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Since the beginning of the year, I’ve written frequently about avoiding food waste. I’ve touched on buying only what you’ll need, safe preparation and storage, and creative use of leftovers. Another way to prevent food waste is to freeze food that you can’t eat right now for use later.
Freezing cannot improve the flavor or texture of any food, but when properly done, it can preserve most of the quality of the fresh product. While freezing food is generally the easiest form of food preservation, there are some basic “rules” to remember to make sure the food you get out of the freezer is safe and high quality.
Using the correct container or wrap makes a big difference in the flavor, color, moisture content, and nutritional value of the food coming out of the freezer. In general, materials used for freezing should be moisture and vapor-resistant, durable, protect foods from absorption of off-flavors and odors, and easy to seal and label.
Cardboard cartons from ice cream and milk and cottage cheese and yogurt containers are not sufficiently moisture vapor resistant to be suitable for long-term storage.
Blanching vegetables to be frozen is an important step. Blanching is the dipping of the vegetables in boiling water or steam for a short time, then cooling quickly before freezing. This stops enzyme actions, which can cause loss of flavor, color, and texture. Blanching also cleanses the surface of dirt and organisms, brightens the color, and helps slow the loss of vitamins. The amount of time the food is blanched varies with the type of vegetable and size.
Saying that, what happens if you just have a small amount of a vegetable and don’t have time to blanch? I’ve occasionally dropped some chopped celery or other vegetables in the freezer without blanching before heading out on vacation (knew it wouldn’t be good if left in the crisper while we were gone). The colors are dull. It is safe to eat, but the quality not so good. If you do this, plan to use the food quickly. This celery worked great in soup.
Freeze leftovers rapidly and package them correctly for the best results.
Quick freezing slows the development of large ice crystals. These crystals can cause the quality and texture of the food to deteriorate.
How long foods will keep in the freezer depends upon the type of food it is. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), casseroles, soups, stews, gravy, and cooked meat should be eaten within 2-3 months for the best quality and cooked poultry can be frozen for 4 months when held at 0°F. Fruits and blanched vegetables can be kept for a year. This doesn’t mean they will be unsafe after that time, just the quality will be less.
When you are ready to eat leftovers (or other food for that matter) that you stored in the freezer, do not thaw them on the counter. Thaw frozen food in the refrigerator, under cold running water, or in the microwave.
The Safe Plates Food Safety Information Center recently posted about refreezing foods that have thawed. If the foods have only partially thawed and still have ice crystals in the package, they can be safely refrozen, though the quality will be poorer.
Meat, fish, poultry, and prepared foods, vegetables, and fruits can be refrozen if they have been kept at a temperature of 41 degrees F or below. However, the quality will be lower. Follow them on Facebook for more food safety information from NCSU.
Following these simple guidelines for freezing and thawing foods correctly can help you have good quality foods and less waste.
Cheryle Syracuse wrote this article and more similar ones for the Family and Consumer Sciences Column in the Brunswick Beacon. Syracuse is an FCS team member and can be reached at N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center, 910.253.2610 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.