Guide to Frozen Food Storage & Freezer Shelf Life
Since no one likes to throw away money, we created a guide to help you know what foods to freeze, how to store frozen food, and what thawing methods to use so you can make the most of your groceries!
Did you know the U.S. wastes over $160 billion in food every year and 40% of it is thrown away by consumers? This doesn’t only cost the average American household $2,000 in wasted cash each year, it also leaves a huge carbon footprint. Luckily, we can show you how to waste less, save more, and enjoy what you eat simultaneously!
One of the keys to reducing food waste is by making the most of a commonly underutilized resource in your kitchen – your freezer. While freezers are often afterthoughts, they are actually an incredible way to not only use all of the food you purchase, but also make sure you are never far from a good, home-cooked meal.
Here are three ways your freezer can help you save money and cook on a budget by wasting less and enjoying more:
1. Preserve Ingredients
Maybe you like to buy shrimp in bulk, or perhaps you have more cheese than you can use before it goes bad. Freezing these ingredients extends their shelf lives. It’s especially great if you are cooking for one or two, but still want to take advantage of great bulk deals.
2. Have seasonal ingredients year-round
Fruits and veggies always taste their best when they are in season. But, sometimes you really want to enjoy some summer squash in winter or peaches in early spring. By utilizing your freezer, you can buy seasonal fruits and veggies when they’re cheaper in their optimal season, and then simply freeze them to be used throughout the year.
3. Never be without dinner options
By freezing your leftovers, you won’t need to buy frozen meals and you’ll have back-up dinners on nights you don’t have the energy to cook. You can also cook specifically for freezing so delicious and healthy meals are always at your fingertips, no matter how busy the week is. (If you need some ideas on what meals are freezer-friendly, check out our Top 10 Freezer-Friendly Recipes ebook here!)
To help you make the most use of your freezer and save money, we put together an infographic that tells you:
- What foods can be frozen
- How to freeze foods
- The freezer shelf life of common foods
- Texture, taste, and color of thawed food
- How each thawed food can be used best
To make things easier, get the full eBook so you’ll always have this handy info nearby. Below, you will also find helpful tips to get you started with properly freezing and storing foods.
Guide to Frozen Food Storage
Everything you need to know about how to properly store food in your freezer.
Put Your Freezer to Good Use
Properly store food in the freezer with our All-in-One Freezer Guide
What Foods Can Be Frozen?
First, it’s important to note that freezing food will usually change the quality and texture. For example, if you freeze fresh tomatoes, they will turn mushy in the freezer, so they won’t be as enjoyable in a salad or sandwich. But dicing or pureeing tomatoes that have been frozen for a soup will yield tasty results!
Our rule of thumb is that most foods freeze well, but some will require more prep than others. Saving time is another way to save money, so you don’t want to buy a ton of groceries just for freezing. After all, frozen foods have a shelf life as well, so you want to make sure you don’t spend time prepping foods only to forget about using them.
The longer that food stays in the freezer, the lower its quality. So, keep track of what you have stored in the freezer by keeping inventory with a magnetic board. That way, you can still enjoy delicious foods from the freezer because you know exactly how long they’ve been in there.
So, what foods freeze well?
Here is a quick list of what foods to freeze:
- Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, and eggs
- Fruits and veggies
- Nuts, beans, and grains
- Both raw and cooked meats and seafood
- Tofu and tempeh
- Meat or veggie stock
- Cooked pastas and noodles
- Soups, stews, and casseroles
- Pesto, tomato paste, and tomato sauce
- Bread, tortillas, and baked goods
As you can see, almost anything goes when it comes to freezing food! But, remember, the most important part is how you prep foods for freezing. Some foods will require less prep and will freeze better than others, so keep this in mind when you shop. Our favorite easy-to-freeze items are raw meat, cheese, and canned tomato products.
Savings Tip #1: Buy easy-to-freeze items in bulk!
