Cooking Gurus: Educate me in the way of the freezer
July 23, 2009 3:17 PM   Subscribe

I want to pre-make most of my meals ahead of time. How do I store them in individual servings?

I tend to forget to cook dinner until its really late and then end up making something boring and starchy like plain pasta but I crave variety—if I could eat five kinds of tiny appetizers for every meal I would be happy. Also, I would like to eat more balanced, healthy meals so I plan to pre-cook meals and freeze them. I should have the time to steam some veggies but the rest is a problem. If I wait until 9pm I'll be lucky if I cook any meat/protein at all. What has me stumped is what do I freeze it in?

1. Baked goods:
I understand that I can throw bread, muffins and baked goods in a freezer bag. In my experience, no matter what, those bags let in little ice crystals. Is that so horrible? If so, how do I stop that from happening?

2. Soup, chili, curry:
What do I put liquids in and how do I defrost/reheat it? I'm a bit concerned about Tupperware and other plastics and the way that they can leech into food. I also prefer to reuse containers and not be wasteful so I use glass containers for leftovers. If I put a liquid into a bag how would I reheat it? Do small (individual portion) freezer bags exist, can I use sandwich bags or am I forced to reheat large quantities each time I want a meal?

3. Casseroles, combined dishes, lasagna:
Can this sort of thing be frozen? Do I cut a portion, wrap it in saran wrap and then foil?

I have three glass Tupperware containers with plastic lids that have suited me fine for leftovers up to now so I will probably need to buy supplies. What do you recommend?

I've read a few threads about freezing food (like this and this) but nothing is very specific about what to freeze different things in for individual portions. Perhaps this seems like a basic thing to know but my mother always cooked fresh food (for 5) so I never learned this sort of thing. Bonus points for freezing & pre-cooking dos/don't or recipes.
posted by Bunglegirl to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
Individual freezer bags most definitely exist, and the awesome thing about storing food this way is that you can freeze it into whatever shape fits most conveniently into your freezer. I find that chili is actually better after freezing/reheating, while pasta-based stuff seems to get more mealy.
posted by selfmedicating at 3:26 PM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

With the baked goods, wrap them in plastic wrap before putting it into a freezer bag. You want to eliminate the airspace around it.

For chili, what I did was get a stack of those plastic ziploc (or glad) containers in a 1-cup size. I put the chili into those containers and freeze them. Once frozen, I run a little hot water on the outside of the container and pop out my chili "puck." I wrap that in plastic and store a bunch of them in a larger freezer bag.
posted by cabingirl at 3:39 PM on July 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

I do this all the time--I cook on weekends and freeze individual portions so I can eat healthy meals during the week without having to cook when I'm tired from working all day.

I freeze individual servings of soups, stews, chili etc in previously used plastic lidded 16 oz. sour cream or chip dip containers. I find that I can get one serving (plus a small second helping) of most things into one container. I get very minimal freezer burn, and the containers stack nicely in my freezer. Don't fill to the very rim--leave a little space so the liquid can expand just a bit when it freezes. To reheat, just run a knife around the inside edge to loosen and pop the contents into a microwave-safe bowl and heat. I can usually re-use this type of container for freezing at least a dozen times before it starts to crack.

You mention reservations about using plastics, but I've been freezing food this way for years and have never noticed a down side.
posted by bookmammal at 3:39 PM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oops, should have said that you can then put the chili puck into a regular bowl to thaw/reheat.
posted by cabingirl at 3:40 PM on July 23, 2009

Best answer: I recommend quality tupperware if you take care of it. If you might leave food in the container for three weeks and would then rather toss it than clean it, buy disposable plastic containers or recycle containers your groceries come in. Lots of different items come in reusable containers - jams, sauces, etc.

If I put a liquid into a bag how would I reheat it?
Bag in bowl. Nuke until liquid, but not so long as to make plastic soup, then pour out of bag into bowl.
Works the same for stovetop reheating - toss the bag into boiling water.
posted by anti social order at 3:41 PM on July 23, 2009

Response by poster: If I put a plastic bag into a bowl and nuke it won't the plastic bag degrade and leak into the food on some level? Great answers so far guys, thanks!
posted by Bunglegirl at 4:04 PM on July 23, 2009

There's a whole . . . food thing around this subject - it's usually called "once a month cooking." Lots of links for further techniques and recipes.
posted by peachfuzz at 4:10 PM on July 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding the Gladware "pucks" -- works very well. If you're concerned about microwaving plastic bags, you could always let the frozen bag sit in the fridge or at room temperature for a bit, then ease it out of the bag, still in its frozen form, and microwave in your bowl of choice. This works especially well when you're packing a lunch; while your soup/chili/stew defrosts, it keeps everything else cold.

One of my favorite tricks is to cook a lasagna or casserole (usually a ziti), then chill the whole thing. Once it's cold, it's very easy to slice into neat square servings. I wrap these in foil, then pile the foil packages into a freezer bag and freeze. Very easy to grab and go. The solution to getting the foil to ease its grip on the frozen food is the same as above -- let it defrost just enough to unwrap, then nuke it on a plate.
posted by Ladybug Parade at 4:12 PM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I do as bookmammal does. No wasted plastic if you reuse the containers -- I find washing out plastic bags too fussy, and I'm too lazy.

