Freezer meals are the best thing since the invention of the freezer. They make meal time prep shorter and easier, not to mention the money you'll save just by making crockpot freezer meals. If you're a beginner or a freezer cooking veteran, implementing these Freezer Cooking Tips have saved me time, frustration, mess, and money.
I have been freezer cooking and developing entire crockpot freezer cooking meal plans for years now. I've really spent focused time making recipes that are easy, delicious, cost-effective, and of course “Freezer-Friendly”.
I've learned some things along the way – things that you should do, and things that you definitely shouldn't do when freezer cooking. Oh, believe me, I've had the bottom of my freezer full of kinda-frozen-freezer-meal-mess from a bag that burst. I've experimented with freezing dairy and everything else you can imagine.
Here's what I've learned that made all the difference:
Not all gallon-sized storage bags are made equal. First off, the bags labeled “Freezer Bags” are made of a thicker plastic and usually have a higher quality zip closure. This is important. If you are cooking a full Freezer Meal Plan
If you are cooking a full Freezer Meal Plan with 20 meals at once, you are going to be stacking the meals in your freezer, so that means the bags on the bottom could have up to 10 pounds of meals sitting on them. You need a quality bag to handle the weight until it is frozen solid.
Not only that, if you remember from science class, liquids expand when they freeze, so if the bag has cheap seams and is made of thin plastic, you could end up with a mess. While in general, I am not a name-brand product person. The Ziploc brand gallon freezer bags or the top quality Glad brand freezer bags are worth the money – thicker plastic and a superior closure.
If you are going to be making and freezing multiple meals at once, I always put the ones with the most liquid on the top, like soups and sauces. Meals that are predominately liquid placed on the bottom of your stack force the bag itself to handle all of the weight. If you put meat-heavy bags on the bottom, like ones with a pork loin, pork shoulder, chuck roast, etc. The protein in the bag will end up shouldering (pun intended) most of the weight, not the bag itself.
Because, let's face it, even if you do buy the best bags on the market, sometimes there are flaws in the way they seal, the way you sealed them, or in the seams. It's unavoidable. This is just an added precaution to make sure you don't end up with a mess and lose a meal.
My husband is the one that cares if knives are sharp. I never really paid any attention, and then one day, Mark had enough. He went into a knife sharpening frenzy and sharpened every knife he could find in the kitchen. It was amazing! I didn't realize how much extra work and time I was spending trimming meat or chopping vegetables because I had a dull knife!
If you are making a meal plan and are going to be trimming many different cuts and types of meat, it will save you so much time and energy in the long run if you sharpen your knives first. But, remember to be careful! Many people have gotten used to using knives in a specific way because they were dull, and now that your knife is sharp, it will slice through things unexpectedly easy, so watch out.
Now that your knife is sharp, remember to trim your meat before you put it in the freezer bag. “Future-you” will be so happy. It will be easier to trim on the front end, and it will make your meals less greasy because they were not cooked with extra fat.
This is especially true with pork shoulders and chicken thighs. Depending on your butcher, Pork shoulder usually has a pretty thick fat cap on one side. Trim off most of it. It's ok if there is a little bit, but remember, whatever you leave on, you'll end up having to fish it out of your crockpot after cooking. With chicken thighs, take all the skin off and trim off the extra fat on the bottom. Cooking chicken skin in liquid always turns out… well, unappetizing. And it will render a lot of extra fat into your dish.
Defrosting things from frozen means you'll get condensation on the bag. If you defrost your freezer meals on a pan or cookie sheet with a lip on it, you'll save yourself from a mess.
I have a set of these baggy racks. But honestly, they're a little pricey, and they aren't without their flaws. If you aren't up for forking over the extra cash, you can use a cardboard box (or 2, or 3) to hold up some of the bags next to each other. I've used a plastic bin before with great results. Basically, you just need a way for the bags to stay upright when filling them.
Does it make a difference which order you put things in the bags? YES! It does.
It will be way harder to balance a bag upright that is half full of liquid than a bag that has a base of meat and veggies in it first. Putting liquids in last will help the freezer bags remain more stable. I've put liquid in first before and I spent so much effort just trying to balance the bag so it didn't dump everywhere.
