My mother is what you might call a culinary cryogenicist. Long before the crew at the Noma Food Lab grew their first flavor spore, my mom was experimenting with the effects of age and temperature on all kinds of foodstuffs: the last two bites of some mac and cheese. Four shrimp. One-third of a pork chop. Three matzo balls. Half a bag of green beans tied shut with a trash bag twist-tie. An old joint. Eight slices of rye bread. Raisins. So. Much. Ham. And that’s just the first shelf of the freezer.
It was a talent she inherited. Her own mother was a master of the freezer arts, best exemplified by the very same “tray of frozen shrimp” offered to us on every grandparent visit for more than two decades; it became a running family joke. As a member of the next generation, however, my family’s faith in the preservation power of cold turned me into a devoted freezer snob. For most of my adult life, my freezer has remained a sacred space reserved for only the most cold-hardy ingredients — ice cream, popsicles, those giant cocktail ice spheres, and maybe the occasional box of toaster waffles or bag of frozen peas. Meat? God no. Fish? Please, back away and leave quietly.
In my mind, freezing things ruined their precious molecular integrity by turning them into rock-hard cubes. Meat is normally prized for its “freshness.” In the fields, crops are carefully covered to prevent freezing, so why put them under such duress in your own home? Having kids a few years ago loosened me up a bit — show me one child-rearing American household a without a frozen bag of dinosaur-shaped chicken blobs lurking somewhere. But overall, for the better part of the last decade, my freezer has remained as sleek and food-free as an after-hours Apple Store.
But when COVID-19 hit I admittedly went into full hoarder mode. My diet, like my fashion, is dictated by my mood (it’s also why I’m a chronic over-packer). With annual memberships to Instacart, Amazon Fresh, and a handful of specialty grocers down the street, I’d become accustomed to getting all the ingredients to sate any craving within an hour of it hitting. Maintaining that level of spontaneity in the time of supermarket lines and impossible delivery queues meant stocking up in ways I’d never fathomed before.
Even with a family of four eating three-plus meals a day, the kind of inventory I was sporting needed to be able to hang out a while. And so, it was with deep reservations that I finally began freezing things — though the real miracle didn’t occur until I began un-freezing them.
First I tried a pork tenderloin, one of three I had purchased at Costco a few weeks earlier. Following the advice of the pros, I took it out of the freezer and put it in my fridge overnight, cooked it as usual, and it was… fine. Good, even. Next I tried salmon — I’ve had terrible experiences with frozen seafood in the past, so my hopes were low for the three rosy-pink portions I defrosted and broiled. But again, the resulting fish was surprisingly moist, fatty, firm, delicious.
After that I started throwing everything in the freezer just to see: ground turkey, chicken thighs. All were fine. Then I moved into pizza dough, shredded cheese, blanched vegetables; then on to chili, tortillas, pancakes, whole loaves of bread, coffee (while dry coffee beans won’t technically “go bad,” their flavor and aroma suffer over time). Pretty much every single thing I froze — and later unfroze — emerged as relatively unharmed and tasty as the day I bought it. (Notable exceptions included skim milk and some poorly wrapped steaks, and it took some serious trial and error with fresh greens.)
Now, as we go into week five… or six? of “safer at home” measures, my freezer has transformed from a sterile ice-storage facility to a clutch partner in culinary crime. Today the once-barren shelves are buckling beneath the weight of dated and labeled baggies and bins with enough perfectly preserved food to more than bridge the gap between bi-weekly produce box deliveries and masked-up grocery runs.
But as it turns out, my mom and grandmother were, in fact, artists — there is a technique, even a flair to freezing food successfully. Wrap something improperly or defrost incorrectly and you might not just risk the integrity of your ingredients, but also your health. So after a month or so of embracing my familial fate and becoming a frozen food convert, here are a few lessons I’ve learned:
The Container Matters
I know, plastic is the enemy, but those fancy glass containers can crack in the freezer. According to the experts, the best way to freeze food is in a vacuum-seal bag that you suction yourself with one of those fancy machines to minimize air (air is your enemy in the great freezer wars). I don’t have one of those — though I’ve been eyeing this one on Amazon — so I use regular old freezer-grade zipper bags and press out as much air as possible before sealing. There’s also a trick where you mimic a vacuum sealer with a drinking straw, slipping it in the corner of the bag and sucking out as much air as you can before pulling the straw out at the last minute, but I felt weird inhaling all those funky meat fumes. My Instagram feed has been full of ads for these pricey silicone bags that I hear work well but I’ve yet to give them a test run.
