A few years back, I came to the realization that the star of my holiday table is not in fact the turkey, or the ham, or even the crown rib roast. Though we all ostensibly come together for the picture-perfect moment when Dad carves up the big bird, or slices up the roast, the real excitement is the flurry of activity that happens around cocktail hour. Regardless of what's on the dinner menu, everyone jumps for the tartlets, canapés, and mile-long cheese board I place out hours before dinnertime. Who doesn’t love tasting different bites of cheesy, gooey, savory snacks before all the mashed potatoes and gravy?
I also realized that as much as my guests and I love appetizers, I seem to dread my appetizer prep each year (let’s face it—making 100 of anything can be time-consuming and just a little stressful). But, knowing I couldn’t give up my favorite little bites (give the people what they want!), I thought about what I could do to get them checked off the list well ahead of the big day. It soon dawned on me: If I chose wisely, many of my cocktail nibbles could be made weeks ahead of time and stockpiled in my freezer.
The process is simple: I pick a quiet Sunday that’s two, even three, weeks out from my big holiday dinner, and prep a whole boatload of apps. Once they are ready, I arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet and put in them the freezer until they are just-frozen, about 45 minutes to an hour. Then, I transfer these just-frozen bites into their respective airtight, labeled storage containers or bags, and pop them back in the freezer. On the day we’re ready to eat them, I just have to get the oven to temperature, fill up my sheet pans with the apps, and begin rotating them in and out of the oven. Plate them on a few fancy platters when it's time to serve them up, and a stellar spread comes together really fast.
These 10 impressive appetizers are incredible when made ahead and frozen. Let them make your life a whole lot easier and seriously wow your guests when they join your holiday table.
One of my favorite make ahead appetizers is from Bea, a contributor to my cookbook Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage Recipes and Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women. It’s a beautiful, braided bread, filled with cheese and dill, and it’s quite the showstopper on the holiday table. It also happens to freeze beautifully, which lets me do the heavy lifting weeks in advance, and simply bake it and slice the bread on the day of my event.
It’s no surprise that these nostalgic snacks are among the first to go in my party spread. Basically made for the freezer, these are super-forgiving when prepped in advance. I roll them up to a month ahead of time and load them up in freezer-friendly storage containers, then bake them off when party time is nigh. I guarantee when the hungry guests arrive, these piggies will not make it to market because as soon as you turn your back, the dish will be empty.
My mom’s stuffed mushrooms always come to the rescue when I have a swarm of people expected for a holiday dinner. I make up the stuffing well in advance and roll them into small balls, then freeze them and tuck them away until the big event. When guests are about to come around, all I have to do is pop the frozen stuffing balls into the mushroom caps and bake them off. The mushrooms are hearty and full of flavor, and worth the advance planning.
Store-bought puff pastry is a make-ahead superstar. Easy to roll out and manipulate, a number of appetizers are born from these butter-filled sheets. My holiday cheese board even makes use of this helpful tool, as the centerpiece is always brie en croute: a magnificent wheel of brie wrapped in puff pastry and baked, until golden-brown on the outside and bubbly and molten on the inside. Hot, gooey and delicious, it’s the perfect accompaniment for the bread, crackers, marinated olives, and salumi that lives on the board. Even better: Brie en croute can be fully assembled and placed in the freezer weeks in advance.
Another puff pastry star is the simple and classic pinwheel. Since it's so versatile and easy to assemble, you can get creative with fillings (like the Parmesan and mustard versions below, or these ones with mushroom and thyme), and portion and freeze a bunch for when you need them.
Speaking of showstopping cheese boards, I always pop some cheesy cookies like these in the oven to add to the spread. A few weeks (sometimes, even a month or two!) ahead, I make up the dough and tightly wrap it for safekeeping in the freezer. The morning of my event, I let it defrost, roll, and fill. With half the work done in advance, the cookies are ready for action in no time at all.
On a day when meat is often the dinner star, it’s important to make a few dishes my vegetarian guests will truly enjoy. Because they are baked, there’s no need to fuss with hot oil—especially when real estate on the stove is truly precious.
I love phyllo dough. It’s so versatile and good for both savories and sweets: baklava, spinach pie, or even as a creative swap for pie dough! For a make-ahead savory bite, these little lamb starters are an unexpected treat on the holiday cocktail table. Swap out the lamb for another protein if you wish, but I suggest serving them as-is for something totally delicious and different.
