Kitchen Hacks

Innovative and Old-School Tricks for Stress-Free Hosting

December 18, 2017

In an age of ever-expanding, boundary-pushing innovations in food, reliable information is more vital than ever. Keeping in mind the timeless wisdom of previous generations, we're exploring the exciting work by research scientists and entrepreneurs in the field, and have partnered with Organic Valley to bring you stories from the front lines of the food system.

Whether you are a novice or experienced cook, planning and executing a winter holiday meal can be an anxiety-inducing experience. The stress of shopping, cooking, serving, and cleaning up after so many guests is formidable. And even with the best laid plans (or the most meticulously-made notes and shopping lists), there are bound to be some surprises along the way.

A Frywall and induction cooktop means donuts with a little less hassle. Photo by Julia Gartland

Fortunately, today’s cooks have access to kitchen tools and appliances—both “smart” and old-school—that can lend a hand when things begin to heat up. Here, we have rounded up some of our favorite tips and tricks, including some of the new, innovative tools that can help solve common holiday cooking conundrums. Taken all together, they can ease the stress of preparation and put the focus back on family, friends, and of course, the meal itself.

Challenge: I need to make (excellent) cocktails for a crowd.

Keeping guests’ cocktail glasses refreshed with well-mixed drinks can be stressful for whoever is doing the bartending—there's ice to be dished out, shakers to be shaken, cherries to be plopped into glasses, and a million other little things to manage.

Solution: Choose a drink you can make ahead, or get technical with a scale.

The key here is to focus on one drink that you can make ahead or easily pull together in one big batch just before the party. If you like bubbles, try serving a festive punch that can easily adapt to the number of guests you'll have, like this Champagne-spiked crimson bourbon punch. If you want to get it out of the way even sooner, mix up something liquor-based and simple (think Negronis, Boulevardiers, or Manhattans) in swing-top glass bottles up to a few weeks in advance. All you'll have to do is set them out with an ice bucket and a bowl of garnishes, for guests to serve themselves.

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If you've got a smaller crowd and want to mix drinks to order, consider investing in a Perfect Drink PRO. The smart scale and its paired app helps you in mix perfectly proportioned drinks without measuring, which can be a big time saver. (A dinging bell lets you know when you have poured in just the right amount.) The app includes more than 400 recipes for classic and innovative drinks, and can also help you decide on which drinks to make based on the bottles you've already got in your liquor cabinet.

Challenge: My kitchen is full of people milling about.

A kitchen is like a magnet: No matter how many snacks you set out in the living room, no matter how beautifully you arrange your bar cart, guests will inevitably end up hanging out in the kitchen. While it’s nice to have some company and enjoy your guests (that’s the whole point of holiday gatherings, right?), sometimes it can feel distracting…especially when you’re trying to finish cooking.

Solution: Put your guests to work.

Everyone likes to participate in creating a meal, even in small ways. Give your guests the simple tools they need to contribute to dinner, and everyone will stay busy (and feel like they played a part in the meal). Serving mashed potatoes? Have someone help peel or mash. Need garlic pounded for your salad dressing? Hand over a mortar and pestle or give a quick lesson on making garlic paste with a knife. Want lemons zested for a bright garnish? Point another guest towards a hand grater. Dinner will be on the table in no time, and spirits will be high.

Challenge: I forgot to thaw my chicken/ham/brisket!

Holiday cooking is hectic, and it is easy to space out on steps along the way—even important ones, like the main course. But slipping on this detail does not have to mean a ruined holiday meal.

Solution: Turn to a buzzy new cooking tool — or good, old-fashioned cold water.

Much ink has been spilled about the Instant Pot. Some people revere it as a bonafide, indispensable kitchen miracle. Others wonder if the souped-up pressure cooker is actually worth the counter space. While you can't exactly run out and buy one in a moment of holiday kitchen panic, if you're interested in trying out the tool it's worth adding to your holiday wishlist, or gifting to yourself. It can solve for slip-ups like last minute thawing and lots more, from quickly cooking an extra side like mashed potatoes to making black eyed peas for New Year's Day without pre-soaking them.

