When it comes to storing food, there’s so much you can freeze, much of which you may never have considered. But in these uncertain times, when we’re stocking up so we don’t have to venture to the store too often, it’s good to know how to best preserve what we’ve bought.
The first step, though, is to look at what you’ve already got in your freezer. Reach way in the depths. Pull out ice packs, which you may not need for a while, along with anything else taking up unnecessary space. Next, bring all the old bags of frozen peas, containers of chicken stock and half-eaten pints of ice cream to the front, perhaps in a basket, so you can easily find them. These are your “use first” items.
Now that you’ve got room, it’s time to start filling up your freezer. The less air your frozen food is exposed to, the better: If you have a vacuum sealer, use it to help extend the life of your frozen foods and to reduce the amount of space they take up. Or use airtight plastic containers, freezer storage bags or two layers of plastic wrap or foil. Just avoid glass: It can shatter as liquids stored inside it expand.
CAN I FREEZE MEAT?
Definitely, raw, or cooked.
Raw meat generally keeps better, for three to six months. Remove the supermarket wrappings, which are probably not airtight, and rewrap tightly. If you’re saving chicken or other bones to make stock, they will keep frozen at least six months. Store them in a plastic bag.
The best way to thaw raw meat is slowly, overnight in the fridge. The smaller the package, the more quickly it defrosts. So wrap steaks, chicken parts and burger patties individually, not stuck together.
A rule of thumb is that you’ll need 24 hours to defrost every 4 to 5 pounds of meat, and note that if you want to marinate still-frozen meat or chicken, you can. Season it as you like, then put it in the refrigerator uncovered to thaw and marinate at the same time.
Precooked braised or stewed meats and chilis can be thawed at room temperature, the stove or in the microwave, as long as you heat them up until piping hot before serving. And if you’re using a pressure cooker, you can use it to cook still-frozen meat. It will take longer to reach pressure, but all of that time is hands-off.
What about freezing fish and other seafood?
Much of the seafood we consume in the United States has been previously frozen. So if you plan to freeze your fish and shrimp, try to buy it already frozen, and put it directly in the freezer. You can freeze fish and shrimp that have been thawed, but they lose quality with each round of freezing-and-thawing.
If you’re lucky enough to get truly fresh fish, it can be frozen for up to six months. Previously frozen and thawed fish lasts for about half that amount of time.
Defrost fish and seafood in the refrigerator. Unless you’re dealing with a very large chunk of fish, most fish and seafood will thaw within four to 12 hours.
If you’re looking to freeze shellfish other than shrimp, you’ll want to cook them first. Steam mussels or clams and remove from their shells, freeze, then use in chowders and soups.
CAN I FREEZE BREAD? BAKED GOODS?
Both freeze perfectly when tightly wrapped. Instead of whole bread loaves, I keep a bag of sliced bread in the freezer so I can pull out one or two pieces as I need them. Pop them right in the toaster, and they will toast up perfectly.
Cakes, cookies and baked goods freeze best without icing, glazes or chocolate coating, which can get sticky when thawed. Buttercream is an exception, it freezes wonderfully well. You can also freeze pie and tart dough, and most cookie doughs. Some people like to freeze balls of cookie dough, then bake up a few cookies when the urge strikes.
WHAT ABOUT EGGS?
Crack them first. (Shells will crack as their insides expand.) They’ll keep about 12 months.
Freeze eggs in ice cube trays, using one per cube, so you can pop each one out as needed. Once frozen, you can transfer the cubes to freezer bags for longer storage.
Eggs may also be separated into yolks and whites before freezing. Whisk yolks with a pinch of salt, or they’ll thicken and turn into a gel when thawed.
CAN I FREEZE FRUIT AND VEGGIES?
The good news is that any frozen fruit will keep its flavor. The bad news is that most will lose their texture, turning soggy and soft when they thaw (cranberries are the exception). But frozen fruit is perfectly fine for smoothies and for cooking.
To keep pieces from clumping together, lay them out on a plate or pan, not touching, and freeze until solid. Then you can slide them into a freezer bag for longer storage.
Bananas freeze very well and can be thawed and made into banana bread, or blended while still frozen into a creamy sorbet, or into smoothies. Peel them and freeze whole or in slices.
For citrus, it’s best to squeeze out the juice and freeze that, rather than whole fruit. Grated citrus zest, covered in a little of the juice, also freezes well, though it will never be as flavorful as freshly grated.
As for cooked fruit? It freezes very well, whether you’re chilling poached pears or applesauce.
You can also freeze almost any vegetable with excellent results. But most are best cooked or blanched before being frozen, especially leafy greens like spinach, cabbage and kale. Mushrooms, eggplant, squashes and onions are better sauteed before freezing. And for winter squash, I like to roast and puree before freezing.
Tomatoes can be frozen raw and used for sauces after thawing. But they take up less space in the freezer if you cook them down a bit first. Canned tomatoes and tomato paste freeze extremely well.
Vegetables that don’t freeze well include potatoes (which get mushy; roasted sweet potatoes are fine though) and any kind of lettuce. And while you can freeze grated garlic and ginger, they will lose much of their pungency when thawed.
WHAT ABOUT STOCKS OR SOUPS? BEANS?
Stocks, soup and cooked beans freeze well for six to nine months. Just be sure to label them with the dates, so you’ll always know what is what and which container to use first. Once frozen they tend to look the same.
Cooked grains like rice and quinoa can be frozen, but expect them to be a bit mushy when thawed. Polenta, on the other hand, freezes reasonably well.
CAN I FREEZE DAIRY PRODUCTS?
Yes, including milk, cream, cream cheese, sour cream and yogurt. There’s one caveat: They may turn slightly grainy or lumpy when thawed. Smooth them out in a blender. Or use them, lumps and all, in baking or cooking.
Of all the dairy products, heavy cream freezes best. It will even still whip up after thawing, though maybe not quite as fluffily. Cream cheese will not be as smooth, but can still be used for cheesecakes, cookies and other baking projects.
Hard and semifirm cheeses like cheddar shouldn’t be frozen, as they lose flavor and turn crumbly and dry when thawed. The exception is grated cheese, which can be frozen and used for cooking. I keep my grated Parmesan in the freezer, and it works well, especially in baked dishes like lasagna.
WHAT ABOUT FREEZING WHOLE MEALS?
You can’t go wrong with soups, stews, meat and vegetable braises (though avoid those containing potatoes). Try freezing them in tightly sealed plastic bags, lying flat. They’ll stack well and save space. Baked pastas like lasagna, and pizza, quiches and tarts also freeze well.