Christmas dinner: top cooking tips and shortcuts

Chefs and experts serve up some culinary advice for Christmas food and drink

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Shortcuts for Christmas cooks

Christmas dinner table

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Nigella Lawson recently pointed out that people's "seasonal sanity" may depend on cutting the odd corner when preparing their Christmas lunch or dinner, said Eleanor Steafel in The Daily Telegraph. As ever, Nigella is spot on: a full Christmas spread is absurdly time-consuming, so why not give yourself "the gift of a few clever kitchen hacks"? 

Farokh Talati, head chef of St John Bread and Wine, suggests making a no-fuss pre-lunch canapé from pre-rolled puff pastry. Spread it with Dijon mustard and grated cheese, cut it into strips, and bake – and you have "fresh cheese straws". Talati also advises simplifying the main meal (and saving on fridge space) by using frozen sprouts and vegetables instead of fresh ones. 

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Gravy is another stress point, and according to Tommy Banks, chef-owner of The Black Swan at Oldstead, there's no shame in buying pre-made. He recommends the one made by TrueFoods – which is so good you can "warm it up and it's good to go". Failing that, get a decent supermarket gravy and jazz it up. Shop-bought bread sauce is acceptable (heat it through with extra cloves and cream), and ditto cranberry sauce (add orange zest and juice, a pinch of ground allspice and some red-wine vinegar). 

As for pudding, Talati advises cutting up a panettone, making a quick custard and baking it in the oven for "the best bread and butter pudding".

Preparation is the key

Cauliflower cheese

(Image credit: Ahanov Michael/Shutterstock)

Callum Graham, head chef at Bohemia, Jersey: "Preparation is really key for Christmas and anything you can prepare ahead of time you should do. Alongside peeling and cutting your vegetables on Christmas Eve, you could also make your cauliflower cheese so that it's ready to just pop into the oven the next day. My top tip would be to make your Yorkshire pudding batter 24 hours before it's needed, as that gives it ample time to rest and helps ensure you'll get a good rise."

Thomas Piat, executive chef at Searcys: "Sauces are the most important thing to prep ahead of Christmas Day. Traditional gravy, when done properly, can take a few days to prep, from boiling the bones to adding the vegetables and filtrating it all. You can also brine the chicken in advance to enhance moistness and flavour. I like to use a mix of spices and honey for a golden and crispy skin result." 

Jonas Karlsson, chef: "While fresh is always of course best, to take some of the pressure off buy your turkey now and freeze it, and simply remove from the freezer two to three days before Christmas to slowly defrost in the fridge. You can also par-boil and half roast your potatoes on Christmas Eve. Not only will it be one less thing to worry about, but you'll also have extra crisp, double-roasted potatoes to boast about."

Top tips for cooking the turkey

(Image credit: JeniFoto/Shutterstock)

Oliver Marlowe, owner/chef director at The Apollo Arms, Ganymede, and The Hunter's Moon in London: "To make sure you don't end up with a dry turkey on the big day, I'd recommend brining your bird in a 10% salt to water liquid mix overnight prior to cooking. The salt dissolves some of the muscle proteins, meaning the meat contracts less while in the oven so therefore it loses less moisture. It gives a game-changing depth of flavour, making it very difficult to overcook so there’s one less thing to worry about on the big day."

Kerth Gumbs, head chef at Fenchurch, Sky Garden, London: "As well as brining your turkey to avoid it being bland and dry, I also like to prepare a butter and spice rub (it can be any spice you like) to help the meat stay moist, tender and fragrant, with a nice crispy skin. Keep the butter cold and roll it out with a rolling pin then run your fingers under the skin of the turkey breast creating a gap to spread the butter mixture directly on the flesh of the bird."

Sofian Msetfi, executive chef at Ormer Mayfair by Sofian, London: "It's all about festive flavours over Christmas and clementine is an ingredient that enhances seasonal cooking. I recommend adding a handful of clementine skin into your turkey to infuse the meat with a touch of sweetness."

Kate Martin, Golden Turkey accredited farmer and chair of the Traditional Farmfresh Turkey Association: "My top tip is to cook your turkey breast side down to start with as the white meat cooks quicker than the dark leg meat and wings. This keeps the juices in the breast and prevents it from becoming dry. Take the turkey out of the fridge two hours before cooking. This means more even cooking all the way through and a juicier bird. There is no need to cover your turkey in foil. In a high quality bird, the layer of fat under the skin will keep the meat moist. By leaving the bird uncovered you allow the turkey to develop that beautifully golden, crispy skin."