But wait! There's an old-school solution too. If you find yourself with a partially or fully frozen main the same day you're trying to cook it, you can thaw your (packaged) roast or bird [in cold water in the sink], changing out the water every thirty minutes so you don't enter the temperature "danger zone." Worse comes to worst, just put it in the oven and adjust the cooking time; for example, you'll need around 25 percent more time for a partially frozen turkey.

Challenge: Help, I need a bigger stove top!

Picture this: It’s Christmas day. You've been up since 6:00 am and have a big crowd coming in a couple of hours. The rolls are baked, you've got the roast in the oven...and you need to start the green beans, but every burner on your stove is already fired up.

Solution: Add another burner...or improvise.

A portable induction cooktop is an easy way to turn any surface into an extra stovetop. Note that not every pot will work with induction, but you can grab that extra stainless steel (or cast iron or carbon steel) pan and get those beans going. They're also super useful if your holiday plans include something like a trip to a rustic winter cottage, maybe with a vintage kitchen that's more cute than functional; tote along one of these cooktops to make sure there won't be any wrenches thrown in your special occasion meal.

If you don't already have an induction burner, or don't have time for appliance shopping pre-holiday, you can still solve for those green beans! Instead of blanching or pan-roasting them on the stovetop or trying to fit a bulky casserole dish in the oven, toss them in olive oil and whatever spices complement your main course and throw them on a sheet pan. Since the pan is so slim, it should fit either above or below your roast — even if that means on the very bottom of the oven, sans rack. (Just keep an eye on them, because they'll crisp up quickly in a single layer!)

Challenge: I want to make a big batch of latkes, but I don’t want an oil-splattered kitchen.

Making latkes or sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) for a crowd on Hanukkah is a commitment, particularly when it comes to the oil that undoubtedly gets splattered across the stove and floor as you flip and fry.

Solution: An ingenius splatter guard.

There is no need to let the fear of a little oil splatter get in the way of Hanukkah party plans. Insert a BPA-free, silicone Frywall around the frying pan’s perimeter, and keep the oil inside doing its job (not decorating your walls).

Challenge: Unexpected guests!

The more the merrier, right? Well, as long as you have enough food to go around and enough seats at the table. It can be an awkward situation (and one that make you feel a bit like Scrooge) if your first reaction to unexpected plus-ones is worrying whether or not everyone will have enough to eat.

Solution: Be prepared, and enjoy getting cozy.

With a little "just-in-case" planning, you can be happily greet (and feed and seat) any number of holiday interlopers. If you suspect that someone may be bringing their new girlfriend unannounced or someone’s cousin might stop by, it's not a bad idea to prepare and freeze an extra dish you can heat and serve at a moment’s notice—like a creamy, cheesy kale gratin or an eggy, meaty strata—(and put your glass storage containers to full use). If it's not needed during your holiday celebration, then you've got a weeknight dinner ready-made for a different time.

As far as the seating goes, just pull up a stool or a bench—no one will mind being cozy around the table. It is the holidays, after all!

The bottom line: Cooking for the masses—even when they're your friends and family—can be daunting. But with a little bit of planning and the right tools on your side, it's beyond doable; it's actually really fun. So go forth and get cooking! Then, join your guests and make a toast (with one of those perfect cocktails you just stirred up).

What are your favorite holiday hosting and cooking hacks? Let us know in the comments!

In an age of ever-expanding, boundary-pushing innovations in food, reliable information is more vital than ever. Keeping in mind the timeless wisdom of previous generations, we're exploring the exciting work by research scientists and entrepreneurs in the field, and have partnered with Organic Valley to bring you stories from the front lines of the food system.

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Leah is the author of Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today's Kitchen (Chronicle, 2015)