Cook for a Crowd with Ease

large mixing bowls on top of the cabinet

Large mixing bowls

Reader Sarah writes:

I read with great interest your planning and preparation for your amazing Bar Mitzvah for 35 people.  I think that it might be helpful if you gave your readers the “lay of the land” with respect to your kitchen.  For example, how many ovens, refrigerators, and freezers do you have and are they extra large? In addition, you seem to be working with the crème de la crème of food processors.  Could someone feasibly accomplish your set of tasks with a lesser Kitchenaid?  Finally, what size pots do you have?  While I cook a fair amount, I am do not believe that I own the pots necessary for this kind of meal preparation.  Frankly, I am not certain what size pot(s) one would need to cook cholent (Sabbath stew) for 35.  I am also wondering how much blech space you have.  [Note: A blech is a metal tray placed over burners, used for keeping food warm over the sabbath.]

Sarah, thanks for sending your question. The thought of cooking for so many people is intimidating!


You’re correct that having and well-equipped kitchen makes things a lot easier. I have a large family and have invested in a good amount of equipment over the years. On the other hand, every kitchen has space and equipment limitations, and every home chef has limited amounts of time, energy and expense. There are many techniques for getting around these limits. Let’s address the issues one at a time.

  • Ovens. If you are using your oven for cooking and baking, you can fill it up again and again. Ideally, you’ll have pans that take up the maximum amount of space. If you are talking about reheating, hotplates may be more practical than a blech. I’ll address that below.
    I have a double oven, but the ovens do not work at the same time. The larger one is still small by American standards. The smaller one can fit two large trays that came with the oven, as long as I don’t fill them too high. While I can fit four whole chickens on one tray, the second tray won’t then fit. Oven space is usually less of a limitation than time, as you can refill the oven again and again. This is assuming that you have space to store the cooked food until your event.
  • Refrigerators and freezers. I have one large refrigerator, and it couldn’t keep the food cool enough during the hot summer.  I wish I had put food in the synagogue’s refrigerator. I do have a stand-alone freezer. Here are lots of tips: I Have No Room in My Refrigerator! and Ten Things You Should Know about Freezing for a Crowd.
  • Food processor. I do have a large one, but that is really not necessary. You can process or grate in batches, then dump into a large bowl and mix again at the end. Even challah dough can be kneaded in batches, although I usually do large batches of dough by hand. Even the largest food processor can’t do everything.
  • Bowls. Plastic bowls of different sizes can be very useful when you have a small processor. I use mine for mixing salads, casseroles, kugels (vegetable puddings), or dough. Try to keep at least one very large bowl, of at least 14 liters (quarts). Bonus if it has a cover, like the pink one in the picture that lives on top of a bathroom cabinet.
  • Pots. It’s difficult to make very large meals without at least one large pot. Garage sales are likely to have a few, or you may be able to borrow from friends. If you have the burner space, split the soup into two smaller pots to halve serving time (with help and an extra ladle). Other foods can be transferred from the pot to aluminum trays for heating, so you can save the large pot for the cholent (stew). I used a 14-liter pot for the cholent, to serve 35. Another option is to make everything in large aluminum trays in the even, including cholent. But the cost of heavy-duty disposable trays will add up.
    If you have four pots, four electric or gas burners, and an oven with space for two trays, you can cook six things at once (although some might be small amounts). A crock pot or electric pot increases your yield. If you schedule carefully, you can finish with 2-3 prepping and cooking sessions over a few days or weeks.
  • Reheating and keeping food warm. I own both a large and a small electric hotplate, that can each hold several pots or trays of food. Perhaps you can borrow one or two. Depending on the time of year, plan the menu so that fewer items require heating. For instance, serving cold fish as an appetizer instead of hot soup saves on heating time.
  • Electrical power. Electricity and electrical outlets are another limitation to consider. Not every kitchen is equipped to have the oven, air-conditioner, dishwasher, refrigerator, two or three hotplates, a hot water urn, and a slow cooker operating simultaneously. Be sure to test in advance by running all of your equipment at once.

To summarize, plan your menu with your limitations in mind. I suggest starting backward.

  • How will you store leftovers, and in what? Would you rather distribute them to your guests? This link may be helpful: Estimating Quantities.
  • On the day of the event, how will you heat the food and keep it warm? What containers will maximize that space, and what can they contain? What utensils will you use for serving?
  • How will you set the tables, serve, clear, and clean up? Do you need to hire help? Individual portions are impressive, but time-consuming. It’s easier to slice a cake than to make individual tarts.
  • Schedule cooking times carefully, so that none of your pots or cooking spaces is doing double-duty. Clean up as you go. Try to prepare vegetables on one day and cook the next. Cholent should be cooked on Friday to save space. See my Cooking Spreadsheet.
  • Schedule shopping trips the day before vegetable preparation.
  • Are any of the guests willing to bring food? If they live nearby, ask for salads since they are best prepared at the last minute. Desserts are also an easy dish to assign. And if you have a kosher bakery or caterer in town, that can also be an option for some items.
  • Plan very, very carefully. Write down every ingredient, utensil, and chore. Build in extra time for emergencies, and include your children as much as possible.

Mazal tov and enjoy!

You may find these related posts helpful:

A Look at an Efficient Cooking Session

Cook Fresh or Freeze in Bulk?

11 Tips for Painless Kitchen Cleanup

9 Tips for Simple Entertaining

Comments

  1. Georgina Wheeler says:

    Thank you so much, I’m learning cooking and these are really helpful.

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