I run the frozen container under hot water for a second to pop out the frozen soup.
posted by girlpublisher at 4:18 PM on July 23, 2009

Best answer: I really like the ziploc plates. There's a sandwich sided plate, which is generally big enough for a meal. I put a serving of a meal in there close it up and freeze it. The advantage is that they stack nicely. You can eat right out of the same plate. And if you're in the habit of taking your meals somewhere (i.e. packing a lunch), the flat thin shape is great for carrying in a messenger back or backpack where it fits much better than standard Tupperware with books and papers.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 4:38 PM on July 23, 2009

The ice crystals formed when freezing bread are absorbed back into the bread when you thaw it. I do this all the time and have never had any problems with mold. In fact, frozen-then-thawed bread seems more resistant to mold, probably since the freezing kills some of the spores. I usually thaw bread by throwing it in the fridge overnight or throwing it in the toaster. I've never tried thawing it in the microwave or anything like that.
posted by chairface at 4:40 PM on July 23, 2009

You can quickly and easily force all excess air out of ziplock bags, by plunging the closed end in a sink full of water, while air rushes out the last unzipped inch of the seal, then zipping that closed before "undunking" the bag and its now-air tight contents.
posted by paulsc at 4:51 PM on July 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I do pretty much the same thing as cabingirl. Cook large batches of a meal, then portion it out into conveniently-sized and shaped containers (something approximating cuboid is best), freeze for 24hrs, then decant those frozen blocks into a gallon ziploc in the freezer. When I want to eat, reach into the ziploc and grab a food cube, drop it into a ceramic bowl, cover and nuke. That method allows you to reuse your cuboid tupperware containers, and only uses 1 gallon ziploc bag for long-term storage.

For freezing liquid I just use one bag per serving (no rehousing shenanigans) and freeze flat, by squeezing air out before sealing, then lie the bag flat on top of a box inside the freezer. 24 hours later you have a conveniently-shaped flat pack of frozen liquid, which you can stack in the freezer atop or beside other things.
posted by Joh at 5:13 PM on July 23, 2009

Glad Press'n Seal has kept my buns &c fresh and free of freezer burn for months.

Yes on the one-cup containers, either to just use them or to make and bag up the pucks.

I have a toddler with a dainty appetite; I put servings for her into snack-size ziplock bags, freeze, run under hot water, nuke the result in a glass bowl... You are not limited to "freezer bags" for the freezer.
posted by kmennie at 5:14 PM on July 23, 2009

I also cook on the weekends. All of the suggestions above are awesome!

I like to make pasta-based casseroles - just make sure your pasta is a little undercooked when you put the whole thing together. Freeze it without baking it, then just bake a little longer when you want to eat it.
posted by WowLookStars at 5:23 PM on July 23, 2009

Wow, nobody else closes the ziplock almost all the way, then sucks the air out via the small hole, and closes while it's sort of half in your mouth? Huh. I mean, you're the one eating it....
posted by palliser at 5:40 PM on July 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: We (2 of us) bought a batch of 550mL tupperware-clone tubs that stack neatly in the freezer. Make up a huge batch of curry/casserole/chili/etc, fill the tubs up, let 'em cool and then freeze. When you want to use one, take it out and let it sit in a full sink of water for 5 hours to thaw, then reheat in a saucepan or microwave. 550mL of meat+sauce stuff is about a perfect amount for 2 people assuming you're going to add a bit of starch (rice/pasta/tortillas) to it. Obviously you want to have at least three kinds of frozen thing in your freezer or you will be seriously grumpy after a few days of whatever it was you cooked.

I don't recommend reheating pasta as it gets nasty, whether it was frozen or not. But it's so quick to prepare that there's no point - you store that dry and only freeze the big-time-investment interesting part. I have some frozen lasagne at the moment but can't recommend the process... Instead, make up a batch of the same sauces you would for lasagne or whatever, freeze a few individual servings and serve them with freshly-cooked penne or something. Tastes just as awesome even if it isn't flat.

Plastic won't leach into food while frozen but can when microwaved, particularly if the food contains any oils - the oils get very hot and melt the plastic. So if we're nuking to reheat, it happens in a porcelain bowl. You can use glass freezer-containers if you want but they're expensive, bulkier and prone to breakage of course... but you can safely nuke the food in them directly.

