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How do you keep everything warm till it's all served ?

What are your tips for keeping your food courses warm till you're ready to serve it ?

I appreciate this more in restaurants now that I find it's so difficult to accomplish when I'm cooking a main course + veggies + bread / potatoes at home.

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  1. Hope this doesn't sound insulting, but getting everything done at about the same time--rather than keeping things warm--is just a basic, very necessary kitchen skill gained by practice. Re: warming, don't forget to microwave those plates prior to serving.

    1. The trick is to organize your cooking so that everything gets done close to the same time. I learned it when I worked in my dad's cafeteria. It takes a little thought and planning, but it gets easier with practice. You just need to develop a reasonably good feel for how long things take to cook, and start the things that take longer before the quicker stuff.

      It's also a good idea when you're planning your meal not to choose a whole bunch of things that all require lots of attention or last-minute fiddling. If you're making risotto, for instance, don't also choose something to saute unless you've got a helper who can stay on top of the risotto while you do the other dish.

      The most forgiving dish, I think, when you're trying to get things timed right, is just plain rice or rice pilaf (but not risotto because it takes more attention). If the rice is done and you aren't ready to serve it, you just turn the fire off and leave it there with the lid on. It seems to take a long time for rice to get cold--and it's not a problem at all if you're going to put some kind of sauce or something on it.

      I'll describe how that worked for me last night (this was actually easier than it can sometimes be, for reasons that will become clear).

      I made a braised pot roast with gravy, roasted potatoes, and sauteed spinach. The roast took a couple hours, so that was the easy part. Long before I started on anything else, I browned both sides of the roast and added the liquid to simmer it. Then I went and sat on my behind for about an hour. (The roast was going to simmer for a couple hours.)

      About 45 minutes before I intended to serve the meal, I started the potatoes. I peeled them, cut them into chunks and put them on the stove with some water. While they were cooking (brought to a boil and cooked for 5 minutes, then drained), I chopped up some garlic and preheated the oven for the potatoes. Then I put a little olive oil in the pan that I was going to cook the potatoes in and set it in the oven to heat. I did that a little too soon, though, so it came out a few minutes before I was ready for it. No problem: I took half my garlic and put it in the pan, then set it on the counter out of the way so the garlic could flavor up the oil. When the potatoes had boiled for five minutes, I took them off the heat and drained them, then put them in their pan, seasoned them, put them in the oven and set the timer for 15 minutes. Then I went and sat down and enjoyed a little wine.

      When the timer went off, I took the potatoes out of the oven, turned them over, seasoned them again, put them back in the oven and set the timer for another 15 minutes. Then I got some flour water ready to thicken the gravy and got my spinach ready to saute. I took the roast out of the pan and set it aside to rest, and turned the fire up under that pan to get the liquid boiling. At the same time I put some oil in my saute pan, along with the garlic, and turned the fire up under it. When it was hot I added the spinach and sauteed it till it was just a little less done than I wanted it to be, stirred in a little vinegar, turned off the heat and put a lid on it. Then I made the gravy, took the potatoes out of the oven, sliced the meat, and it was suppertime.

      3 Replies
      1. re: revsharkie

        Why do you parboil your potatoes before roasting? I never do, and they come out fine.

        1. re: pikawicca

          I just read somewhere that doing that makes for perfect roasted potatoes. That's the only way I've ever made them. I end up with this incredibly creamy texture inside, and a nice crispy exterior.

          1. re: revsharkie

            After I parboil and drain them I rough them up a bit in the covered pot before roasting. It makes for a great crispy exterior.

      2. I agree that planning ahead is key, but as someone whose husband's promise that he's "leaving work in 5 minutes" usually means something quite different (and the kids are already hungry so waiting till he actually walks in the door to start things isn't an option) you learn how to "slow things down"; take something off the heat, do the initial onion and garlic sweating but wait to but the green vegetable in till you're ready to eat, etc. Just a matter of watching carefully. Food is usually pretty forgiving of such treatment, IMHO.

        1. All the advice above is excellent - that's a skill you just sort of grow into over time, as you get a better feel for how long it takes you to do things, and as you learn to organize your work area better. The first part took only a year or two after I'd started cooking seriously; the second continues to elude me!

          I also cheat, when I'm doing a giant feast: I have a pretty good selection/collection of Salton HotTrays, from a two-bowl sized one to a roll-around cart with a middle shelf. I can keep an awful lot of side dishes on Hold for long enough to carve the beast and make gravy.

