Listen, when those chicken thighs are on sale you’re not going to not buy 12 of them. But if you aren’t planning on cooking all of them pretty soon, you’re probably freezing them for later. The thing is, what goes in the freezer with good intentions doesn’t always come out and meet your expectations. On more occasions than I care to admit, I’ve been disappointed to find my recently frozen food covered in freezer burn, icy beyond recognition, and far from the color it was when I originally bought it—definitely not the perfectly preserved food I’d been expecting to find. If you freeze food properly, it can last a very long time. In fact, according to the FDA, food that’s frozen at 0 degrees Fahrenheit (which is what your freezer should generally be set to) should last indefinitely. But just because something is safe to eat doesn’t mean it’s going to taste great or look appetizing.
The truth is, like so many other things that seem basic, there are a lot of little steps that go into freezing food to get the best results. If you really want your food to retain its taste and texture, you need to make sure you’re doing things like prepping it strategically, using the right containers, only freezing foods that can stand up to a frigid environment, and more. And if you’re someone who enjoys the convenience of having things like soups, smoothie packs, and muffins stashed away for a rainy day, it’s worth making a few tweaks to optimize your freezing strategy.
Here, experts point out the common mistakes people make when freezing food and share what to do to keep your food tasting delicious for longer.
1. Freezing the wrong foods
Mary Liz Wright, M.S., food safety expert and nutrition and wellness educator at the University of Illinois Extension, tells SELF that while most foods can be successfully frozen, a handful of items won’t fare well in the freezer. Some tender salad greens (like lettuce and mesclun) and watery veggies, like cabbage, celery, cucumbers, endive, lettuce, parsley, and radishes, tend to become limp and water-logged, which negatively impacts both their flavor and texture. (Sturdier greens like spinach, kale, and Swiss chard actually do freeze well—more on that in #5 below.) Also, baked or boiled potatoes become soft, crumbly, and water-logged when frozen. And while raw egg whites are fair game, cooked ones will become soft, tough, and rubbery. Plus, she says you should never freeze pasta plain—it’ll survive much better when pre-coated in a sauce.
As for what you can freeze, pretty much anything else is fair game, provided you’re using the right tools and techniques, says Wright. Some things that are better suited for the freezer include soups, which will easily defrost and return to their original state. Pastas or casseroles that are already coated in sauce will also hold up well because the sauce will sort of shield the starchier ingredients within from the colder temps, ensuring that their texture and flavor is properly preserved.
The same goes for fruits and veggies with really wet interiors. Wright recommends packaging peeled peaches (and similar fruits) in a syrup mixture because this will prevent them from oxidizing and drying out. You should also store tomatoes in their juices to protect the flesh of the fruit. For things like apples, which have a lower water content but can still be subject to oxidization, she says to package them with a bit of lemon juice. (If they do oxidize and get brown, though, they’re still fine to eat.)
2. Not freezing food quickly enough
“Time is quality when it comes to freezing,” Wright explains. “When food freezes quickly there is less damage to the cell wall,” which can result in flavor and texture issues, she says. If you defrost something and it’s super mushy, she says it probably froze too slowly.
Thankfully, avoiding this problem is easy, because Wright says that all you have to do is either cut up whatever you’re freezing into small pieces, or freeze it in a smaller container. “The smaller the piece or the smaller the container the more rapidly the food freezes,” she explains. You can also speed up the process by lowering the temperature of your freezer to -10 degrees F a full day before you intend to freeze any food. Once everything is frozen, you can safely turn the dial back up to 0.
Wright says it’s also important to make sure that air can circulate around the food when it is first placed in the freezer, because this will also allow it to freeze faster. After the food is frozen, though, she says you can feel freeze to stack the bags and containers to maximize space.
Also, if you have food you know you won’t eat before it goes bad—for example, if you buy a large package of chicken and want to save a bunch for later—it’s best to freeze it immediately as soon as you bring it home. The sooner you freeze it, the less time there is for bacteria to grow.
3. Putting hot food straight into the freezer
Philip Tierno, Ph.D., clinical professor in the departments of microbiology and pathology at NYU Langone Medical Center, says that putting hot food straight into the freezer is a big no-no because it can bring down the temperature of your freezer and accidentally partially defrost whatever else you might have in there. Repeated melting and freezing can encourage bacteria growth and seriously mess with both the texture and flavor of your food. Not to mention, doing that can encourage excessive ice build-up in your freezer, which can be a beast to clean. To avoid all of this, he says you should always let your food come to room temperature before you transfer it to the freezer. Just make sure you’re not letting food sit out at room temperature for more than two hours—that’s one of the golden rules of food safety.
