Saturday, January 19, 2008

What goes into the freezer

I’ve gotten a couple emails about what exactly we put into our freezer for later consumption, what books we use, etc. etc. etc.

For cookbooks that are specific to freezer cooking, I strongly recommend checking out your local library. Truth is, some are great and some are rotten – and hey, you’re only doing this once a month, right? Get the book, pick out some recipes, and give them a try. If you love the book to distraction and want to keep it forever, then invest the money.

Actually, the library cookbook section is a fabulous place to check out in any case. I can’t speak for everybody out there, but I get bored fast with food. I like variety. I like new stuff. I will lose my ever-lovin’ mind if I have to eat the same four meals every night for a month.

If you’ve got something that you really love and you’d like to make it a freezer meal, try it! Make it for dinner, put an individual-sized portion into the freezer and try it for lunch! If it works out, great! Add it to the Cooking Day list! If it doesn’t work out, well, now you know – and you didn’t waste a dinner-for-eight amount of materials.

If you decide to give freezer cooking a whirl, you’ll quickly get a feel for what can and cannot be frozen – just because the cookbook is designed around cook and immediately eat recipes doesn’t mean you can’t freeze the meals as well…sometimes with slight modifications, sometimes without even that.

Nobody has room in the freezer or time to do the cooking day. That’s why we’re desperate to try it! We don’t have time for this stuff!! You can start trying it out in baby steps – make double the recipe and freeze half each night for a week, and you’re a week ahead. Do a smaller cooking spree, a couple hours on a Saturday or Sunday, and get yourself one week’s worth in there.

Ziploc baggies are the friend of the space-impaired in the freezer. Laid flat, you really can get an entire month’s worth in that wee little top freezer on your fridge. You’d be surprised. I get my entire month’s on the top shelf in my upright freezer in the garage, which is slightly less space than my inside freezer.

So. What does and doesn’t freeze? Darn near anything can be frozen…It’s actually easier to talk about what doesn’t freeze well than what does.

Stuff that just doesn’t like the freezer

Potatoes. They go all mushy and watery and rubbery and ick. Trust me on this one. Ew.

Cheeses. Hard cheese will be fine; shred first for best results, because they will shred anyway if you try to slice them. I believe the technical term would be “crumbly”. Soft cheese, like cream cheese, will go weird, so don’t get that huge block at Costco thinking you can put most of it in the freezer to keep forever. It can, however, be mixed into recipes and frozen without harm as long as the recipe isn’t something like “mix one teaspoon chives with one pound of cream cheese”. That won’t work. Two cups of chicken and 1/3 cup of cream cheese has worked just fine for us.

Sour cream does the same thing. A little in a recipe will be fine, but if it is significant amounts it will separate and not want to come back together. You can often get around that by mixing it in the final (reheating) steps rather than making the dish all the way through during cooking day. For example, when I make beef stroganoff, I make up to the point where you’d stir in the sour cream. Freeze it right there, and then after you’ve gently warmed it back up to serving temperature, you can carry on as if it has never seen the inside of a freezer, stir in your sour cream and viola! Beautiful stroganoff, and it took longer to cook the noodles than to get the stroganoff itself ready to go over them.

Mayo is tricky. If you’ve mixed a little bit of it into something, you’re fine. But on its own, it goes all separated and doesn’t like to come back together.

Eggs (like, if you’re making a stir-fry or something similar) are another thing that ought to be added during that final reheating step. They go rubbery in the freezer.

Things that are OK, but might freak you out if you don’t know about it beforehand

Milk freezes just fine, but will separate when defrosted. Give it a good hard shake before pouring and you’re fine.

White sauces and gravy will thicken up and you’ll think they’re “ruined”. Warm them gently and add a little more milk (between 1 tablespoon and 1/4 cup, max). They’ll usually spring back to life for you.

Some flavors will intensify, others will fade. Pepper and salt have a way of either fading or becoming overpowering. For best results, cook it a little bland, then spice it up while reheating.

Pasta can become disgusting if you’ve cooked it all the way. Easy to avoid, though – undercook it a little before freezing.

Whipping cream won’t whip after being frozen.

Vegetables will be softer. If you like them good and crisp (raises hand), don’t freeze them.

What exactly I’ve put in the freezer

We’ve had a chicken and wild rice casserole, chicken chili, Sloppy Joes, beef stroganoff, ham and Swiss cheese bake, a spinach-chicken casserole with bits of ham and bacon and white sauce, turkey and chicken pot pies, shepherd’s pie made with ground beef (potatoes added during reheating), homemade spaghetti sauce, quiche, French bread pizza loaves, curried chicken, Teriyaki chicken stir-fry, halibut in white sauce (halibut has been frozen in one bag, the white sauce in another – that way, I can do my ‘gently heat and add milk if needed’ thing while the halibut is baking, eliminating a soggy halibut filet encrusted with lumpy, too-thick white sauce), citrus-glazed salmon (same thing, sauce in small bag stapled to bigger bag with salmon filets in it), and meatloaf.

If I remember to take them out the night before to defrost, they’re on the table in about half an hour on average; some of the bigger casseroles and meatloaves take an hour. There’s no chopping, stirring, or using fifteen bowls and five spoons to make them, so cleanup after dinner is a snap.

And, I’m not spending a mazillion dollars at the supermarket buying food we might not eat because I’m “too tired” to cook it up. That alone is worth a long, long day of cooking to me.


Tola said...

however, if you do want to freeze the whole 2 lb block of cheddar cheese, you can. but when youre ready to use it, bring the whole block to room temperature, and then refrigerate it. then it wont be crumbly when you go to slice it up.

SouperEgo said...

Thanks for the information! I hadn't thought of using freezer bags to maximize the space in my freezer... I look forward to your updates with the recent money challenge!

Yarnhog said...

I had lunch today with a friend who told me about this amazing place called "The Dinner Studio," where they have precut ingredients and recipes and containers, and you put together as many freezer meals as you want, pay for them, and take them home. They're less than five dollars a meal and you don't have to shop or clean up--or even know how to cook! Sadly, there isn't one near me.

Science PhD Mom said...

There are many places that offer the "Assemble and Freeze" dinners...Dinner by Design, What's For Dinner?, Dream Dinners...check in your yellow pages and online. I'll bet anyone who is interested can find one in their area.