Into the Deep Freeze: A Guide to the Kitchen's Unsung Hero

Into the Deep Freeze: A Guide to the Kitchen's Unsung Hero

Using the freezer seems simple until you’re faced with the frosty open door: How long can you freeze food? What is that icy white stuff on it? And how cold is this freezer supposed to be?

Carefully stocking the freezer is an excellent way to prep for busy weeknight dinners, avoid wasting food (and your grocery budget), and solve for boring leftovers: Just stash them in your personal North Pole until you feel like eating them again. Seems easy: Pop food in the freezer until needed, then retrieve, reheat, and enjoy. But when you’re staring at a bowl of separated raw egg yolks, the last couple strips of bacon, or two too many servings of beef stew, and you realize you don’t know the right way to freeze it — or if you even can — suddenly, freezing food seems a little more complicated.

Before You Start: Freezer Basics

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How Cold Should My Freezer Be? And What If The Power Goes Out?

Ideally, a freezer maintains a temperature of 0°F or below. Many home freezers hover around 5°F, and the older the model the more likely it is to have temps creep up. It’s OK to set any freezer temperature to the lowest setting available (a few degrees colder doesn’t hurt the food), and it’s easy to confirm how low it goes with an appliance thermometer. It can also help to unplug the fridge for a few minutes every year or two and vacuum the coils and filters to ensure maximum efficacy.

If you live in an area that sometimes has power outages during storms or rolling blackouts on hot summer days, it’s important to keep the freezer closed after the lights go out! According to the FDA, a full freezer can keep food at safe temperatures for up to 48 hours if you keep the door shut. (A half-full freezer keeps food about 24 hours with a closed door.)

Freezer Lingo: Freezer Burn, Flash Freezing

What is freezer burn? It’s too cold in there for a fire! Freezer burn happens to food that’s been improperly wrapped and ends up drying out in the freezer; it can end up covered in ice crystals or gray or white spots, that, while not a food safety hazard, degrade flavor and texture. It's caused by excess air when packaging up the food, so proper storage matters even more in the freezer than it does in the fridge.

Speaking of proper storage, ever been annoyed at a package of frozen fruit that has congealed into a solid, unusable mass? There's a way around that. If you want to freeze multiples of an item without them sticking together (think fruit, meatballs, cookie dough balls), try flash freezing. With this technique, you pre-freeze the food items individually on a sheet pan or plate until they're firm before transferring them into a single freezer container for long-term storage. When you're ready to use your frozen food, you can grab just the amount you need from the bag without having to defrost the whole thing.

Using Your Freezer: How And What To Store

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Food Storage Tips and Tricks

There are more products out there for freezer storage than Eskimos have words for snow. But how do you choose what to use?

Liquids: For small amounts, ice cube trays or muffin tins (most contain about 1/2 a liquid cup) make quick work of freezing small portions in different sizes. Just fill, set carefully in the freezer until frozen solid, then pop out the cubes and store in a freezer bag. For larger amounts, lidded 4-cup containers work well, whether glass mason jars, BPA-free plastic food containers, or recycled yogurt containers (washed and dried). Leave a 1/2 inch space at the top for the liquid to expand (any more and you welcome freezer burn).

Sauces: Place a quart-size freezer bag in a container, fill with sauce, carefully press out the air, seal, and lay flat to freeze for the most efficient use of space (this technique can be used with thinner liquids as well). Tomato-based sauces freeze well; cream-based sauces tend to separate and get watery upon reheating.

Stews: Fill a glass or plastic container with cooled stew, leaving a 1/2 inch space at the top for the liquid to expand. Stews with root vegetables freeze well; ones with cruciferous vegetables like broccoli or cabbage do not.

Solids: Two layers of packaging form the best protection in the freezer; begin with several tight layers of plastic wrap, then wrap in aluminum foil or place in a resealable plastic freezer bag.

Freeze This, Not That!

Here is a list by category of what you can freeze, how to freeze it, and how long it’ll last. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a good start to understand the basics of frozen food storage.