Either way, you’re going for minimal air exposure and some thickness barrier — a little cushion between your food and the freezer air will help prevent that dreaded freezer burn, a damaging mix of oxidation and dehydration.
Prep Is Key
For meat and fish, you generally want to remove them from their original packaging and re-wrap in individual portions before freezing. Wrapping each cut in an extra layer of plastic before putting them in the zipper bag adds another degree of protection. Timing is key here. Freeze cuts of meat immediately after you get them home, or better yet, buy them pre-frozen. There are entire industries built around freezing fish in a way that sacrifices the least in the way of flavor and texture, so trust the pros — they know what they’re doing.
Vegetables, for the most part, should be quickly blanched before freezing. The drag here is that in the process of blanching, they absorb too much water to get any sort of good roasty char later, but it’s a small price to pay for having quality seasonal produce year-round. Before you blanch, prep the ingredients the way you plan to eat them, meaning separating broccoli and cauliflower into florets, snapping the ends off green beans, and chopping greens. Then boil a big pot of water and dunk the vegetables in for about a minute before plunging immediately into a big bowl of icy water. This will keep them from continuing to cook and turning to mush. The next part is key: Dry everything as best you can. The more water, the thicker the tectonic ice coating you’ll get on every piece. Then put everything into baggies and freeze.
Fruit freezing techniques vary — it all depends what you want to use them for. No amount of freezer skill will recreate the experience of biting into a fresh peach after it’s been frozen. But for smoothies, pie fillings, baking, or juice, most fruit will freeze just fine. Bananas freeze great, peel and all. Berries you’ll want to rinse, dry, then let freeze on a large flat surface like a cookie sheet before transferring to bags. If you want to use citrus just for zest or juice, go ahead and freeze them whole. They say you can freeze citrus in wedges individually, but I found the texture suffers greatly after defrosting, and honestly I can’t imagine what you’d want to use floppy, deflated tangerine wedges for. Juice is no problem — just squeeze, put the juice into an ice cube mold and freeze. You can pop them out later and transfer to a plastic bag for easier storage.
The above ice-cube tray technique works well for all kinds of liquids and purees. I actually bought these cool molds to freeze baby food for my second kid, and I use them now for smaller portions of stocks, lemon juice, pesto, pizza sauce. For larger batches, I pour a couple of cups into a zipper bag, get out as much air as possible, and freeze them flat so I can stack them later.
Breads freeze fantastically, but as a rule pre-sliced is best. I started buying giant loaves of my favorite rye bread from the farmers market and keep them in the freezer full-time, toasting off individual slices as needed; my mom perfected a technique with bagels that involves slicing them as soon as you get them home, wrapping each half separately, and then toasting them direct from the freezer. Pre-cooked tortillas and pita you can just wrap, freeze, and cook off one by one, but my most exciting recent discovery has been in the realm of pre-baked goods. It turns out most doughs recover well after freezing, and I just made a batch of biscuits using this technique that has you freezing the raw, cut biscuits ahead of time and baking them off as needed. It’s opened up a whole new world of frozen pastry projects for me.
I’m sure there’s some technique to freezing cheese but honestly I just put whole hunks and bags of the pre-shredded stuff straight into the freezer. I don’t really freeze milk but the wisdom is that the more fat content, the better it freezes, so half-and-half freezes great, skim milk not so much. Coffee I found out you can freeze and brew straight from frozen, which is excellent considering it is an absolute nonnegotiable in my house.
Don’t Rush the Defrost
(Even Though Sometimes I Do, But It’s Really Risky, Okay?)
The basic rule of thumb for pretty much everything is low and slow. Put whatever you want to defrost in the refrigerator the night before you want to cook it — sometimes longer for big cuts of meat — and let it come to temperature gradually. I do this... most times. But there is a reason your microwave has a “defrost” setting, and it will definitely speed things along if also putting you at risk of prematurely cooking the edges of your chicken breast. I’ve successfully defrosted smaller cuts of fish and shrimp by running the bags under cold water in the sink for a few minutes until soft enough to handle, but this is not officially endorsed by the pros. What you’re definitely not supposed to do is let your ingredients hang out at room temp until they defrost. I have done this too, though it is a surefire recipe for a bacterial infection and this is not the time you want to be running to the ER for dehydration.
The point is, the freezer might be cold and dark, but it is not at all a thing to fear. Utilizing it well has helped me maintain the kind of spur-of-the-moment cooking style that feels normal to me — a valuable thing when pretty much everything else about my life right now does not feel normal. Now all I need is a bigger freezer.