The 12 rules of Christmas cooking | Christmas food and drink

As a food writer and stylist, I’ve spent almost 20 years cooking Christmas dinners for ad campaigns, TV shows and cookbooks. Shooting can start up to six months ahead, resulting in multiple festive feasts before most people have even thought about dusting off their decorations. Throw in two large families and friends’ meals, and I’ve made more Christmas dinners than the average person ever will. This is what I’ve learned …

1 Cockerel, for a change

Bigger than a chicken, tastier and less intimidating than a turkey, cockerel is my choice for the big day. Simon Taylor, captain of Team GB Butchery and owner of Surrey Hills Butchers says that, while turkey has a slightly better meat-to-bone ratio, a large cockerel is a great option for 10 people. “At that size, they’ve had a good long full life and therefore are full of a lot more flavour,” he says. “Money-wise, it is going to save quite a bit, especially this year as prices have risen, particularly on big bronze free-range turkeys.”

To cook a 4-5kg cockerel: take it out of the fridge 30 minutes before. Rub generously with olive oil and butter, and season well. Fill the cavity with herbs, garlic cloves and a halved lemon. Roast it at 200C fan/gas mark 7 for 30 minutes, breast side down in the tray. Then reduce to 140C fan/gas mark 3 for 1 hour. Carefully turn the bird over and continue to cook for a further 2-2½ hours, basting occasionally, until cooked through. Rest for 20- 30 minutes before carving.

I’m a fan of a traditional ham, which Taylor also recommends as good value, even with rising costs: “Pork is still pound for pound going to be the most economical option.” Taylor’s biggest money saving tip this Christmas is to check in with your local butcher. “If you’ve got a budget, we can guide you to what is going to be best for you and quality and flavour. And get your orders in as soon as you can, particularly if it is something off-piste.”

2 You don’t always need a starter

Photograph: Romas Foord/The Observer

Do you really need a starter? If, like me, you love all that comes with throwing an epic Christmas dinner then, yes, offering a starter is an excuse to get a bit creative. Want to show off with a cheese souffle? Go for it! Or maybe it is the perfect time to dust off that blini pan you got last Christmas and wow your guests with homemade blinis, sour cream and cured salmon. But ask yourself, do you really need to do that or will you peak too soon, broken by ambition and extra washing up?

3 Two side dishes are marvellous. Three is a waste of time

If the prospect of planning a huge Christmas feast fills you with dread, then approach it like a favourite restaurant meal. Your plate likely consists of a showstopper – a slice of meat, a piece of fish or veg offering – and a maximum of two other components. Tender porchetta on herby beans for example, or pan-fried sea bass with braised fennel and new potatoes. No more than two sides. Christmas dinner doesn’t need to be any different: team crispy roast chicken with root vegetable gratin and buttery brussels; reverse-sear steak with goose fat roasties and braised red cabbage.

4 … Or just do a side-dish dinner

More than half of my family is vegetarian or pescatarian, and we have played around with the Christmas table dynamic a lot over the years. The non-meat-eaters have all agreed they don’t want a substitute for a roast – instead they love to go hard on all the side dishes. While vegetarian food writer Anna Jones likes to go the extra mile – “I think it’s nice to make something for vegetarians or vegans to build their meal around, even if it is something simple” – she agrees that sides are the true hero of the Christmas table. “Keeping all your sides vegetarian (or vegan) is a win,” she says. “Roast potatoes crisp just as well in olive oil, and try chestnuts with roasted brussels and some smoked salt.” Even if you have no bird to stuff, she says a vegetarian stuffing with lots of herbs, lemon and sticky onions is always a winner.

5 It’s all gravy

It’s 3pm. You’ve timed your two sides perfectly, the meat is out of the oven and looking fabulous but now you have to keep everything warm and rested while you make the gravy and mess around with trivets and wine and drippings and flour and why is it taking so long? Making gravy often breaks a cook’s goodwill, so it’s best to make it days or even weeks ahead, then on the day keep it warm in a pan so once everything else is done you just go for it and serve.

