When I first started trying to save money on groceries for my growing family I was overwhelmed at the thought of using my freezer for anything other than ice cubes and ice cream. Sometimes even the ice cream would come out crusty and dried. Some food you can freeze and some foods just don't do well in the freezer. I've learned a lot of DOs and DON'Ts by reading some great books and scouring freezing guides for tried and true techniques. I'm sharing it all with you now in the form of Freezer Cooking 101.
Let's start by looking at the supplies you'll want to gather. You can see them all pictured above.
1.) Plastic Wrap
You can use regular plastic cling wrap to individually wrap portions for freezing. Since the portions will be placed in freezer bags they’ll be protected from the cold. The plastic wrap serves to block out air from touching your food. Air is what causes freezer burn on foods. It’s best to remove all air. More on this later.
2.) Freezer quality zip top bags
Use freezer bags instead of other bag options. Cheaper “storage” bags are thinner and not appropriate to protect your food from the extreme cold. You’ll regret it. Invest in quality freezer bags so that your hard work pays off in savings instead of disappointment at freezer burned food.
We use little coffee stirrer straws to remove air from zippered bags. More on this below in Air is Your Enemy.
4.) Foil pans or non-aluminum baking pans
These are perfect for freezing cooked or uncooked casseroles. They’re also perfect for gifting meals to new moms or families enduring sickness. I buy pans that fit into gallon freezer bags. This makes them incredibly easy to prep and freeze.
You might think that the disposable pans are a waste of money since you already own pans, but remember that the pan has to stay in the freezer with the food. So any pans you have that you freeze will be out of commission for a while. It’s best to buy inexpensive, disposable pans for the purpose of freezing and reheating.
Also, if you're preparing freezer meals to be gifted, this will be perfect so that the recipient won't have to worry about returning your dish after enjoying the meal.
5.) Freezer Tape
You might have tried to use masking tape or painter’s tape in the past to label freezer foods. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t stay sticky when it’s frozen, it doesn’t stick to foil for sealing casseroles, and it peels up over time.
Here are a few things to note about freezer tape. The tape should be specifically made for the freezer for three important reasons:
That’s why I suggest buying tape made specifically for use in your freezer. You can get some here. Also, you do not need to buy a dispenser for this unless you just want to. Freezer tape tears easily by hand.
Some people like freezer labels. These meet two of the requirements above and would probably work great for labeling something simple like frozen meat. The reason that I don’t prefer the stickers is because they can’t be used for sealing so I have to buy freezer tape for that already. Also, I like to write a LOT of words on my packages (as you’ll see below). That’s the reason I personally prefer the tape for labeling, too. I can use as much as I need to get all my tips and directions on the package.
If I'm making a casserole that has assembly directions or multiple steps, I'll write the instructions on an index card or print them out and tape it (with freezer tape) to the casserole.
6.) Permanent marker
We use fine tip Sharpie markers. These are permanent. As long as I let the writing sit untouched for 30 seconds it doesn’t smudge when I stack the packages.
7.) Freezer Inventory Sheet
You can use a notepad or a simple sheet of copy paper. You might want to hang the inventory on your freezer with a magnetic clip or beside the freezer on a clipboard. This is discussed more in the inventory section below.
1.) Don’t freeze in glass jars or containers.
If the contents expand then the glass will break in the freezer. Yucky mess! Also, glass containers take up way more space than they need to and don’t stack easily. Let’s save the glass jars for another use.
2.) Don’t freeze in plastic ware.
Yes, the plastic container is convenient because you already own it and it’s easy to see what’s inside. But that container will hold in the air and cause freezer burn. Also, just like the glass containers, plastic containers waste precious freezer space and don’t stack. Use your plastic containers for leftovers in the fridge but switch to other wrapping if you decide to freeze the leftovers.
3.) Food Handling – Safety First
4.) Brrrrr! It’s cold in there.
Check your freezer temperature. Your freezer should always be at 0 or below.
Don’t trust the temperature settings on your freezer or deep freeze. Buy a thermometer for this purpose and check it each time you add or remove anything. I like this one because it’s clearly labeled for the safe range for freezer foods.
Foods stored long term above zero degrees Fahrenheit are prone to advanced quality degradation with time.
To help keep your freezer consistently cold you should keep it full. That’s right! A full freezer actually saves energy by keeping a consistent temperature. Of course, a full freezer should always have plenty of room for airflow. Don’t stuff it!
If your supplies are running low you can keep an old milk jug filled with water (about 90% full so there’s room for the water to expand as it freezes). This hunk of ice will serve to help your freezer stay consistently cold. In an emergency, the ice block could help to preserve your food during a power outage.
5.) Label everything. Always.
Label your foods with a permanent marker (we use Sharpie brand). Write the name of the food, the date it was frozen, and the use by date if you already know it. Why do the math later when you can do it now and write it down!
