Ok, clickbait title aside, let me rephrase: make ahead freezer meals don’t actually suck, unless you like food. Ugh, still too bitchy…
Look, they don’t suck for everyone, ok? For busy parents, for people on a budget or those trying to lose weight, making food ahead and stashing it in the freezer is amazing.
But the idea of making meals ahead and freezing them doesn’t work for everyone. It definitely doesn’t work for those of us who either identify as foodies or vociferously deny we are foodies but still have every single one of the telltale signs. If you’re on this blog about making shit from scratch, odds are that you, like me, are some kind of food obsessive.
The problem with the freeze-ahead meal philosophy lies in its intent.
Here’s what most people who do this whole thing think is so great about it:
- Freezing your meals helps you limit your time in the kitchen
- Planning your meals in advance will save you money
- Making your own food and freezing it will help you lose weight
- By having tons of stuff in the freezer, you eliminate the terrible question “what’s for dinner?”
My dad always said “some people live to eat and some people eat to live.” For folks like us who are firmly on team live-to-eat, none of that list is all that important.
Food plays a huge role in our daily lives, and we like it like that. We’re already planning and talking about the next meal we’re going to make while we’re eating the one we’re currently enjoying. For us, the question “what’s for dinner?” is asked in a frenzy of excited expectation rather than dread or resignation.
Even so, the make-and-freeze approach to cooking still sounds great, but for markedly different reasons. On paper, it affords us the chance to indulge in our crazy food prep frenzy in a planned and organized fashion. We’ll cook blissfully through a whole day in service of never having to open up that emergency box of mac and cheese in desperation ever again.
Rather, we will pop one of our gourmet creations into the oven upon our return home from a long day of not cooking, and by the time we’ve changed, walked the dog, fed the cat and gotten our collective shit together, said gourmet meal with have perfectly reheated and will satisfy the soul-deep need for an amazing meal at the end of a long day.
There are two problems with this little fantasy:
- Almost no frozen meal ever reheats perfectly, no matter how many layers of parchment, plastic and foil you used. We will sit and mess with that casserole/lasagne/soup/stew trying to bring the texture and flavor back to the sublime standard it was when we originally made it until we might as well have just cooked it from scratch day-of. It’ll be, like, 11 pm and we’ll still be reducing sauce or whatever and muttering hangry curses to accompany our growling stomachs. Tell me I’m wrong. Go ahead.
- As people who obsess pretty hard about food pretty much all the time, “what’s for dinner?” is a delightful question, the best answer of which centers around what we’re currently craving or interested in trying. That new take on chicken pot pie we heard about while podcast-binging over lunch? That. That is what we want to make for dinner. That bowl of ramen we saw on r/ramen? Totally, can’t live without that for another 8 hours. What I’m getting at is that on the day-of, we don’t always or even usually WANT something we made last weekend. We want whatever’s on our minds RIGHT NOW and it’s pretty freaking central to our happiness and peace of mind to get it.
So we’re stuck, right?
I mean, we might be all fired up about that ramen bowl when we saw it at lunch, but after a long day at work, a commute, stopping at the grocery store to pick up all the crap you need to make it and finally arriving home, who has time or mental energy to slowly simmer chicken parts or steep kombu long enough to hit maximum umami?
Nobody. Invariably, we’ll end up either buying store bought elements like the stock or dashi powder and using instant noodles and whatever falls out of the fridge for toppings in an effort to fill the dark ramen-craving void in our soul. We’ll sacrifice flavor, texture and all the things that make food joyful so that it doesn’t take 10 hours to make when we only have 2 before conking out. And as we slurp those mediocre noods down, our souls die a little bit more.
And it’s still better than trying to cover up the freeze dried tortilla edges of last week’s frozen burrito meal with cheese and salsa, amirite?
Guys, it doesn’t have to be that way.
If you look at make-ahead stuff differently, you can have freedom and convenience all in one. The secret to making the freezer your bitch instead of the other way around is to understand what to freeze and what it’s going to do for you.
Freezer As Pantry Philosophy
Considering your freezer as a pantry instead of an extension of our grocer’s freezer meal aisle is the key to unlocking its potential to empower us to make what we’re craving easier and quicker, any day.
Pantries rarely contain whole meals, but a well stocked pantry empowers us to make a wide variety of meals at the drop of a hat. Same should be true for the freezer.
