How to Freeze Food For Reheating
Recently I asked readers to let me know what they wanted me to write about. I received dozens of great responses including this one from Lee who said,
I do a lot of cooking in advance and would like to know if the various dishes freeze and reheat well. Or, can I freeze the food at a certain point in the preparation and add other ingredients (the ones that don’t freeze well) later? It would be wonderful if every recipe gave this information.
Lee, I agree. It would be great if all recipes came with instructions for freezing leftovers. Some do but most of the time they must expect us to cook for one sitting or finish everything that night.
I’m not a nutritionist or food scientist but I did a little research and came up with some guidelines that you may find helpful. There is lots of information on the internet that cover this topic and I suggest you do your own search for more detailed information on freezing foods.
Finding the Time to Cook Every Night
Most parents want to serve their kids nutritious and tasty meals. And most people want to eat meals that are nutritious and tasty.
The problem is that, between working, taking care of the house, getting the kids to tennis or physical therapy and still having a minute to sit down and relax, it is often hard to find the time to cook a complete, healthy meal from scratch every night. I know it is a problem that I run into at home quite frequently.
So what’s the answer?
Yes, you could hire a personal chef or go to one of those meal-planning places or just order take out, but all of that can get to be pretty expensive. Although we enjoy getting the odd take out meal every once in awhile, the answer for us is refrigeration and freezing.
Most foods can be stored for up to seven days in the refrigerator. That sounds like a long time, but here’s how to do it safely:
- Make sure that whatever food you are making gets cooled down quickly.
- Refrigerate the food pre-portioned, whether it’s enough to feed five or two. Reheating and cooling foods repeatedly can encourage bacterial growth, so only reheat what you are going to eat and leave the rest in the fridge.
- Reheat the food to at least 160 degrees F for 15 seconds.
According to some of my chef friends, food safety guidelines say that food should only stay in the temperature danger zone (between 41°F and 140°F) for no more than four hours.
So, the more quickly you can get it above 140 degrees F when you’re first cooking it, the more quickly you can chill it to below 41 degrees F and the faster you can bring it back up to serving temperature when reheating, the safer you will be. To err on the side of caution, though, I really wouldn’t recommend storing foods for more than five days, if you can help it.
I turn to the refrigerator first, because I can put almost anything in it without worrying if it will reheat okay. But, what if you want to store foods for a longer time, or what if you want to make more of whatever you’re cooking than you can eat in a week? Then, it’s time for the freezer.
Freezing can be a bit tricky, though. Not all foods freeze well, and when thawed, some are downright unpleasant. Remember these two cardinal rules, though, and you can still enjoy some very tasty frozen and reheated meals.
- When it comes to freezing, the faster you can do it, the better the texture and taste of the reheated food. Freezing foods slowly allows large ice crystals to form. This can adversely affect the texture of foods, especially foods that contain a relatively high concentration of water (milk, sour cream, cheese) and/or cell walls that can be ripped apart by crystals (most fruits and non-starchy vegetables). So, the same rules apply here as apply in refrigeration: chill foods before putting them in the freezer and freeze the foods in portions, or at least in thin layers (like spread out in 1 or 2 gallon freezer bags.
- Keep the air out and the moisture in. If you are planning on freezing food for long term storage, you will want to wrap it so a minimum of air can get in. The air can cause the surface of the frozen food to oxidize, changing the color, flavor and texture of the food. It’s still safe to eat, but just because it is safe doesn’t mean that it will taste good.The other thing that can happen if food is not wrapped very well is freezer burn. The ice crystals in the frozen food naturally want to be in the coldest part of the freezer, which is on the walls of the freezer itself.
As the ice molecules migrate, they are taking moisture out of the food, resulting in dried out and tasteless dinners. The absolute best way to minimize oxidation and freezer burn is to use a vacuum-based food saver type solution. Since all the air is pulled away from the food and the bags are heat sealed, little to no air can enter, and little to no moisture can leave.
If you do not have a vacuum sealer system, use heavy duty zip top bags and press as much air out of them as possible before sealing. Limit the amount of time that you leave the food in the freezer, too. I don’t care how well wrapped it is, nothing is going to taste good after being in the freezer for five years.
Here are some cooking guidelines if you are planning to cook specifically to freeze and then reheat later.
- For casseroles, under-cook the starch by 3/4 to account for those starches softening up while frozen. So, if the package calls for cooking pasta for 10 minutes, only cook it for 7-8 minutes. If the rice should be ready in 20 minutes, only cook it for 15 before adding in the additional casserole ingredients.
- Do not freeze anything with sour cream in it. Sour cream gets very watery after being frozen and can affect the texture when reheating.
- For best results, don’t freeze any prepared foods for longer than a month. Guidelines might give some foods several months in the freezer, but since we’re talking about freezing recipes and not just ingredients, err on the side of caution for best flavor and texture.
- The flavor of salt and herbs can get more powerful over time in the freezer. Under-season the food to be frozen, and then season to taste once reheating.
- Consider only freezing a portion of the recipe and finishing it upon thawing. This is especially true with pasta dishes. Since it only takes a few minutes to cook pasta, you may as well just go ahead and cook it fresh while reheating your frozen sauce.
- Think about freezing each portion of the meal separately. For example, if you want to reheat a stir fry, rather than piling all the ingredients together to freeze, freeze the broth portion in ice cube trays. Freeze the protein and vegetables in bite sized pieces. Then, when it’s time to stir fry you can throw a couple of cubes of broth in a wok with the frozen protein and veggies and have a great meal in just a few minutes.
When you freeze a bunch of different flavors together in the same container, the flavors have a tendency to get muddled up. By freezing everything separately, each ingredient maintains its own unique characteristics.
Since there are some foods that just don’t freeze and reheat well, you can opt to cook most of your recipe ahead and freeze it, adding in the “problem ingredients” during reheating. These foods include:
- sour cream (gets very watery)
- cooked egg (becomes rubbery)
- cream cheese (becomes grainy and watery)
- cornstarch for thickening (thicken with cornstarch after reheating or use arrowroot which freezes well)
- milk, skim, 1% and whole (they separate on thawing)
What Are Your Experiences With Freezing Foods?
We all experience freezing foods whether purchased frozen, purchased fresh then frozen or after cooking. Personally, I’ve had all sorts of experiences with foods I’ve tossed into the freezer.
Some wrapped better than others, some left in the freezer too long so I’m wondering what your experiences have been freezing food and leftover and what tips you have to offer.