          Another tip that I got from Shirley Corriher: if you're making mashed or scalloped potatoes, make them ahead of time and keep them covered at room temperature, then reheat in a medium oven for about ten minutes (I give'em at least fifteen). Potatoes are one thing you do NOT want to serve lukewarm.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Will Owen


            Will Owen- Wrote: ""Another tip that I got from Shirley Corriher: if you're making mashed or scalloped potatoes, make them ahead of time and keep them covered at room temperature...""

            Shirley you must be joking, Will!

            Room temperature storage of potentially hazardous food, is just unacceptable these days. Serve Safe needs to be taught at home.


          2. I agree, it takes skill and practice. I remember this was a problem when I first began to cook for groups. However it does get easier. Keep practicing!

            1. That's why rice cookers are so popular...they keep the rice warm forever. My kitchen is not a restaurant. If anyone wants everything piping hot and freshly prepared all at the same time..they can cook it themselves! So far no one has volunteered. If you are cooking for more than one person..don't be shy about asking for help!

              1. There's a lot to be said about getting the prepworking done well before the cooking process. Also, try to throw some things into the courses that do well chilled or pre-made - salads, ceviches, crudo, cold soups, or cold apps are an example. Of course, practice and skill is the rest, as well as organization. You might want to write down the steps and map it out in a timeline, if you're a beginner.

                1 Reply
                1. re: kayonyc

                  Plenty of dishes are also good at room temperature or lukewarm.

                2. Picking things that need to/can sit a bit before serving helps, too, when you're gaining that invaluable aforementioned experience. (Some of these would be a beef roast, roast turkey, lasagna.) Then you can wrap up the last things (like mashed potatoes, gravy, etc.) there at the end.

                  Experience is the best of all, though.

                  1. Experience is learned in the field.

                    I've done many dinner parties before, large ones with multiple guests, but recently I did the favor for my mother of catering a party for her friends and made the mistake of calculating their speed as her speed. I put dinner on the table, called the guests in and then...my god, getting garulous old people to move. It's worse than herding cats.

                    I knew one guest was on crutches and another had a walker but the rest...well, by the time I got everyone seated, the food was cold and I had to reheat it.

                    I'd suggest, aside from timing the meal and getting everything on platters warm in the oven, time the guests. You can use young active people as your benchmark. Add an extra five minutes at least from when the dinnerbell is sounded to when people are at the table if you've got children in the party, since there's the whole business of the mothers getting them settled and washed up and so forth. Old people? Add at least 10 and forget any "Look, I just took this off the stove, it's perfect!" flourish unless you have a second helper whose job it is to herd the old people politely and decorously to their seats.

                    Of course old people have an advantage over children in that they do not suddenly rollerskate through the kitchen or bounce in to show you the dorkarama dance. Or come to the table not wearing any pants.

                    One hopes.

                    1 Reply
                    1. When I take my roast out of the oven, I pop the potatoes and veggies in to heat.
                      I let my roasts rest for about 15 min, before serving. And this gives me time to finish
                      gravy/sauces time to cook on the stovetop.

                      To me, the most forgiving thing to cook for a large crowd, is a nice spiral ham.
                      It can be served room temperature, and no one blinks. Give yourself time, as
                      I have been cooking for over 40 years, and large parties are tough. Also, I found Ina
                      Garten's first book, Parties, has some great entertaining tips.

                      1. for larger dinner/partys or gatherings, I don't know about anyone else but I actually write out, along with my menu, a timeline.
                        I cross them out as I accomplish, and then I aslo set a timer to remind me when the next item is up. Ok so I was in project mangemement most of my working life what can I say.
                        But it works for me and I don't forget things, and as the older I get ahemmmmm, I find that this really is helpful and keeps me from ruining foods.
                        Smaller meals as the others say you sort of time what items is going to take the most effort, but prep all the rest so they can be put together in a flash.

                        7 Replies
                        1. re: chef chicklet

                          I do exactly the same thing for a large or more formal dinner. Everything's written out: e.g., 6:35--remove X from oven and turn temp down to 325. I started doing this [way] back in the day when dinner was likely to be preceded by a bit of recreational puffing as well as drinks. With a comprehensive list of "to dos" posted on the inside of a kitchen cabinet, all I had to remember was the time at which I next had to do something. I didn't have to try to keep it all in my head (which I couldn't have done anyway), and I didn't even have to remember what it was I had to do. Just the time, which I seemed to be able to handle. Made it much easier to relax with my guests and still ensure everything was done when it should be. Although it's been a long, long time since I indulged in those preprandials, the to-do list worked so efficiently it continues to be a standard practice.

