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The Freezer Philosophy

by Nick

Definitely one of the top ten questions I get emailed to me or left in comments on posts is simply:

“Can this dish be frozen?!”

I try not to respond with a snark-ridden reply:

“NOPE!  This food is impervious to ice and freezing.  It will never freeze!”

Of course, all foods will technically freeze, but that doesn’t mean that you should freeze them all.

So I figured I would lay out my freezer philosophy.  What do I freeze and how do I do it?

What To Freeze

Any food will freeze and almost all foods can be frozen successfully assuming you do it correctly.  There’s a few guidelines that I like to use though when I’m considering freezing a food.

No Cans or Eggs – The two foods that you don’t want to freeze under any circumstances is anything canned and eggs in their shells.  When you freeze food they expand and you could end up with exploding cans and/or eggs.

Raw Meat Over Cooked Meat – It’s not bad to freeze cooked meat (I did for my NickRibs).  It freezes fine, but I think it does degrade faster than if you freeze the meat raw.  If I freeze meat that’s cooked, I try to use it within a few months.  Raw meat though can theoretically be frozen for years without issue assuming it’s packaged correctly.

Fresh is Best – I’ve seen people clean out their fridge and freeze all of the almost rotten vegetables thinking that it will extend their shelf life.  Technically it will, but when you thaw the food out, it’ll be gross.  If you’re freezing raw food, try to freeze it as early in its shelf life as possible.

This is why food manufacturers flash freeze vegetables as soon as they are picked.

No Emulsion Sauces – Some sauces freeze beautifully.  Anything stock-based will freeze fine.  Creamy sauces though that are a careful suspension of oil and water don’t freeze well.  Things like mayonnaise and hollandaise are better left in the fridge and then discarded.

No Fresh Greens – I’ve never actually tried this, but I’m pretty sure freezing fresh greens is a bad idea.  They will lose their crunch when you thaw them.  Things like lettuce, arugula, or raw spinach are better left out of the freezer.

Casseroles For the Win – Any baked casserole can almost definitely be frozen with very little quality loss.  Things like lasagna are made to be frozen.  In most cases you can freeze them before or after baking.

Stocks and Soups – Like casseroles, almost any stock or soup can be frozen perfectly.  I like to even freeze these in individual serving sizes so it makes it easy to thaw out just one meal.

Stick to Large Quantities – Personally, I don’t like to bother with one or two servings of a dish.  I’ve tried to freeze a small amount of something and I always forget about it and it ends up lost in the freezer maze.  When I have just a few servings of something, I store it in the fridge and just plan on using it within the week as leftovers.

How to Freeze

I think when most people ask me “Can I freeze it?” they want to know specifically how to freeze it.

If you find yourself freezing a lot of food, I highly recommend getting a vacuum pack sealer which removes all the air from the packaging and creates a really clean seal.  Food that is vacuum-sealed can stay frozen for years with almost no degradation.

I don’t freeze enough these days to warrant one of these guys, but I think if/when Betsy and I have kids, and I start cooking more in bulk, I’ll probably splurge for one.

Have no fear though.  You don’t need one of those fancy things to freeze food effectively.

Here’s the process I use:

1) Cool it Down.  Probably the most important step of freezing food is to cool it down before freezing it.  Under no circumstances should you ever put something that’s still hot, or even warm, in your freezer.  For one, it will heat up your freezer and possibly thaw out items around it which is very unsafe.  Secondly, it will take forever to freeze something that’s hot which could lead to a bacteria breeding ground.

You can either just leave the item at room temperature until it’s cool or, if it’s a liquid, you can submerge the liquid in a large bowl or pot with ice water in it.  The surrounding ice bath will rapidly cool the food.

2) Wrap it Well.  If you’re using plastic bags to freeze in, make sure they are specifically freezer-safe.  I usually go a step further and wrap my items prior to putting them in freezer safe bags.  Normally, I’ll wrap the food in plastic wrap, then in foil, then store them in freezer bags.  The goal is to keep as much air away from the food as possible.

3) Label It! Labeling is very important in the freezer world.  If you don’t label stuff well you’ll end up with rows and rows of random foil blocks.  It’ll be impossible to tell what anything is and you’ll end up not ever using the stuff.  A Sharpie marker is your friend.

4) Freeze it Fast. The faster you can freeze the food, the better off you’ll be.  If you can split up your food into smaller portions, it’ll freeze faster and also thaw faster.

Thaw It

Hopefully, if you’ve frozen something, you’ll eventually thaw the thing and actually eat it.  It’s my hypothesis that a lot of frozen food gets thrown away because it isn’t frozen correctly so the quality degrades far enough that it’s not worth eating.

Assuming you do freeze it correctly though, you’ll want to thaw it.  According to the USDA, there’s only three safe ways to thaw food that’s been frozen:

1) Fridge.  You can move frozen food to the fridge to thaw without worry.  This is the best way to thaw food in my opinion but depending on the size of what you are thawing, it will probably take a day or two to thaw.

2) Cold Water.  You can submerge your food in cold water until it’s thawed.  This will take a few hours most likely.  Don’t put your food in hot water.  That will actually start cooking it as it thaws and could cause bacteria to grow.

