When your goal is to cook ahead, regardless of which make-ahead approach you choose, there is one thing you must do: get organized and make sure you have the right containers, wrapping and labeling materials, and more.
We reach for storage containers for stashing components of a recipe; prepped ingredients; and portions of sauces, soups, and stews. It’s important to have lots of different sizes so you always have the right one on hand; storing food in a too-large container can allow it to spoil more quickly. Look for containers with a tight seal that are microwave-safe for quick thawing and dishwasher-safe for easy cleanup. We prefer reusable plastic storage containers, but you can also buy storage containers made of glass or disposable plastic. Our favorite storage container is the 8-cup Snapware Airtight (formerly sold as Snapware Mods).
Classic 13 by 9-inch casserole dishes are essential for casseroles of any sort, and make-ahead casseroles are no exception. While the straight sides and sharp corners of a metal baking pan are ideal for making bar cookies and sheet cakes, we prefer glass and ceramic dishes for casseroles. Our favorite is the Pyrex Bakeware 9 by 13-Inch Baking Dish. Its tempered glass won’t react with acidic foods such as tomatoes, and it’s safe for use with metal utensils. Its transparency lets you track browning, and the rounded corners make it easy to scoop out soupy desserts and casseroles. However, this dish has one drawback—it’s not broiler-safe. For a casserole dish that we can stick under the broiler, we like the HIC Porcelain Lasagna Baking Dish. This dish has large, convenient handles and straight sides for easy serving.
Rimmed Baking Sheets
One of our favorite kitchen workhorses is the rimmed baking sheet. We frequently pull this piece of equipment into service for our make-ahead dishes; it’s perfect for roasting a large cut of meat or for baking chicken pieces on top of hearty vegetables. Our prep-ahead All-American Meatloaf, for example, is shaped right on the baking sheet and stashed in the fridge, ready to pop into the oven the next day. And spreading chicken fingers or veggie burgers on baking sheets and quick-freezing them for an hour before storing makes it easy to grab just what you need from the freezer later on. Our favorite baking sheet is the Vollrath Wear-Ever Half-Size Heavy Duty Sheet Pan. This sturdy pan browns evenly and won’t bend or warp. We recommend that you have at least two on hand.
Wire Cooling Racks
In the test kitchen, wire racks and rimmed baking sheets go hand in hand. Baking food on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet allows air to circulate all around the food, helping it to brown evenly. We use this technique to get crisp bread-crumb-coated pork chops and fish fillets or to bake a big batch of meatballs for the freezer. We also use a wire rack set in a baking sheet to air-dry our prep-ahead chicken and Cornish game hens for ultracrispy skin. It’s essential to get a wire rack that will fit inside your baking sheet; we like the CIA Bakeware 12-Inch x 17-Inch Cooling Rack for its sturdy central brace and extra feet.
A good Dutch oven is essential for big-batch cooking. We put ours to work making pasta sauces to stash in the freezer and hearty reheat-and-eat stews and braises. Because it’s heavier and thicker than a skillet, it retains and conducts heat more evenly and effectively, so it’s perfect for dishes that have long simmering times. We like a Dutch oven that holds at least 6 quarts with a wide bottom for more efficient browning. Our favorite Dutch ovens are the All-Clad Stainless 8-Quart Stockpot (best if you prefer a lighter pot), and the Le Creuset 7 1/4-Quart Round French Oven (better for those who like a heavier pot). Our Best Buy, the Lodge Color Enamel 6-Quart Dutch Oven, is a little smaller but offers excellent performance at an affordable price.
Disposable plastic zipper-lock bags are great for storing individual or odd-shaped items and marinating meat or vegetables. They are also handy for freezing sauces; they lie flat in the freezer and can be stacked upright once frozen. We recommend buying freezer-safe zipper-lock bags because they are made of thicker plastic than standard bags, so they are sturdier and better at protecting the food from off-flavors in the fridge or freezer. Our favorite brand is Ziploc Brand Double Zipper Freezer Bags, which boasts a sturdy, leakproof double-zipper seal that kept foods fresh and held fast even through a tomato-sauce-drop test.
When you want to stash a dish in the fridge or freezer without transferring it to a storage container, covering it with plastic wrap is the simplest way to keep the dish airtight. If the plastic doesn’t adhere easily to the dish, dampen the edge of the dish with a wet paper towel to help the plastic stick. Plastic wrap can be made from two distinctly different substances. Some manufacturers use a food-safe version of PVC; others use low-density polyethylene (LDPE). The main difference? PVC clings but is not impermeable; LDPE is impermeable but has far less cling. Clingy PVC wraps are preferable if you are transporting food or are worried about spills and leaks, but to keep foods fresh longer, select plastic wraps made from LDPE. Our all-around winner is Glad Cling Wrap Clear Plastic.
We reach for aluminum foil constantly in the test kitchen. We use it to line baking sheets for easy cleanup, to cover dishes when baking to prevent them from drying out, to wrap food in a pouch so it will steam gently in the oven, and to protect dishes from off-flavors in the freezer. We find heavy-duty foil easier to work with and recommend you stock extra-long rolls as well as standard 12-inch rolls.
Disposable Aluminum Baking Pans
When making and freezing casseroles, we like the convenience of using inexpensive disposable aluminum pans. These lightweight pans, which are readily available at the grocery store, stack easily and ensure that our glass baking dishes aren’t sitting in the freezer when we need them. We like to make casseroles in 8-inch square or 9-inch round pans because they heat through quickly and you can make two casseroles, giving you the option to bake one now and store one for later.
In addition to this equipment checklist, the “Make-Ahead 101” chapter also includes Test Kitchen Discoveries, Tips for Saving Prep Time, The Test Kitchen’s Guide to Storage Containers, Storage 101, Getting to Know Your Refrigerator, and Getting to Know Your Freezer (including 10 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Freeze). Order your copy of The Make-Ahead Book now.