Remember that whole “omg I’m craving ramen so hard, but I don’t have time to make it lemme just hate my life and kill my soul with shrinkwrap-bag-o-noodle” thing? The whole point of this philosophy is to change that scenario into the following:
“Omg I’m craving ramen. Good thing I have some really good bone broth and chashu frozen and some tare in the fridge. All I need to do is boil some decent noods and eggs and I am good to effin’ go! IT’S WEEKNIGHT RAMEN TIME GUYS!”
And then, the very next day, you happen across an article about the amazingness of chicken curry pot pie.
“Omg all I have ever wanted as of 5 minutes ago is curried chicken under pastry. Good thing I have that curry paste and puff pastry dough frozen. All I have to do is sauté up some chicken and potatoes and slap that doughy lid down.”
Deciding on the specific contents of your pantry or freezer is a purely personal decision that ladders back to the cuisines you enjoy cooking, what meals you enjoy eating, and what elements of those meals you find to be the biggest pain-in-the-ass blockers that keep us from cooking them when-the-hell-ever we want. Rather than give you a prescriptive list in this article – which would be impossible – I’d rather hit this concept from a higher level.
According to this philosophy, made-ahead freezer pantry stuff should fit at least two of the following criteria:
- Versatility – The ingredients and meal elements that you take the time to make ahead and freeze should be able to be used in many different ways, depending on what you’re craving at the time.
- Freeze-ability – It has to ACTUALLY freeze well. Sorry cooked pasta and fresh veggies. You’re a no-go, because the average home cook does not have the industrial blast chiller necessary to do you right. And therefore you do us so, so wrong.
- Justifiability – The effort at making pantry-batch-sized stuff ahead must be justified by the yield. I’m not spending 4 hours of my life on anything unless I get a lot of out of it. (God I wish that was actually true. I want it to be true. It isn’t.)
- Crave-ability – This whole article is basically about freezing ingredients and components rather than entire meals, but there are distinct exceptions. If there is a legitimately freezer friendly meal that you constantly crave, it’s 100% worth making a huge batch of it and freezing it. I actually have an example of one below.
Let’s break each one of these criteria down a bit.
What makes a thing versatile? Well as my 8th grade English teacher always told me, “show, don’t tell.”
So here is a great example of taking versatility into consideration when producing a freezer-worthy recipe…
On this blog there are currently two meat sauce recipes:
- My take on Evan Funke’s Lamb Ragu from American Sfoglino (omg so good, do make, 100%)
- Big Batch Bolognese, courtesy of yours truly and meant specifically for the freezer
These recipes are incredibly similar, but one is very versatile and one is really effing not.
Both are ragus made of ground meat. Both are simmered for several hours until tender and flavorful. Both contain onions and bay leaf and celery and some quantity of tomato. Both produce a high yield (one remarkably higher than the other, but still.)
But Evan’s Lamb Ragu recipe doesn’t fit my first criterion. It isn’t versatile AT ALL. The lamb, sage, fennel, and other aromatics make it so distinctive, that it can’t be anything other than what it actually is. If you’re craving southwestern chili, you can’t take this lamb ragu and make it into that. The only thing a frozen portion of that lamb ragu is good for, is thawing out and putting over pasta, if you’re craving lamb ragu.
And man is it ever good for that. It really is. But the fact that it makes enough to eat and then freeze two portions is a bonus. I’m not making it specifically TO freeze, or ever counting on it being there when i’m craving something meaty and saucy.
The big batch bolognese is a TOTALLY different story. It is flavored with a simple herb combo: bay leaves and oregano, and is much more tomato-forward and liquid than the ragu. This does not make it bland. It is unbelievably tasty by itself. But every ingredient in this sauce is found throughout a huge variety of cuisines: Italian, Mediterranean, French, Middle Eastern, and even Southwest American.
Because of its very simplicity, this recipe can be converted into a staggering variety of different flavor profiles. It can morph from lasagne filling to cinnamon-y and spicy Lebanese-style sauce to a Texas chili to die for. It can be made into taco meat, meatball pasta bakes etc. etc. And these conversions can happen the DAY-OF in fifteen minutes or less by adding flavors to it.
It’s pre-coated canvas and you’re like the Bob Ross of flavortown. THAT’S versatility baby. It empowers me to make what I’m craving THAT DAY, fast.
