Make-Ahead Christmas


Last year I cooked my Christmas Turkey about 10 days beforehand, and as a consequence, the big day itself was calm and relatively stress-free. Some people asked what my methods were, so I thought I’d give everyone the opportunity to decide for themselves whether or not to try it this year. This post doesn’t really have much in the way of tempting photography, but it will show you how to ensure your turkey comes to the table deliciously moist and looking fab.

You will need at least 2 foil baking trays for your turkey platters (one for dark meat, one for light). If they come with lids, then great, but you can always cover them with foil later if they don’t. I got mine at The Range.

Turkey Preparation


To be honest – there’s not a lot. Since it’s just us here, I buy a turkey from the supermarket and cook it as per it’s instructions. There are, however, a few other details that should be mentioned:

  • When your turkey is fully defrosted (if applicable), retrieve the neck/heart/liver etc. from the turkey cavity and store in the fridge until it’s time to make the stock. NB Check both ends of the bird carefully, to ensure you have retrieved them all.
  • Put the turkey in the roasting tin on a rack. Cook the turkey upside down, so that all the juices run into the breast.
  • Put the turkey in the cold oven, then pour cold water into the bottom of the roasting tin, to help keep the bird moist as it cooks. I suggest you do this once the tin is in the oven, because otherwise you’ll be carrying a heavy tin with a heavy bird and slopping water and trying not to drop all three. I prefer starting the bird in a cold oven rather than a heated one, because there’s less danger of scorching the outside.
  • Set the temperature of the oven according to instructions, and the timer for the length of time recommended. Double-check the time. It is important to pay attention to the cooking instructions on your turkey, because whoever prepared it for you, they know what they’re talking about. They’re professionals, they want you to enjoy the end result and come back for more. They will have tried and tested their cooking instructions multiple times. No matter how fond you are of Delia or Nigella or Gordon or Jamie, they’ve not cooked the bird in front of you, so listen to the experts that have.
  • Turn the bird around halfway through cooking, to even the temperature – and by that I mean swivel the tin 180° – the position of the bird on the rack doesn’t change. I don’t know about your oven, but mine has a particular quirk: when on fan assist, the front of the oven (by the door) is hotter than the back (by the fan). It is as if the heat is blasted from the back of the oven, bounces off the oven door, and rolls back over the cooking food. Everything from cakes, biscuits, bread and joints of meat become browner on the side adjacent to the oven door first. Turning your turkey around mid-way is then just a simple way to even things up.
  • When the turkey is cooked, turn the oven off and leave it to cool for an hour or two. This will have the same effect as resting it outside the oven, but without taking up counter space. In addition, it will be easier to divide up the turkey when it’s not roaring hot.

Breaking down the turkey and Making Stock (Part 1)

  • While the bird is cooling you can sort out the vegetables and seasoning for the stock. This is another advantage of making ahead – you have the luxury of time to make fabulous-tasting stock and delicious gravy both bursting with the flavour of turkey.
  • Stock vegetables
    • Years ago, when the making of stock was veiled in mystery for me, after delving deep into it’s secrets I came up with a handy mnemonic to remember the proportion of vegetables to add: simply 1, 2, 3 and possibly 4.
      • 1 onion
      • 2 carrots
      • 3 sticks of celery, and depending on the purpose of the stock
      • 4 cloves of garlic – NB great if your aim is to use the stock for something garlicky, but for a generic stock, I would suggest leaving it out.
    • That said, this ‘formula’ shouldn’t be set in stone, because some dishes such as lamb or beef, go especially well with the sweetness of carrots, so when making stock for these purposes, I transpose the celery and carrots and use: 1 onion, 2 celery, 3 carrots.
    • These quantities are fine for 1.5-2 litres of water, but since turkeys are so much larger, I would suggest either doubling or tripling these quantities.
    • Preparing the vegetables is a breeze, because of the lack of faffing about that needs to be done to them: just chop them roughly. The carrots don’t need peeling and you don’t even need to remove the brown skins of the onions, as they will give your stock a gloriously golden colour.
  • Stock seasonings. These aromatic herbs and spices give depth to the flavour of your stock. Generally, these are kept whole, due to the long, slow cooking making stock entails. Use of powdered/ground spices isn’t ideal, because with the long simmer, the flavours can end up being too strong and overpowering the stock, Also, the small particles make the stock cloudy.
    • Quantities given are for a ‘regular’ quantity of stock. As with the vegetables, multiply by 2 or 3 for turkey stock-making.
      • 1tbs black peppercorns
      • 1 blade of mace
      • 1-2 bay leaves
      • 5 sprigs thyme
      • 3-4 stalks of parsley with leaves
      • NO SALT!
  • Add the vegetables and the herbs and spices to your stock pot. I frequently use my slow cooker for making stock, because it has quite a large capacity and I can set it on the countertop overnight, and the next morning, voila stock! However, even that quails a bit when it comes to turkey stock-making, so I just break out the preserving pan, which holds everything easily.
  • When the turkey is sufficiently cool, you need to break it down in order to make the stock with the bones, etc.
  • Have your stock pan next to you while you work, to drop in the remains.
  • I find it best to keep the dark and white meat separate until it comes to making up the platters for the freezer, so have some large ziplock bags or plastic boxes+ ready to hold the meat.
  • Breaking down the turkey.
    • Keep the turkey on the rack over the roasting tin as you work, thereby saving on cleaning up and keeping all the meat juices in one place.
    • Remove the skin and add to the stock pot. To avoid repetition, from hereon in, add everything not required for your turkey platters to the stock pot.
    • Remove the turkey breasts whole and put them in a large bag by themselves. They will be sliced later, but it is much easier to do this when they are cold.
    • Take off all the smaller pieces of white meat and put them in a separate box/bag.
    • Break down the wings and the legs. After removing the skin and bones, keep the dark meat in as large pieces as possible. There are some pretty hefty sinews and cartilage in the drumsticks, but they should slide out easily. Don’t forget the two turkey ‘oysters’ from the underside of the carcass.
    • Everything else from the turkey – skin, bones, cartilage, sinews, plus the meat juices from the roasting pan – goes into the stock pan. If the carcass won’t fit, cut/break it into smaller pieces.
  • Add cold water to cover all of the contents. Cover with foil and crimp round the edges to form a seal (although it’s no disaster if there are gaps).
  • Put the pan on your cook top on the lowest possible heat and leave for 6-8 hours, preferably overnight. The secret to clear stock – although you can clarify it later if it does get cloudy – is avoiding letting it boil. The surface should barely shimmer. If the water is too agitated, as in a rolling boil, things get cloudy real quick. If you’re using the slow cooker, simply place the lid on and set it to Low for an equal length of time.
  • Put the cooked turkey in the fridge until platter-making time.

