Dear Test Kitchen

The Make-Ahead Side Our Test Kitchen Chef Swears By

December 14, 2018

Planning a holiday menu is complicated. That’s why we created an Automagic Holiday Menu Maker to help you pick and choose everything from snacks and drinks to main dishes and sides. And that’s why, on this week’s Dear Test Kitchen, our Test Kitchen Director Josh Cohen teaches the save-the-day side of any menu: make-ahead sautéed vegetables.

“Even the best chef in the world can’t cook everything at the last minute,” Josh tells me. Which means incorporating a make-ahead dish into your menu isn’t just the easy way out. It’s actually really smart.

But before you grab that skillet—not any vegetable will work here. For instance, brassicas, like Brussel sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower—where you’re going for an al dente texture and bright color—are best made just before serving. (Though, worth noting: “Just before serving” can be up to 2 hours in advance, if you don’t mind serving at room temp—which I’m super into.)

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So, what vegetable is a good make-ahead candidate?

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Top Comment:
“I clicked on a Korean chicken and potato stew and ended up here...twice. ??????”
— RisenWell

Anything that’s supposed to be soft. Think mushrooms (the more varieties, the better), hearty greens like kale or chard, sturdy root vegetables (from beets to carrots and parsnips), or my favorite, cabbage. Just follow Josh’s quick tips for success and no one will guess that you’re more or less eating leftovers. That’ll just be our lil’ secret.

Use a high-heat, neutral-flavored oil. Read: not olive oil. Picking an oil with a high smoke point means you can get that skillet verrry hot. This means caramelized edges, dramatic color, and big flavor.

Don’t crowd the pan. Vegetables should be in a single layer. If they’re stacked on top of each other, they’ll steam instead of brown. (And if we wanted steamed vegetables we would, ahem, steam them.)

Salt toward the end. Salting vegetables draws out their water—especially with extra-watery ingredients like mushrooms. We want them to crisp in the hot pan, not braise in their own liquid.

Spread out on a sheet pan to cool. After sautéeing, before you refrigerate the vegetables, let them cool completely. Josh likes to spread his out on a sheet pan, where they have lots of room. (Again, we’re avoiding steaming and unwanted moisture, which dilutes the vegetables caramelized flavor.)

While they’re cooling, add some bonuses. Emphasis on some—simple is best here. For Josh, this means grating a garlic clove on top (the hot vegetables will gently “cook” it!), plus lots of fresh thyme. You could use any herb or even add some spice to the mix—say, freshly ground black pepper or chili flakes. But, most importantly...

Don’t forget the acid. Classic options: vinegar (red wine, white wine, rice, balsamic, sherry), or citrus juice (lemon is my MVP). Or, take the Genius route and add a splash of pickle brine. Psst: Caper brine would serve a similar, slightly saltier purpose.

And that’s it! If there’s a more efficient—or more delicious—holiday side, I don’t know her.

What are your go-to make-ahead sides for the holidays? Share all the deets in the comments!

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Nancy November 8, 2019
Good tip - I've done this several times and like the results.
RisenWell March 7, 2019
I clicked on a Korean chicken and potato stew and ended up here...twice. ??????
Eric K. March 7, 2019
Hi RisenWell, are you looking for this?