Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond Talks Holiday Meal Prep, Decorations, And Mashed Potatoes - Exclusive Interview

Ree Drummond, better known to her millions of fans as The Pioneer Woman, is perhaps more accurately referred to these days as The Very Busy Woman. Not only has she just released another new line of "Pioneer Woman" branded cookware and kitchen tools, seasonal decor, linens, and other home goods as part of a partnership with Walmart — this one is a winter/Christmas themed Holiday Collection — but she also released a new cookbook just this past fall. She continues to produce her popular Food Network show (yes, it's called "The Pioneer Woman") with much of that production is now literally an in-house, Drummond Family project, given the ongoing pandemic: "I've been filming my Food Network show with my kids, ever since quarantine, they've been filming it on iPhones, believe it or not!" Drummond said during another recent interview with Mashed. On top of it all, she's still a mom and husband with plenty to do beyond her work, and that includes prepping for the holidays and the feasting that comes with the season.

We talked to Ree Drummond about her favorite holiday dishes, why she finally embraced going big with the holiday decorations, how she and the Drummond gang minimize holiday stress while maximizing cheer, and how The Pioneer Woman manages to stay more than relevant in a culinary scene that's ever more crowded by new food blogs, TikTok hack videos, YouTube chefs, and a never-ending supply of "MasterChef."

Ree Drummond on planning ahead for the holidays

What is some of your best advice for people who are planning on hosting a holiday gathering this year?

I think probably there are two things I would say, and the first one is to do as much as you can ahead of time. I think we wait until the last minute for so many dishes. So plan your menu, plan things that you can make the day before. I have a mashed potato casserole dish that I make two days before Thanksgiving and Christmas meals and it just saves so much time on the day of the get together. Pre-build holiday platters and plates, charcuterie, and salads. You can put all those together earlier in the day and just try to minimize the things require last minute cooking and prep.

Then I would say the second part is let's not put pressure on ourselves. Don't be afraid to use cute holiday paper plates and napkins. Your guests and family will remember the laughs and the good times, they're not going to remember your picture-perfect table.

What are some of the mistakes that people often make when they're planning out that big holiday meal?

I would kind of echo [not putting pressure]. I've learned the hard way through the years that if you're hosting a pretty big gathering or making a big meal, that if you choose recipes that are all last minute, it's going to result in chaos and you don't want your guests to get that vibe. Again, my favorite thing to do is to make mashed potatoes ahead of time, start prepping veggies the day or two before the meal, measure ingredients, make pie crust ahead of time, put them in the freezer or fridge. My hope is that the day of the gathering, it's really about kind of assembling and baking things off and finishing. If you're doing casseroles, casseroles are amazing because you can make almost any casserole up to two days before and put it in the fridge unbaked, and then take it out a couple hours before the party to bring it to room temperature, and then bake it off, and they're almost better if you make them a couple days ahead of time and let them sit in the fridge and get more delicious.

The Pioneer Woman's must-have holiday dishes

What are a few of the holiday dishes that you always serve?

Oh gosh. All I think about is food around the holidays. I have a dish, burgundy mushrooms, that my mother-in-law taught me how to make, and it's basically in a stockpot you throw in two or three containers of white mushrooms, a whole bottle of red wine, a bunch of garlic, butter, some seasoning, and then you cook it for nine or ten hours. You have to try it. They are magical and I associate them with the month of December because they smell so good. 

And Eggs Benedict is something that my mom always made on Christmas morning, so I love any form of Eggs Benedict. I have an Eggs Benedict casserole on my website, which is kind of a fun, easy way to approach it if you have to serve several people. Cinnamon rolls are big. My mom and I always had a tradition of making cinnamon rolls and gifting them to neighbors. I like lasagna around Christmas, so I'm not afraid to whip up a couple of casserole pans of lasagna and then biscuits and gravy. That's a Christmas morning tradition for us.

And then what about the desserts? Whether favorites of the adults or the kids, what are the desserts that are always present?

Fudge is big. My father-in-law makes the best fudge ever and he makes 20 pans a year, so that's a big Christmas treat. I love bread pudding and that's something that's great for entertaining because it's best to assemble that early in the day or the day before and let the bread get all soaked and then bake it right before, making some kind of creamy whiskey sauce to go with bread pudding — that sounds really good for breakfast right now.

Easy side dishes amateur cooks will love

What are some of the absolute easiest side dishes for people to make with confidence, especially people who are more of an amateur chef?

Oh gosh, how many times during this interview am I going to say "mashed potatoes"? But what I love is to elevate mashed potatoes and maybe sauté some shallots, caramelize some shallots, and I put them in the bottom of the casserole dish and then dump the mashed potatoes on top, and then top the mashed potatoes with more of the caramelized shallots, and that's a really great way to elevate them. If you add enough stuff to mashed potatoes, butter, cream cheese, cream, it tastes like you are a French chef and that you really know what you're doing. 

I think a good mashed potato dish is the best thing to serve with anything, whether it's Turkey or prime rib or tenderloin. Then anything that can be in casserole form, just a classic broccoli cauliflower casserole with cheese, you can do just plain cheddar or Jack cheese, but you could also elevate it and do Gruyère or fontina. I think I'm big on casseroles around the holidays, probably because they're so easy and you can fill the fridge with them.

Ree talks decorating and holiday traditions

What are some of your favorite holiday decorating tips and decorating hacks?

