On occasion we all buy too much food. We buy because something looks particularly tasty or because we think we'll be eating at home and then plans change. Many foods can be frozen with very little degradation in quality. Rather than waiting until those uneaten foods become a science experiment, here are some tips about freezing foods so you can enjoy them at a later date.
When freezing foods, there are five simple rules to remember.
1. Label EVERYTHING.
It may seem obvious today that a bag contains 2 cooked chicken breasts, but 3 months from now or even next week it will be unidentifiable. Include a description of the food, the date and if possible, the quantity (either weight or number of servings.)
2. When possible, freeze foods flat.
Put the food in a freezer bag, squeeze out as much air as possible, and then lay the bag on its side on a baking sheet. This works for liquids as well as solids. Once the contents are frozen, you can stack the bags in tidy rows to minimize space requirements.
3. Air is the enemy of frozen foods.
Your best bet is to either buy a vacuum sealer which sucks out all the air or use sturdy plastic zippered bags that allow you to squeeze out most of the air before freezing.
4. Save and freeze even small portions of food.
Even if your leftovers consist of a single slice of bacon, save it! Put these remnants in freezer bags and just keep adding to the bags when you get more of the same. The next time you pull a steaming baked potato from the oven you'll be thrilled when you open the freezer and discover that one little strip of bacon to crumble over the top.
5. When you're cooking, make extra and plan on freezing some for later.
Time is short, so if you make the effort to cook make sure you can enjoy the results at least twice. Knowing that you're going to be saving things for later also takes away the incentive to help yourself to seconds. Which would you rather do - stuff yourself now or have a complete pre-cooked meal waiting for you another day?
Now that we've established the rules, here are suggestions for freezing 10 of the most common and most perishable foods in your fridge.
Fresh, raw meat should be wrapped really well with plastic wrap, using two or three layers if necessary to keep the meat protected from the air. Freeze the meat on or before its 'best by' date so you'll have a day or two to eat it once it's thawed.
First off, buy seafood that is either fresh or frozen; avoid buying seafood that is labeled 'previously frozen'. Freezing fresh seafood is okay and keeping frozen seafood frozen a little bit longer is fine, but re-freezing thawed seafood will adversely affect the quality. Like meat, wrap fish well with plastic wrap. For shrimp and scallops and the like, use plastic baggies and squeeze out as much air as possible.
Well-wrapped soft and hard cheeses freeze pretty well, but in-between cheeses like Monterey Jack and cheddar should first be grated before being frozen in plastic zippered bags.
4. Extra stock or wine
Whether you make your own stock or buy the boxed variety, don't waste any of it. Fill up ice cube trays or other small containers (leave a little room at the top for expansion) with your precious liquids like stock and wine and they'll come in handy for sauce making.
5. Fresh herbs
Fill an ice cube tray with chopped herbs and top each compartment with a little water. Once frozen, you can store the herb cubes in plastic bags. Another idea is to make pesto sauce with extra basil, cilantro or parsley (click here for the basic recipe). Place the pesto in small zippered bags and freeze them flat. You can also mix fresh herbs with softened butter (see video, "Compound Butter") and freeze it for later use as a quick sauce (once melted) or a spread for bread.
6. Leafy greens
Greens such as spinach, kale, arugula, chard, and collards should be blanched before freezing. Just plunge them in a large pot of boiling water for a few seconds and then drain and blot dry. Freeze in plastic zippered bags and use them in cooked dishes such as omelets, stir-fries and gratins.
Vegetables should be prepped for use before freezing. Onions and carrots should be peeled and chopped, beans should be trimmed, celery should be sliced and broccoli and cauliflower should be cut into florets. Many vegetables also benefit from blanching before freezing. Green beans, carrots, asparagus, snow peas, broccoli and cauliflower should be plunged in boiling water for 3 to 5 minutes, drained and blotted dry and then frozen. Vegetables that contain a lot of water such as celery, mushrooms and zucchini should be sliced and frozen raw, preferably in airtight bags.
8. Citrus fruits
Squeeze the juice from oranges, lemons, limes and such and freeze it in ice cube trays. Once frozen, the citrus cubes can be stored in a zippered plastic bag.
9. Other Fruits
Just before bananas turn completely dark, peel them, wrap them well in plastic wrap, and freeze them. Frozen bananas are perfect for smoothies and banana bread. For berries, place them on a baking tray and freeze them. Once frozen, put them in a freezer bag and remove them as needed (smoothies, cobblers, ice cream, etc.) Tropical fruits and melons should be peeled and cut into chunks before freezing; treat them as you would berries. Apples and pears should be cooked before freezing. Make a compote and keep it on hand for a quick dessert.
Fresh tomatoes can simply be quartered, placed on a baking tray and frozen. Once frozen, the skin will peel off and you can store the quarters in a zippered plastic bag. Use them for making any dish that calls for canned tomatoes.
Freezing foods before they go bad will save you time (one less trip to the grocery store!) and money (no more wasted food!). When planning your meals, plan to eat out of the freezer at least one day per week. You'll be amazed at the dishes you can concoct when you have a variety of ingredients already on hand. Bon appetit!