Look, I can make chili in ~30 minutes because the actual hard part (the slow simmer over time) is already done. All I have to do is make an aroma oil by sweating hot peppers, cumin, onion, and sharp (hot) paprika in a quarter cup of olive oil for 15 minutes, dump a two cup(ish) frozen block of this sauce into that and then thoroughly incorporate it after it thaws.
The flavor diffuses and permeates the entire sauce thanks to the oil. Chop up some fresh onion, toss in some shredded cheddar or jack cheese, dollop on some sour cream and you’ve got yourself one hell of a chili. Or go all Midwest on it and throw in some corn. Why not? Happy little corn.
The problem with our consumer freezers is that they’re not cold enough and have no air circulation. Basically, they are not blast chillers. Therefore they freeze things slowly. Air is the enemy in a slow freeze. Almost anything directly in contact with it will dry as it cools and that process effs up both flavor and texture like nothing else. Here are some examples of things that DON’T freeze well:
- Cooked pasta
- Opened tortillas (unopened packaged ones do pretty well. You just sort of ignore the top and bottom ones and go for the ones in the middle)
- Bread (unless very well wrapped)
- Cooked meat (unless you use a vacuum sealer, and even then it doesn’t reheat well without drying out)
- Raw meat (unless you use a vacuum sealer, then it’s awesome)
- Whole veggies (cooked or raw, the freezing process degrades the cell walls and you get veggie mush. Gross.)
- Cooked Rice (see cellular wall degradation note above)
- Fresh dairy (milk, sour cream etc.) which often breaks when reheating
Basically anything that depends on texture does not do well, and solids that are exposed to air while freezing don’t do well. Check out your favorite Pinterest make-ahead board. How many of these items are on it (all of them.) Boo, but true.
Here’s some stuff that DOES do well:
- Non-dairy sauces
- Meat suspended in sauces or liquid. Think meatballs in tomato sauce or beef stew – as long as the sauce/liquid completely surrounds them, they won’t freeze dry or get funky.
- Raw, fresh pasta (If it’s treated right. You have to lay it flat, dry it slightly and freeze it FAST, and unless you vacuum seal it shortly thereafter, you’ve got about a week before it starts freeze drying.
- Gnocchi (both ricotta and potato, see pasta caveats)
- Raw pierogies
- Raw tortellini or any other stuffed pasta
- Asian dumplings: potstickers, steamers, gyoza, wontons, you name it – they all freeze and then reheat really well in a wide variety of different dishes
- Stock/broth/bone broth
- Curry pastes like all the ones in this article by Jamie Oliver. These are the gateway to super quick weeknight Indian meals.
- Braising Liquid. I keep this stuff on hand in ice cube sized chunks to flavor everything from ramen broth to sesame noodles to gravy. Unless you don’t have room, don’t EVER throw out your braising liquid.
So, the secret to great freezer-based meals is to omit the shit that doesn’t freeze well.
There’s an amazeballs Finnish stew I love to make in the fall and eat throughout the winter. As-is the recipe fits three of my 4 criteria but I can modify it enough that it fits all four. The only ingredients in it are beef stew meat, onions, garlic, mushrooms, beef broth and sour cream.
“But Zesty!!” I hear you gasp in horror. “Whole veggies and dairy? Surely it won’t actually freeze well! YOU SAID SO! WHY ARE YOU LYING! I WANT TO TALK TO THE MANAGER!”
Well, you’re not technically wrong, Karen, but you have missed the point. See, the mushrooms are cooked to hell before freezing, so cell wall degradation-induced mushiness isn’t really a problem here. And the sour cream can – and should – be added right before serving anyway or it would risk breaking and curdling in the heat.
I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t freeze small batches of stuff or the freezer-friendly leftovers of a good meal.
I’m just saying that when you’re considering your freezer as a pantry and you’re going out of your way to make stuff ahead that will cut down your cooking time and effort the day-of, make a hell of a lot of whatever it is. Making batches of shit like that bone broth or meat sauce is a huge goddamn pain in the ass (the bone broth more than the meat sauce.) Same thing goes with the stuffed pastas, dumplings or pierogies. So when you do make them, make a metric shitload. You can use them in so many different ways.