4. Washing certain fruits and vegetables right before freezing them
The wetter something is when you put it in the freezer, the greater chance there is that it’ll end up with freezer burn, says Wright. That’s especially true for fruits or veggies with delicate outer skins. She explains that you should never wash things like berries right before sticking them in the freezer because the moisture can toughen their skin. Instead, wash them well before you plan to freeze them and give them time to dry fully, or just put them into the freezer immediately and wait to wash them until you’ve defrosted them to use. (If you’re planning to use the fruits frozen, like in a smoothie, for example, you should always rinse and dry before freezing.)
5. Not blanching produce ahead of time
Wright says that most vegetables need to be blanched before they’re frozen in order to stop the enzymatic decay process, which is what’s responsible for deteriorating flavor, color, and texture. Stopping the process through blanching ensures that your fruits or veggies will be as good defrosted as they were when you first bought them.
To do it, Wright says that all you need to do is bring a pot of water to a rolling boil, and let your veggie of choice cook for just a couple minutes, until its color is more vibrant and its texture more firm. Of course, the length of time that you cook them at will vary depending on the vegetable—something delicate like spinach (which is fine to freeze if you’re planning to eat it cooked later and not in a cold salad) will need about a minute whereas something thicker, like broccoli, will need about two. If you add your veggies and the water stops boiling, bring it back up to a boil before you set your timer, because the blanching won’t actually begin until the water is boiling. After blanching, you’ll want to cool the veggies immediately to stop them from continuing to cook. Simply plunge them into ice water or run them under cold running water for another minute or two. Then, make sure to drain the veggies thoroughly before putting them in the freezer.
6. Freezing fruit in big clumps
If you dump a bunch of fruit into a bag and stick it into the freezer, you’re probably going to come back and find that it’s frozen into one solid clump (been there, done that). While this is more of a functional problem—it’s going to be real hard to use just a few pieces when they’re solidified into one unmovable block—it’s still something you can easily avoid. Wright says to simply spread all of your fresh fruit out on a baking sheet or a tray, then pop it in the freezer for two to three hours. This will individually freeze each piece of fruit so that they don’t stick together and become one. This trick works great for things like berries or grapes. Once they’re sufficiently frozen, pour all the fruits into a freezer-safe bag or container to store.
7. Not freezing food in the right containers
Freezing your food in airtight containers is the key to preserving their quality, Wright explains. The more air your food has access to, the more likely it is to dry out or develop freezer burn. She says you should avoid using any leftover food containers you might have from things like cottage cheese or yogurt because these aren’t made to withstand freezing temperatures—they become brittle and will break easily, she explains. If you want to pack your food in plastic bags, she says to make sure to use freezer bags because these are the only ones that can withstand 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you want to get serious, Tierno suggests investing in a vacuum-packing system. He says that’s the best way to guarantee that no air whatsoever touches your food, which can allow your food to avoid freezer burn and stay fresh for longer. Of course, if you don’t feel like investing in the tools to make vacuum-packing a part of your routine, you can safely use any other freezer-safe airtight containers to store your food sufficiently.
8. Over-packing food containers
Wright says that it’s important to pack all of your food with about 1/2-inch to 1 1/2-inch of space left on top, depending on the type of container you’re using, because otherwise the container might crack or pop open as the freezing process causes it to expand. A bit of headspace will give your food enough room to freeze and expand without breaking or opening your storage vessel.
9. Leaving food in the freezer for way too long
A lot of resources online say that you can leave food in the freezer for up to a year, and the FDA says “indefinitely.” Tierno notes, though, that food that’s packaged in common plastic storage containers or freezer bags will usually only last two to three months before the quality begins to deteriorate. Color changes from oxidation and freezer burn aren’t dangerous, but storing food improperly can ruin the flavor and texture of your food, often to a point where it’s no longer even worth eating, Tierno says. As nice as it would be to keep food in the freezer forever, know that some things just aren’t going to taste the same if they’ve been stashed in the back of the freezer for eons. Pro tip: Label and date food before tucking it away in the freezer so that you can keep track of what’s in there and how long it’s been sitting there.
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