1.) Write out how to prepare the food when thawed.
One of the reasons we freeze things is for convenience. Keeping notes on preparation could help your teenager, mother-in-law, or another family member pitch in and make dinner. So help them out with notes ahead of time.
Some examples of prep notes would be:
2.) Keep Inventory
Post an inventory checklist near your freezer. You’ll want to write down every time something is added to or removed from the freezer. Also, make sure to note the date that something is added so you can make sure to use it in the optimal time period. This would be a great place to mark the use by date also.
Inventory should also list the refrigerator or pantry items that you’ll need to serve the items with. If you need cheese and rice to serve with your chili then list that on the inventory sheet. That way as you plan to use up your freezer stores, you can add items to your grocery list if they’re not on hand already.
Here’s some information that may be included on the inventory sheet. You won’t need all this information for every item. But it’s good to document in cases where uses are limited or very specific.
4.) Divide into manageable portions and shapes
AKA Don’t freeze huge amounts in a big lumpy glacier.
The bags are super easy to label and the individual portions are safer to thaw. You can thaw as little or as much as you need.
Freeze items flat if you can. They’ll freeze, stack, and thaw more easily this way. Bags can be frozen flat and then stood upright or stacked. Packages frozen flat also thaw more evenly since they’re an even thickness throughout.
To freeze individual veggies and fruit, try to flash freeze them on a parchment lined dish. Let them freeze until solid and then combine them all in a labeled freezer bag. No more clumpy fruit chunks! Just nice neat individual pieces of produce ready to measure for your favorite recipe.
Best tip for freezing sauces and soups: Pour the cooked soups/sauces into ice cube trays. Freeze until solid and then empty into labeled plastic freezer bag. You can thaw as little or as much as you want by removing cubes to a bowl in the refrigerator. Make sure to remove all the air after removing portions.
5.) Keep those packages organized by date
Make sure to keep all your frozen foods organized by type and “use by” date. Keep the oldest foods in the front for easiest reach so they get used first. Conversely, anything added to the freezer should be placed at the bottom/back of the line so that it is used after the other packages.
6.) Preparing cooked meals to freeze
Follow recipe directions very carefully. Sometimes ingredients are cooked, uncooked, semi-cooked, etc. It’s important to follow these specifications to avoid raw and/or overcooked meals.
You might find that you’d like to undercook your frozen meals a little so that they don’t overcook when they’re reheated. What I usually do to help with this is to remove baked goods from the oven about 10 – 15 minutes before the fully cooked time when I’m initially preparing the dish. That way when it’s reheated the ingredients aren’t overcooked, burned, or mushy. This dish undercooked initially will make a fresh tasting meal instead of a meal that tastes like leftovers.
7.) Cool Pre-Cooked Foods Completely Before Freezing
When you are freezing something that is pre-cooked (meat, sauce, bread, etc.) make sure that the food is completely cooled in the refrigerator before placing it in the freezer. Putting hot food in a freezer makes the other food in your freezer thaw partially which is not good for consistency. Also, hot food in a freezer makes the freezer have to work too hard to get back down to the right temp. Play it safe and refrigerate cooked foods for a few hours before moving to the freezer.
When I have my meal plan ready I pull out tomorrow’s dinner to thaw in the refrigerator when I’m preparing tonight’s meal. This helps me not to forget to thaw the meat.
QUESTION: Do I need to thaw cooked meals?
Most of the time, recipes work best if they are thawed for 24 hours before reheating. This allows the edges and outsides to not overcook since they get reheated the fastest in the oven. Reheating frozen meals can leave cold spots in the dish that aren’t appetizing and aren’t safe to eat.
Reheated foods should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees throughout the dish. Make sure to test several areas to make sure that it’s thoroughly heated.
QUESTION: Freezing – Thawing – Refreezing – Is that a good idea?
In many of our Aldi meal plans, we use frozen chicken breasts to create many of the meals. There are mixed reviews on if this will hurt the flavor or texture of the food. In our opinion, it doesn't change the texture of the food at all. We have made many yummy dishes freezing, thawing, and then refreezing chicken. You may or may not want to try it if that is the case then start out using fresh chicken.
As I mentioned in the thawing tips, it’s best to plan the thawing schedule so that you’re only thawing out what you know you’ll use the next day. I like to take out tomorrow’s dinner from the freezer while I’m preparing dinner for today.
QUESTION: How do you Freeze Bags Flat for Easy Storage?
This is an easy technique for removing air from liquids.
QUESTION: What about lumpy foods that won’t flatten? Should I buy a vacuum packaging machine?
You definitely can remove more air with a vacuum machine for food preparation. But the investment is too much for most people when they’re trying to focus on savings money on food. So I use the straw trick. (I know some of you have been waiting to see what I was going to do with that straw on the supply list!)
If the contents are solid and lumpy and you just can’t push the air out, you can use the straw trick. Follow these simple steps: