Preparing meals and ingredients ahead of time makes cooking easier, more enjoyable and, best of all, gives you more time to spend with your guests. It all starts with making a practical and accurate plan, but first you have to know which foods qualify, how far ahead they can be prepped, and which ones require last minute preparation.
Many popular fruits such as apples, pears, bananas, and peaches turn brown within a few hours of being cut, so they have to be cut at the last minute but you can wash them several days in advance.
Sprinkling them with an acidic such as lemon juice may deter the browning but the fruit often turns out spotty, so it’s not worth taking the chance. Melons, berries, cherries, and citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, and limes can be prepared several days ahead of time.
Using fresh meat, poultry, and fish will produce better meals as freezing and thawing breaks down their fibers and makes them mushy. You can save a lot of time by cutting these products into appropriate sizes about 24 hours ahead of time, tightly sealing them in zippered storage bags, and storing them in the coldest part of the refrigerator, on the bottom shelf near the back.
Doughs and crusts are recipes that can be prepared and refrigerated up to a week ahead of time. Let yeast doughs rise once and then place them in a zippered food storage bag and refrigerate or freeze immediately to stop the yeast activity. Let them rise for the second time on the top shelf of the refrigerator or at room temperature right before baking. To free up even more time for mingling, bake rolls and breads a day ahead of time and reheat them just prior to serving time.
Wrap pie crust dough in several layers of plastic wrap and store in a plastic bag until you’re ready to roll it out. Bring pie dough to room temperature to facilitate easy rolling. Graham cracker and other crumb crust mixtures will keep up to a week in the refrigerator either pressed into the pan and tightly covered or in a well-sealed bag. If you choose the latter method, bring the crumbs to room temperature before pressing into the pan or plate.
Homemade marinades and salad dressings actually benefit from early preparation as the spices and herbs have a chance to slowly infuse the liquid ingredients. Cheese and béchamel sauces as well as gravies hold up for 2 to 3 days in the frig. Reheat them over very low heat or in a double boiler right before serving, thinning them with a few drops of milk or water if necessary.
Seasoned dry coating mixes with bread or cracker crumb bases are fine to make a week in advance and can be stored in airtight containers at room temperature if they only contain dry spices and herbs. You can make batters used to coat poultry or fish on the morning of the dinner and refrigerate them but if they contain leaveners such as baking powder or baking soda, they will get foamy and produce a lighter crust than freshly made ones. To deflate the bubbles, just add a few drops of water and stir for a minute or so.
Recipes on BigOven are tagged with the word "Advance" when some, or all of the recipe can be made in advance. Search make-in-advance recipes here:
Recipes that can be made in advance
Want to save time and money? Be sure to check out BigOven's Menu Planner (http://www.bigoven.com/plan), which lets you schedule your meals in advance, on an easy to use calendar. You can drag and drop recipes onto the web-based calendar and then, when you're ready, BigOven will generate your grocery list for you.
Once you make a plan with the recipes or ingredients you like, you can generate a grocery list quickly and easily. You can also copy entire days or weeks!
Use the Menu Planner to think through primary ingredients for all the dishes, using different categories such as vegetables, fruits, meat, poultry, fish, doughs, crusts, marinades, salad dressings, sauces, gravies, coatings, and batters. Refine the list by separating the highly perishable items such as fresh fish, meat, and poultry from more shelf stable foods, as the most perishable foods are prepped last.
If you have any ideas on advance meal preparation, let us know!