Making Stock (Part 2)

  • When your stock has gently simmered to perfection, turn the heat off. I let it cool for a while, as getting splashed with warm liquid is altogether preferable to being splashed with near-boiling liquid.
  • Using a strainer spoon, lift out the large chunks of vegetable and bones, etc and let them drain in a sieve over a bowl (we don’t want to lose any of the delicious liquid). Once drained, they can be wrapped in newspaper and disposed of appropriately.
  • Strain out the smaller pieces, herbs and spices. I do this by straining the stock twice: once through a sieve, and then again through a muslin-lined sieve, to catch as much debris as possible. Be sure to first wet your muslin with water and then wring it out before placing it in the sieve. The second straining through the muslin will probably be slower, depending on how much debris there is to catch.
  • Remove any fat. There can be a surprising amount of fat floating on top of the stock, and this needs to be removed before proceeding further. The quickest way is to use a fat-separator jug, which has the spout hole at the base, so you can pour off the clear stock from underneath the floating fat. If you don’t have one of these, you can skim it off from the top with a spoon. Keep the fat, as it can be used for the gravy roux later.
  • Reduce the stock. Taste your stock and assess it’s flavour. It might be perfect, but in my experience, it can usually do with being reduced a little, to concentrate the flavour. How much you reduce it will depend on how much storage you have, but I like to reduce it robustly, because then you have the means to make a wonderfully flavoursome gravy that can always be diluted later. Allow to simmer uncovered until reduced by half.
  • Make your gravy. Decide on how much gravy you will need and make a roux (mixture of equal parts flour and fat) from the turkey fat skimmed from the stock. How much you make will depend on how many you are catering for, but it it far better to have gravy left over than to run out, so I suggest:
    • 60g turkey fat
    • 60g plain flour
    • 1 litre stock
    • splash of booze – this can be used to de-glaze the pan as well as adding to the flavour of the gravy. Suggestions include sherry, white wine, port, cider.
    • slices
  • Heat the fat in a pan and sprinkle in the flour. Stir with a whisk until the fat is absorbed. COntinue to stir for 2-3 minutes. Splosh in your booze, if using, and whisk to get all the tasty bits loosened from the pan. Gradually stir in the hot stock, whisking vigorously to keep lumps from forming – although you can always use a stick blender and/or a sieve to remove any that do form.
  • Simmer for 5 minutes to cook out the flour.
  • Assess your gravy thickness. It is better too thick than too thin, as it can always be diluted later.
  • Taste and season well. You may add salt now.
  • Pour into a suitable container, label (because you WILL forget) and freeze until the big day.
  • Chill the rest of the stock until cold. The long, slow cooking of the stock, together with the long simmering reduction will mean your beautifully flavoured turkey stock will set to a jelly when cold.

Making up your Turkey Platters

  • Ladle some stock into your aluminium foil trays until you have a 1-2cm layer.
  • stock1
  • Retrieve your turkey meat from the fridge.
  • Cut the turkey breast into slices and arrange on top of the stock.
  • slices
  • Ladle some more stock over the top and spread over the sliced meat.
  • slices2
  • Repeat for the dark meat.
  • Cover the trays tightly with foil and freeze.
  • On the day you can heat from frozen. Put into the oven – still covered with foil – for 20-30 minutes (depending on the size of your trays) at 200°C, 180°C Fan. The stock above and below the meat will baste it as it defrosts/heats, keeping it beautifully moist. When ready to serve, lift the meats out of their flavourful bath and arrange both dark and light meats on a warmed serving platter. Use the jus to thin your gravy, if necessary.

Optional uses for your remaining stock

  • Make some stuffing and freeze (use foil cases if you don’t want to lose the use of a baking tin). On the day, cook from frozen. Maybe add 5-10 minutes to the cooking time if necessary.
  • Make your turkey curry and use the stock for liquid, then freeze for a gloomy day in January when you can’t be bothered to cook.
  • For the rest of the stock, divide it into handy 500ml labelled ziplock bags and freeze flat, then pack them all together in a larger bag for ease of retrieval.

It doesn’t require stock, but you can also reduce stress levels by making a Trimmings Tart ahead of time and freezing after adding the pastry lid. Remove from the freezer the night before to defrost, then bake as directed.

I hope this proves useful for the upcoming festivities, however muted they might be, and Happy Holidays to all!