For freezing in bags, the key is air removal and to buy ziplock bags that will seal properly - don't bother with the twist ties and knots. Typical thing we'd do is make a huge batch of hamburgers (like 2kg of meat plus all the flavourings added) divide into 180g patties and freeze them all individually in sandwich bags. They stack up great in the corner of the freezer, can be thawed in seconds and you can go from zero to awesome-meal-with-tiny-cleanup in about 10 minutes if you keep chutney, cheese, lettuce and tomato in your fridge.
posted by polyglot at 5:57 PM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by invisible ink at 6:28 PM on July 23, 2009

I've been using a vacuum sealer for the better part of twenty years. Don't like dealing with the waste of plastic bags? No prob, Bob (er, Bunglegirl). Get yourself a set of vacuum food storage containers. They do a bang up job. I make gallons of parrot mash at a time & use them to portion & freeze for weeks at a time. Comes out tasting better than fresh, since the flavors have time to "mingle."
posted by torquemaniac at 6:49 PM on July 23, 2009

Uh, torquemaniac, what's "parrot mash"? Hope it's not literally that ...
posted by jrchaplin at 7:11 PM on July 23, 2009

Here's something from popular science on which plastics don't leach.

$.02 -- I've never noticed textural weirdness when I freeze lasagna or mac n' cheese. Possibly everything being covered with cheese helps. Also, I often just wrap stuff like that in tin foil, as I'm a big oven re-heater. Toss in, crank up oven, change out of work clothes, make a salad, pour a glass of wine --- depending on substance, you should be able to defrost a single serving in a 30-45 minutes, and that way the top gets nice and bubbly and crunchy instead of microwave-leathery. YMMV.

Also, stuff frozen in bags --- if the plastic thing is a worry, usually all you have to do is zap it for less than a minute in order to get it to loosen up enough to where it will slide out of the bag and into a bowl.
posted by Diablevert at 9:00 PM on July 23, 2009

You don't have to microwave food in the same container you froze it in. I usually run the frozen thing (lid still on and upside down if need be) under hot water for a sec until the outside warms up just enough so that the frozen block of food unsticks from the container. Then I dump it in a microwavable bowl or a pan on the stove, and go from there.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:57 PM on July 23, 2009

I understand that I can throw bread, muffins and baked goods in a freezer bag. In my experience, no matter what, those bags let in little ice crystals. Is that so horrible? If so, how do I stop that from happening?

Even so, the key is how you thaw and reheat them. Take the frozen baked good from the freezer bag, splash a little water on the bottom, wrap it in foil but not tightly -- a loose crumple leaving a crinkled opening at the top. Place this in a very hot oven for a few minutes, and your baked good will be fairly well reconstituted.

Easier than vacuum sealing, and higher on the nerd factor, is the nitrogen flush. Get a little tank of nitrogen with a valve and a short hose (you'll have to use another question for that) and squirt a blast of nitrogen into the bag before sealing it. They don't call it an inert gas for nothing.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:43 PM on July 23, 2009

I cook ahead and freeze lots of stuff. Tupperware is a winner for this. I also do a lot of burritos and wrap them in foil.

I do not own a microwave, so I have come up with a few ways to defrost (probably just how grandma did it) and I now prefer naturally or water defrosted food over nuked - I leave meat in a bowl of cold water (inside the ziploc), bread sits on a plate on top of a bowl of boiling water (a bagel takes no more than 10 minutes to defrost this way. I can also use the steamer function on my rice cooker to throw frozen cornbread in and it's done in 10 minutes. Soups I part defrost and then cook on low heat on the stove until full defrosted and heated through.
posted by wingless_angel at 12:14 AM on July 24, 2009

Best answer: I freeze a lot of meals for my toddler. I put it in muffin tins, freeze and then transfer to another container. It makes everything infinitely portable. Two or three of the "pucks" would make an adult sized serving, depending on your appetite. And yes, definitely undercook your pasta.

I'm also reminded of a Top Chef episode. The challenge was to make a "Skillet Sensations" type frozen dinner. The team that did the best individually froze all their ingredients, even the sauce (in chunks, IIRC). They then divided it out in portions (just in ziplocs or whatever). Then it just had to be dumped in the skillet to reheat. I'm intrigued by this idea and want to give it a try some time when I'm feeling inspired.

I guess my overall advice is the smaller the portion size you freeze, the better it will do reheating in a microwave.

Oh, and I freeze baked goods regularly without any problem. In fact I'm headed now to pull a mini-loaf of banana bread out of the freezer!
posted by wallaby at 4:40 AM on July 24, 2009

I usually have better results when I put my frozen portion in the fridge to thaw in the morning. By the time I finish work it's ready for reheating in the normal manner. If you have to thaw in the microwave, don't microwave in the freezer bag. Most meals will peel right out of the bag even without running hot water over it.

Also, seconding Press 'n' Seal to keep the air and ice crystals off your food. I make individual meat loaves (cooked), turkey burgers (uncooked) and salmon patties (cooked) and wrap them all in press 'n' seal and don't need any additional containers or freezer bags.
posted by rocketpup at 5:48 AM on July 24, 2009

Mark Bittman of the NYTimes just did a piece on freezing foods. It's not so much step by step as an overview of the different types of foods you can freeze and their respective methods.
posted by chalbe at 7:43 AM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Great advice, everyone! I have never seen those ziploc plates in a store but I'll keep my eye out for them. I like the idea of freezing food in "pucks" (even in a muffin pan) and then tossing them into a freezer bag. Now I just need to get myself cooking.
posted by Bunglegirl at 5:33 PM on July 24, 2009

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