March is National Frozen Food Month. I hope you have been taking advantage of the deeply discounted items found on your Enlightened Shopping lists to fill your freezer with all sorts of goodies.
However, if you are only using your freezer to store prepackaged items from the grocer, then you are missing out on its true potential. You see, when it comes to cutting your grocery bill in half, your freezer is your very best friend.
Virtually every food item can be frozen. That means you can stock up when prices hit rock bottom – think flour at Christmas and ham at Easter – and keep them in the freezer until you need them. You can also pick up reduced price meats and other items nearing their expiration dates and keep them safely in the freezer. The more you buy and freeze at discounted prices is less you have to buy at full price.
Freezing food is relatively straightforward, but there is both an art and a science behind it. Let’s take a look at both to help you get the most out of your freezer and frozen foods.
The art of freezing food
There are a couple different ways to approach frozen foods. One is to simply freeze items directly from the store. Another is to do some initial cooking before freezing. For example, turning ground beef into seasoned meat before freezing can save time on taco night. Finally, you could cook entire meals and freeze them so all you have to do is reheat at dinnertime.
Think about your cooking habits and your family’s preferences. Many of our SavingsAngel members use a combination of methods. They may freeze some raw meat that can be taken out and transformed into a variety of dishes once inspiration hits. At the same time, they may also have freezer meals at the ready for hectic days when time in the kitchen is limited.
Regardless of your chosen method, make sure you use packaging that will help keep your food fresh for as long as possible. Again, you have a variety of choices from vacuum sealed bags to freezer-safe storage containers to good old-fashioned heavy duty aluminum foil. When selecting your system, remember that food should be well sealed to avoid exposure to air which can cause freezer burn.
The science of freezing food
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food kept at or below zero degrees will always be safe. But safe doesn’t necessarily translate to tasty. Over time, the quality of frozen foods will degrade, often leaving them tough and with an off-flavor.
For the best quality, North Dakota State University Extension Services recommend the following storage time for these common frozen foods:
- Breads: 2-3 months
- Fruits: Up to 6 months when stored without sugar or liquid
- Casseroles and frozen entrees: 2-3 months
- Fresh meats: Up to a year
- Cooked meats: 3-6 months
- Fish: Up to 6 months
- Veggies: Up to a year
To ensure your food remains safe, place a thermometer in your freezer to monitor its temperature. In addition, pack a small baggie of ice cubes on a top shelf or in the door. This provides a simple way to see if your freezer ever reaches an unsafe temperature, such as during a power failure. If you open up the freezer one day and see a solid block of ice instead of cubes, you know your freezer at some point turned off and then back on.
When you are ready to use items from your freezer, let them thaw in the fridge, if needed, before cooking. If you are in a rush, you could also use a microwave or submerge well wrapped items in cold water for faster thawing. However, thawing on the countertop isn’t recommended since it can allow the growth of harmful bacteria.
For more information on freezing, the NDSU Extension has published an extensive guide online (http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/foods/fn403.pdf), and the National Center for Home Food Preservation (http://nchfp.uga.edu) is an excellent resource as well.