Can’t eat all the green beans growing in your garden? No time to fry the fish in your fridge? Lunch leftovers languishing? There’s no need to let excess food go to waste, as long as there’s room in your freezer. Most foods still taste good if they’re frozen, then thawed even a few months later—if you freeze and thaw properly.
Certain strategies apply to freezing almost any type of food…
Freeze food while it’s fresh. People often wait until food has nearly expired to freeze it—which guarantees it will taste like it’s past its prime when thawed.
Freeze food in freezer bags, freezer paper or reusable rigid containers designed specifically for the freezer. These do a better job than other packaging at keeping out air. Zip-top bags specifically designed for the freezer are made from thicker plastic than other zip-top bags, for example, which makes them much less likely to crack, tear or otherwise allow air to leak in. Air is the enemy of frozen food, causing dehydration and “freezer burn.” Press excess air out of freezer bags before sealing, and pack rigid freezer containers completely full. Better yet, use a vacuum sealer to enclose foods before freezing. Exception: When freezing food that has high water content, such as fruit or a sauce, leave some open space in the package so that the bag or container doesn’t burst when it expands as the water inside turns into ice.
Label and date frozen foods. Unmarked frozen food packages can be a challenge to identify…and you don’t want to waste food simply because you can’t tell what it is.
Set your freezer temperature no higher than 0°F. Food freezes slower at higher temperatures, leading to larger ice crystals that can rupture cells and damage texture.
Don’t load lots of not-yet-frozen food into a freezer at the same time. This can cause freezer temperatures to temporarily climb, causing food to freeze slowly.
Defrost food in the refrigerator. Food defrosts very slowly in the fridge—and that increases the odds that moisture from melting ice crystals will be reabsorbed into food, reviving its former flavor and texture. If you don’t have time for refrigerator defrosting, alternatives include defrosting in the microwave and/or defrosting in cold water. If you defrost in cold water, change the water as often as necessary to ensure that it remains cold. For safety reasons, never defrost at room temperature.
Freezing Meat, Fish, Poultry and Dairy
When possible, freeze meat, fish and poultry raw rather than cooking it first, which may result in an off-putting “warmed over” flavor. Keep in mind that refreezing previously frozen and thawed food can harm quality—that is, flavor and texture. Food remains safe as long as it stays solidly frozen, but the quality can suffer over long periods.
Fish: If fresh fish will be consumed within a few months, wrap well and freeze. If possible, wrap tightly in a clinging plastic, then overwrap with freezer wrap. Assuming your freezer is set to 0°F, frozen fish ranging from fatty fish such as salmon and tuna to leaner, flakier fish such as flounder and cod should taste fine for up to three months. Some shellfish, such as shrimp and king crab, can last longer than three months, but lobster tail meat lasts just two to four weeks.
Poultry: Don’t stuff whole birds before freezing. Wrap giblets separately from the rest of the bird. For best flavor and texture, whole frozen birds should be consumed within one year…pieces within nine months…giblets and ground poultry within four months.
Red meat: Whole cuts of frozen red meat should be consumed within 12 months…ground meat within four months…sliced deli meat within two to three months. If the meat is packed in wrapping from the market, leave it in this, but put the package in a tightly sealed freezer bag as well—the plastic wrap used by markets does not keep out air very well, and the meat might become freezer-burned in as little as a month.
Less freezer friendly: Ham and bacon should not be frozen for more than one to two months—their high salt content and fat can lead to rancidity if they’re frozen longer. Sour cream, yogurt and buttermilk lose their smooth texture when frozen. Eggs in the shell freeze poorly but freezing often is not necessary—eggs can last a month in the fridge.
The secret to successfully freezing most veggies is to blanch them first. Blanching—briefly boiling or steaming—inactivates enzymes in vegetables that otherwise would cause them to become tough, discolored and/or oddly flavored over time. Let vegetables dry after blanching but before freezing. Some common vegetables…
Asparagus: Blanch two to four minutes, depending on stalk size. Consume within five months.
Beets: Rather than blanch these, boil until tender before freezing. Consume within eight months.
Brussels sprouts: Remove the coarse outer leaves, then blanch for three to five minutes, depending on size. Consume within 12 months.
Carrots: Blanch small whole carrots for five minutes. Large carrots should be diced, sliced or stripped, then blanched for two minutes. Consume within 12 months
Cauliflower: Break into one-inch pieces, then blanch for three minutes. Consume within 12 months.
Corn on the cob: Blanch for seven to 11 minutes depending on size. Consume within eight months.
Green beans, snap beans and wax beans: Blanch for three minutes. Consume within eight months.
Green peas: Shell, then blanch for one-and-a-half minutes. Consume within 12 months.
Zucchini: Cut into half-inch slices then blanch for three minutes. Consume within 12 months. Zucchinis contain a lot of water, so they tend to be too mushy for grilling once thawed but still good in soup or muffins.
Don’t bother thawing most vegetables—simply cook from frozen. Take care not to overcook—remember that the veggies were partially cooked by the blanching process. Exception: Corn on the cob should be partially thawed before cooking so the thick cob isn’t still cold after cooking.
Less freezer friendly: High-water content vegetables such as lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, celery and radishes become limp and watery when thawed.
Fruits that freeze particularly well without sugar or syrup include blueberries, cranberries, currants, gooseberries, raspberries and rhubarb.
However, the best way to preserve the texture and flavor of most fruit is to freeze it in sugar or syrup. In general, syrup is better if the fruit will be consumed raw…sugar if it will be used in recipes. Syrup can significantly affect recipes.
If you opt for syrup, dissolve two-and-three-quarter cups of sugar in four cups of boiling water, creating a 40% syrup…cool this syrup…then use just enough to cover the fruit to be frozen. If packing in sugar, sprinkle sugar over the fruit and mix gently until the sugar dissolves. Consume fruit within 12 months if frozen in syrup or sugar…within three to six months if frozen without these.
Some common fruits…
Apples: Dissolve one-half teaspoon of ascorbic acid in three tablespoons of water, and sprinkle over sliced apples, then pack and freeze. If desired, before packing sprinkle with one-half cup of sugar per quart of apple slices. If packing in syrup, slice apples into cold syrup and add one-half teaspoon of crystalline ascorbic acid per quart of syrup.
Bananas: These can be frozen whole …or peel them and mash thoroughly, mixing in one teaspoon of lemon juice per cup of mashed banana, then pack and freeze—no sugar or syrup required.
Berries: With firm berries, such as blueberries, elderberries and huckleberries, steam for one minute, immediately cool in cold water, then pack and freeze either in syrup or unsweetened. With soft berries, such as blackberries, raspberries, boysenberries and loganberries, remove any underripe berries, then pack and freeze in syrup, sugar or unsweetened. Strawberries also can be frozen separately on a tray, then quickly transferred to a freezer bag or container when frozen. This will lead to more air in the package and somewhat quicker deterioration, but some people consider it worthwhile so the strawberries are not frozen into a block.
Melon: Remove seeds, then slice, cube or ball. Pack in 30% syrup—one-and-three-quarter cups of sugar dissolved in four cups of water. Melon also can be frozen unsweetened, but this will be best if it is served before completely thawed.
Serve fruit promptly after thawing in the fridge, or it could become soft and dark. Thawing in the microwave is also fine if the fruit will be used in a recipe. Sugar-packed fruit thaws faster than syrup-packed fruit.