The 10 mistakes people make when preparing Christmas dinner – including big ham error

The prep for a Christmas dinner can be a mammoth job, that usually takes a lot of planning, days and sometimes weeks in advance.

Even the most seasoned of family chefs can make simple mistakes in the run-up to the big day that can throw the entire feast off track.

The Irish Mirror spoke with award-winning celebrity chef, author and presenter Brian McDermott to highlight some of the most common mistakes that people can make while preparing a Christmas dinner.

He has broken down some of the key elements to guide you and to ensure a perfect, and faux-pas-free day.

Don’t slack on the planning

Christmas Day dinner is quite frankly the most important meal of the year, so understandably a lot of planning has to go into it to ensure things run smoothly.

“I’ve got this great saying around Christmas and it is ‘you want to be the host and not the ghost’,” says Brian.

The 10 mistakes people make when preparing Christmas dinner
The 10 mistakes people make when preparing Christmas dinner

“The host being the person who normally takes the responsibility of organising and planning for what is undoubtedly the most important meal of the year, and I say that for one very simple reason because for me there is safety and security in planning it.

“It really is sitting down because we all know each other in the family home so we know the likes and dislikes with food so plan a very simple, effective menu.

“Take a piece of paper and sit down and write what you’re actually going to serve on the day – for every course – and figure out who will be doing what.”

Don’t leave the shop to the last minute

The rush to the supermarket in the final days coming up to December 25 can be manic, and so the sooner you get the key ingredients, the better.

Brian recommends going “to your cupboards and find out what’s in there, because we tend to buy for the second time cloves, cinnamon, things like that that we’re going to use, they’re probably already there.”

Things like the turkey and ham can be ordered and even delivered in advance of the day so you don’t have to worry about fishing through what’s left on Christmas Eve.

However, supermarkets and some butchers generally will have something left close to Christmas day.

It’s not a job for one person

The 10 mistakes people make when preparing Christmas dinner
The 10 mistakes people make when preparing Christmas dinner

In Irish households, tradition usually sees the parents cooking everything from the starters to the main and organising the desserts, so if this is your first year cooking, Brian recommends bearing in mind that “it’s absolutely way too much for one person”.

“The big theme for me has always been the word family, it’s inclusion, it’s get everybody excited, get them involved,” he said.

“Start the conversation with a few days left and say to people we’re going to do a turkey this year or I’ve a new recipe for this glaze for the ham, start to get people excited.

“Equally where you’ve written out a menu that you’re going to do, write out a task list coming from each of the recipes of what needs to be done.

“Don’t forget things like setting the table, get people to help and if they say ‘oh I’m no good in the kitchen,’ which is a typical Irish answer,” Brian joked, “I don’t buy that because cooking is about common sense, it’s about applying heat to quality ingredients.

“So get the conversation started and let everybody know what’s taking place, what’s going to be on the menu and what their role is.”

Don’t leave everything to Christmas Day

The 10 mistakes people make when preparing Christmas dinner
The 10 mistakes people make when preparing Christmas dinner

One of the worst things you can do is leave the brunt of the work until Christmas Day because quite frankly, there just wouldn’t be enough time to do everything without a team of people.

So Brian’s recommendation is to “apply actions to your task list, and ask yourself ‘can it be done the day before on Christmas Eve or does it need to be done the day previous.’

“For example, if you’re going to make your own cranberry sauce, that can be done now, it can be jarred and sitting ready for the day.

“As can some of the desserts, like if you decide to make meringue nests or maybe you’re going to do a Christmas pudding, that has to be done in advance so it’s just a warming up exercise.”

In his house, the Irish Chef says: “I personally will prepare the vegetables as well on Christmas Eve, so I’ll peel them and chop them the way I want them.”

A tip for anyone who wants to get the veg out of the way the day before is “when you’re preparing them, they just need to be peeled and chopped and then into a container that has just a tablespoon of water.

“Then put them on a flat tray so it’s nice and flat and easy to throw in the fridge out of the way.”

Don’t overcook the turkey

The 10 mistakes people make when preparing Christmas dinner
The 10 mistakes people make when preparing Christmas dinner

An extremely common mistake made by many Christmas cooks is getting nervous about how “done” the turkey actually is when the time comes to take it out of the oven – and so they add an extra hour.

Brian says this is possibly the worst thing you can do to ruin the dinner this year.

“The biggest mistake really is overcooking in my opinion. Everyone seems to be scared of the turkey and ham and we add on extra time just to ensure that it is thoroughly cooked.

“And don’t forget that these are the showstoppers, the turkey is the showstopper, your ham too and this is what people will talk about when they’re meeting others that night or the next day out for a walk.”

For those going for a whole turkey, Brian recommends that you calculate the cooking time in terms of the weight of the turkey.

“So it is exactly around 25 minutes per kg for a whole turkey and just allow 20 minutes over – that is key.

“Make sure you’re not opening and closing that oven constantly, every time you open the oven 25-30% of the heat escapes.”

Don’t frantically boil the ham

The 10 mistakes people make when preparing Christmas dinner
The 10 mistakes people make when preparing Christmas dinner

Irish households love to boil their ham for the Christmas feast, but Brian says most make the mistake of frantically boiling it instead of poaching.

“People then talk about boiling the ham, but there is a specific way it actually needs to be done rather than blasting it.”

Brian says:

  • Put the ham into the cold water
  • Add some cloves and a bay leaf
  • Bring the water up to the boil
  • Then turn it down to poaching
  • Time it so that it’s only 20 minutes to the pound with the lid on
  • After cooling for ten minutes score the ham and apply the glaze
  • Then pop it in the oven for about 30 minutes
  • Then let it rest before serving

Don’t forget timing is everything

Your friend on the day will be your watch or your clock and the timer.

“If you know the size of your turkey already, you can calculate in advance how long it’s going to take to cook,” he says.

The 10 mistakes people make when preparing Christmas dinner
The 10 mistakes people make when preparing Christmas dinner

“On the day I will always cook the turkey fresh, and resting it for at least twenty minutes is always key to include in the timings.

“When the turkey is finished cooking, that’s when you want to put your ham into the oven for the 30 minutes – assuming you’re working with one oven.”

After that, it’s time to finish the meal with your sides – which usually take a lot less cooking time – and then you’re ready to go.

Don’t put the grill on by accident

The celebrity chef said he knows of situations where people have been distracted on the day and switched the grill on for the turkey instead of the oven.

So this year, double and triple check the settings before leaving your star of the show in the oven to cook.

“I know people who have by accident put the grill on for the turkey by accident instead of the oven, which ends up burning and ruining it.”

Don’t forget to defrost the turkey

The 10 mistakes people make when preparing Christmas dinner
The 10 mistakes people make when preparing Christmas dinner

Another common mistake applies to people who opt for a frozen turkey on Christmas Day.

You need to make sure you’ve left enough time for the bird to defrost before even thinking of placing it in the oven.

So, if a frozen turkey is on the menu in your house Brian warns “you simply cannot cook it properly if any of the areas that have a bit of frost in them”

He recommends taking it out and placing it in the bottom of your fridge for at least 48 hours before cooking it.

Don’t panic

Finally, if you’re a stressed cook, Christmas Dinner is maybe one to assign to another member of the family.

“The worst thing you can do is panic first and foremost,” Brian says.

“You want to enjoy this as a process and that’s a lovely mindset of just being appreciative of the day, the people that are around and recognising those who aren’t around who had been in previous years.

“Good people make good food, relaxed people make a lovely relaxed day.”

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