Foodies Don’t Fear the Freezer
“If you love something, let it freeze. If it thaws out, eat it. “
– Ice Age Proverb
Freezing can be a deep subject, in terms of cubic feet and philosophy. If something is frozen, like a baby mammoth or a vacuum-sealed packet of duck paté, it is in a sense, timeless. Appreciate the Zen-like concept of permanence wrapped in a veil of impermanence, especially when the power is out for 48 hours and you have no generator. And yet this flying-in-the-face of the ephemeral makes freezing useful to chefs and home cooks alike.
To Freeze or not to Freeze
When something freezes, the water inside crystalizes in what we food writers call a ‘phase change’, or change in the state of matter. Most liquids with high water content expand when frozen (an explosive event with liquids under pressure), as anyone knows who is unwise enough to forget their chilling Belgian ale or Prosecco in the freezer. Rather than spending time cleaning off frozen wine slicks, try chilling by filling a mixing bowl with heavily salted water and ice. (Salt water freezes at a much lower temp than fresh, so it’ll get colder and stay liquid.) Swill the bottle around casually with a wooden spoon and your beverages will be cold before the canapés are done.
Aside from expansion, crystallization from freezing can ruin the texture of some foods. Whole raw veggies, for example, will usually suffer, since the crystals pierce and rupture the delicate cell walls in the plants. (This damage can be mitigated by blanching, or partial cooking.) Some fruits and veggies do better than others, such as peas, beans, okra, and Frenched potatoes, because the high starch content helps keep the cell walls intact. Berries do well, but they won’t look and feel the same after thawing. They will stay mold and decay-free, however, and will go beautifully into smoothies, sauces, or fruit breads.
Frozen! Fish! Let it Go!
Anyone who has seen Deadliest Catch knows that fish is now packed in ice the millisecond it is yanked from the sea. Some is shipped fresh, but many boats now flash freeze anything they net so that very often, the freshest fish is the fastest frozen. I won’t speculate how much of the day’s catch in the hallowed Tokyo Tsukiji Fish Market gets frozen at the end – and the fish Yakuza are not people you want to piss off – but we’ve all seen clips of the giant saws used to cut an equally giant frozen tuna destined for sushi restaurants all over the world. Turn your nose up to frozen fish if you like, but don’t look so snobby if you’re eating sushi in Kansas.
More Meat for the Freezer
Protein happens to freeze very well, whether cooked or raw. We smoke and barbeque various meats, portion them out, and freeze them. It’s truly a gourmet insta-meal. Texture snobs will tell you that freezing fresh meat hurts the texture. Frozen meat has no preservatives, and doesn’t need any. Frozen meat won’t get slimy if you forget about it for a day or two. And frozen meat, like all frozen products, will be very slightly lower in its water content (freezing does that to things) so that if you were planning on “aging” your steak the way they do in steak houses, you can get similar results from freezing. Always thaw meats in the refrigerator, unless you are using water and convection the way Alton Brown tells us to thaw whole turkeys in a cooler full of running water. Even then, you must cook your meat right away. Freezing halts the spread of bacteria, but once you’ve thawed, all bets are off. To limit the growth of bugs and preserve textures as much as possible, no one recommends re-freezing anything, especially meat.
I happen to know that shredded cheese in groceries is often previously frozen, and I have had good experience freezing fresh mozzarella and even brie, but I wanted a professional take on freezing cheeses. I spoke with Sharon Oamek of Honey Creek Creamery, an Iowa-based farm that produces beautiful fresh chèvre (which is available in Omaha Farmer’s markets, select local restaurants, and now Whole Foods, see honeycreekcreamery.com for more.) Sharon explained that fresh chèvre has a high water content and does very well when you freeze it.
Sharon says, “The thing about goat’s milk that makes it good to freeze is that although it is low in fat, goat’s milk is naturally homogenized. The fat molecules are smaller, and are both evenly distributed and interlocking.” This miracle of goat nature would certainly help in deterring crystals from forming. She keeps the rennet (the astringent agent which causes milk to curdle) in the fridge, but the bacterial cultures used for developing the cheese flavor do stay in the freezer.
I have had good experience with keeping my powdered yeast (also a bacteria) in the freezer, where they stay nice and sleepy, but they’ll wake up pronto when doused in warm water. I asked Sharon if (fingers crossed) she’s ever made ice cream with goat milk.
“I would love to make goat’s milk ice cream. Good ice cream is 15-20% with cow’s milk, and goat’s milk is obviously lower. But I’m hoping within a year I can.” I had to hold the phone out to avoid drooling on my touch screen.