To make the gravy in advance: place 1kg of chicken wings in a large roasting tray with some roughly chopped root veg (onion, carrot, celery) and drizzle it all with oil. Season generously, add your chosen herbs – rosemary, thyme and bay is a great bouquet – and toss together. Roast at 180C fan/gas mark 6, for 1 hour, until everything is golden and crisp. Carefully transfer the tray to a medium heat on your hob, pour in a large glass of any colour wine or port and bring to the boil. Bubble until almost cooked away, then stir in a large knob of butter and 4 tablespoons of plain flour. Break up all the ingredients with a potato masher. When the flour has coated everything in the tray and cooked out to become gnarly and brown, add 1.75 litres of water. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a medium-low heat and leave to bubble away for 25-30 minutes, until thickened. Strain the gravy through a fine sieve into a saucepan, then whisk in a heaped tablespoon of redcurrant jam or jelly. Taste, adjust the seasoning and add more stock if you like a thinner gravy. Leave to cool, then chill or freeze until needed.

6 Cheat and tweak

If you really don’t have the time, or inclination, to make your own gravy, then buy it. A lot of supermarkets and delis offer tubs of fresh gravy, and some really are very good. If you want to embellish ready-made gravy, whisk in a tablespoon of redcurrant jam or add a bay leaf to infuse while it’s warming. Food writer Gurdeep Loyal used to be a food-product developer. His top tip to lift a lacklustre gravy? “Add a spoonful of brown miso or anchovy paste for a savoury kick that lifts the meatiness.”

In fact, you should buy in any element of Christmas dinner that fills you with stress. No one will care, they’ll just be grateful someone else is taking care of it. There are a range of cranberry sauces on the market, and you’ll find tubs of bread sauce in most seasonal fridge aisles. Both these can be elevated with a few aromatics: a grating of orange zest in the cranberry sauce, and a scratching of nutmeg over the bread sauce.

Finally, to stuffing. Christmas is a time for nostalgia and if Paxo takes you back to your mum’s/ gran’s/friend’s kitchen, then go for it. Equally, ready-made stuffing trays are a great cheat. Loyal is also a fan, embellishing them with bacon, fried onions, dried fruits, chopped chestnuts and a slosh of sherry before roasting. “Think of the stuffing as the base,” he says, “and the add-ons as festive pizza-style toppings.”

7 How to ace roasties (and veg)

Roast Potatoes
‘Turn your potatoes only once, roast until deeply golden and crisp all over.’ Photograph: Romas Foord/The Observer

Everyone has their method for the best roast spuds. I’ll share mine – it’s a no-frills way and you can do all the prep the day before. (In fact, the same goes for prepping your veg: a day ahead, peel and dress carrots for roasting with oil, orange juice and thyme; trim and score sprouts and leave in cold water. The only thing you should be really showing much attention to on the day is the meat.)

Peel your potatoes and cut into large, even pieces. Place them in a large saucepan, cover with cold salted water and place on a high heat. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat a little and leave to boil for around 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are almost cooked through. Drain in a colander, and leave to steam dry for a minute before transferring back to the hot pan. Cover with the lid, then carefully – using a towel – shake the potatoes vigorously in the hot pan, so that the surface area really breaks down and roughs up. If you are preparing the spuds a day ahead, then transfer the potatoes to a large roasting tray, large enough so that they all sit in one layer and aren’t too close together. Drizzle with plenty of olive oil or melted goose fat, so that the potatoes get a good coating, add any herbs and crushed garlic and season well. Leave the potatoes to cool completely and then wrap the tray in clingfilm. Leave somewhere cold until needed. If you must make them to eat straight away, pour a good layer of oil or goose fat into the bottom of a large roasting tray and pop it in a hot oven for a couple of minutes. Stir in the parboiled potatoes and any aromatics. When you are ready to roast, cook at 180C fan/gas mark 6 for about 75-90 minutes, turning only once, until deeply golden and crisp all over.

8 Delegate, always delegate

You’ve agreed to host and the whole family is coming over. Suddenly your decent-sized kitchen feels claustrophobic and how are you going to cook all the elements as well as be a fabulous host? Delegate. Think of it as a selfless act – you’re not just helping yourself manage, you’re giving the gift of festivity to your guests. From my experience, many friends and family members would love to host but the logistics send them round the bend. However, given the opportunity, they enjoy the rituals around cooking. Get those people involved.