I recommend using the following order to add ingredients into the freezer bags:
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You can more than cut your prep time in half if you prep your freezer meals with someone else. Get your spouse to help, or if you're single get a friend to help and split the meals at the end.
If you have someone to help, set up 2 prep stations. One of you – trim, cut, and prep all of the protein, and the other – chop, cut, and dice all of the vegetables. It'll go faster if you each stay on task and in one mode. Once all of the protein and veggies are prepped, split up the remaining ingredient types (refer to the list in tip #7).
Make it fun. Put on some music, put on some comfortable shoes and clothes, and get at it!
Chopping lots of chicken, onions, peppers, and handling lots of spices can make your hands smell and feel less than amazing. Picking up a small package of disposable latex or nitrile exam gloves can keep your hands cleaner and you won't feel the need to wash your hands 18 times.
If you are going to be doing multiple freezer meals regularly, head over to the dollar store and buy an extra set of measuring spoons, dry measuring cups and a liquid measure or two. It won't set you back more than a few bucks. Now you and your meal prep partner won't have to share, and you'll have to do less cleaning in between.
You obviously don't need to wash your measuring spoons between each spice, but sometimes you need a tablespoon of juice or soy sauce in a recipe and that won't mix well with dry ingredients right before or after.
When you are opening and trimming lots of meat, it makes clean up and prep way easier if you place your cutting board inside a cookie sheet. Those juice troughs on cutting boards never seem big enough for me and then you still have a balancing act to perform to get them to the sink to drain them.
If your entire cutting board is on a cookie sheet it really helps keep everything contained and keeps your counters cleaner. Once you're done with whatever meat you're cutting, you can easily move the entire cookie sheet over to put the meat in your freezer bags.
If you've ever frozen milk before, you understand what I'm talking about… it can curdle and get a little weird.
Here's what's really going on: when milk is frozen, ice crystals form which break the membrane surrounding the tiny fat droplets. Then when it defrosts, the fat escapes from the droplets and floats on the surface. The longer it's frozen, the more ice crystals will form, and more fat droplets on the surface.
It can also happen if milk is heated- for 2 reasons. Firstly, if the milk is heated too quickly or is boiling, it will separate. Or, if the milk becomes acidic, the proteins in the milk will bond with each other, causing curdling (this is why adding lemon juice to milk creates buttermilk). On another note – when milk gets old and starts to spoil it also becomes acidic. That's why spoiled milk is curdled… but curdled milk does not necessarily mean spoiled milk.
Ok enough of the science. Here are best practices for using dairy in the slow cooker:
Specifically – meat trimmings, onion pieces, and garlic pieces are very aromatic in the trash can. Work with a waste bowl or a cake pan next to your prep station and put all of your throw-aways in that. Then, transfer them all to a grocery bag and tie it up. If you aren't going to take your trash out right away, or it's a few days until trash pick-up and you're in the heat of summer. You're going to want to keep the stink down.
Tie everything up in a grocery bag and then double bag it before you throw it away. You'll thank me later.
With a crockpot, bigger isn't better most of the time. Generally, people think that if you get a larger crockpot, you'll have the option to make larger meals if you want. This is true. But that's where the benefit stops. I made this mistake the first time I bought a crockpot.
Here's the thing: The magic of the crockpot is food cooking in liquid (also called braising). If your crockpot is too large, your meat will not be mostly covered in liquid. So the top portion of the meat will be steamed instead of braised and end up tough. Plus, the liquid in the crockpot helps to regulate the crockpot temperature. If there is only a shallow amount of liquid in the bottom, you'll get some burning around the edges of the crock because it will get too hot.
Unless you feed an army regularly, you probably won't need the bathtub-sized 18 qt slow cooker. For a family of 6, a 5 qt crockpot is PLENTY big enough. I actually recommend a 3 or 4 qt round crock as the best size. And if you are feeding a ton of people, using 2-4 qt slow cookers will actually be better than one giant 8 qt slow cooker.
Label all of your freezer bags before you fill them, and don't think you'll remember what's what when you finally go to cook that freezer meal in a few weeks. Label all of the bags and make sure you know where your cooking instructions are beforehand. Some meals take longer than others to cook so make sure you know if you have enough time to make that particular meal before you thaw it.