How to Turn Your Favorite Meals into Dishes That Freeze *Perfectly*
When you’ve got the energy to cook, it’s worth capitalizing on. After all, it hardly takes more effort to double a dish, but that doesn’t mean you want to actually eat double the quantity of your dinners this week. That, of course, is what your freezer is here for. But finding meals that freeze well (and learning how to prep for them) requires a little bit of finesse.
Here’s why it’s worth it: when you get in the habit of cooking for your freezer, you end up having to cook less often. With just a little effort, you’ll find that you have weeks’ worth of delicious meals waiting for you. They’ll be healthier than prepared frozen meals, easy to reheat, and you’ll already know you love the flavors involved because they were the ones you chose. Here’s how to add frozen meals to your culinary repertoire so that you can enjoy more of your meals later without any added effort:
Prep is key
As with everything in life, readiness for the task at hand leads to the most success. The right organization for freezing your meals will equate to the tastiest meals later, so don’t skimp on these steps.
1. Know what meals work
Having some amount of liquid in a recipe is ideal for it being freezer friendly. Stews, soups, braised meats, bean dishes, and casseroles are all top choices for meals that freeze well. Dry item preparations like roasted vegetables or grilled meats won’t hold up nearly as well.
2. Have appropriate containers ready
Whether you want to freeze in gallon-size freezer bags or glass jars, have your storage items cleaned and at hand. Know that while plastic isn’t an ideal choice for health reasons, glass will require extreme caution with thawing and heating in order to not break, so be realistic about how you want to reheat your food later. No matter what type of containment situation you choose, make sure it’s the right size for your meals. That means all excess air is out, which prevents ice crystals from forming.
3. Don’t forget labels
There’s little that’s more frustrating than going through the freezer and finding frosty containers of who-knows-what. This can be prevented by having labels at the ready.
4. Cool, cool, cool
Never plan on putting hot food into the freezer. If you’re using plastic to store your meals, hot foods may make the plastic release more chemicals. If you’re using glass, transferring hot food to the freezer will make the glass break. Additionally, you’re practically begging for condensation, which will then freeze into ice. Cook your food, cool it in the fridge, and freeze it tightly once it’s cold. Wrapping everything well is key to avoiding condensation, also known as freezer burn. It’s always a good idea to check the FDA guidelines for freezing food to ensure you’re not breaking any rules that could lead to food borne illness.
5. Know your inventory and rotate
Before you put this new batch of food in the freezer, pull any older meals to the front. Store new meals behind the old, just like if you were stocking your pantry or fridge.
And now, you’re ready to cook:
1. Less liquid now is better later
Most foods will leach some amount of liquid when they thaw. If you’re making soup, this is inconsequential, but for anything else, err on the side of less liquid. Think thicker sauces in your casserole and less liquid added to vegetables when you cook them. It’s safe to plan on removing a couple tablespoons of liquid, or up to a half-cup for larger recipes.
2. Al dente foods will soften
Just like it changes the water concentration in foods, textures also alter with the freezing and thawing process. Cook everything with texture al dente, from vegetables to grains. Because they’ll soften as you heat them, al dente cooking prevents them from becoming mushy and unpleasant. That’s why casseroles and stews are top choices for meals that freeze well: Their textures have already become amalgamated with one another, so the “ew” factor of a soft piece of broccoli or a mushy bean has already been taken care of.
Keeping food safety in mind, you want to cook your meals for freezing until they’re done and safe, but not until they’re golden and crispy. If you’re using a slow cooker, follow the shorter time of the range given in a recipe. If you’ve baking a casserole in the oven, take it out once it’s barely golden, well before it hits the full caramelized stage. Taking these steps now means that when you reheat your food, your stews will have excellent texture and your casseroles won’t be overly brown. If you’ve ever looked at a frozen lasagna, you’ve noticed that though all components of it have been pre-cooked, it isn’t golden at all. When it doubt, cook your items similarly to the coloring you’ve seen in frozen meals. For ones that are safe to freeze after assembly because each element is already cooked, do that instead.
4. Individual portions reheat more quickly
It may be tempting to throw that entire lasagna in the freezer, but you should only do that if you know for sure that your family will want to eat it all at once at a later date — and you’ll need to set aside the time for that big guy to heat in the oven, which will not be a quick affair. Freezing in individual portions prevents that problem later. Take the cooked food out of the fridge once it’s cold, and package it in portions appropriate for your lifestyle. That can be single portions, doubles for two, or in larger ones for five to six. However many people will eat the meal at once should dictate how you freeze it, and you can keep in mind that sometimes, family members want to eat different foods at the same meal.
5. Avoid certain foods
Though technically anything can be placed in the freezer, some foods fare better than others in terms of texture. Exercise caution with potatoes, pasta, white rice, dairy, eggs, and salad dressings. Opt instead for stews and casseroles that involve thick sauces, and meats that have been slow-cooked so they have pull-apart texture, which are almost always meals that freeze well. If you want to freeze potatoes, either undercook them slightly or mash them so that they thaw in a way that you can add extra enhancement if needed, or try other root vegetables, such as turnips, that can take the temperature changes in stride. For dairy, be sure it’s fully integrated into a sauce, so that it can’t separate easily. Because white rice can get iffy, use this as an opportunity to explore heartier grains like black rice, farro, or millet.