Freezer Cooking 101 – Tips and Tricks to Learn how to Freezer Cook Like a PRO!

By Lauren
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    Freezer Cooking

    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.

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    Let's start by looking at the supplies you'll want to gather. You can see them all pictured above.

    SUPPLIES NEEDED:

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    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.

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    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.

    3.) Straws

    We use little coffee stirrer straws to remove air from zippered bags.  More on this below in Air is Your Enemy.

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    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.

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    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:

    • You should be able to write on it without the ink smudging or fading over time.
    • The tape should stay sticky and never peel up even under extreme cold and humidity.
    • The tape should adhere to aluminum, plastic, and any other paper you choose to use in your freezer.

    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.

    What supplies NOT to use in the freezer and WHY:

    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

    • DO wash your hands before and after handling any foods.
    • DO wash any prepping tools between recipes/foods.  For example, make sure to clean cutting boards and knives after prepping cooked or raw meats.
    • DO allow cooked foods to refrigerate and come to 40 degrees before freezing.
    • DO thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator.
    • DON’T ever freeze questionable leftovers.  If it’s smelling off now, then freezing it is NOT going to fix that.  It’s only going to come out worse when it’s thawed.
    • DON’T freeze mushy or old fruit.  You might think you could use these in a smoothie but fruit past its prime is really just that.  The only exception is bananas which are a little mushy and more brown than you like.  Overripe bananas are great for banana bread and smoothies.  I freeze these in gallon zippered freezer bags and use them for instant ice cream by mashing them through a special attachment on my juicer!  Yum!

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    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.

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    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!

    Include Specific Instructions with Each Package:  

    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:

    • Chicken already marinated.  Thaw overnight.  Grill over high heat until 160 degrees internally.
    • Serve over rice.
    • Remove the plastic before baking.
    • Take out of the bag before reheating.
    • Thaw in the refrigerator overnight.
    • Heat in oven on 350 degrees.  Then top with cheese.
    • Precooked pasta.  Don’t overcook.  Place into boiling water for 1-2 minutes to reheat.  Serve with sauce.

    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.

    • Item
    • Raw or Cooked
    • Date Added
    • Use by Date
    • Prep Steps
    • Serve with
    • Notes (These might include “Can be used frozen” or “Do NOT Thaw before baking.”)

    4.) Divide into manageable portions and shapes

    AKA Don’t freeze huge amounts in a big lumpy glacier.

    • Divide fresh food into individual meal portions. For example, I divide hamburger meat into 1 pound portions, and I wrap chicken breasts individually.

    Freezer Cooking

    • Wrap each portion tightly with plastic wrap.  Make sure that your pressing out any air pockets and press the meat as flat as possible.  The air causes freezer burn and makes meat taste hard and dry.  You want the portions to be flat for easy and safe defrosting.  If you are going to add a marinade then this is the step to do it.  You can use a quart sized bag instead of plastic wrap to hold the meat and marinade.  Remove the air from the bag and proceed to the next step.

    Freezer Cooking

    • Place the wrapped meat in a labeled freezer bag and press the air out of the bag, as well.   This will keep the air away from the meat and make the package easier for freezing and thawing.

    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.

    Freezer Cooking

    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.

    1. Once the dish is undercooked to perfection, you can leave it uncovered when you put it in the refrigerator.  This will help it cool faster.  Once the dish is down to 40 degrees, package it for freezing.
    2. Wrap the pan tightly in plastic wrap.  Make sure to leave a little room at the top for the casserole to expand when frozen.
    3. Label contents, reheating directions, freezer date, and use by date.  You can also tape printed directions to the top if there's too much to write on an index card.
    4. Place the foil-wrapped pan into a freezer bag for protection from the cold.
    5. Write the information on your freezer inventory sheet.
    6. Place the casserole in the back of all the other precooked meals.  You’ll want to let the contents lay flat until frozen.  You can then stack on top of them or turn them on their side if that works better in your freezer space.

    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.

    How to Thaw Raw Frozen Meats:

    1. The day before you want to cook the meat, remove the frozen portion of meat from the freezer.
    2. Place the frozen meat (still in the plastic wrap but no longer in a zippered freezer bag) on a dish with a paper towel.  The paper towel will catch any condensation and juices that come from the thawing process.
    3. Put the dish in the refrigerator for about 24 hours.
    4. Use this meat just as you would fresh, raw meat in your recipe.  Make sure to remove the plastic wrap before cooking.

    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.

    Frequently Asked Questions:

    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?

    1. Let out the air as much as possible by flattening the contents.
    2. Close the zipper about 80% and let out more air through the barely open section.
    3. If you’re preparing a liquid to freeze (such as soup or sauce), you can move the contents toward the zipper opening and use your hand to slowly move out bubbles until the liquid is right at the opening.
    4. You’ve now successfully removed all the air!  Make sure to refrigerate before freezing.

    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:

    1. Close the freezer bag about 95% and then insert a clean straw just below the zipper closure.
    2. Lay the bag flat and draw out the air by sucking gently on the straw.
    3. I use a tiny coffee stirrer to remove the air from mine.  It’s tiny and doesn’t let a lot of air back in.
    4. After removing the air, quickly place your hand over the zipper opening trapping the “vacuum” inside.
    5. Firmly press down on the opening while removing the straw.  Then press shut.
    6. You’ve done it!  Make sure to refrigerate before freezing.

    Related Posts:

    1. Here are 14 More Freezer Cooking Tips that really compliment these, but are more focused on prepping hacks to make the entire freezer cooking process faster and easier. Check it out HERE.
    2. 13 Foods you didn't know you could Freeze

     

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