Ask willing participants if there is a dish they’d like to bring – you never know, Aunt Sue might be desperate to try out a roast parmesan parsnip recipe she’s seen. If no one has anything they’re hankering to make, suggest the following, which can be made ahead and easily packed up: gravy and sauces; a tray of stuffing; pudding (there’s usually someone up for the challenge); drinks. My sister claims to be a non-cook, but her bread sauce rivals that of professional chefs and her mulled cider became an instant classic when she introduced it a few years ago. My cousin Cassie is always up for a trickier challenge. She’ll make sausage rolls for later on in the evening, and an elaborate dessert. Her mother on the other hand can’t cook/won’t cook but is a dab hand at a “throw it all in the pot” braised red cabbage.

9 What to do if you only have a small oven

Brussels Sprouts.
Brussels Sprouts. Photograph: Romas Foord/The Observer

If you are short on oven space and your meat is taking up too much room, how do you cook the sides? Well, see rule number 2.

However, if you’re hell bent on more than two sides you’ll need to be clever with your prep and some things will need to be relegated to the hob. Shred brussels sprouts, and pan fry with crispy bacon, chestnuts and sage for a few minutes for a quick side. Red cabbage can be braised on the hob. Cook pigs in blankets ahead of time in the oven, then reheat and glaze at the last minute in a frying pan until sticky.

You could even switch up the potatoes. Try boiling new potatoes until tender, then frying in a large pan with butter and herbs until golden. Or, do what my grandma does and confit them in a pan of oil instead. Terrible for your heart, but you’ll never taste a greater spud.

Pot-roasted carrots are an all-time favourite of mine, I’d go as far as saying I prefer them to full roasted carrots. They’re a great way to free up oven space. Peel your carrots and cut into equal sized pieces, around 4cm. Get a wide saucepan, or frying pan that has a lid, and stand the carrots upright, tuck in a few sprigs of thyme then pour in enough water so that it comes halfway up the side of the carrots – you could even add a splash of orange juice at this point. Season well and dot with a few knobs of butter. Cover the pan and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat a little and cook until the carrots are just cooked (or to your liking). Then remove the lid and turn the heat up high. You want to cook away all the liquid, and gently caramelise the bottom of the carrots. Keep warm until needed.

10 Fry your herbs

Fried herbs and citrus 12 Rules of Christmas Observer Food Monthly OFM December 2022
Photograph: Romas Foord/The Observer

A food stylist and chef’s tip is to fry sprigs of herbs well ahead of serving, to be used to finish plates and platters of food. It might seem unnecessary and overly cheffy, but it really adds to the end result, both visually and flavour-wise (crisp fried sage and rosemary leaves are flavour bombs).

Pick small sprigs of rosemary and thyme, and pick sage and bay leaves. Halve lemons and clementines. Line a large plate with kitchen roll, ready for the fried herbs. Place a large frying pan on a medium heat and pour in enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan, around 5mm deep. Fry the herbs in groups, all the rosemary, then all the bay and so forth. You’re looking for deep green, almost translucent leaves, not golden, it only takes a minute or two.

Transfer them to the paper-lined plate using chef’s tweezers or a fork and spoon. For the cut lemons and clementines, sear them cut side down, in a hot pan, with a touch of oil. Or a hot dry griddle pan, until caramelised or charred underneath. These can be done hours ahead, then used to garnish and finish serving plates.

11 Pudding shouldn’t come into it

Dessert should be sorted ahead, and shouldn’t feature in the stress of the big day, as most traditional Christmas cakes and puddings are made well in advance. If you opt for a chocolate log or trifle, then make it the day before. Mince pies can be made weeks in advance, when there is less to do: just freeze them once baked.

For pastry chef and food writer Ravneet Gill, mince pies are a must and she prepares hers the day before. “I assemble them fully, pop them in the fridge and bake the next day so you get warm mince pies for much later on,” she says.

Gill is also a big fan of sticky toffee pudding for her family Christmas table as “it is the most forgiving and easy to serve”. Again, she’ll make it a day in advance, then portion it up on the day and heat through in the microwave. “I get the toffee sauce warming on the stove ready to pour over and serve with large scoops of ice-cream.”

12 The extras and why they are important

Last, but by no means least, the extras. I am a fierce advocate for the accompaniments. They will elevate your meal and help differentiate a Christmas dinner from an elaborate Sunday roast. They can also help bulk out a meal and stretch it further if you have many mouths to feed. However you decide to feast this Christmas, please, please don’t forget about the little guys. The bread sauce, the cranberry sauce, the pigs in blankets … Let’s be honest, there’s rarely a leftover pig in blanket. If there is? Well, that’s one more for you, a reward for acing Christmas.