I lead a very full life. As previously mentioned, I live with two dogs, two teenage boys, a husband and a cat. I’m a corporate communications consultant and a food consultant. I blog about food. I swim. I paint. I sometimes do yoga. I love gardening. I’m a Facebook junkie. A Scrabble addict. A voracious reader. Someone who believes in investing time in friendship. And yes, I like to cook and eat. In order to pack all of this into my life, I need to use every tool at my disposal. In terms of cooking, that means making the most of my freezer. Aside from raw meats, my freezer contains, at various times:
- marinated raw meats
- burger patties and meatballs
- corn, peas, fried onions, grated coconut
- homemade soups, stock, and curries
- hummus, chicken liver pate, and yogurt dip
- homemade pre-fried masalas
- unseasoned cooked dal
- breads and pizza bases
- pancakes, waffles, and french toast
- cookie dough, muffins, and cakes
- lasagne and other baked dishes
Keeping these handy allows me to cook and eat the kind of food I like even when I’m feeling tired or lazy. Over many years (and many mistakes), I have come up with a simple list of Freezer Rules:
1. Know what NOT to freeze
Raw fruits and vegetables with a high water content, like cucumber, watermelon, cabbage, celery, tomatoes, and lettuce. Fried foods. Boiled eggs. Custard, frosting, light cream, mayonnaise. Anything with a melted cheese or breadcrumb topping. Here’s a more detailed list.
2. Make it effortless
Though some busy moms swear by the OAMC method, in which you devote one whole day to cooking an entire month’s meals, I believe in not making any extra effort. Frying onions for your curry? Fry 50 percent more than you need, and before you add your spices, scoop out the extra with a slotted spoon and set aside. Cool, then freeze. Making dal, curry, or soup? Make an extra portion, set aside, cool, and freeze.
3. Freezer burn: know thy enemy
Freezer burn (an oxymoron if there ever was one!) refers to the ugly grey-brown splotches that form on frozen food when it dehydrates or oxidizes (understanding the specifics of how that happens involves a knowledge of physics). Although freezer burn does not pose a food safety risk, it does result in dry areas that affect flavor and texture, especially with meats. Recognizing freezer burn is easy; if ice crystals have formed directly on the surface of the food, or if there are dry, gray or white patches on it, it’s freezer burn. You will need to discard the portion of the food that has been affected; the rest should be okay.
So how do you prevent it? Air is the enemy! If you’re using containers, make sure to fill them up, leaving no more than 5mm of space at the top in the case of liquids (to allow for expansion). The other option is to wrap food tightly in plastic or aluminium foil. Use a couple of layers of wrap – and then place in a Ziploc bag and squeeze out as much air as possible. Overkill? Not if you want your food to look and taste the way it’s supposed to. Another way to prevent dehydration and eliminate exposure to air is to freeze foods – especially cooked foods – in liquid.
4. Think Small and Keep Track
Okay, so that’s two rules, not one. It’s just that I think of them as inseparable, because when you freeze in several smaller portions, it’s easy to forget exactly how much of each food you have on hand. Freezing food in small, portion-sized quantities ensures that it cools and thaws faster, thus minimizing food safety risks. Plus, since it is not recommended to re-freeze thawed foods, it minimizes wastage by ensuring that you only defrost the quantity you need.
To ensure that you know what you have in your freezer (and more importantly, how long it’s been there!), you need to do two things: one, label everything you freeze. It can be frustrating to take out what you think is pork, only to find, on thawing, that it’s chicken. Two, attach a pen and a sheet of paper to your freezer door. Each time you put something in, record the date, the item, and the number of servings you’re freezing. Each time you take something out, score it off your list. Obviously, you’ll want to follow the “first in, first out” rule as you consume your frozen food.
5. Defrost correctly
Repeat after me: I will never defrost food by leaving it out at room temperature.
When you freeze food, the cold temperature causes any bacteria it contains to become dormant (it is later completely destroyed during the cooking process). These bacteria – especially salmonella and e.coli – thrive in temperatures between 4°C/40°F and 38°C/100°F. This is the “danger zone” while defrosting food – unfortunately, this is also “room temperature”. This is why you should neither leave food out on the counter to defrost nor try to defrost using warm or hot water. Aside: Why all the fuss, if the bacteria are destroyed through the cooking process? Because this is true only if the food is cooked through for an exact duration to an exact temperature. Also, the temperature at which bacteria is destroyed varies from food to food. It is impossible for a home cook to achieve this level of precision; the only thing you can do is minimize your risk of bacterial infection. Correct defrosting technique does just that.
There are only three safe ways to defrost food, and in all cases, you must be sure to cook the defrosted food thoroughly if you plan to refreeze it.
- In the refrigerator: By far the safest way to defrost because it keeps food below the danger zone temperatures. However, this method of defrosting also takes longest (up to 24 hours, depending on weight and size of the food being defrosted) and requires the most forethought and planning.
- In cold water: Faster than defrosting in the fridge because water is a better conductor of heat than air. Place frozen food in a leak-proof plastic bag and submerge in cold water (cold water = minimal food safety risk). Change the water every half an hour or so until the food is defrosted.
- In a microwave. The quickest way to defrost. However – you must cook the defrosted food immediately, because because some areas of the frozen food may begin to cook during defrosting. Do not hold partially cooked food for later use.
Adopt these five rules, and you will soon be making use of your freezer for all kinds of last-minute and time-saving cooking tricks. It makes life so much easier – and gives you more time to do the things you want to do.