These little flowers will be a welcomed addition to the spread. Inspired by a take-out Chinese restaurant treat, not only are these super tasty, the presentation just screams holiday merriment. Simply assemble them and place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Wrap in plastic wrap and freeze them for about 30 minutes. Once they are fully frozen, place them in storage containers and back in the freezer they go until needed. Best yet, there is no need to defrost; just pop them back on a baking sheet, and right into the oven.
And finally, these savory-sweet puffs are a holiday table must. I double the batch before I freeze them because they inevitably get gobbled up before the big dinner, but people still ask for them when we're seated at the holiday table.
Fry up a huge (read: huge) batch of these crunchy Salty Serrano ham and nutty Manchego cheese, reheat in the oven when guests arrive, and serve with smoked pimentón aioli for a sublime Spanish snack that will vanish before your eyes.
Fan of flavor-packed chicken wings? Freshen up your appetizer game by marinating wings in tangy-savory za'atar and grilling them over high heat to achieve a crisp char. Pair with a cool, creamy fava bean and feta dip for a hearty bite that's hard to beat.
Fans of Korean wings (so pretty much all fans of chicken) will delight in this sweet-sticky-savory meatball riff that shines a spotlight directly onto the best parts of Korean fried chicken. The glossy glaze really beckons to hungry guests, so prepare these in advance and prepare to replenish the platter at least once.
Devils on Horseback are an easy make-ahead appetizer that fans of sweet-savory mashups are guaranteed to love (and backing up that guarantee is a hearty bacon wrap). Smoky, savory hatch chiles are a welcome addition to this delightfully complex combination that can be made ahead and reheated or served room temperature.
The dough for this pizza is easy to make and roll out, and the pizza itself is delicious hot, warm, room temperature, and (see where we're going with this?) even cold! You can also freeze the cooked pizza for the ultimate make-ahead time-saver. Heat, cut into wedges or squares, and prepare for guests to request the recipe.
The hardest part of this recipe is...none of it. Pissaladière is heavenly, quintessentially French blend of deeply caramelized onions, anchovies, and olives, perked up by fruity balsamic vinegar. This mini version wraps this extra-savory combination in puff pastry, for a seamless transition to make-ahead appetizer nirvana.
These deviled eggs have a secret ingredient that will make perfect sense the moment you taste them. Adding unsalted butter to the yolk mixture enhances its natural rich savoriness and contributes an enhanced smoothness that — with all apologies to the beloved condiment — additional mayonnaise simply couldn't achieve on its own. Try it for yourself, and you'll never go back to butter-less deviled eggs.
18. Sausage Balls
This classic recipe (or a variation of it) shows up at holiday tables across America, and for good reason: it's absolutely delicious. The combination of sausage and cheese enveloped in a lightly sweet pancake-ey batter and baked to golden-brown perfection is hearty, satisfying, and easy to make for a crowd. Bake up a big batch, cool, stash in a zip-top bag in the fridge and reheat gently in the oven for a breakfast-for-appetizers treat that will delight your diners.
Those cute mini peppers at the market are practically begging to be stuffed, and the sky's the limit! This recipe calls for beloved Mediterranean flavors like anchovy fillets, pancetta, mozzarella, basil, and extra-virgin olive oil for a wonderfully savory and satisfying small plate.
20. Beet Tartare
Tartare isn't normally something you can make too far ahead (or leave out, unrefrigerated, for too long). Thankfully, this vegetarian beet tartare — which can easily be made vegan — takes beautifully to pre-party refrigeration and tastes even better as it comes to room temperature. Serve with rye crackers or endive leaves.
Be sure to put a platter of these crisp black olive cookies with the savory bites (though they do have a pleasant subtle sweetness) or your guests may wonder what's wrong with your chocolate chips. Orange zest and olive oil bring out the olives' briny flavor, perfect for serving alongside a cheese board.
Bake these flavor-packed pigs in a blanket straight from the freezer — they're the ultimate snack, in ultimate time-saver form. Everything bagel seasoning can be bought online or at specialty markets and is exactly what it sounds like: poppy and sesame seeds, onion and garlic flakes, sea salt, pepper, everything but the bagel itself. Serve with your favorite mustard for crowd-friendly pigs that will (pardon the pun) fly right off the plate.
Like a potato chip or pizza slice, it’s impossible to eat just one of these classic, savory mushroom puffs. Good thing it's easy to make them for a crowd. Wrap buttery, creamy caramelized onions and mushrooms in puff pastry, bake, set aside and reheat (or simply serve room temperature) for an old-school bite that never gets...well, old!
What's your favorite make-ahead appetizer to serve for a hungry holiday crowd? Let us know in the comments, we love your suggestions.
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).Order now