The Rules of Make-Ahead-and-Freeze Meals
With this extensive guide, there’s no need for you to — er — freeze up.
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By Heath Goldman for Food Network Kitchen
Prepping meals ahead of time and stashing them in the freezer is kind of like giving a gift to your future self. But figuring out the best way to freeze a specific dish can be tricky. A lot of factors affect how your meal will turn out once it thaws, from how you packaged it to how quickly it froze. And if you spend hours making cheesy meat sauce to enjoy down the road, you won't want to end up with a mushy glob upon thawing. So we've put together this handy (and extensive) guide to freezing recipes.
How to Decide Whether a Meal Will Freeze Well
For starters, the USDA assures us that you can safely freeze any food except for whole eggs or cans of food (and who would freeze canned food anyway?). Safety aside, some dishes freeze more palatably than others.
Although we are about to get into categories that do and don’t freeze well, we wanted to first arm you with a visualization trick that’ll help you make judgment calls on your own. Imagine walking down the frozen food aisle at your grocery store. Picture the types of meals you’d see there. Veggie burgers, burritos and dumplings line the shelves – but foods like egg salad, cole slaw or kale salad probably don’t. Consider your favorite freezer aisle finds a great source of inspiration for DIY freezer meals at home.
Dishes That Don’t Freeze Well
Here is a complete list of the types of recipes you shouldn’t try to freeze.
- Cream-based sauces: Anyone who’s frozen plain cream knows that it’ll break once it thaws. A recipe that's largely cream based – like a pasta sauce made from cream and garlic — will probably become grainy.
- Mayonnaise-based foods: Mayonnaise is typically an emulsion of olive oil, egg yolks and lemon juice. When it’s frozen and thawed, the silky mixture separates. Avoid freezing foods like chicken salad or deviled egg filling for this reason.
- Recipes involving hard-boiled eggs: The egg whites become tough and release extra water when they’re thawed.
- Salads and slaws: Raw vegetables with high water content, such as lettuces, herbs and cucumbers, don’t fare well in the freezer – large ice crystals form inside their cell walls, damaging their structure so they thaw limp or mushy.
- Custardy desserts: Custardy desserts like pumpkin pie become grainy when they thaw and release water (the proteins in eggs become clumpy when they’re frozen).
Dishes That Do Freeze Well
In short: Everything else that’s not on the list above can freeze well! As a rule, meals that are centered around meats, grains or cooked veggies hold up well in the freezer. Instead of listing everything, below are some categories we’d like to call out.
- Creamy casseroles: Though cream isn't ideal when frozen on its own, when cream isn’t the main ingredient in a recipe — perhaps mixed into a casserole, pot pie, mac and cheese, quiche or soup — we’ve had success freezing it.
- Saucy big-batch recipes: Soups, stews, braises and pulled meat dishes tend to freeze well because the sauce prevents the meat and goodies inside from drying out.
- Stock: Needless to say, homemade stock freezes incredibly well. If you don’t have time to make it immediately, the components to make stock, like a chicken carcass and vegetable scraps, also freeze well.
- Fully cooked grains and pulses: Grains and pulses like lentils, beans and chickpeas last well in the freezer once they're cooked.
- DIY prepared foods: This is a broad category, but don’t forget you can make ahead and freeze your own versions of frozen favorites like chicken fingers, veggie burgers, empanadas or breakfast sandwiches.
- Dough: Bread dough, pizza dough, pie dough, cookie dough — the freezer keeps it all pristine
- Desserts: Cookies, muffins, scones, cake and even croissants last well in the freezer.
Meals You Can (and Should) Cook Entirely Before Freezing
Have you poked around the internet for freezer tips? You might have realized that some recipes are cooked completely and then frozen, while others are prepared only up to a certain point. Generally, big-batch saucy dishes can be cooked entirely and frozen because the sauce blankets any meat and veggies and prevents them from drying out during reheating. At last, it makes sense why soups, stews, casseroles and braises are such popular freezer items.
Dishes You Should Cook Partway Before Freezing
There are many foods it makes sense to par-cook, whether for texture or other reasons. We’ve broken down these dishes into a few easily digestible categories.
- Crispy foods: Foods like chicken fingers, fish sticks or mozzarella sticks that you plan on deep frying or baking to make crispy should be assembled but not deep fried – the freezer kills crispness. Likewise, if a casserole gets topped with something crunchy, leave it off the dish when you freeze it, then add it on right before baking.
- Foods you might overcook: Foods that cook quickly like homemade burgers or marinated chicken stir-fry should be frozen raw so that reheating doesn’t overcook them.
- Assembled recipes: This is a pretty broad category, but recipes like pizza, dumplings, falafel, potpie or pierogies are best left fully assembled but not cooked. Cooking them twice could overcook delicate items or cause them to fall apart.
- Soups or stews with starchy ingredients: Making a soup with potatoes or rice in it? It’s okay to make the entire dish ahead of time, but we recommend cooking and adding in the starchy ingredient right before serving. Potatoes and rice will absorb water as they freeze, sucking up the broth and becoming mushy.
- Pasta dishes: Here’s a neat trick: You can cook pasta dishes ahead of time and freeze them in their sauce. Just leave the noodles a bit undercooked, so when you reheat them they’ll reach al dente perfection.
