Friday, January 2, 2009

Lunch Works: Making Use of the Freezer

"Lunch Works", I like that. I wish I'd thought of it when I started my lunch series. On well, onward we go.

Once a month I cook one of my favorite recipes. I usually double the recipe to get 8 to 10 servings out of each. I will eat one serving for dinner on cooking day. I'll eat a second serving a day or two later for lunch. The rest get frozen in individual servings. Then next time I want that food, I just pull a serving out of the freezer!

Food Safety
When freezing, or doing anything with food, safety is my most important concern. Here are the food safety guidelines I follow:
1. Meat may be frozen once uncooked and once cooked.
2. Uncooked meats may be thawed in the refrigerator overnight or in cold water in the sink. It's generally a bad idea to leave frozen food just sitting out in the open.
3. Cooked dishes may be thawed in the refrigerator, or in the microwave when they are about to be eaten.
4. Freeze extra food the day of cooking, or the day after. Once unfreezing something, eat within 2 days.

Simple, eh? Freezing extends the storage time of food, but not the amount of time it can be stored unfrozen. So the basic idea is that if you would keep something for a total of 3 days unfrozen, the first day is "used up" for freezing, and the other 2 are available once you take it out of the freezer. And you always want to keep food at a safe storage temperature. That means it should spend the majority of its unfrozen time in the refrigerator or in an insulated lunch bag (with an ice pack if necessary).

Freezing Techniques
My goal in freezing anything is to preserve its quality. That means I need to keep the food as airtight as possible. I've tried a number of different techniques for doing this - everything from Zip-Loc bags, to expensive Rubbermaid containers, to a vacuum sealer. The two things that have worked out the best are Glad Press'n Seal wrap (for dry foods) and these microwave safe containers (for wet foods). Please note that I'm taking the manufacturers at their word when they say a container or a plastic wrap is microwave safe. If you prefer never to microwave in plastic, no problem. Just heat up your food in ways that you consider to be safe.

Press'n Seal is one of the best inventions ever. It allows us to make custom sized, airtight, wrapping for all sorts of things. I use Press'n Seal when I'm freezing cooked meat (slices of beef or ham), baked goods (brownies), cooked rice, and just about anything that is not too wet. Compared to Zip-Loc bags, Press'n Seal makes it easier to get all of the air out from around the food. Just press the wrap right up against the food. It doesn't matter if you're working with regular or odd shapes. Dry foods are particularly susceptible to freezer burn. To further guard against it, put the Press'n Seal packets inside Zip-Loc freezer bags.

To use Press'n Seal, tear off a piece big enough to overlap the food by about 2 inches on each side. Place the food on one side of the wrap. Fold the other side of the wrap over the food, and press the edges down. Squeeze out all of the air while you are pressing down the edges. Fold the edges up against the food. As you are wrapping up food, be careful to keep the edges of the wrap clean. It won't seal properly if it gets wet or greasy.

Wet things, such as soup, curries, and chili, are easier to freeze. The secret is to use an air-tight container, which is the same size as the quantity of food you are freezing. (Two inches of air at the top of the container would not be much help!) I used reusable containers for a long time. Unfortunately I have not found any which stand up to be repeatedly frozen and microwaved. After a few uses the seals wore down on the containers and they were no longer air-tight. Once that happens, they're not good for much of anything.

So I started searching for containers which are air-tight, cheap enough to be disposable, and microwave safe. The ones I use the most are these 8 ounce deli containers. I also have these 5 ounce containers for when I need to freeze in small quantities (side dishes and sauces). I'm not totally happy with using disposable containers, but, it's a better solution than trashing more expensive containers on a regular basis. Because they are meant to be disposable, they are thinner, which uses less plastic. If I'm going to be throwing something away, I'd rather it be these.

Fill each container most of the way full of food. Make sure the rim is clean, and then close with the lid. Don't overfill a container, or when the food freezes and expands, it'll take the lid off. No more air-tight seal when that happens!

If you are not sure how well a freezing technique will work, my best piece of advice is to try freezing a single serving of the food and see what happens. Check it after a week, a few weeks, etc. If the food survives a few weeks, defrost and taste. Make sure the taste was preserved as well.

Freezer Organization
It's a big help to keep a list of what's in the freezer. On the outside of mine I have a white-board, which I update every time I add or remove something. Each item is listed by name, date, and quantity. So I know that on December 31 I made quiche, and there are now 16 servings of it in the freezer. When I eat one, I'll change the quantity to 15, and so on. Labeling the foods themselves can also be a help.

There's lots of debate about how long frozen foods are still good. The guidelines I use are up to 6 months for wet foods, and up to 3 months for dryer foods. Really what I'm looking for is a decrease in food quality, not the food going bad. As long as something stays frozen, it's not likely to spoil, but 2 year old chicken probably isn't going to taste that good either. If you get in the habit of keeping food circulating, then eating everything in time should not be much of a problem.

The Eating
The most important thing to me when I choose foods to freeze is picking foods that I really enjoy eating. If I have a cooking accident and something doesn't turn out that great, I can guarantee that I'll let it sit in the freezer until I decide to throw it away. New recipes do make it into my list of favorites, but only after I've cooked them a few times in small quantities.

If you're looking for advice on freezing specific foods, please feel free to leave me comments with questions. I've included a lot of details in this post, but certainly not everything I know about freezing. Lunch in a Box also has a section on freezing in their top tips.

Good luck, and happy lunching :)

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