As you can tell, I’m not generally a fan of freezing entire meals. As you can also tell from my rant about my favorite stew which is CERTAINLY a meal in and of itself, this is more of a guideline than a rule. If you have a thing that you constantly crave, like, once a week or every two weeks, it deserves to take up precious, precious space in your freezer. The stew is one example. For me, meatballs and tomato sauce are another example. So is paneer saag.
If I could successfully freeze entire servings of ramen and have it turn out right, I’d do that too except… Wait. I could totally freeze the tare and the broth together and then all I’d have to do is add aroma oil and toppings holy shit I wonder if I could just add the chashu and heat it up slowly… OMG. Not the noods, though, they have to be separate.
But I digress. (I’ll let you know how that goes btw.)
Freezing Best Practices
Equally as important as adhering to the rules of my philosophy with cult-like devotion is following some best practices that will hold the enemies of Freezer Funk and Freezer Burn at bay.
As mentioned above, air is the enemy. The omission of air and oxygen from our frozen goods is of paramount importance.
There are both very high tech and low tech ways to omit air.
Freezer Storage Best Practice #1: Buy A Vacuum Sealer
And proceed to use it on anything dry enough not to eff up the suction/sealing.
Out of sheer, bloody-minded adherence to the dogma of limiting kitchen appliances, the baggage of which Alton Brown gifted me during my formative years, I didn’t get one of these until very recently. But I had to toss about 10 lbs of prime chuck roast into the woods for the raccoons recently because of our old buddy freezer burn, and I caved and bought this thing.
BEST USE OF ~$200 EVER. It really effing works guys. It REALLY works. I won’t often tell you to just spend moar $$, but if you really want to ace freezer management 101 then this is a no-brainer.
The racoons are looking mighty sleek now, btw, but we’re worried about feeding ourselves well, not them.
Freezer Storage Best Practice #2: Remove All the air.
Storing sauces in bags of flexible material is a great way to ensure that the #1 enemy of a properly frozen batch of anything (air) is omitted.
Notice how I said “flexible material”. There was a time I would have just said “use freezer bags for liquids.” But now there’s all sorts of re-usable silicon, plastic, and other types of freezer bags that have a much lower chance of ending up in a whale’s belly. So use those instead.
Put the stuff in them, dunk them in a bowl of water to force the air out, and seal them. I like to half-fill my bags because when you spread the stuff out after sealing it, a thinner bag freezes and thaws faster, and is easier to store.
Flexible containers are my go-to for sauces and such, but sometimes you just need a stackable thing. For instance, 15 bags of soup stock would be hard to organize in a freezer, let alone get to freeze flat. So use containers like these that are totally air tight to freeze stock and such. The gaskets are meant for use in a freezer so they stay supple enough to totally seal off the container, slamming the door in freezer funk’s dirty, stinky face.
Freezer Storage Best Practice #3: Freeze Things In Usable Quantities
It’s tempting to use fewer, bigger containers because it’s a more efficient use of limited freezer space. There are, however, two major issues with this:
- Shit takes longer to thaw. Thawing time is not cooking time. Thawing time is wasted time. Cut down on wasted time. That’s the whole point.
- You’ll have leftovers that either need to be used right away or be refrozen and NOTHING refreezes really well.
So freeze things in quantities that you know you’ll use. For instance, I know that 4 cups (a quart) of stock makes two servings of seriously amazing ramen. One for me, and one for my husband. If I have friends over, guess what? I thaw out two quarts.
Freezer Storage Best Practice #4: Use Ice Cube Trays
I know, I know, it’s so twee. It sounds so much like it belongs in “10 life hacks to make your life hackier” article (and certainly has been). But seriously, this is a godsent for braising liquid, stock, and other things you might only need a quarter cup of or less to round out a great recipe.
Freezer Storage Best Practice #5: Date Your Food
I don’t mean take it to a movie. I mean put a date on your frozen food. It’ll help you use older batches before you break into new stuff and it’ll also help you keep track of when to admit defeat and just toss stuff you haven’t and will never use that is taking up precious freezer space.
Ok. That’s enough out of me. I’ve said my piece. Hopefully it was helpful. And hopefully my made-for-the-freezer recipes are also helpful as you continue down the path to making the freezer your bitch.
If you have any recommendations for freezer recipes, I’d love to hear them and make them, and then send you pictures of what I’ve made. Hit me up in the comments or on Instagram.
Happy freezing, y’all!