How to Bring Food to a Potluck: A Practical Guide
Pro tips for storing, transporting, reheating, and serving from potluck expert and cookbook author Ali Rosen.
It's no secret that we love a good potluck-our test kitchen has developed everything from healthy salads to decadent desserts with exactly that kind of unfussy dinner party in mind. Ali Rosen, host of "Potluck with Ali Rosen," is just as big a fan-so much so that she just came out with a a whole cookbook dedicated to the topic, "Bring It! Tried and True Recipes for Potlucks and Casual Entertaining."
As Rosen writes in the preface, potluck recipes aren't just for dinner parties, they're "for picnics in the park when you want to make sure you have enough food to stay all day; for neighborly meals delivered to a family that needs a few weeks away from the stove after an illness or a new baby; for that holiday meal no one wants to volunteer to host; for block parties, school gatherings, or study groups; and even (or especially) for a weeknight meal at home. They are for building community around food."
Not only does she provide plenty of answers to the age-old question, "what can I bring?" but she also tackles the nitty-gritty of taking food on the go. In the excerpt below, Rosen offers sensible advice on the most common potluck issues, from storing and transporting to reheating and serving.
- For many hot dishes, it's best to let them fully cool down before you refrigerate them. You can heat up your fridge (and all of its contents) if you put a piping hot pot inside. You also don't want food to keep cooking: once you cover a hot dish tightly it will keep cooking from the stored heat (I can't emphasize this enough). So if you are storing a dish, let it cool down without a top before covering it and putting it in the fridge. For anything in a pot or saucepan, you can set it in a sink of ice water, halfway up the sides, to cool it quickly. (This could be risky with a baking dish if it's not very deep!)
- You don't need to have the perfect container to store food effectively. If you want to store something well, I learned a trick from acclaimed chef Michael White: first cover the dish with a layer of plastic wrap, tape it down, and then add aluminum foil on top. Just be sure, again, that the dish has cooled down completely.
- If you fully cook your dish and then dash out the door, hoping to deliver it still hot, keep in mind that it will continue cooking from that residual heat. If you then pop it in a warm oven upon arriving, it could quickly go from perfect to sad and overcooked. Often the better option is to parcook it and then let the dish cool down, reheating it once you arrive. If you are going to keep your dish warm for a prolonged period, just make sure you've factored that in as a bit of extra cooking time.
- Always make sure you have everything tightly covered, even if you're not going far. A sudden turn in a car or a slosh from a misstep can quickly turn into a disaster. The more tightly sealed your containers, the better they will move.
- You don't have to invest in bags that keep dishes hot or cold, but they can really work wonders. If you are toting dishes to meals frequently, an insulated bag may be a valuable investment.
- Never assume there is oven space at the temperature you need if you are going to a party. Several people may be bringing dishes to warm, and the host's single oven may soon become crowded. So ask ahead if you are bringing a dish that needs heat.
- Be careful with reheating: low and slow is usually the best mode of operating. If your dish is going from refrigerator to oven, it's good to leave it out for half an hour or so to come to room temperature before reheating. That way you're not adding too much extra heat to get it up to temperature. Every recipe is different, but the one constant is to take your time and plan ahead.
- If you wouldn't leave your milk or meat sitting out on the counter for six hours, don't leave your dinner sitting out. Use common sense. I like the idea of leaving dishes out for an open-ended meal-my favorite picnics are the ones where we sit and graze for hours-but if something would be better refrigerated then be mindful. It's always important to plan ahead and make sure you have thought through the timing. You can always bring a few frozen ice packs and tuck them under your dish to keep it cool.