Yes You CanBut How?How Long?Once Thawed…
ButterStore wrapped sticks in a resealable freezer bagUp to six monthsEnjoy as you normally would
Cultured: Yogurt, Sour Cream, ButtermilkIn a container with a 1/2 inch of headspace left at the topUp to two monthsGenerally best in cooked dishes, but not puddings
Cheese: Soft and HardWrap in foil, then place in a resealable freezer bagUp to two monthsEnjoy as you normally would
Heavy CreamFreeze in 1/2-cup portions (a muffin tin works well), then pop out and store in a resealable freezer bagUp to three monthsWhip immediately or use in cooked dishes
Bone-in or boneless meatSeason with salt just before freezing, then wrap tightly in several layers of plastic wrap. Next wrap in aluminum foil, then place in a resealable freezer bag.Up to four monthsEnjoy as you normally would
BaconRoll strips into tight cylinders, flash freeze on a plate, then store frozen bacon in a resealable freezer bagUp to three monthsCook straight from the freezer
Sliced breadWrap in plastic wrap and place in a resealable freezer bagUp to three monthsToast slices straight from the freezer, or thaw at room temperature to eat untoasted
Uncut loaf of breadWrap in foil, then place in a resealable freezer bagUp to three monthsPlace foil-wrapped loaf in oven at 450°F for 10 minutes to thaw; unwrap and toast for 2 more minutes
TortillasPlace between rounds of parchment paper, then place in a resealable freezer bagUp to three monthsMicrowave stacks of 6 for 20 seconds at half-power
Rice and other cooked grainsPlace in resealable plastic freezer bag, press out air, lay flat in freezer to hardenUp to six monthsUse straight from the freezer in cooked dishes
Chopped onionPlace in resealable plastic bag, press out air, lay flat in freezer (flash freeze first if storing more than one portion)Up to four monthsUse straight from the freezer in cooked dishes
Chopped garlicMix with a little vegetable oil, then place on baking sheet 1-teaspoonful at a time. Freeze, then store in a resealable freezer bagUp to four monthsEnjoy as you normally would
GingerPlace whole ginger root in a resealable freezer bagUp to four monthsGrate as you normally would (no need to peel)
Raw egg yolksFor every 4 yolks, stir in a pinch of salt OR a teaspoon of sugar. Freeze in a resealable freezer bag.Up to four monthsUse in cooked applications; whisk thawed yolks first with a pinch more salt OR sugar
Raw egg whitesFreeze in ice cube trays, then pop out and place in a resealable freezer bagUp to one yearEnjoy as you normally would
Fresh bay leavesPlace in a resealable plastic bagUp to one yearEnjoy as you normally would
Spices bought in bulkStore in original packagingUp to one yearEnjoy as you normally would
White or red wineFreeze in ice cube trays, then pop out and place in a resealable plastic bagUp to six monthsUse only in cooked dishes

Freezer Hacks: Avoiding Waste

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Today’s Food Scraps, Tomorrow’s Easy Homemade Stock

Squeeze the most out of your grocery budget (and help lessen food waste in landfills) with this simple trick that also results in delicious homemade stock with nearly no effort. Start with a pair of one-gallon freezer bags: Every time you chop an onion, peel a carrot, dice some celery or cut up a leek, take the root ends, peels (though not the papery onion skins), and bits and pieces and throw them in the first bag, then stick it back in the freezer. Other good candidates include parsley stems, shallot ends, garlic bits and scallion trimmings. In the second bag, toss the leftover bones of chickens you’ve roasted and any other bones you’ve picked clean (beef, pork ribs). Each time you add something, push out the extra air in the bag and pop it back in the freezer.

When the veggie bag is full and the bones bag is at least halfway there, fill a pot on the stove with about 12 cups of water. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat and add the scraps along with 2 teaspoons of salt, 2 bay leaves, and 4 peppercorns. Return to a simmer, then turn to low heat, skimming any gray scum off the top; let simmer gently for 1.5 hours. Let it cool a little, then strain, taste for salt and pepper, then use or refrigerate in 4-cup containers glass mason jars are nice, but recycled yogurt containers work just as well. To freeze the stock, fill containers until there’s a 1/2-inch headspace left, put a lid on it, and store for up to six months. Have smaller amounts of stock? Pop them into an ice cube tray or muffin tin, freeze, and transfer the cubes to a quart-size freezer bag.

To make vegetable stock instead: Use only the first bag, reduce water to 9 cups and simmer only 1 hour.

Creative Uses For Ice Cube Trays

Have a little fun with your ice cube trays. Beside the obvious (ice) and previously discussed (stock), here are some more ideas to try:

  • The non-ice cube: Freeze coffee, tea, or fruit juices for cold drinks that don't get watered down
  • The decorative ice cube: Freeze a berry and/or piece of mint in each compartment for beautiful summer drinks. (Edible flowers, citrus rinds, and herbs work as well)
  • Pureed baby food and/or fruit and vegetable smoothie add-ins
  • Small batch sauces (pesto, chimichurri, leftover tomato paste)
  • Fresh herbs in olive oil (for stovetop cooking use)
  • Fresh citrus juice (zests can be flash frozen and stored in a plastic bag)

Taking Stock Of What You’ve Got

Prepackaged frozen food is already clearly labeled, but what about that that leftover mung bean dal you made last year? Where did it go? How old is it? Some cooks get exuberant and put a whiteboard on the freezer door listing each freezer addition and its date of entry. Just remember to remove items from the list when they leave the freezer.

If your door lacks the space, it's just as simple to keep a roll of masking tape or printer labels and a permanent marker in a drawer by the fridge; right before you put the bag or container in the freezer, write the contents and date on a piece of tape, then affix it to the freezer container.

Wait, I’ve Gone Too Far! My Freezer Overfloweth. What Do I Do Now?

You may get so good at freezing food that one day you’ll open that icy door and realize: There’s no room left! It happens. First things first: Check that your overstuffed freezer doesn't have food blocking the vents; cold air flow is crucial to maintaining proper freezer temperature and energy efficiency.

Now that you’ve rearranged the icebox, it’s time to play a cooking game called: North Pole! Imagine you’re a scientist doing crucial research at the apex of the Arctic Circle, and a major snowstorm just blanketed your state-of-the-art igloo. For the next few months, all you have to eat is what’s in the deep freeze… Ok, not really, you can still buy perishables. However, by prioritizing what’s in the freezer you’ll save money, create more space, and even lower your carbon footprint a bit. We can all raise a frosty glass to that.