                          1. re: chef chicklet

                            Oh, my gosh, it's so wonderful to know I'm not alone! Everyone laughs at my schedules. I used to only do them for parties or for dinners for a really large group. It worked so well that I started doing it for groups of even 6 or 8. I include everything on my schedule - even shower, makeup, getting dressed - because it's just too easy to get caught up in something and lose track of time. I break my schedule down into 15-minute increments. Sample:

                            6:45 – clean up room, make bed, etc.
                            7:00 – X
                            7:15 – X
                            7:30 – breakfast
                            7:45 – clean off table in computer room
                            8:00 – clean up kitchen for cooking
                            8:15 – get out dishes (6 regular, 6 small plates for bread or salad)
                            pitcher, 6 glasses. Get tablecloths. Set up drink table. Dessert plates, coffee cups, sugar, creamer, sweeteners. Set tables (snacks, silver, napkins, glasses), put candy & snacks out, silverware for dessert

                            then closer to party time:
                            4:15 – make salad
                            4:30 – X
                            4:45 – X
                            5:00 – put lasagna in oven; turn on Christmas lights inside & out
                            5:15 – turn on music; lights in various rooms, armoire, etc.; ice in bucket
                            5:30 – put bread in oven

                            When you mix the characteristics of attention deficit and obsessive compulsiveness, this is what you get. :)

                            I joke, but it really has worked out great.

                            1. re: luv2bake

                              I am not laughing! It's wonderful to be able to mark those items off, I once was babysitting a 12 year old little girl but also needed to prepare for a party. I truly wanted to teach her how to cook and did this system with her. At first she rolled her eyes at me, but midway, she was crossing the items off the list too, I hope I in some small way I helped her to see that "lists" are really helpful in everyday life.
                              15 minutes is perfect, I do the exact same thing, and I stick to it.
                              I think I really like you guys!

                              1. re: chef chicklet

                                I don't actually make lists, but I do put a little sticky note into each serving bowl/platter that I plan to use, with the name of the dish that will be served in it. Doing this prevents me from forgetting to serve something and finding it in the oven, quite stinky and petrified, days later. Something I learned from experience...

                                1. re: FlavoursGal

                                  I do the exact same thing (except I use paper scraps & not sticky notes). I put them in the places they will be when full of food, too. One time I jokingly told my husband that I did that in case I died or was hospitalized before the party so he knew what went where. haha

                                  Keeping my quarter-hour-do-list also helps prevent forgetting to put food out. Happened many times over the years before I figured that out!

                                  Funny story about that - I was talking about my list at a small (casual w/friends) dinner party at the home of one of my best friends. She teases me and another one of her friends because she says we're, well, a backend word for obsessive-compulsive, if you know what I mean. Anyhow, her other friend (who was also at the party) was like, "Yes! I do a list, too!" and we were talking with enthusiasm about our lists, how it helps planning, prevent forgetting to put some food out, etc. So as the hostess friend is cracking up at us, she's putting her cranberry mold (absolute delish) in the fridge after unmolding it. And one of us said, "Now what if you forgot the cranberry mold?" "I'm not going to forget the cranberry mold!" And she continues ridiculing us (good-naturedly ... well, mostly...!)

                                  So I know you've guessed the ending - she DID forget the cranberry mold!! It was hilarious. She had to admit that our lists would have saved her. :)

                              2. re: luv2bake

                                Let's hear it for us obsessive-compulsive types! I wouldn't survive a dinner party without my scheduled lists. My lists also include tasks for my husband, who is the perfect sous-chef. He makes entertaining sooooo much easier.

                                My dessert party plan covered 6 days. I think I was working my real job in there somewhere, too. :)

                              3. re: chef chicklet

                                Definitely. Project management skills come in handy, especially if you only have one oven. Also, I have to plan ahead for side dishes so I don't have too many that need to be in the oven at the same time.

                              4. I hate cold food that is meant to be warm. Years ago I started buying various buffet serving pieces, and what a difference it makes. This last holiday season I saw many serving buffet type pieces at very reasonable prices. Costco, Target, even QVC had them.
                                I have one handy at all times, even for family meals. They are electric. Check out various websites to see what is available, because these are considered 'seasonal'. I had, until recently, family and kids coming and going at all times. Many foods will hold in these as they are low heat, or adjustable. This may not be what the OP is asking for, but for a small investment those who come in a bit late, or some dishes that are cooked a bit early, can be held, and still be wonderful!

