Make-ahead entrées are a godsend during holiday entertaining season, but for some reason, it’s not the default technique for special-occasion meals. It really should be: not only is a day-old hearty braise easier on the host, but it actually tastes better than it does fresh from the oven.
When I was in school, I didn’t think of restaurant food in terms of single meals. I always tried to order dishes I could stretch into future meals because, like most university students, I was a little poor. The ability of any given dish to be a future meal has a lot of factors.
It turns out that, in many ways, stews and braises don’t finish cooking until they’ve cooled down. Tons of flavour-enhancing chemical reactions keep chugging along after you cut the heat: even more of the lactose in milk and cream converts to sweeter glucose; spices keep infusing everything they touch; vegetable starches continue breaking down into sugars; any lingering sharpness from alcoholic ingredients mellows out completely.
Just like resting a steak, allowing meat to completely cool in its braising liquid finishes the cooking process under the gentlest possible conditions—and makes it easy to skim excess fat.
Not all recipes are their best selves on day two or three, though. A good rule of thumb is that the richer, fattier, and more complex the dish, the better it’ll taste after it cools. Keep in mind, though, that delicate ingredients won’t survive a gradual cool-down. You’re better off adding that parsley, lemon zest, blanched asparagus or ribboned kale to the reheated dish just before it’s time to eat.