Sameer Taneja, executive chef at Michelin-starred Benares, London: "To nail a perfect juicy roast this Christmas, try adding a tablespoon full of pineapple juice while marinating the turkey as this not only imparts sweetness, but acts as a tenderiser and softens the meat as well as retaining good moisture in the turkey. When cooking the Christmas turkey, I always make a spice rub with soft butter to add between the fillet and skin of the bird. Combining spices such as onion granules, mustard seeds and garlic (along with salt and pepper) in a rub and applying underneath the skin works much, much better than rubbing spices on the outside, as it helps the spices to seep into the meat and they are less likely to burn or become bitter during roasting."

Side dishes, accompaniments and alternatives

Roast potatoes

(Image credit: PXHere)

Liam Walsh, executive chef at Smiths of Smithfield (Young's Pubs): "Jazz up your sprouts with an interesting butter. Parboil, cut in half lengthways and fry flat side down on a medium heat. Then, when nicely caramelised, finish with 'nduja and lemon butter, or my personal favourite, Marmite butter with freshly chopped parsley."

Jack Stein, chef director at Rick Stein Restaurants: "Take your gravy to the next level. Once you've made your gravy base by mixing roasting juices, flour, butter etc in a pan, add a dash of acidity, sweetness and umami for a nicely balanced flavour. For acidity, add cider vinegar or lemon juice; for sweetness, mirin, honey or sugar. Finish with an umami-rich ingredient such as Marmite, soy or Worcestershire sauce – taste as you go to ensure you have the right balance."

Francesco Mannino, executive pastry chef at Pan Pacific London: "One of my favourite tips when preparing Christmas dinner is to add a teaspoon of cocoa powder to your gravy. It adds a richness to the sauce and makes it taste so much better."

Alessandro Negro, executive chef at 30 Euston Square: "To make roast potatoes irresistible, melt a large chunk of smoked pork fat in olive oil and roast your potatoes in it – you'll get an extremely crispy outside with a smoked flavour. For vegetarians, bring the olive oil to 70C and add lots of thyme, rosemary and garlic. Leave for a couple of hours to infuse before roasting your potatoes." 

Daniel Mertl, chef: "For the best roast potatoes use a floury potato like Maris Piper. Peel and cut into large chunks, and boil in salty water until the edges start to look fluffy, then drain and let them steam for a few minutes. Now, using either goose or duck fat, cook the potatoes on a high temperature (around 190C), turning them every 20 minutes or so. For extra flavour, add half a bulb of garlic and a few sprigs of thyme halfway through, cook until golden brown and crispy."

Robert Pearce, chef: "Roast potatoes are an integral part of Christmas dinner and I have the perfect tip to get them crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, which can be prepared ahead of time. Cut the potato into the desired shape, add to a pot with cold water, then bring to the boil and cook for 1-3 minutes, depending on the size. After that, cool the potatoes in ice-water until chilled, then strain and dry really well before part-cooking them in the oven at 130C for 4-5 minutes. Remove from the oven, and when cold, put them in a Tupperware and store in the freezer until you are ready to cook. When 25 December arrives, remove them from the freezer and cook at 180C until browned, sprinkle some salt and enjoy!" 

Theo Randall, chef patron at Theo Randall at the InterContinental: "Try an Italian approach! Switch the turkey for dishes such as a baked pasta dish like a lasagna for a starter, and a classic 'bollito misto' (mixed boiled meats) of poached chicken, beef brisket, cotechino and tongue with poached vegetables, salsa verde, horseradish and lentils for the main. Plus, the broth from the chicken can be used the next day to make a soup or for a risotto. For dessert, make a panettone bread pudding." 

The Christmas cheese board

Christmas cheese board with grapes, nuts and figs

(Image credit: Mila Bond/Shutterstock)

There's "no right or wrong way" to building the ultimate Christmas cheese board, said Greg Parsons, owner of Sharpham Dairy in Devon. It's all about preference. Here's his top tips for making cheese selections over Christmas.

How to pair wine and cheese: "It's a good rule of thumb to pair cheese and wines with equal intensity. Generally, creamy soft cheeses pair beautifully with sparkling wines. If you're going for a cheese with a delicate character, avoid overpowering it with a full bodied red. As you venture into the realm of complex aged cheeses, look for bold or fortified wines to match. It's also true what they say – what grows together, goes together. For example, Sharpham wine and cheese are made along the River Dart and the terroir shapes products that pair exceptionally well together."  

How much cheese to serve: "If you plan to serve cheese as part of a meal, a typical recommendation is to provide 80g per person. However, over the Christmas period, guests may wish to savour the cheese board with drinks, so consider increasing the amount to 150g per person." 

What cheeses to go for: "Opting for a variety of textures and characters is a guaranteed way to please everyone. A classic choice includes a blue cheese, a soft cheese, a semi-hard cheese, a cheddar and a goat's cheese."

Christmas food and drink on TheWeek.com

Christmas champagne pairing

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