Freezer cooking does not have to be complicated. While some enthusiasts will post about cooking 40 meals in a day, starting more simply will just as easily fill your freezer. Begin by choosing 2-3 meals a week to double, eating one for dinner and freezing one. Your freezer will fill up quickly. If chicken or beef is on sale, make a plan to have a mini-cooking day making 3-4 recipes, 2-3 batches of each. The 30 Day Gourmet has a number of great worksheets to help in planning and shopping. If you have a friend or a group of friends, cooking multiple batches of your own meal and exchanging can be a great way to fill the freezer while trying new recipes you may not choose to make yourself. Check out Cooking Among Friends for ideas on how to set up your freezer cooking group.
Choosing a recipe:
When planning your cooking day, there are a few things to keep in mind about freezing food. Most foods can freeze well either assembled prior to cooking or even after fully cooked. There are many books and websites which will give you ideas for recipes that freeze well. (Check out our recommendations for resources here.) If freezing your own recipe, first try freezing leftovers in a small container to be sure the consistency does not change when thawed and reheated.
- Fruits and vegetables with high water content do not freeze well. Some foods like tomatoes will fair ok if cooked in dishes but will not have the same consistency as fresh.
- Cream based sauces and gravies will separate when thawed. Most often, these foods are still fine to eat but need a lot of stirring to reincorporate the ingredients.
- Do not thaw and refreeze raw meats. If you thaw meat for a recipe, be sure to cook fully before freezing.
- Choose a recipe that can easily be multiplied for a number of batches. This is where money and time can be saved. Buy items in bulk and prepare dishes in an assembly line method. If your family always has leftovers when making casseroles or lasagna, try splitting the recipe. If feeding a family of four, recipes that make a 9x13 pan can be split for two meals. Just make as directed and place in two 8x8 pans. Doing this will double your meals in the freezer and keep you from eating leftovers the very next day.
- Freezing and thawing of some foods will cause them to dry out. Additional moisture can be added (For instance, a potato soup may heat up and be extremely thick. Adding additional milk during the reheating process can thin it back out.) Blocks of cheese can be frozen but, due to the moisture loss, will crumble when cut after thawing. These are still fine to eat and can easily be used to add to casseroles.
- When using pasta, rice or beans in a casserole, be sure to undercook prior to freezing. The freezing and thawing process will cause these foods to break down. Fully cooked macaroni, added to chili and then frozen, will fall apart and become mushy when reheated.
- Fried foods do not freeze well. However, breading foods and freezing prior to frying should be fine.
Packaging your meals:
There is nothing worse than spending time and money to fill your freezer and then having the meals taste only so-so or not edible at all due to freezer burn. Take care to freeze you meals appropriately in order to maintain the best quality.
- Cool all cooked foods to room temperature before packaging. This can be done more quickly by placing in a refrigerator without the lid on. As foods cool, moisture is released. If the meal is sealed prior to cooling, the moisture released will become condensation in the bag. Once frozen, ice crystals will form and freezer burn sets in.
- Ziploc Freezer bags - Be sure to use the bags intended for the freezer. Remove as much air from the bag as possible. Bags can be laid flat to freeze and then stacked in your freezer.
- Rigid Freezer containers - Again, be sure to use those marked for the freezer. When filling, leave ½ inch head space for food to expand as it freezes. If you fill the container completely, the expansion of the frozen food will pop the top of your container. On the other hand, be sure to use an appropriate sized container as one that has too much room will contain air, increasing the likelihood of freezer burn.
- Foil Pans - Most casseroles fit nicely in foil pans. They are inexpensive and, for the most part, one use only so little clean up is needed. These also stack nicely in your freezer. Again, make sure food is cooled to room temperature. When freezing in a foil pan, take the extra step to cover your meal with plastic wrap or Press and Seal wrap, followed by heavy-duty aluminum foil, crimping the edges tightly. From there, an 8x8 pan will slip nicely into a gallon-sized freezer bag adding an extra level of protection.
- Label all meals clearly. Once frozen, it can be hard to identify some foods. Mark the name of the meal and the date made on the container. It is also very handy to add the defrosting and cooking directions right on the container or bag for easier dinner prep. When using masking tape for labeling find tape made for the freezer. (Regular tape will fall off your container.) Use a Sharpie marker to write on freezer bags - other markers will tend to smear.
Through a little planning and effort, you can fill your freezer with meals that you can heat and eat or quickly prepare any night of the week.