I think one of the most intimidating things about freezer cooking is what can you freeze, and what can’t you freeze, and how long should you freeze it for? There’s nothing worse than spoiled food, except perhaps spoiled food that you poured hours into preparing.
First, let’s defined “spoiled”. Food is spoiled in the freezer in a taste or texture sort of way. It does not spoil in the you’re-going-to-kill-all-your-family-if-you-serve-it sort of way. So put your mind at ease. Worse case scenario is: it tastes bad. Of course, if you don’t follow basic hygiene in the kitchen rules, and rules about leaving meat out, or cooking it all the way, etc, then your food could kill your family. It’s not the freezer’s fault, though. It was bad before it went in there. Or your freezer breaks, I suppose it could go “bad” in there then. Or if you forget to plug it in and all the meat rots. My mom is going to laugh at that one because that’s something I did as a teen. That was not a fun clean up.
At any rate, in a properly working freezer, with food that goes in there already good, the worst case scenario is a taste or texture issue.
Then I need to add that how long it lasts in the freezer depends largely on 2 things, and all the estimates I give will vary depending on these: the type of freezer and the type of packaging. Food will last longer in a chest freezer than an upright. It will last even shorter in a freezer that is opened and shut often. It will last longer in freezer bags than thin cheapo-bags. So take those things into account, and know the estimates given by me are based off of well packaged foods, in freezers that get good and cold and don’t get opened and shut throughout the day.
First, I’ll start with a list of groceries that I buy when it’s on sale so I have a bulk amount ready when I have an open opportunity to do freezer cooking:
butter— yes, butter freezes beautifully. Ironic, I know because of the cream factor. I buy 4 stick/1lb packages when they’re at a good price. I normally have a minimum of 10 of these boxes in my freezer. I have never, ever had texture or taste issues with frozen butter. When I run out and have to buy it full price, it hurts in a way I cannot describe.
shredded cheese–I learned this from watching Rachel Ray. Block cheese gets a funny texture when frozen, but shredded cheese does not. So I’ll buy mozzarella, colby jack, cheddar, etc. when it’s on sale in the shredded bags. If there’s a cheese that I use often and it’s on a great sale, I’ll stock up.
Meat–this may be a no-brainer, but this is always bought when on sale, and stored until it fits into my meal plans. I normally buy the big packages of 3lbs of ground beef, and before they go in the freezer, divide it into 1lb portions and label them in quart sized freezer bags. (I know some people prefer the freezer paper, and I’m just not in the habit of using it, but I do know it works well.) Sometimes I’ll brown the 3 lbs and freeze for when I need it. It limits the uses when you do that, but it’s really nice when you want to make tacos or something like that really fast, and that first step of browning the meat is already done. I’d say about 25% of the time I brown some meat, and the rest of the time I divide it while raw into freezer bags, label, date, and save it for a bigger variety of uses. If I’m planning on doing something with a bulk of meat and it does not need to be divided for ease of use, then I’ll leave it in the package from the store, and put another plastic grocery bag around it when it goes in the freezer. I don’t like leaving it in there like that for a long time, like a month or so. Thawing big portions of meat is annoying.
My favorite kind of meat to use is from a butcher. Not just the grocery store butcher, but some free standing place where meat is their passion. I like to buy from their in bulk, when possible, and they will often divide meat up for me in these wonderful freezer paper packages. They’ll chop a roast into stew meat for me at no charge, or individually wrap in 1 lb portions 10lbs of ground beef. (You can buy stew meat chopped at the grocery store, but it’s often $1 more a pound. The stew meat at a butcher will often be the good stuff, without the price hike.) I can justify getting this better meat because I’m buying in bulk, and they seem to be more than willing to do some of the leg work of chopping or dividing for me. It saves me tons of prep time in the kitchen to go to a real butcher, so I try to do that when I get the chance. I still get meats on sale at the grocery store, but the butcher’s is my preferred method.
Eggs–I’m not talking about eggs in the shell. Although, I’ve found that you can freeze leftover egg yolks or egg whites in ice cube trays, leave them overnight, and store them loose in a big gallon sized freezer bag. I’ve had some texture problems with this, but that doesn’t matter so much for baking. It would matter for frying. I’ve heard that if you sprinkle a bit of sugar or a bit of salt (depending on it’s intended future use) before it freezes, it will help with the texture issue. I have not tried that yet.
However, I freeze egg bakes all the time. You freeze it like any other casserole below. I always use them in less than 3 months, because they’re so popular in my house, and I’ve never, ever had a taste or texture issue with those.
Chocolate Chips–these often go on sale around Christmas time. I can never keep enough chocolate chips in my house, but I’ve noticed that sales on this item can vary the price by over $1 a package, so it’s really worth buying when on sale and storing in the freezer.
Garden vegis are something week keep for a whole year in the freezer. Different vegetables need to be prepared for the freezer by different methods, and whole books are written for that. I recommend getting Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving or some other sort of huge reference. You don’t have to be a gardener or belong to a co-op in order to do freezer cooking, so I won’t discuss it to great lengths.
Breads–I’m not a big fan of freezing store bought bread. I’m not sure if the stuff from the store has more air in it, or what, but I just notice the taste in the bread if it’s in the freezer for as short a time as a week. I’ll still eat it, but I’ll notice. I’m really picky about my hamburger buns and hot dog buns having that freezer taste to them. I just don’t like doing it. I know many people who do and never notice any difference.
