Do you know what’s really lurking in the bottom of your freezer, and how long it’s been there? Nutritionist Bronwen King explains how to make the most of your frozen food.
When life’s crazy-busy, your freezer can play a key role in healthy eating. But how many of us really use our freezer to its full advantage? To help you get more value from your freezer, here’s some cold hard facts you should know.
Make a point of moving food from the back to the front every month, so you don’t have food languishing in the depths for extended periods.
Use clear labelling for organisation (including date of entry) as it will help you know exactly what you have and how long it has been there.
Keep your freezer full, but not overstocked. This means the cold air does not have to circulate as much so less power is needed (keeping costs down). Fill any spare space in the freezer with plastic bottles half filled with water.
If you have a chest freezer, the secret to organisation is having several easy to remove ‘compartments’. Measure up your freezer then purchase several different-coloured square or oblong buckets or baskets with handles. The idea is to have them fit neatly inside your freezer. Colour-code your buckets (eg. green for soups, blue for meat, yellow for premade meals).
Only freeze fresh food. It’s no use preserving food to extend its quality if it has already started to spoil. The point of freezing is to keep food at its prime.
Freeze food as soon as, and as quickly as, possible. This will minimise the size of ice crystals that will form and limit any damage to the food when it is thawed.
Blanch all raw vegies before freezing. This kills the enzymes that cause food spoilage.
Package well. Freezer burn happens when the surface of food is exposed to air. When preparing food for freezing it’s important to make sure as little of the surface is exposed as possible. Use packaging that provides a good barrier between the food and air. Make sure containers are a similar size to the amount of food being frozen. Good options include:
Snap-lock bags – choose the right size and remove excess air by pressing on the bag and sealing well. Where there is a lot of liquid, double bag your food.
Stackable containers with tight-fitting lids – a cheap option is to buy takeaway-style plastic containers and lids in bulk.
Plastic wrap and foil. With solid products like pastry or cheese, a layer of plastic wrap followed by a layer of heavy-duty aluminium foil will create a good barrier against moisture. Placing the wrapped package in a plastic bag will further protect it from freezer burn.
Certain foods such as berries, peas, chops and chicken pieces are best frozen in single serve quantities. Spread food in a single layer on a tray or on a shallow dish, freeze until solid and then pack into freezer bags or containers. This way you can use the quantity you need then reseal.
To prevent temperature fluctuations only add a small amount of unfrozen food to your freezer at a time.
Remember: water expands when it freezes so leave at least 1cm headspace at the top of your filled containers to allow for this and so they don’t explode.
Decide which food items will be stored in which drawers or baskets and stick to your plan.
Hot ’n’ cold
Some dishes can be cooked straight from frozen. When doing this, use a lower temperature to start with then increase the temperature as the dish starts to thaw. Foods that reheat well from frozen include:
soups, stews and casseroles
potato-topped pies, eg. shepherd’s pie
thin fish fillets, prawns and calamari when used in a stir-fry or soup.
Never cook raw poultry and large joints of meat straight from frozen as you risk food poisoning and tough, unpleasant meat. Thaw meat completely in the fridge before cooking. This may take 24 hours or more. Don’t thaw meat on the bench as this again increases the risk of food poisoning.
Freezers can make meal preparation on busy days very simple. These tips will help you get delicious meals on the table super-fast!
On the weekend, make double quantity of a meal that freezes well. Freeze half and use the following week on a busy night. Meals like shepherd’s pie (complete with potato topping), curries, casseroles, pasta dishes and meat sauces all freeze well.
Whip up a batch of savoury muffins or vegie fritters and freeze, to pull out for quick, healthy lunches.
Save all your old bread and make a savoury crumb mix. Process bread with some English mustard powder, fresh herbs (e.g. parsley or dill) and grated lemon rind. Freeze in snaplock bags in one-cup lots. Try pressing onto white fish then baking in a single layer in a dish. It’s also a yummy topping for savoury pasta or potato bakes.
If you have an abundance of tomatoes (or canned tomatoes), make a big pot of pasta sauce. Freeze in meal-sized portions for easy pasta meals. See p64 for Sprout’s tasty tomato sauce base you can make, freeze and then use for a variety of quick meals.
In winter make a big pot of soup on the weekend. Enjoy some for lunch then freeze the leftovers in single-serve lots. It’s great to take to work for lunch during the week.
Keep pizza bases and grated mozzarella in your freezer. That way you’ll always have the makings of an easy homemade pizza.
Keep your freezer stocked with chicken breasts and frozen stir-fry vegetables. With a packet of rice you have an easy meal in less time than it would take to get Thai takeaway.
Frozen crumbed fish portions and frozen wedges are great for chill-out Friday nights. Team them with a ready-made salad, sit back and relax!
Freeze leftover stock in an ice-cube tray. You can then take out and use in whatever quantity you need.
Similarly, squeeze and freeze unused lemons and limes in ice-block moulds so you can add to refreshing cool drinks.
What not to freeze
Vegetables with a high water content such as lettuce, celery or cucumber. When the water expands during freezing the cell walls break, causing the vegies to go limp and mushy.
Poultry with stuffing. The stuffing is much slower to freeze than the meat which increases the risk of food poisoning.
Cooked egg white either alone or made up into dishes (e.g. bacon and egg pie or Scotch eggs) goes tough and rubbery.
Sauces thickened with flour (such as white sauce or gravy) thin when thawed. Sauces thickened with cornflour hold their texture better, so are better to freeze.
Egg-based sauces such as mayonnaise separate and curdle.
Yoghurt, cream, sour cream and light cream cheese go watery.
Jellies and dishes made from gelatine break down and separate.
Unwhipped cream breaks down (whipped cream, however, freezes well).
How long can I store frozen food?
Below are the recommended maximum storage times for different foods. Food stored beyond these dates is perfectly safe to eat, but time may affect the texture and quality.
Chops and steak
Whole chicken (unstuffed)
Fish and seafood
Bacon, ham and other cured meats
Casseroles based on meat, fish or poultry
Stewed or puréed fruit
Muffins, scones and cakes
Pies and pastries
Pesto (freeze in ice-cube trays)
Butter and margarine
Cheese (best frozen grated)
Uncooked egg whites
Freezing at –18°C ensures
Harmful microorganisms don’t grow
Water turns to ice starving microorganisms of the food they need
Enzymes involved in food spoilage are slowed or deactivated
Does freezing kill all bugs?
No. Freezing does not make food sterile. The best way to kill pathogens and parasites is to cook food thoroughly before freezing. Also, avoid defrosting on the bench as this puts food in the danger zone for bacteria growth (5 to 60°C).