affordable price.

Our Favorite Dutch Ovens

Le Creuset 7 1/4 Quart Round Dutch Oven

This pricey pot is still the one to beat. It was the most durable and user-friendly with comfortable handles and lower, straight sides that made it easy to move, load, and unload. Its broad, lightly-colored cooking surface allowed us to cook more food faster and monitor browning. It’s heavy, as a Dutch oven should be, but a bit lighter than some of the others we tested.

 

Cuisinart 7 Qt. Round Covered Casserole

This model costs a third of what our favorite Le Creuset Dutch oven does and performed almost as well. With a very similar design—low, straight sides and a broad, off-white cooking surface—it allowed us to easily move food, sear in fewer batches, and monitor browning. The trade-offs: The Cuisinart pot is 3 pounds heavier and has slightly smaller handles than the Le Creuset pot, and its rim chipped during abuse testing.

 

Rimmed Baking Sheets

One of our favorite kitchen workhorses is the rimmed baking sheet. We frequently pull this piece of equipment into service for our make-ahead dishes; it's perfect for roasting a large cut of meat or for baking chicken pieces on top of hearty vegetables. Baking sheets make it easy to spread out chicken fingers, veggie burgers, or cookie dough balls to quick-freeze them for an hour before storing them.

We highly recommend the Nordic Ware Baker's Half Sheet. This sturdy pan browns evenly and won't bend or warp. We recommend that you have at least two on hand. We also like to put them to work in other ways: Make-ahead dinners like casseroles can take up a lot of space in the fridge. You can use a baking sheet as an extra “shelf” by placing it on top of a casserole dish and then placing smaller items on the baking sheet.

Shop Rimmed Baking Sheets

Nordic Ware Baker’s Half Sheet

Everything prepared in this sturdy, warp-resistant sheet cooked appropriately and evenly. Best of all, our new favorite is a few bucks cheaper than our old winner.

 

Wire Racks

In the test kitchen, wire racks and rimmed baking sheets go hand in hand. Baking food on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet allows air to circulate all around the food, helping it to brown evenly. We use this technique to achieve even cooking and the best texture. And we use a wire rack set in a baking sheet to air-dry roast chicken and Cornish game hens for ultracrispy skin.

Wire racks are also handy for keeping cooked foods such as Batter Fried Chicken and Yeasted Waffles warm in a low oven while maintaining their crisp or crunchy exterior. It's essential to get a wire rack that will fit inside your baking sheet; we like the Libertyware Half Size Sheet Pan Cooling Rack for its sturdy central support bar and extra feet. [Buy on Amazon]

Slow Cooker

A good slow cooker can be your make-ahead ally as a hands-off helper in making big-batch pasta sauces, large roasts, and holiday side dishes that can save precious space in your oven and on your stovetop on those marathon cooking days. Even if you choose not to make a side dish in the slow cooker from start to finish, you can still use the appliance to your advantage when cooking for a holiday or large group. Mashed potatoes, squash, and stuffing can all be held in the slow cooker on the low setting for a couple of hours before serving, freeing up valuable stovetop space. Our favorite slow cooker is the KitchenAid 6-Quart Slow Cooker with Solid Glass Lid. [Buy on Amazon]

Refrigerator/Freezer Thermometer

A thermometer is a proven aid in limiting the spread of foodborne illness. Maintaining the proper refrigerator and freezer temperature is essential to keep food as safe as possible. A good refrigerator thermometer will tell you if your fridge and freezer are cooling properly. Check regularly to ensure that your refrigerator is between 35 and 40 degrees; your freezer should be 0 degrees or below. We tested both analog and digital thermometers and our favorite is a digital model that takes two temperatures at once, simultaneously monitoring the temperature in both the freezer and the refrigerator. Our favorite is the ThermoWorks Fridge/Freezer Alarm. [Buy Now]

Bookstore

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.

 

What’s your favorite piece of gear for make-ahead cooking? Let us know in the comments. For make-ahead meals you can make tonight, go here! And for more on make-ahead cooking, read these posts:

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