However, I can freeze homemade bread, homemade caramel rolls, homemade quick breads such as banana, pumpkin, zuchinni, apple, rhubarb, freeze fairly well. Key word: homemade. I wonder if there’s some ingredient in the store bought breads that does not do well in the freezer. I try to use these in the first 3 months, and after 6 months I will pick up a slight freezer taste, but it’s still not as bad as the store bought bread. These ones go in either the chest or upright freezer, as the freezer on my fridge just doesn’t get cold enough to protect it from the freezer taste that long.
Cookies–My husband actually prefers chocolate chip cookies frozen, and I’ve found that other such type cookies freeze very well. I would use them in 3 months or less, but that’s not usually a problem in our house. In fact, if they make it a month without being eaten that’s a big deal. When preparing Christmas cookies, I always make the cookies that are very heavily chocolate based first (truffles, fudge, peppermint bark) first because they will last much longer in the freezer. Sugar cookies, or any flour-based cookie with frosting are done last, as I notice the freezer taste on them first. The more refined flours/sugars you use, the faster you’ll notice a freezer taste. At least, that’s my opinion/experience.
Casseroles–almost any casserole can go in the freezer. The only ones I avoid are ones that use some sort of stuffing, like a casserole with Stove Top sprinkled on top. Of course, you could make a recipe like that, and simply not put on the topping until just before you bake it. Ones with lots of real cream should be used within 3-6 months. Canned cream soups in casseroles I don’t worry about as much as far as an expiration date because all those preservatives in there will protect the taste a bit more. When freezing something in a 9×13 glass pan, you should cover the top with plastic wrap, and then put aluminum foil over that. You can write what’s in there and the date, and maybe some heating instructions right on the foil. Be sure to remove the plastic wrap before cooking. 😉
Individual Portion Meal–Part of my rotation of freezer foods are grab and go things like burritos, chimichangas, and calzones. I wrap these individually in plastic, and then put many of them in a 1 gallon freezer bag with the contents and date marked on it. Many times, due to my husband’s job, he eats alone, or way before the rest of us, or at odd times. It’s nice to just grab a calzone or two from the freezer, take the plastic off and pop it in the oven for 30 minutes. Since these often contain cheese and bread/tortillas, I like to use them within 6 months.
Half-Done Meals–I will make fillings in bulk, and freeze them. Apple pie filling, and chicken pot pie fillings come to mind first. Also things like Swedish meatballs with sauce, regular meatballs with no sauce, roasted tomato sauce from the garden, fillings for ravioli making, and soup broth. If the filling has real cream in it, use it in 3-6 months. If it’s mostly vegi or meat in it, you can use it in 6-12 months.
Soups–I have yet to come across a soup recipe you cannot freeze, although I haven’t tried it with my cheese soup yet. That’s just too easy to make fresh. I will often make a big batch of stock (amazing broth) from time to time, and will freeze it in 2 cups portions in quart sized freezer bags. Then when I make a soup fresh I can grab them, or if I make multiple batches of soup, I have them on hand. Making stock is so easy and so cheap and it will ruin you of the store bought broth forever. You won’t be able to go back. I have never tasted the freezer flavor in stock, so I couldn’t tell you how long it lasts, but I would estimate about 12 months.
Again, soups with a lot of cream or milk you’ll want to either use in 3-6 months, or omit the cream until you reheat the soup and serve it. I’ve also found that peas turn a dingy color when cooked for a long time with soups, so I don’t like to put peas into soups until just about 5 minutes before I serve the soup. They will not often make it into the freezer meal until the freezer meal is all hot on the stove and ready to serve. The same goes for cheese. I find cheese can be finicky when heated, so I add that at the last when serving, and won’t add it, freeze it, and then reheat it.
Beans–You may not have had it before, but it’s a huge budget help and tastes waaay better than the canned, and is also more nutritious. Cooking up dry beans is really simple, except it’s usually easier in bulk. Solution? Make it in bulk for goodness sake so you don’t have to do it often, and freeze what you don’t use. I freeze in either 1 cup or 2 cup portions in quart sized freezer bags. Good choices: homemade refried beans, black beans, kidney beans, etc. Those are my basic ones. It saves oodles of money over canned beans, and my family much prefers the texture of homemade beans to the thick skinned canned version. Again, I haven’t found the freezer taste on them yet, and I would estimate about 12 months on these guys too.
Are you seeing a trend? Things with lots of flour or cream you should use in less than 6 months, and things without flour or cream can go longer. Vegis/meats on their own do very well. Things that will likely have to last a year like garden vegis or bulk meat should go in your chest freezer. Things that are easily stacked should go in the upright.
Things that I found don’t freeze well: lunch meat, sour cream or other creams (this does not include Cool Whip, which let’s just face it, is just fluffy oil). It will be a texture/spreadability issue, not a taste one. Cream cheese works fine if you thaw it for baking in a cheesecake, but will not work if you thaw it for spreading over a bagel. The main issue with flour based things (bread) tends to be taste, and the main issue with cream based things tends to be texture.
So think about your favorite family recipes. Sloppy joes? Chili? Chicken Noodle Soup? Any recipe that is low on the cream/bread category will make a GREAT freezer meal. Even if it does have those ingredients, you can often make it and use it within 6 months and it’s still a great help. So don’t think you need a recipe labeled “freezes recipe” in order to freeze it. Your own family cookbook probably has a huge amount of recipes that will freeze great!
You might notice that I added a button to the sidebar of this blog where you can access all of the freezer recipes already on this blog, as well as links to some of my family’s favorite off-blog recipes, as well as all of the posts in this freezer cooking series. I’ll add more each Saturday…until I run out…if I run out. Next week I’ll add a recipe. Now to figure out which one to start with…