3) Microwave.  While I don’t love to thaw food in the microwave, if you do it slowly (low power) and carefully, it can be done with success.

Five Great Freezer Dishes

Here’s a few dishes I’ve posted over the years that are made to freeze:

The Nickrib - My take on the McDonald’s sandwich.  These reheat really well actually and are great for a hardy sandwich.

Breakfast Sandwiches – One of my more popular posts ever actually.  Instructions on how to quickly and easily make and freeze breakfast sandwiches.

Frozen Pizzas – If a food company can make decent frozen pizza, so can you.

Leftover  Bounty – This is what I did with my huge amount of turkey leftovers last year:  Turkey Burritos and Turkey Rice Soup.

Kidney Bean Soup – Most soups freeze perfectly, but this is one that Betsy and I froze and ate for months.  Just as good as on day one!

Your Tips and Dishes

I know there are more than a few Macheesmo readers out there who are freezing experts.  If you have tips for freezing food successfully or dishes that you think work great frozen and re-heated. LEAVE A COMMENT!

Photo by magnetisch.

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11 comments on “The Freezer Philosophy

  1. I wrap all my frozen stuff in Glad Press’n Seal (including casserole portions). Seals all the air out and then I put it in plastic bags.

    Cookies and cake slices are great when frozen (and it keeps me from eating them all up as soon as they are made…)

    I always have spaghetti sauce, chicken enchiladas, and pastistio (Greek lasagna) in the freezer

  2. My mom taught me the trick of sealing the freezer bag except for a space small enough to stick a straw. Then you use to straw to suck out all the air and quickly pull it out and seal the bag the rest of the way. It works better than it sounds, though of course a real vacuum sealer would work better. :)

    I don’t use it every time I freeze something, especially if I’m wrapping it as well, but it’s very handy for bags of fruit for smoothies or things like that. They last for a good while without much frost on them.

  3. Not sure you have all your facts straight, Nick. According to the laws of physics, if you put something hot in a freezer, it will freeze faster than if you put it in the fridge and then in the freezer. This is because the rate at which the temperature will change is proportional to the temperature difference between the object and its surroundings. What you are saying is that when your house is the hottest, we should not turn the AC on to max, but only medium for the quickest cool.

    BUT, you should not put hot food in your freezer because it will likely heat up stuff around it, which is bad, thus leading to premature spoilage. It is a good idea to let things cool down a little bit before sticking things in the fridge and then move them from the fridge to the freezer to prevent the other foods in the freezer from warming up.

    When freezing things, you can also consider the thermal mass of the object you are freezing: water (broth soups) can hold a lot of heat and take a lot of energy to cool; a noodle casserole is both less dense and contains less thermal mass (unless it is in a cast-iron pan) and might be a good candidate for going straight from gently cooling on the counter to the freezer.

    In addition, you might want to consider how full your freezer is. A full freezer will have a lot harder time cooling things than an empty freezer because of the air circulation. Also, one encrusted with ice will have a hard time cooling things. So keep those freezers clean and don’t over stuff them. (Come to think of it, it is about time to defrost my freezer… urrggg.)

    One last comment in my small essay here. Most casseroles freeze, I agree, but a few weeks ago, we thawed one out to find that the vegetables in it (zucchini and tomato sauce) had decided to separate from their water and we ended up with a very WET casserole. It was kind of a veggie lasagna with thin slices of zucchini instead of noodles. That one will never again get frozen. Don’t be afraid to try freezing new things, but do be aware that some will come out a little worse for wear.

    1. Thanks for the comment Vernon. Just to clarify, I don’t say to ever put warm food in the fridge for the same reason you shouldn’t put it in the freezer (it’ll warm up the stuff around it which is bad).

      I recommend cooling food either at room temp or in an ice bath.

      I see your point though that technically if you did put warm food in the freezer, it would freeze faster than if you let it cool and then put it in the freezer. Can’t deny physics!

      Thanks for the tips!

  4. A few months ago there was an article in the NYTimes Dining section about how the Dept of Agriculture sponsored a study that proved that you can safely thaw frozen meats (small cuts like chicken breasts and steaks, but not large chunks of meat like roasts) in a hot water bath. Shocking, I know! I haven’t been brave enough to try it myself yet (old habits die hard), but I’m going to link the article so you and your readers can see it if you’re interested.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/08/dining/a-hot-water-bath-for-thawing-meats-the-curious-cook.html

  5. One thing I would add is that raw sausage can go rancid in the freezer. I made that mistake last year with a batch of chili, it kept me out of commission for a good bit of SXSW and wasted a bunch of chili. It has something to do with the oils in the spices reacting with the fat even when frozen, or something.

  6. Another trick that I picked up somewhere to use with freezer bags – Food in bag, bag dipped in water almost to the top of the bag and seal. the water will displace the air and create a pretty good seal.

  7. Number one tip? Make sure you know your labelling system. We found this out when my Granny, not well-known for her cooking prowess, served a pie that she’d stored in the freezer. It turned out that the “S” she’d made out of pastry stood for strawberries, and not steak.

  8. This is an awesome article. I am a Registered Dietitian and I teach nutrition classes weekly. This weeks topic is menu planning and I am teaching how to freeze foods. This was a great resource. Thank you!

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