Not everyone is a whizz in the kitchen – and Christmas cooking can soon turn into a nightmare of undercooked turkey, soggy sprouts and less than crispy roast potatoes.
Those who struggle are not alone, with many families opting to buy the whole lot ready-made from the supermarket, or handing the entire event over to a nearby restaurant.
But if you prefer the authenticity of a home-cooked dinner, and the freedom to eat exactly what you want at the price you want, there's a lot of pressure not to mess it up. However, once you know what the main pitfalls are, you can prevent them – or if it's too late, fix them.
Here are eight classic mistakes to avoid for a better Christmas meal than last year...
Read more: Your ultimate Christmas dinner shopping list
1. Not defrosting the turkey properly
"One of the most important things to remember is not to take meat out of the freezer and cook it straight away," warns cooking equipment specialists Alliance Online. Most of us know this, but you'd be amazed at how often the simple rule gets forgotten.
If you do, the inside will stay raw while the outside cooks – and turkey is poultry which needs to be at least 70° inside to make it safely edible.
Instead, defrost your turkey easily in the fridge. Just start a full two days before you plan to cook, and check the inner cavity isn't still frozen before you put it in the oven. If you don't have time, buy a turkey crown, or joints, and it will defrost far quicker. Never rush this vital process or you'll be spending Boxing Day in the bathroom.
When cooking, you can also use a kitchen thermometer to check the temperature of the middle of the meat before serving. If you burn it, you may be able to salvage some pieces of meat from inside and underneath (or just hope your guests are in favour of the charred taste).
2. Not cooking potatoes properly inside and out
While some may argue you need to use oil with an extra high burning point for roasties, there's not really a right and wrong, as long as you cook them properly.
"This might not be the standard response but I like to use olive oil," says UK plant-based chef and cookbook author Niki Webster of RebelRecipes.com. "Rapeseed works well, but the slightly fruity flavour of olive oil is a winner for me."
Sticking to her favourite for the sake of taste, she's still able to serve up roast potatoes with the right amount of crunch and softness. "For perfectly cooked potatoes which are fluffy on the inside and crispy on the outside, I like to boil them in salted water for 15 minutes, then crush them a little before coating in olive oil, salt and pepper."
Boiling before roasting ensures the middle doesn't get left undercooked, while crushing means there are more edges to go that lovely golden brown. But remember, while it's normal to splurge on seasoning at Christmas, the recommended daily amount of salt for adults is no more than 6g (around one teaspoon).
"Make sure there's enough space between the potatoes so the edges get super-crispy," Webster adds.
You could also use sunflower or vegetable oil, while some like to use duck or goose fat.
Read more: How to make Christmas dinner for £5 a head
3. Cramming the oven too full
If you're wondering why nothing is cooking on time, it may well be because you're blocking the oven heat from circulating with a towering pile of roasting tins, oven dishes and tinfoil. It also means you're not paying attention to what temperature suits which dish, and hoping they'll all somehow come out ready at the same time. Sadly, they won't.
Instead, cook what vegetables you can in advance, then reheat gently in the microwave, while keeping sauces and gravies on the stove to free up oven space. If you have a veggie main, cook in advance, reheat and keep warm in foil while you cook the meats.
If you have a fan oven, remember it's 10-20° more efficient than 'normal' oven temperature, so turn it down.
4. The sprouts and carrots are soggy
Cooking perfect veg is an art, so don't just bung the pan at the back of the stove and leave it to boil your carefully prepared veg into disintegrating matter.
Frozen sprouts take no time at all – stir-fry them on a high heat after boiling or steaming, to give them some texture. Fresh sprouts need par-boiling, then you could finish by frying with pancetta cubes, or even roast with the potatoes for a crunchy outside.
Carrots are also vastly better when not over-boiled. Roasting takes around 40 minutes – toss in honey and thyme and throw in the oven with the parsnips for a more sophisticated veg experience.
5. The food is under-seasoned
An unseasoned Christmas dinner is like an undecorated tree. Serving up a turkey (or meat, veggie or vegan alternative) and trimmings seasoned with nothing but air could make for one very bland flavour.
Make sure to pay attention to each individual dish before cooking – vegetables need salt in the water, while a good turkey requires typical stuffing or some onion and roasting herbs. Then coat in butter and scatter well with salt and pepper to render the skin crisp. Complete with some sage, thyme and bay leaves.
You'll want nutmeg for the bread sauce, orange zest or juice for the cranberry, and plenty of pepper for the gravy. Delish.
6. Yorkshire puddings have gone flat
For some, Yorkshire puddings are an absolute travesty on Christmas day and should go nowhere near a traditional dinner. Others, however, love them more than anything else on the plate.
But they are notoriously tricky – like sensitive meringues of the roast dinner world.
The secret to a crisp Yorkshire is heat, and even more heat. "It's all about getting the oil in the pan super-hot before adding the batter. Don't be tempted to open the oven and you'll see them rise beautifully – no soggy bottoms," says Webster.
Rustle these up last as if they sit about, they'll go flabby and cold – what we wanted to avoid in the first place.
7. Gravy is too thin – or lumpy
It seems the stages you cook the gravy in will help prevent you from making it too thin or lumpy, adjusting it as you go.
"I like to make lovely homemade gravy with red onions, garlic, stock, soy sauce, herbs and cranberry sauce for sweetness," says Webster. "Adding some flour to the onions thickens the gravy really well. Simmer until it's rich and thick. Then strain to remove any lumps!"
And if it's still not quite right, just whisk or strain it some more to de-lump or add a little cornflour mix to thicken, she says.
If it's too oily, some also swear by dropping an ice cube into it, as it's thought the fat will cling to it, which you can then scoop out more easily. Or with more time, others transfer to a jug and leave in the fridge for a couple of hours, with the fat rising to the top ready to be removed. But perhaps only try this one if it's worked for you before...
8. Pudding is dry
Making a Christmas pud for the family can be a challenge in itself, as guests either love or hate it. So a dry one – perhaps from leaving it uncovered, or over-boiling it – certainly won't help.
"If you're making your own Christmas pudding, make sure you have a high fruit ratio and that the fruits are lovely and plump from soaking," suggests Webster.
"Steaming also ensures the pud is the most moist and gooey."
But failing that, or if you just want to make use of leftovers, there are ways to improve your pudding's potential.
"The easiest way to use it up is to make Christmas pudding ice-cream. Just break it up and stir it into a tub of your favourite one and pop in the freezer – amazing!" she recommends.
"You can also make 'cake bombs' by rolling and coating it in chocolate or adding to a brownie mix."
Other options might be cutting it into slices, frying it in butter and serving with brandy cream, or if that feels a bit too decadent, use it in a Boxing Day trifle instead of sponge. This also applies to Christmas cake – so fear not. Nothing needs to go to waste!
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