How to Freeze Foods Properly
Although proper prep can require a bit of time, it is completely worth it to save money (and help the planet!) in the long run. If you bought a huge package of chicken breasts, don’t just throw it into the freezer. Not only does it take up a lot of space, you would have to thaw the entire package even if you only need two chicken breasts for this week’s dinner.
Put in a little time to freeze properly, and you’ll actually be saving time when you’re ready to thaw and cook. (Tweet this tip!)
Basic Freezing Smarts:
1. Prep and Portions
- Make sure you prep whatever foods you want to freeze first, following the methods on our infographic. Most veggies require a cooking method called blanching before they can be frozen to ensure the best quality, since freezing raw veggies will mean a loss of color, texture, and flavor. We’ll cover more on how to blanch in just a minute.
- Whatever you freeze, whether it’s grated cheese, cooked soup, or raw meat, it’s best to portion into specific serving sizes first. That way, you only take out and thaw what you need. Also, the smaller the frozen item, the quicker it will thaw.
- If you are freezing liquids, like milk or chicken stock, they will expand as they turn into solids, so don’t fill the container up all the way. Leave some space to allow for expansion and then freeze.
2. Containers and Space
- There isn’t a lot of room in the freezer, so you have to put your Tetris skills to use and think ahead. Figure out the best way to utilize the space that you are given. Some things, such as soups and stocks, are best frozen in containers so they will take up a set amount of space.
- Other foods are best frozen in a single layer on a sheet pan, and then transferred into bags once frozen.This works especially well for foods like berries or bell peppers. This method not only saves space, but will be a lot easier to thaw as well. If you skip the sheet pan and go straight for freezing in a bag, beware! You would likely end up with one large, stuck-together clump!
- A great way to freeze small portions of things where you only need a tablespoon or two at a time is to use ice cube trays. Spoon or pour tomato paste, pesto, stock, harissa, curry paste, etc., into the trays, and once frozen, they can be popped out and placed into bags.
Containers to Try:
Ziploc bags come in different sizes, like pint or quart. We like to keep a few size options around to freeze a variety of foods.
Old yogurt containers are a budget-friendly way to store foods in the freezer. If you don’t have any, you can buy freezer-friendly quart containers or a set of different sized BPA-free containers that are great for storing food in general.
Any ice cube tray will work for freezing small amounts of liquids or sauces, but the ones with covers (usually used for baby food) help prevent the food from absorbing freezer odors, which is something we all probably want to avoid.
3. Freezer Burn
- Freezer burn is a flavor that no one wants, so let’s learn how to prevent it! Since freezer burn happens when food is exposed to air, make sure to remove air from your storage bag by sticking a straw into a little opening and sucking all the air out. For containers, you can press some plastic wrap or aluminum foil right onto the surface of the food to prevent it from coming in contact with air and forming ice crystals.
- To freeze items like bread or baked goods, it’s best to wrap them tightly with plastic wrap or foil to prevent those darned crystals from making your bread soggy.
4. Labels and Organization
This last step is the most important step: Label, label, label! We cannot stress this enough. The last thing you want to do is rummage around your freezer and find bags and containers filled with . . . what is that again?
- Keep masking tape and permanent markers stored in your kitchen so that you’ll always remember to label the name and the date. Even though freezing food extends the shelf life, that doesn’t mean that they won’t go bad. You can refer to our infographic above to see how long you can store the frozen food.
- As mentioned earlier, the best way to keep organized is to keep inventory of what is in your freezer. But another useful practice is FIFO – First In, First Out – which not only applies to your fridge and pantry, but your freezer as well. The foods that go in first should be placed closer to the door / front, so that those will be used first.
How to Blanch Vegetables
Foods diminish in quality and texture the longer they are kept in the freezer – but this is especially the case when it comes to raw vegetables! When you freeze raw veggies, the water content within them gets frozen and expands, rupturing the cell walls. When thawing, this frozen water leeches out of the veggies, leaving you with veggie textures that are not very pleasant to eat. Which is why some veggies (particularly with a high water content) are best blanched and shocked prior to entering the freezer.