                                1. I'll tell you a turkey tip that I've used time and again at Thanksgiving. When the turkey is almost done, I take it out of the oven, put the carving board in the center of an old blanket, put the turkey on the board, use a sturdy piece of foil to cover the turkey, and wrap the turkey in the blanket! It will easily "hold" for 2 hours and will still be steamy when I carve it. The same method can be used to keep a roast warm.

                                  6 Replies
                                  1. re: Scagnetti

                                    Sorry, Scagnetti, but this might be a recipe for food poisoning. Especially if the turkey is stuffed.

                                    1. re: FlavoursGal

                                      Evidence please.

                                      The next time I'm in Europe and see an Italian family on a picnic unwrap their roast bird, which is how I discovered this tip, I'll tell them they're fortunate to have avoided food poisoning for the 80 years their family have been doing this.

                                      1. re: Scagnetti

                                        "Staphylococcus aureus can be carried on human skin, in infected cuts and pimples, in nasal passages and throats. They are spread by improper food handling. Always wash hands and utensils before preparing and serving food. Cooked foods that will not be served immediately should be refrigerated in shallow, covered containers. Perishable foods should not be left at room temperature more than 2 hours. Temperature abuse can allow the bacteria to grow and produce staphylococcal enterotoxin. Thorough cooking destroys staphylococcal bacterial cells, but staphylococcal enterotoxin is not destroyed by heat, refrigeration or freezing."

                                        Copied from http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/...

                                        1. re: FlavoursGal

                                          I'm not sure I'd take the blanket approach for two whole hours, but it *isn't* at room temperature, it's insulated.

                                          1. re: DGresh

                                            My in-laws have been cooking the Thanksgiving bird on Thanksgiving MORNING for decades and serving it hours later after it sits on the countertop for 5+ hours. No one has ever gotten sick (although it gives me the heebie-jeebies.)

                                            1. re: gridder

                                              Perhaps I've been brainwashed by industry standards for safe food handling practices, but I prefer to err on the side of caution

                                  2. Two crockpots come in handy for holding both mashed potatoes, and gravy. If pan drippings are a "last minute available" thing, they can be incorporated into the previously carefully made gravy. Crocks transport well to food gatherings, especially with a few small pieces of tape to secure the lid, and there's always somewhere to plug them in for continued warming.

                                    Crocks, turned on in advance, also work for holding pancakes to build up to a huge stack, and also for biscuits which come from the oven when they, and not you, are ready. In both cases, the lid holds the critical humidity.

                                    A wide mouth Thermos, pre-charged with hot water, will hold a hollandaise, allowing you to then focus on the foodstuffs to receive it.

                                    1. My aunt who has a small kitchen...one four burner stove, one oven and one microwave manages to get a hot Thanksgiving dinner on the table every year for 15 people. Her trick, put mashed potatoes, stuffing and green beans in crockpots. Everything else that doesn't fit in the oven gets wrapped in towels (like the lasagna). I think this is very clever and I very much appreciate the hot meal!

                                      My family is lucky enough to have a six burner stove, two ovens a micro and a warming drawer !!! When I am home visiting and entertaining it's a breeze to keep food warm.

                                      Me, I live in NYC. I serve a lot of room temp and cold food to a large group of guests b/c it's just too difficult to serve hot food to more than a few guests when working in a 7x6 kitchen.

                                      1. Cook everything the day before,leave slightly underdone,then reheat the next day.Food always tastes better the next day anyway.Then you can just kick it the whole day.

                                        1. I appreciate everyone's tips, but I must say even as a somewhat accomplished home cook, it's the timing to get everything out at the same time that is the most challening -- and stressful.

                                          I have not perfected it -- and don't use crockpots, microwave -- but do find that serving food that is cooked w/ different techniques -- stove, oven, perhaps a room temp dish, keeps the stress level down and success level up. And then there are some dishes that can be held -- roasted potatoes and rice are my standups in this regard.

                                          1. One consideration I'll offer:

                                            Chinese chefs tend to bring food out whenever it's ready, at their leisure.
                                            Italian and Japanese chefs tend to serve one dish at a time in multiple courses.

                                            It's worth questioning the idea that you should serve everything at once. If a dish is sufficiently delicate that you don't want to leave it on a low burner, maybe it deserves being served as a separate course.