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Freezer tipsThe freezer just may be the most underappreciated appliance in your kitchen. Yes, it makes ice cubes and stores frozen yogurt (both good things), but it can also be the answer to many of your dinnertime conundrums.

By taking the time to make double or triple batches of some of your favorite freezer-friendly meals, you’ll always have dinner (or breakfast and lunch) on hand. It’s also a great way to preserve bumper crops of fresh, in-season foods like just-picked blueberries and bell peppers. Plus, the freezer is one of your kitchen’s best money-saving devices: See a sale on organic chicken? Buy extra and stash it in the freezer. Leftover bread? Freeze it and make breadcrumbs down the road. Extra soup or spaghetti sauce from dinner? Stick it in the freezer to reheat later in the week.

But while the freezer may be a cook’s best friend, there are some rules of the road. From storage strategies to defrosting details to pointers on which foods freeze well, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about using this common appliance.

Get Organized

Have you ever put something in your freezer and completely forgotten that it was in there? If your freezer seems like a black hole, it’s time to get organized. One easy way to get started: Keep masking tape and a marker in the kitchen for easy labeling of containers, recommends Michelle Dudash, RD, a chef, and the author of the cookbook Clean Eating for Busy Families. Before sticking the container in the freezer, write the name of the food and the date that you’re freezing it. “Every month or so I go through the freezer and see what needs to be used soon. I’ll either pull it out for using the next day or plan the next meal around it,” Dudash says.

Bye-Bye, Burn

You know freezer burn when you see it: brown, discolored meat or legions of tiny ice crystals on your bread or chicken. This scourge of the deep freeze can make food completely unappealing. Help avoid the burn by packaging your food as airtight as
you can.

For meat and poultry, Dudash recommends freezing them in their original packaging.When it comes to freezing foods you’ve cooked or prepped, look to reusable containers. “One of the great surprises for a lot of people is that you can freeze in glass. It’s healthy, because you’re not exposing your foods to any of the chemicals commonly found in plastics, and eco-friendly since you’re using a reusable container,” says Sara Snow, natural living expert and author of Sara Snow’s Fresh Living. Glass jars and storage containers are available in a variety of sizes. Fill pint-size jars with fruit or sauces. Quart-size jars often do the trick for soups. Separate meat or fish patties with parchment paper and pack in larger containers, a method that also works with cookies, brownies, and muffins. For breads and larger baked goods like cakes, wrap in parchment paper, then recycled aluminum foil. A casserole can be frozen in its baking dish covered with recycled aluminum foil.

Clean ice cube trays work like a charm for liquids and pastes like pesto, pureed chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, and extra coffee or chicken stock. Freeze until solid, then pop the cubes out and place them in a storage container. You’ll be prepared the next time you need a bit of stock for a pan sauce, ice for your iced coffee, or pesto for your child’s pasta.

Freeze the Season

If you love strawberries and other warm-weather fruit and still want to eat seasonally, your freezer can be a huge help. During the summer months, stock up on fruit. Spread them on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet and freeze until solid. Transfer to a glass storage container and freeze for up to 12 months. Vegetables freeze well too, but most should be blanched (cooked in boiling water) for two minutes first to preserve their color, flavor, and texture. Drain and dry well before freezing in the same method used for the fruit. This way you’ll have a taste of summer (or fall!) all year round. Bonus: Frozen produce retains all the nutrients of its fresh counterparts.

Defrosting Dos and Don’ts

Once you know what to freeze and how to freeze it, the next step is defrosting safely and smartly. Foods that will take more than two hours to defrost should not be defrosted on the countertop—by the time the center is thawed, the outer layers will be warm and vulnerable to bacterial growth. According to the USDA there are three ways to defrost safely: in the refrigerator, in the microwave, and in cold water.

To retain top quality in your frozen foods, thawing in your refrigerator is your best bet. The amount of time food takes to defrost will depend on its size and your refrigerator’s temperature. For most raw meat, poultry, and fish, place it in the refrigerator 36 hours before you want to eat it, or the morning of the day before you will prepare the food for dinner. Stuck an hour before dinner desperately wanting to use a pound of frozen ground turkey? Place the turkey in a zip-top bag, submerge it in a large bowl of cold water, and you’ll have defrosted turkey in about 45 minutes.

Microwaves work in a pinch, especially for soups, sauces, and stews, but avoid defrosting meat and poultry in the microwave. The meat will defrost unevenly, affecting the quality. Some foods can go directly from freezer to oven, like casseroles and pasta dishes like lasagna. So start with the recipes featured here and get cooking, labeling, and freezing. You’ll save time, money, and, just maybe, your sanity.

Frozen in Time

The quality of food will start to suffer if it’s frozen too long. Here’s a quick guide courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA):

  • Raw steaks or roasts – 4 to 12 months
  • Raw ground meat – 3 to 4 months
  • Raw poultry – 9 months (12 months for whole)
  • Soups and stews – 2 to 3 months
  • Casseroles – 2 to 3 months

Freezer-Friendly Foods

Check out these three tasty recipes, perfect for freezing!

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