We spend a ton of money on groceries, and it all goes to waste if we let our food go bad. Smart use of the freezer can minimize that food waste, but to get the biggest bang for your buck, you need to know the basic rules to abide by. If you skip shortcuts when readying food for the freezer and handle frozen foods with care, you can have staples and your awesome meals last a whole lot longer.
First and foremost, get a freezer thermometer to make sure the freezer is running correctly, says chef Matthew Robinson of The Culinary Exchange. Your freezer’s temperature should be no higher than 0 degrees F, according to the USDA.
Don’t put anything warm in your freezer. “Foods should be room temperature or less before putting them in the freezer,” says Robinson. “You don’t want to raise the temperature of the freezer or cause other foods to start to thaw. This is bad because freeze-thaw cycles can ruin textures and lead to poor flavor.”
It’s also important to get food frozen as quickly as possible. The faster food freezes, the smaller the ice crystals. And the smaller the ice crystals, the less damage freezing will do to a food’s texture.
Sandwich King Jeff Mauro of Food Network’s The Kitchen recommends a vacuum sealer for a number of reasons. “This reduces oxygen, which helps limit crystals and ensures a longer life in the freezer! Buy a decent vacuum seal[er] and go nuts. Air is the enemy to longevity.”
Vacuum sealers come in a number of styles, such as stationary appliances like FoodSavers, or hand-held units like the Waring Pro Pistol Vac. “Soups or liquid-based foods are hard to vacuum seal,” continues Mauro, “so freeze it overnight in the appropriate bag and then vacuum seal the frozen liquid.”
If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, wrap solid foods (such as chicken breasts) first in plastic wrap, then in foil or freezer paper. With foods in zip-top freezer bags, you can do the low-budget approach of sucking excess air through a straw sticking out of the bag’s mostly-zipped top. It’s better than nothing!
Ever pull an icy frozen chunk of unidentifiable food from the freezer? Labelling each item not only prevents such mysteries, but lets you know how long it’s been in the freezer. Few foods will spoil in the freezer, but the longer they are frozen, the more flavor they will lose. To ensure a good turnover, try to pull items that have been in there the longest first.
Not on the counter, not in the microwave, not outside on the 98-degree deck, says Mauro. “This preserves the integrity of the food item as well as keeping bacteria from growing. If it’s a protein, make sure you dry it thoroughly before throwing on the grill or in a pan, this ensures a greater sear.”
You only get one shot at freezing food, so use it wisely. Follow the above rules and do not get brave and refreeze something you just defrosted, says Mauro. This leads to possible bacteria growth and even further dehydration and degradation of your food.
Sometimes, the food you really want gets crammed behind other things. Try to periodically go through your freezer and pitch any items that have crossed over into freezer-burn land. That way, you’ll be able to have a better idea of your freezer’s inventory at the glance, and you’ll waste less food in the long run.
Just like canning, freezing is a method of food preservation, and it’s important to work clean to minimize contamination and bacteria growth. “In terms of preparing foods that are to be frozen, like that big pot of chili, the rules of cooking stay the same—cook cleanly with food safety in mind, making sure foods are cooked through to the correct temperature, use the freshest of ingredients, season to taste,” says Robinson. Flavors may change in the freezer, but wrapping the foods correctly is the best defense against this.
Aly Walansky is a lifestyles writer based in New York City. Her greatest loves include her shih tsu, soap operas, and extra dirty martinis. Follow her on Twitter: @AlyWalansky.