In freezing, zero is your magic number. At 0°F, microbes become dormant. The food won’t spoil, and any germs therein will not breed until you defrost the food. Bear in mind, though, that the longer the food remains frozen the more it tends to lose certain qualities such as vivid flavor and texture. Always try to freeze things when they’re at their peak, and remember that cooking your defrosted food as soon as it’s thawed will also stop microbial growth.
The first step in freezing is keeping those items cold until you’re ready to prepare them. This is very important with meat, but it also makes a difference in how fruits and vegetables come out of the freezer.
How do you keep icy crystals from forming in frozen foods?
The faster food freezes, the fewer ice crystals will form. This is especially important for meat, which loses juiciness and tenderness as a result of freezing. If your freezer has a quick-freeze cycle, use that to help deter ice crystal formation. Otherwise, just wrap and seal your foods properly and put them in the coldest part of your freezer.
Once you’re ready to begin, assemble all the items you need. For example, if you’re freezing fruit, you’ll want a clean cutting board, a sharp knife, and your choice of storage containers. If you’re doing any preparation on the fruit before freezing it, you’ll also need cooking pans. Stainless steel is highly recommended; galvanized pans may give off zinc when fruit is left in them because of the fruit’s acid content. Additionally, there’s nothing like stainless steel for easy cleanup.
If it’s in your budget, a vacuum sealer is another great piece of equipment to consider. Vacuum sealers come in a variety of sizes with a similar variety of bags that are perfect for preservers who like freezing and drying methods. They’re fairly cost effective when compared to freezer bags or plastic containers, and they eliminate the excess air that contributes to ice crystals.
A third item that you shouldn’t be without is a freezer-proof label system. If you double-wrap your frozen items, put a label on each layer. If one gets knocked off, the other remains.
Help and Hints
Freezing, like any other method of preservation, requires some observation and annotation to achieve success. As you’re working with recipes, remember that practice really does make perfect. For example, you may follow a recipe for frozen butter pickles exactly, but you find you’d like the cucumbers sliced more thinly for greater flavor. Make a note of that and change it next time.
As you note changes you’d like to make, also consider if that means getting different types of equipment for your kitchen. In the case of the cucumbers and other thinly sliced vegetables, a mandolin might be the perfect fix. Put it on a wish list. Being prepared saves a lot of last-minute headaches, and having the right tools is always a great boon.
Vegetables should be chosen for crispness and freshness. Home gardeners should pick their items a few hours before packing them for the ultimate in organic goodness. The next step for vegetables is blanching, which will improve the lifespan of your frozen goods.
Blanching has several benefits. It stops enzyme action that decreases vegetables’ textural quality, flavor, and color and it cleans off any lingering dirt. To blanch vegetables, fill a pan with water and bring it to a rolling boil. Add the vegetables and make sure they’re immersed. Follow the blanching time recommended in the recipe and then turn the vegetables in to a bowl of ice. This retains the vegetable’s vitamins and firmness.
If there’s no specific blanching time provided in your preserving recipe, here’s a brief overview to get you started. Remember to move your vegetables into an ice bath immediately after blanching until they’re totally cooled.
Timing and Techniques for Blanching Vegetables
Asparagus. Remove the tough ends from the asparagus. Depending on the storage container, you may need to cut the stems in half. If your stalks are thin, they’ll only need 2 minutes of blanching; thick stalks require twice as much.
Beans (green or wax). Remove any tips. Leave the beans whole and blanch them for 3 minutes.
Brussels sprouts. Clean off outer leaves, then soak the sprouts in cold salt water for 30 minutes. Drain and blanch for 4 minutes.
Cabbage. Remove the outer leaves. Shred the cabbage and blanch for just over 1 minute and leave in the water for another 30 seconds before icing.
Carrots. Clean the skins, then slice into ¼ pieces. Blanch for 3 minutes. Whole baby carrots need 5 minutes of blanching.
Cauliflower and broccoli. Break off the pieces from the central core and clean well (a spray nozzle at the sink works very well). Soak in a gallon of salt water (3–4 teaspoons salt) for 30 minutes. Pour off the salt water. Rinse and blanch for 3 minutes.
Corn. Rinse, remove from the cob, and blanch for 5 minutes.
Mushrooms (small). These can be frozen whole. Toss with a little fresh lemon juice and blanch for 4 minutes.
Greens (including spinach). Rinse. Remove any leaves that have spots or other damage. Blanch for 3 minutes.
Peas. Blanch out of the husk for 90 seconds.
Peas in the pod. Trim the ends and remove strings. Blanch for 1–2 minutes, depending on the size of the pod.
Peppers. Slice open and remove the seeds. Cut into desired size and blanch for 2 minutes.
Potatoes. Wash and scrub thoroughly. Remove the peel and blanch for 4 minutes.
Tomatoes. To easily peel the skins, use a straining spoon and dip the tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds. Peel and remove the core. These can be stored whole or diced to desired size.
Zucchini and squash. Peel. Cut into ½-inch slices and blanch for 3 minutes.
Do small batches of fruit so it doesn’t brown while you’re packing. Fruit need not be packed in syrup, but many people do prefer the texture and taste that sugar or sugar syrup adds to frozen fruit. Some folks use sugar substitutes for dietary reasons.
In any case, small fruits such as berries take well to a simple sprinkling. Larger chunks such as peaches do well in syrup. The average ratio is ½ cup of syrup to every pint of fruit. Some preservers like to use ascorbic acid to improve the quality of frozen fruit. Adding about ½ teaspoon of this per pint is sufficient; just mix it into the syrup or a little water.