For active home cooks or even those who generally dread the task, the freezer deserves credit for helping get dinner (or dessert) on the table. It’s a place that offers a wealth of shortcut meals and snacks, from exceptional frozen dumplings to nostalgic treats like tater tots. Frozen ingredients like chicken stock or marinara sauce can get a home cook most of the way to a finished meal. As long as people know the best way to store and defrost their freezer items, whether they’re cuts of meat or bagels, a freezer is undeniably an indispensable tool, during a pandemic and otherwise.
Here’s a roundup of the useful items Eater editors are most likely to keep hidden away in their freezers.
Cooking fat: Meat isn’t an everyday item in our house, so when we do cook with it, my partner and I like to save every last bit. That means saving the fat. Grease is one of those pesky residuals of cooking that’s harder to dispose of. It really shouldn’t go directly down the drain. Some people wait for it to cool in a container and then pour it in the garbage. However, I recommend saving that flavor. When you cook chicken, duck, bacon, or anything else particularly precious and tasty, save the drippings in a glass container and stick it in the freezer. Then use it in place of butter or oil in your cooking to impart more flavor. Duck fat is particularly tasty for cooking fried eggs at breakfast time. —Brenna Houck, Eater Detroit editor
Ice cube tray and ice cubes: The most important items in my freezer are my two ice cube trays and the ice they hold. Since shelter-in-place has coincided with my pregnancy, I’m drinking a lot of non-alcoholic beverages, each of which is greatly improved by being even colder. I make cheater iced almond milk lattes by stirring drip coffee with ice and then adding more ice and almond milk. I cool down cups of herbal tea I discover I’ve left on the counter and enjoy iced tea. I drink so much more tap water when I remember to put ice cubes in it. The trick: Refill your tray with water every time you take cubes from it. Just make it part of your routine and it’s never empty. —Hillary Dixler Canavan, restaurant editor
Frozen fruit: My biggest freezer staple is frozen fruit, mostly because I love a good smoothie. Great for breakfast or anytime you feel like you need a Vitamin C boost, the secret to a thick, filling smoothie is to use a fresh banana and frozen fruit without adding ice. I just buy the bags frozen from my local grocery store (even tropical fruits like pitaya are now pretty easy to find), but this is also a great way to store those final few strawberries before they go bad. Other uses of fruit in your freezer: cocktail ingredients, drink garnishes, a snack (especially frozen mango). —Erin Russell, Eater Austin associate editor
Dino nuggets: Why eat boring chicken nuggets when you can eat chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs? It may be childish, but I will never stop getting a kick out of dino nuggets. It’s an easy lunch on a hectic day; just toss them in the toaster oven. Flip once. I guess you could make a side salad if you’re feeling fancy. But the only required side, as far as I’m concerned, is a dipping sauce — ideally barbecue sauce from Dinosaur Bar-B-Que because (a) it’s good and (b) obviously dino nuggets go best with Dino sauce. —Rachel Leah Blumenthal, Eater Boston editor
Homemade gumbo: Gumbo is one of my favorite meals to make at home, but let’s be real; it’s a project, a cooking task that’s going to clock in at a couple hours before it’s done. Luckily, since there are only two of us at home, making gumbo always means gumbo leftovers, and I don’t think there’s a more satisfying freezer meal for me than a bowl of gumbo that I simply pulled out of the freezer (stored in a quart container) to defrost the night before in the fridge, and reheated for dinner that evening. Gumbo doesn’t really deteriorate significantly in the freezer; all you have to do is throw some rice in the rice cooker, and you have an easy weeknight dinner that totally makes up for all the effort you initially put into making a roux, simmering your ingredients, and just having patience for the gumbo to finish the first time around. —Missy Frederick, cities director
