You researched and decided on a recipe. You know what you’re making. You’ve placed your order. Maybe you even have your meat in your fridge. But before you start cooking your prime rib or your tenderloin or your lamb shanks or your short ribs or your brisket or whatever it is you’re making this holiday, take a moment to square away a few holiday basics. You’ll be glad you did. Making sure you’re all set when it comes to temperature, carving, and plating; they can make or break a holiday meal.
We’re sure you’re a fantastic cook. But even if you really know your stuff, a holiday meal is no time to wing it when it comes to temperature. Use a meat thermometer. If you don’t have one, go buy one now and use it. Truly. Read and re-read your chosen recipe so you know what to be looking for, including exactly how many minutes you need to be cooking per pound, especially when it comes to large (and expensive) roasts.
Something like standing rib roast is hard to cook. You need a good outer crust and the middle nice and rare. This is tricky. Monitoring temperature will help you do it right. A meat thermometer is equally important for something you’ve made a bunch of times, like a leg of lamb. Holiday cooking is distracted cooking. You might have cousins in your kitchen or be fighting with your in-laws and have ten other things happening on your stove. You might not be sober. So set timers and monitor that thermometer.
A quick word about pork. If you’re making pork – maybe you’re smoking a nice loin roast – don’t overcook it. Pork tastes best and should be done mid-rare (unless you’re braising something or making ribs). Currently the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service says pork can be consumed safely when cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F (this is mid-rare), followed by a short rest time. Don’t let it rest too long or take it out when your meat thermometer reads under 145 as the temperature climbs during the rest time.
After you’ve taken the time to research recipes, then order, prep, and cook a beautiful cut of meat, don’t hack it up! Read up on the best ways to carve what you made, which way to cut with or against the grain, towards the bones, and so on. Several good rules of thumb are to always let meat rest before carving or the juices will run, and to always sharpen your knife before carving.
Usually the best way to carve a large roast is to cut a thin slice off one side to create an even base and then to use steady and even strokes to make thick slices. But it all depends on what you’re trying to carve. So, do a little Googling. Depending on what you’re serving, chances are there’s a pretty good YouTube tutorial you might want to watch before carving. This is especially important if you want to take the extra step of bringing your roast out in the open and carving at the table in front of your guests. If you’re up for this sort of theater, use a nice cutting board and if you have a carving fork, that’s a nice and useful touch.
Here’s are some tutorials on carving prime rib from Saveur and Serious Eats. Here’s Martha Stewart on carving beef tenderloin and Food52 on roast beef – they also have good suggestions for carving out in the open: “Remove strings, skewers the kitchen, before you head out into the limelight. Have your tools in order. It is best to use 2 knives: a long-bladed one for slicing and a short-bladed one for trimming and separating joints…. Allow elbow room at the table. Always stand, never sit.”
If you’re carving a chicken or a turkey, that’s a whole other, well, bird. Watch Jacques Pépin and learn. (You might want to watch this more than once.)
There’s no one rule on how to present the centerpiece of any holiday meal. But there are plenty of schools of thought. If you prefer a classic look or if you want to be “different” and plate on, say a piece of slate you happen to have, that’s up to you. We’re just here to tell you that serving on a warm platter goes a long way. So does serving attractive slices of meat that have been carved uniformly.
Fresh herbs are always a way to gussy up a platter, but you can go outside the rosemary zone if you want. Take a spring of pine from your Christmas tree, whack a pomegranate over a platter and let the seeds scatter, go bananas. Just make sure whatever you’re putting on your platters is actually edible – or warn people not to eat what isn’t. Look at cookbooks and to other cultures for inspiration. Or if your beloved grandmother always used a specific platter and you happen to have it, bust it out. It will create the instant family feel you might be going for.