“Iowa state law says we need to pasteurize the milk to 145 degrees, so we do that. Then it can be made into cheese within five days, and there’s no reason we couldn’t do ice cream.” Mmm. Such gratification. I wonder if Sharon would make chèvre ice cream? Cheese and ice cream? Quite simply, I would probably die of happiness.
The Good, the Burned and the Ugly
Remember that time you froze those extra pieces of wild salmon, or the dozen extra pastries from your croque-en-buche and you forgot about them because they were under a stack of pizzas you bought on sale? When you spied those treats it was like finding hidden treasure, but when you got them into the bright glare of the kitchen, they were grey with freezer burn, dry as loofas, and paved with icy lumps and clumps? Did your face look like Eli Wallach’s when he saw a skeleton instead of gold in that grave? Maybe not, but I bet you know what I mean.
Vacuum sealing is the best way to guard against freezer burn and degradation of your product. If you want to be all fancy like my husband, you can pick up a vacuum sealer and some bags for around 50 bucks, but read the reviews. Some work beautifully and some (we discovered) don’t work at all. If that’s too much for you, get some freezer zip-top bags, fill up your bag, and use a straw to remove excess air.
Vacuum (or almost vacuumed) sealing does several things. It keeps air (and odors) out. It restricts the space around the items and prevents any condensation from freezing around them (that lovely layer of ice-fuzz you might see) and it extends the time you can keep something frozen. It also makes thawing very easy. Always thaw meats and dairy in the fridge (never the countertop) or insta-thaw (in a microwave, on the stovetop, or in hot water), but only if you plan to cook and eat it right away. Food that lingers in the body-temperature zone is just begging to start spoiling. Follow directions for thawing or freezing on packages, read them in a cookbook, or, if you want to call me up, I can take a minute and Google it for you.
The Demon in your Freezer
While for most of us, frozen may never be the new fresh, it can do what most household appliances only hope to accomplish: it can save you tons of time. That little demon in there (the one that runs around on the little wheel and keeps it cold—I’m pretty sure that’s how it works) needs to earn his keep. Make him work so you don’t have to. My little guy must be exhausted. Here’s what’s in my freezer:
Jars of jam, salsas, pickles, chutneys, and syrups. Yes, jars! Most heat-proof canning jars and lids are rated for the freezer. It’s called freezer canning, and if you have a cheap box freezer like I do, you have plenty of space to put up anything that you can stuff into a typical canning jar. As long as it is a liquid or semi liquid (no empty space between the items for crusty crystals), it will keep for longer than you can remember it’s in there. If you’ve grown extra tomatoes (and who hasn’t?) but the whole canning and boiling process makes you twitch with fear, smash or purée them, leave enough space at the top for expansion, put the lid on, write on it with a sharpie, and freeze it. I’ve frozen apple sauce, pear butter and liver paté. Thawing is just a day in fridge away. Don’t run frozen jars under hot water unless you like getting stitches.
Herbs and puréed aromatics.
I purée, fill and flat pack these little prep-time savers, and now I can make anything with minced garlic, ginger and herbs (pretty much everything I cook) so fast it’ll make you drop your knife. Turn on your favorite songs or podcast, pile up a pound or so of peeled and processed garlic cloves, ginger, lemon grass, basil, parsley, or whatever you use. If it won’t smooth out to a paste you may need to add some olive oil or water, then spoon your paste into a bag and make sure it is not much thicker than a #2 pencil.
Stack up all your flat bags on a tray to keep them flat, and grab your tray back when they’re frozen. At mealtime, pull one out, cut through the corner (easy if they’re thin) and toss into a waiting soup, sauté or rub. It smells like I spent ten minutes mincing (or had Jacques Pépin in my kitchen). It isn’t absolutely fresh, but it is the next best thing.
This sounds insane, but if you garden, it could become your favorite. I freeze all peelings and plant-compostables (coffee grinds and tea leaves too) in grocery bags. Then I dig a deep hole right next to the rosemary (or whatever), dump in the goodies, cover with plenty of soil and mulch, and it breaks down, enriches the soil, doesn’t stink, and has so far never been excavated by wildlife.
The take-away from the freezer? Go ahead and move those fudgecicles aside and start freezing. If you had a problem, freezing can solve it (now check this out while my DJ revolves it … ice ice baby….)
Ann Summers is not a 40-umpthing-year old rock climber who got shut down in Boulder Canyon and drowned her failure in a microbrewery. She is neither a mother of two, a fan of Latin plant names nor a lover of fine Italian Grappa. You’ll not catch her shooting guns for fun or hollering like a redneck. She hates Shakespeare, and doesn’t call a certain fast food chain “The Scottish Restaurant.” She turns her nose up at organic yellow beets, eschews fresh oysters, and loathes chubby guinea pigs with Violent Femmes hairdos. She is also a dreadful liar
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