It's funny because I used to be so understated with Christmas decorations. I would've put myself in the low percentile in terms of how much I would do. I always have had a big tree, but I just never really had filled my house with much decor. But in the past five, six years, I have decided that more is more. I think when my kids left home, I wanted them to come home from college and beyond, and really walk in and see that Christmas exploded in our house. I think one thing I'd say is have fun with it, don't take it too seriously. I definitely am more in the fun holiday decorating realm. I like things that have bright colors and fun, little sentiments and sayings. I used to be a little bit afraid of cluttering things and making things look like too much, but now I've totally turned over a new leaf. I'll put little holiday signs on basically every table. And it's such a short time of the year that I think I would encourage people just to go for it and have fun. More is more.

Are there any specific winter holiday traditions that you and your family always look forward to year after year?

One big holiday tradition for me is baking. Growing up, my mom and I made pans and pans and pans of cinnamon rolls. We'd put them in the foil round cake pans. They're basically the best cinnamon rolls on earth and neighbors and friends would just sit by the door and wait for us to show up with these rolls. We'd put them in foil pans and decorate [those], wrap them in bows. I've carried on that tradition, but now I like to actually bake them in decorative holiday pie dishes, ceramic pie dishes, and then gift the pie dish as part of the gift of the cinnamon rolls. In my line I have holiday pie pans that are pretty affordable, so it makes that gift definitely something in the realm of possibility. It's just kind of a special little touch. Like: "Here are the best rolls you've ever had, and keep the pan." I think that's a really fun way to gift something around the holidays.

How Ree Drummond designed her new Holiday Collection

How did you choose the items which are in the new Holiday Collection? What informed the design? What informed the specific items included?

Well, I definitely wanted it to reflect my life and my family's life during the holidays, so here's a lot of kitchen items, casserole dishes, pie dishes, gadgets that have a holiday Christmas theme. My life is really in the kitchen most of the time anyway, but definitely around the holidays. But also for me, I have to have color, personality, a little bit of whimsy and excitement with each item. There's absolutely no mistaking my holiday items for what they are. They're just a little happy explosion of color and personality. I think with every item, I wanted to be able to look at it and say, "That looks like a Pioneer Woman holiday item." I think it's such a cute collection.

And what are just a couple of your must-have kitchen tools or gadgets?

In terms of gadgets, I'm obsessed with my air fryer. I was a little late to the air fryer world and I sometimes resist new appliances, new gadgets, but once I got it, and once I started really understanding what you can do with an air fryer, I really am obsessed. And around the holidays, it's great, because you can get a package of puff pastry and cut it into squares and fill it with Brie and cranberry sauce, fold them up, and then just put them in the air fryer for four minutes and they turn into this beautiful little parcel that's just great for appetizers. I'm having fun with that. It's also great for reheating leftovers. People underestimate the power of leftovers in an air fryer. It really brings them back to life.

Then I can't emphasize enough the importance of having great knives whenever you're launching into a real big cooking episode. My knife set is really big in my kitchen. Good knives, an air fryer, a slow cooker around the holidays is essential of things like queso, always have a slow cooker full of queso and baskets of chips nearby. That'll satisfy any kid between the age of eight and 28.

How to manage holiday stress, according to Ree

What are some tips to minimize stress during holidays?

Oh gosh, I sound like a broken record, but prep ahead of time, the mise en plase. What I do when I'm planning a big meal is I have the recipes in front of me, or at least the list in front of me, and I go through each one and determine what can be done on day three ahead of time, day two ahead of time, and I map it out. I do the same thing for Thanksgiving and it makes the holiday meal and holiday gathering not just pleasant for me, but pleasant for my guests because I can talk, I can visit, they can help with simple things. Pre-make, pre-prep, plan. 

Again, you've got to just keep reminding yourself, especially after the last two years we've had, your family is going to remember how much fun these gatherings were. Sometimes if something goes wrong, if you overcook the prime rib — I mean, that's sad actually, I've done that before and it's not good — you can always laugh about holiday food mishaps, and baking the giblet bag in the turkeys is always a classic one, but don't stress yourself out. Have fun, not everything has to be perfect; being together, as we all would probably agree, is what it's all about these days.

How Ree Drummond stays more than relevant

You have long been a leading voice in the cooking at home space and remain relevant even as that space has become pretty crowded. So how do you stay ahead of it all?

Oh gosh, that's a great question. I think it's just been important for me to always stay true to who I am and what my cooking is and not try to be something I'm not in the food space. I've always definitely let my home life and family life inform the things that I cook, the food that I make. I also — and I hope it shows — I have so much passion for what I do, cooking, having my cooking shows, writing cookbooks. 

12 years after my first cookbook, I still love the whole process and hearing from people who are making the recipes in my cookbooks. I've been filming my Food Network show with my kids, ever since quarantine, they've been filming it on iPhones, believe it or not, and I think when I stop having fun and feeling passionate about it, I probably should pack it up because the passion I feel is sort of my fuel. I hope that shows, I hope that is reflected in what I do.

Ree on guilty eats, sweets, and Bobby Flay

Who is one chef you would love to have cook you dinner?

Oh gosh. Oh... Bobby Flay. It's a redhead thing, I guess.

What is one ingredient you can't live without?

Cheese. Of every kind. Yes, definitely cheese.

Do you have any guilty pleasure foods?

Yeah. I think any form of coffee-flavored ice cream or gelato, I cannot be trusted with it.

Check out the new Pioneer Woman Holiday Collection at Walmart and her latest cookbook "The Pioneer Woman Cooks―Super Easy!on Amazon.