Frozen dinners from mom: Being far away from my family is hard, especially now that I don’t really know when I can safely go back home to New York. Thankfully, I usually have deep-frozen containers of my mother’s home-cooking in my freezer, from my last visit home. Whenever I fly home, my mother usually asks me what foods I want to bring back (my favorites: shrimp and potol, a Bengali pointed gourd; chicken with squash), along with biryani. My mom batch-cooks everything and my dad portions out the food into 16-ounce deli containers, labels each one, and carefully packs everything into a disposable cooler with ice packs, ready to be placed in my overstuffed suitcase. This way, I can hold onto tastes of home even though it’s 1,700+ miles away. —Nadia Chaudhury, Eater Austin editor
Banana ice cream: Forget cookies and cream or chocolate chip cookie dough. Banana is the best ice cream flavor, and I make sure to keep a half-gallon in my freezer at all times. Living in Newark, I’m lucky to be within walking distance of the scoop shop that makes it best: Nasto’s. I have three scoops after dinner every night, always with a drizzle of chocolate syrup, and it’s pure bliss. I understand that ice cream isn’t the most exciting thing in a freezer compared to frozen dumplings or mochi, but the flavor takes me back to sitting on my late grandmother’s balcony in Ankara, where we would split a bowl of fruit — mostly bananas — together. —Esra Erol, senior social media manager
Freezer cake: I don’t remember what life was like before I discovered Freezer Cake. I don’t care to look back on that era. There’s something special about knowing a slice of banana upside-down cake or a thick slab of banana bread is waiting there, whispering my name gently from the back corner of the freezer. In these not-very-sweet times, being able to eat a slice of cake without ever cracking an egg or dirtying a bowl feels like a victory. All you need to do is let whatever cake you’ve so wisely frozen defrost slowly on the counter. Because sometimes turning on the oven is just too much work. —Elazar Sontag, staff writer
Stock: The one thing I always try to have in my freezer is stock. Usually it’s chicken stock, either made from the carcass of a roast chicken or from a big pile of chicken wings I dumped in my Instant Pot, because so many recipes call for it, whether a little bit to help finish a sauce or several cups to make a soup or stew. Homemade stock tastes noticeably better, and since it’s easy to keep in the freezer, making up a big batch doesn’t risk any going to waste. To freeze stock, I measure it out into plastic baggies in rough one or two cup amounts, using a ladle with a half-cup measure on it, and then lie them flat in the freezer one on top of the other, so when they harden, they’re easy to stack. When I need to defrost, I zap a frozen bag for 30 seconds or a minute in the microwave and break off roughly as much as I need, or drop the whole cup or two into the pot. I have endured the shame of throwing out all sorts of things from my freezer, but I have never, ever wasted stock. —Meghan McCarron, special correspondent
Homemade pesto: My frozen secret weapon is an ice cube tray full of homemade pesto. Pesto sauce, to me, is a special thing. Basil is a precious, flavorful commodity that seems expensive if you don’t have a farmers market nearby, and it doesn’t stay for very long either. Pine nuts are also quite pricey, so when I do make a big batch from scratch, I make sure to make it last. Pesto is so flavorful that you don’t need to use a lot for any single dish. That’s where the ice cube tray comes in. Filling a tray with pesto and freezing it into cubes is a trick I learned long ago when Pinterest was new on the scene and basically church for those interested in recipe ideas and hacks. Popping out one or two cubes of pesto as needed is a great way to make use of the sauce you may have made months ago when basil was in season, without having to defrost an entire Tupperware. It’s such an easy and fast way to add flavor to a quick pasta dish, some beans, a sandwich of any kind, and even to make into a vinaigrette for a salad on the fly. —Terri Ciccone, audience development manager
Salted caramel ice cream: If it’s freezer junk food you seek, I present Lotus Biscoff Salted Caramel Ice Cream, something I started hoarding during the pandemic. I swear it’s the softest ice cream I’ve ever found. The instructions even recommend leaving it out for five minutes to soften before you dig in. There is a straight Biscoff cookie version, but I like the salted caramel mixed in. I buy it at Target, and do a search before I venture out to make sure it’s in stock. —Susan Stapleton, Eater Vegas editor
Honorable mentions: Fresh herbs frozen in ice cube trays, bags of pre-peeled garlic, brownies, Eggo waffles, tortellini, peas, pierogis, homemade marinara sauce, cooked beans, rice cakes for stir fries, cookie dough.