"I'm a big believer in making meals ahead," says Curtis Stone. That's why the chef's recipes — including his hearty fall pork chops, steak with Brussels sprouts, and orecchiette with brown butter and broccoli — always include steps that can be done in advance. "It's a smart practice and good use of your time," says Stone. "If I'm having a party, I want to be with my guests, not held up in the kitchen the entire time; making things ahead helps me do this. And, when we're hungry for dinner on a weeknight with little time to prepare a meal, it's nice to know I have an arsenal of prepped ingredients in the fridge." Here are Stone's top seven tips to make mealtime a breeze:
1. Take advantage of windows of spare time: "Use those spare minutes — whether it's the weekday morning or on Sunday — to do a bit of prep," advises Stone. "For instance, cutting Brussels sprouts in half and blanching them in the morning means all you have to do when you get home after work is sear them in a pan until hot and caramelized — we're talking minutes here! You may not always be able to make the entire meal ahead of time, but getting even parts of the meal ready will allow you to whip the meal together in no time."
2. Read your recipes: "If a recipe doesn't specify what can be made ahead, read through it to see what can be made ahead of time without diminishing flavors, texture and appearances," says Stone. "Oftentimes, the prep work — chopping, peeling, seeding, etc. — can be done well in advance, so look through the ingredient list as well as the method of the recipe to pull out make-aheads that suit your needs."
3. Be efficient with your mise-en-place: Chefs use the French phrase "mise en place" or "put in place" to describe setting up all of the ingredients and tools needed for a recipe before starting cooking. Stone adds a make-ahead option to the mise-en-place concept: "If the recipe tells you to add a list of particular ingredients to the pan at the same time, combine your 'mised' ingredients in just one storage container and keep it in the fridge until you're ready to cook them. This consolidates the number of storage containers you use — saving time on washing up later —and consolidates your steps when it comes to prepping and cooking."
4. Know what not to prep in advance: While many parts of a meal can be made ahead, Stone says to be careful to avoid doing anything that would compromise the flavors, textures or appearance of your dish. In general, says Stone, if vegetables are going to be cooked they can be peeled, chopped and seeded ahead of time, while if they are going to be served raw, they should be prepped as close to serving time as possible. Salads should be made fresh and tossed just before serving — "freshness is the beauty of a salad" — but vinaigrettes and other salad dressing can be made ahead. (Stone recommends making a double batch of dressing to have on hand — let vinaigrettes come to room temperature and whisk to recombine before serving. ) "Delicate herbs should be chopped fresh and used just before serving so they don't lose their flavor or beautiful colors," Stone notes. And foods that oxidize and turn brown, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, celery root, artichokes, apples, avocados, pears, peaches and bananas, should be prepped just before cooking or serving.
5. Build a make-ahead arsenal: Certain types of dishes are particularly suited to making ahead — learn which of your favorite recipes work well this way and utilize them for busy weeknight dinners and parties. For example, Stone notes that braises, soups and stews are perfect for making ahead. "They rewarm well and actually get better after a bit of time to marry their flavors," he says. "On the other hand, grilled or sauteed items should be cooked and served à la minute, and are not as suitable to making ahead — but remember that sometimes their accompaniments can be made in advance. Things like pickles, jams, compotes, chutneys, curry pastes, relishes, flavored butters, dressings and vinaigrettes and frozen rolled-out pie dough, etc. — what I like to call my cooking arsenal — can be made well in advance and (kept) at the ready to help elevate any meal."
6. Rewarm properly: When rewarming braises, sauces and soups, Stone says to use low heat and cover the pan or pot to avoid excessive moisture evaporation. "Oftentimes, soups and sauces thicken once they've cooled, so as you rewarm them, you will need to add a bit of water, broth, or milk to adjust their consistency," he adds. "This is normal. Just add a bit of liquid at a time throughout the warming step. When rewarming casseroles in the oven, always keep them covered — this will help ensure they heat through without browning too much on top."
7. Store it right: Always store dishes you've made ahead in well-sealed containers, especially when freezing, says Stone. "Note the contents and date on a piece of blue painter's tape on the container — this type of tape, which we use in restaurants, can be found in the hardware section of supermarkets and any hardware store, and will stick even in a moist environment, like the fridge or freezer, but can be removed just as easily without damaging your containers."
Get more expert make-ahead tips from Ina Garten.