Blanching is when you cook food in boiling water for a brief time and then plunge it into ice water or under running cold water to stop the cooking process (a process known as ‘shocking’).
This method not only helps retain color, texture, and nutrients, it also makes the food safer to eat and last longer in the freezer because blanching will destroy any microorganisms that are on the surface of the vegetables. (And remember those ruptured cell walls on frozen raw veggies? That makes a food more susceptible to bacteria!)
Plus, a nice added bonus: Veggies will be a lot easier to pack and store in the freezer since their volume will decrease after blanching!
- Prep / chop veggies as desired.
- Fill a pot with water and bring to a boil. (4 cups to 1 pound of veggies, or 8 cups for leafy greens.) As the water is waiting to boil, get your ice bath ready: Fill a large bowl with ice and cold water, and have a mesh strainer on hand.
- Put veggies into boiling water and let it come back to a boil. The times for each vegetable will vary, and it will change even more depending on the size, whether or not they have been chopped. Check our infographic above for estimate blanching times.
- Use the mesh strainer to scoop out the veggies and put directly into the ice bath, or use cold running water, if you do not have ice.
- Cool completely and then drain thoroughly. Excess moisture means extra soggy food!
Savings Tip #2: This may sound like a lot of work, but note that frozen veggies are one of our 10 budget-friendly ingredients! If there is a veggie you love, stock up on its frozen counterpart when it’s on sale.
Thawing Methods for Frozen Foods
Safely thawing food is just as important as all the other freezing tips we mentioned above, so take a bit of time to plan ahead.
1. Refrigerator Method
Thawing frozen food in the fridge is the slow method, but it is ultimately the safest, since it keeps food out of the Temperature Danger Zone. What is this zone of danger? Well, bacteria grows most quickly in the range of temperatures between 40° and 140° F / 4.4° and 60° C and can even double in only 20 minutes. So, food that is left unrefrigerated for more than two hours in the mentioned temperatures, is more risky in terms of bacteria.
Luckily, if a frozen item is small, it only needs to be thawed overnight, which is why we recommend freezing in small portions. Most food will take about 1 to 2 days. (Tweet this tip!)
Another good thing about using the fridge thawing method, though, is that it makes it safe to refreeze the food even if you don’t cook it. Of course, quality will be low since moisture would have been lost during the thawing process. If any food has been thawing out of the fridge for more than 2 hours, do not refreeze. However, you can always cook the food after thawing, and then refreeze it in its cooked form.
2. Water Method
Of course, there will always be those days that you need to get dinner out on the table pronto, but you either haven’t had time to go grocery shopping, or you just plumb forgot. On those nights, simply place frozen food in a leak-proof bag and immerse it in cold water. The leak-proof bag prevents the food from absorbing water.
Unless you keep a small trickle of potable water running constantly in the bowl until the food is thawed, you will need to change the water every 30 minutes and make sure the water is cold. Anything warmer than cold will heat up the food to the Temperature Danger Zone, where bacteria begins to multiply. Make sure to cook immediately when thawed.
3. Microwave Method
The third method for thawing is to defrost using a microwave. If the food was previously chopped into pieces, rearrange and separate the pieces during the thawing process. You will need to cook immediately after thawing.
Get all of our freezer tips and the complete Frozen Food Guide to help you out in the kitchen!
A little note:
This blog post was originally published in March 2015 and has been updated with new and helpful resources.
Also, some of the above links are Amazon affiliate links, which means we earn a small percentage from those sales. We use this affiliate revenue to support the continued growth of Cook Smarts. Thank you!
For more tips on how to cook and eat healthy on a budget, check out our other articles on cooking on a budget and our Guides to Budget Cooking that will help you cook without breaking the bank. To make sure you receive our helpful cooking know-how in your inbox, sign up for our newsletter below!