How to Cool Food Quickly Before Freezing
Yep, it’s annoying to wait around while food cools down, but this step is very important. Adding piping-hot food to the freezer will raise the freezer temperature, which could compromise the safety of all the other food you have in there. Cool your food quickly the way professional kitchens do: Spread it out on sheet trays to maximize surface area. This technique even works for soups and stews. For casseroles, you can fit the bottom in a container of cool water. Or, if all of this sounds like too much work, simply stir the dish frequntly to release heat — once it’s lukewarm, transfer it to the fridge to get a proper chill on it before moving to the freezer.
How to Properly Package Meals (and the Best Storage Containers for Freezing)
Presenting the cardinal rules of freezer containers.
Number one: They must be as airtight as possible. Air causes freezer burn, which isn’t harmful, but destroys flavor and texture.
Number two: They must save as much space as possible. Whether you have a small freezer or giant chest, space is always at a premium.
Our favorite containers are plain old freezer bags (opt for reusable ones if you’d like). You can easily squeeze every last bit of air out of them (unlike a glass container, which might have extra head space). When filling them, make your job easier by tucking the bag inside a glass measuring cup and folding the lip over the edge of the cup to create a round opening. Once the bags are frozen, you can stack them neatly like a pile of magazines.
If you’re freezing a casserole, line the pan with parchment paper and let the ends overhang so that you can use them like handles to lift out the casserole once it's frozen. Once you remove it from the pan, wrap the frozen food in several layers of plastic wrap, followed by aluminum foil. You’ll save yourself a casserole dish and space.
Think about portioning for your needs. If you know you'll want single-serve options for soup, freeze it in small freezer bags, rather than in a large bag you'll need to thaw all at once. Slice your lasagna and wrap each piece individually before freezing to enjoy it over time.
Finally, don’t forget to label and date each parcel with permanent marker. We also like to include reheating instructions on the outside in case someone else in the family is tasked with prepping dinner.
How to Ensure Your Meals Freeze Quickly
Ever heard the term “flash freezing”? It’s a technique that many commercial frozen-food companies use to instantly freeze food and maintain its quality. Slow freezing leads to the formation of large ice crystals. They destroy food’s structure, dissolve emulsions and cause meat to drip and lose juiciness. Yikes. To freeze your food quickly, expose as much surface area as possible to cold freezer air. Distribute foods you’re trying to freeze (like meatballs) on sheet trays, then transfer them to freezer bags. Freeze soup in multiple freezer bags, not one large container. And never stack packages you’re trying to freeze – spread them out on separate shelves, stacking only after they’re frozen solid.
How Long Do Frozen Recipes Last?
Great news, according to the USDA, frozen meals are safe to eat indefinitely. However, after about three months, the quality (i.e. flavor and texture) of food can degrade. Therefore, we recommend eating foods within three months of stashing them in the freezer. If you thaw anything and it smells “off,” trust your nose and throw it away.
How to Thaw Frozen Meals
A little planning ahead goes a long way: Transferring a frozen dish to the refrigerator to thaw overnight is our preferred method. Bear in mind that most dishes require a day or two to completely thaw, but here’s a quick formula: Every 5 pounds of weight require 1 day of thawing time. Thaw in the fridge, and you don’t have to cook the meal right away — but make sure to cook it within three days.
If you forgot to move dinner to the fridge, don’t panic though. For last-minute fast thawing, place the food in an airtight bag, cover it in cold water and change the water every 30 minutes. Make sure to reheat and serve the food immediately.
Lastly, if you’re really in a pinch, you can defrost the food in the microwave right before eating – but this method can also cook parts of the dish.
Can You Cook Frozen Foods without Thawing Them?
Absolutely. Most frozen recipes — from raw and cooked meat to casseroles and dumplings — can be cooked or reheated directly from the freezer. Just keep in mind that dishes will take about one-and-a-half times longer to cook.
Is It Okay to Refreeze Food?
Surprise: If you thawed the meal in the refrigerator, yes, you can refreeze it (another reason why fridge thawing is our favorite technique). According to the USDA, you can even refreeze these foods after cooking or reheating them — just make sure to freeze them within three to four days.
Dangerous Freezing Mistakes
Let’s be honest, we’d rather tell you how to freeze your food correctly than how to not mess up, but here are a couple dangerous food mistakes that can’t be overlooked.
- Not keeping your freezer at the right temperature. Your freezer should be at 0 degrees F at all times. Freezing inactivates any harmful microbes in food. But if your food partially thaws even a little bit, they can become active. If your freezer doesn’t have a thermometer, purchase one for just a few bucks
- Freezing food that’s at the end of its life. If it was bad when it went into the freezer, it’s going to be bad when it comes out. Pro tip: Freeze the freshest food possible for the best results.
- Freezing food that’s been sitting out at room temperature. Never freeze food that’s been sitting outside of the refrigerator at room temperature for more than two hours. Think of room temperature as the danger zone, because that's where bacteria loves to multiply.
Favorite Freezer Meals
To send you off toward your freezer on a positive, inspiring note, here are some of our favorite freezable meal ideas.
Who ever said that choosing convenience means sacrificing homemade? With a little bit of planning and time in the kitchen, you can easily stock your freezer with meals that everyone in your house will love. We’ve got recipes for all your freezer-friendly favorites like breakfast casseroles, meatballs, chicken pot pie, stuffed shells and more.