Food preservation methods & supplies: Freezing

We’ve had questions from new CSA members regarding home food preservation techniques and any relevant items that might make good holiday gifts. We’re thrilled that folks are thinking ahead to preserving next year’s bounty, as that’s the key to getting the most out of a CSA and building the economic sustainability of local foods in general. This series will present some of our experiences and advice, along with ideas for kitchen items that we’ve found to be useful investments as serious practitioners of home food preservation.

Freezing is one of the easiest methods of food preservation, and this technique relies on a minimum of specialized equipment. We freeze many types of food including beans, greens, basil in oil, shredded zucchini, sweet corn, okra, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, an assortment of prepared foods (zucchini soup, chutneys, sauces, frijole mole), meat, broth/stock, and more.

Methods vary depending on what is being frozen, with advice available from many cookbooks and at this site by the Georgia Extension (their excellent food preservation book is our standard reference). A few products can be frozen with no preparation at all. Blueberries and (contrary to other advice) okra are two examples that we just chuck in a container or bag and put in the freezer. Most vegetables benefit from being blanched before freezing (okra turns too slimy if you blanch it). We generally blanch in boiling water, and standard kitchen supplies are sufficient for this process: a big soup pot or two, a colander, and a large bowl to hold ice water for chilling.

Food can either be packed into a container or bag right away, or spread on a tray for freezing, then packed into a container after freezing. The former is faster but means you get a solid block of frozen material that needs to be thawed all at once; the latter takes more work up front but means you can dip into the bag/container for just what you need at one time. We especially use the tray method for whole okra, strawberries, and some green beans. Either way, try to drain or dry the food before you pack it up; otherwise you’re wasting energy freezing water and it can decrease the product quality.

The freezer itself:
The freezer compartment of a normal refrigerator can hold a pretty good amount of frozen food, if well managed. Upon outgrowing that, a larger standalone freezer is worth considering. Size is the biggest consideration, since freezers are most efficient to run when full, but of course fullness fluctuates over the course of the year. Ours is stuffed to the brim by Nov./Dec. (when it is loaded with vegetables and freshly butchered animals) and is least full by about May (when we put numerous ice blocks in to fill otherwise empty space). We like to support locally owned businesses, so we bought our chest freezer at Downtown Appliance, and have been very happy with it.

Containers to put frozen food in:

  • The cheapest route is to reuse containers (such as quart yogurt containers). When we stopped buying food that comes in containers, we eliminated this option for ourselves.
  • Most hardware stores in our area sell Arrow plastic freezer containers. The square shape makes these among the more space efficient containers we have, but we’ve found that the lifespan of these is shorter than desired. We’ve had quite a few develop cracks in the bottom.
  • This year, we’re trying out some Ball plastic freezer jars, also available at our local hardware stores. These are BPA-free, stackable, and tight-sealing, plus they appear to be durable. They are more expensive up front, but we think they may be cheaper in the long run than the alternatives. They’re also round, which makes them less space-efficient than the cheaper square ones.
  • Glass jars can work for freezing some things, but it is important not to fill them too full. We have lots of small glass jars around, and we tend to use these for condiments that we want to thaw in small quantities, such as chutney and pesto.
  • Freezer bags are convenient for some items (okra and chicken, for example) that don’t pack well into solid containers. We keep some on hand for times when we run out of other containers. However, these generally head for the landfill after a couple of uses, so they rank low on the sustainability front.
  • Freezer paper is our choice for wrapping cuts of meat.

Optional accessories, one cheap, one expensive:

  • A freezer alarm will beep if the freezer temperature gets too high (whether due to the freezer being accidentally unplugged, the door being left open, or some form of malfunction). This is an inexpensive investment to provide some protection to the large amount of flavor, effort, and money represented by the food in the freezer, though you still have to be near the freezer to hear it (we don’t go in our basement every day).
  • In case of an extended power outage, a generator will provide a true backup. A few years ago, Joanna’s parents in Arkansas experienced a severe ice storm followed by a week (or longer) power outage and temperatures in the 70s, a nightmare scenario for a freezer full of a year’s worth of food preservation. Eric drove down with a chainsaw and a newly purchased generator–one of the last ones available in Columbia, a couple hundred miles from the storm zone. When generators are needed, they can be hard to obtain. Dry ice can also be used to get a freezer through a power outage.

Tracking frozen items:
One of the keys to making the best use of a freezer is knowing what’s in it. We generally defrost our freezer in November or December, and this is a great time to do an inventory. We make a list with all of the freezer contents & quantities, post it in the kitchen, and do our best to check off each container that comes out of the freezer. This way, we can pace ourselves as the winter progresses, making sure to use everything that is available. Come spring, we can also assess whether there were some things that we froze way too much of (shredded zucchini, anyone?), and we can adjust our quantities the following year.

Using frozen items:
We don’t generally try to use preserved items in the same way as their fresh counterparts; you won’t find a pile of frozen green beans steamed in a pile on our plates in January. Part of seasonal eating is learning seasonal cooking, in which different recipes work best at different times of year. We don’t make many stews and soups in summer when produce is at its individual best, but do this all the time with frozen and preserved produce in the winter. It’s much more effective to combine these ingredients in diverse dishes that build on the strength of each, but hide the weaknesses. For example, it’s incredibly easy to grab a stack of broth, beans, okra, greens, corn, and more to simply chuck in a soup pot with some onion and turn into a nice stew, when many of those served on their own would be noticeably less interesting than the fresh version. Frozen fruit is mushier than the fresh original, but made into a baked good or thawed into yogurt, the flavors come through nicely without noticing the loss of texture. Pre-making soups, sauces, and other mixes to freeze also makes using frozen foods more practical, as they’re more space-efficient than their raw ingredients. Finally, some items are best to thaw before use (broth, sauce) while others are best used half-frozen. For example, okra is easiest and least messy to chop when frozen whole and chopped just slightly thawed (a few minutes on the counter).

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