Wondering how you can make the most of your freezer and your food? Melissa Clark can help.
The pantry is all well and good for laying in non perishables. But what about your freezer?
Whether it's a tiny top-of-the-fridge box in your kitchen, or a commodious separate chest freezer in the garage, organising and stocking it wisely is the key to keeping the greatest variety of ingredients on hand.
The first step, though, is to look at what you've got. Is that unlabelled container chocolate sauce or black bean soup? Thaw it and use it, or throw it out to make room for the new.
Then, reach way in the depths. Pull out any ice packs, which you may not need at the moment. Put them in a drawer for another time, 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 so you can easily find them. If you can get a basket to store these "use first" items, all the better.
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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. But you can also 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.
When it comes to storing food, there's so much you can freeze, much of which you may never have considered. You may have always wondered whether you could even freeze some products. With that in mind, we cobbled together some frequently asked questions, and answered them below.
Q: Can I freeze meat?
A: Definitely! You can freeze it raw, or cooked.
Raw meat generally keeps better, for three to six months. Always remove the meat from the supermarket wrappings, which are probably not airtight, and re wrap tightly. If you're saving chicken or other bones to make stock, they will keep in the freezer for 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 rather than stuck together.
A rule of thumb is that you'll need 24 hours to defrost every 1-2kgs of meat, so make sure to take that whole chicken out of the freezer early the day before you want to cook it. 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.
Braised and 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 an electric 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.
Q: What about freezing fish and other seafood?
A: 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.
Q: Can I freeze bread? And baked goods?
A: You can freeze both: Breads and most baked goods freeze perfectly when they are 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 will 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 form balls of cookie dough, freeze them, then bake up a few when the cookie urge strikes.
Q: Can I freeze dairy products?
A: Yes, you can freeze dairy products, including milk, cream, cream cheese, sour cream and yogurt. There's one caveat: They may lose their emulsification and turn slightly grainy or lumpy when thawed. But you can smooth them out in a blender. (That's true of milk and cream, too.) Or use them, lumps and all, in baking or cooking.
Of all the dairy products, heavy cream freezes the best. It will even still whip up after thawing, though maybe not quite as fluffily. Cream cheese will not be as silky smooth upon thawing, but can still be used for cheesecakes, cookies, Danish fillings and other baking projects.
Hard and semi firm cheeses like Cheddar shouldn't be frozen as they lose flavour 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 lasagne.
Q: What about eggs?
A: Eggs freeze well if you crack them out of their shells first. (Don't freeze whole eggs, or the shells will crack as their insides expand.)
After shelling them, store eggs whole, or separated into yolks and whites, for up to 12 months. Once separated, yolks do best when whisked with a pinch of salt before freezing. Otherwise, they'll thicken and turn into a gel when thawed. You can freeze eggs in ice cube trays, using one egg (or white or yolk) per cube, so you can pop each one out as needed. After freezing, you can transfer the cubes from ice cube tray to freezer bags for longer storage.
Q: Can I freeze fruit and vegetables?
A: The good news is that you can freeze any fruit, and it will keep its flavour. The bad news is that most fruit, other than cranberries, will completely lose their texture, turning soggy and soft when they thaw. But frozen fruit is perfectly fine for smoothies and for cooking.
If you're freezing fresh fruit and you don't want the pieces to clump together, lay them out on a plate or pan, separated so they don't touch, 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 before freezing, and freeze whole or in slices.
For citrus, it's best to squeeze out the juice and freeze that, rather than the whole fruit. Grated citrus zest, covered in a little of the juice, also freezes well though it will never be as flavourful 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 the majority are best cooked or blanched before being frozen, especially leafy greens like spinach, cabbage and kale. Mushrooms, eggplant, squashes and onions are better sautéed before freezing. And for winter squash, I like to roast and purée 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.
Q: How do you freeze herbs?
A: Like other leafy greens, herbs need some care before freezing, lest they turn black and mushy when thawed.
For savoury dishes, make an herb oil by puréeing herbs with oil (any kind) and a pinch of salt in your blender, then freeze them in ice cube trays. You can use these to flavour pasta, soups, or beans, and they keep their flavour for at least six months.
For sweet dishes, substitute simple syrup for the oil, skip the salt and process as above. These are great to have in summer to flavour lemonade and other beverages.
You can also freeze herbs covered in water in ice cube trays, and use them for drinks. They don't add much in terms of flavour, but they sure are pretty. The same goes for sliced strawberries.
Q: What about stocks or soups? Or beans?
A: 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. 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.
Q: What about freezing whole meals?
A: If you're cooking specifically to stock your freezer, you can't go wrong with soups, stews, meat and vegetable braises (though avoid the ones containing potatoes), and baked pastas like lasagne. Savory pastries, pizza, quiches and tarts also freeze well.
Written by: Melissa Clark
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