It is still chilly and winter in most locations. Even here in Georgia we are still swinging between chilly and warm. Today would have been my mother’s birthday and that reminds me of how she loved to use her freezer for convenience in meal preparation.
There is nothing like a hot bowl of homemade soup or chili on a chilly winter’s day. But not everyone has time or ingredients to make it when the mood strikes or it’s time to eat. Just imagine having a freezer full of delicious, homemade meals ready to be heated and served when you get home from work. Freezing prepared foods in advance allows you the satisfaction of homemade meals with the convenience of store-bought ones. A lot of people have gone the route of instant cookers and fast preparation, but for some, making ahead and just reheating is even a quicker answer. (Believe me, I also have my favorite stovetop soups that cook up quickly, even with lots of flavor, but that does require I have the ingredients on hand when the mood strikes.)
There are just a few things to keep in mind when freezing prepared foods. Freezing will not improve the texture, flavor, or quality of most food. It simply acts to preserve the quality of the food. Therefore, you should only freeze high quality ingredients. Some ingredients may not hold up well in the freezer, especially if you don’t plan to use it quickly this season only. You can look up some cautions and effects of freezing on spices ahead of time (http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/how/freeze/dont_freeze_foods.html). Other tips for freezing prepared foods can be found from the University of Georgia also (http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/publications/uga/FreezingPreparedFoods.pdf).
After cooking the food you plan to freeze, be sure it is cooled quickly to maintain the safety of the food. You can quick-cool your hot soups or stews by stirring in a bowl or pan that is set down into an ice bath. Never leave perishable food at room temperature more than two hours; if you do not quick-cool it until cold enough to put in the freezer, put the food in the refrigerator to finish cooling.
Be sure to put your soup in moisture-vapor resistant packaging to prevent freezer burn. Now what does that mean? We see it all the time. You want packaging that doesn’t allow for moisture from the food to be drawn out into dry air through it. And you want packaging materials that keep odors inside the pack. Not all plastics and foils are the same in these characteristics, for example. For soups and stews, rigid containers like freezer quality plastic boxes or jars are a good choice; freezer-weight plastic bags can be used, just a little more awkward to fill and seal with runny food.
To make the most of the convenience factor, package your soup or stew in amounts that you will be able to eat at one time. Be sure to clearly label each package with the name of the food, and date you put it in the freezer. If you have a variety of foods that will look alike and have short names on that label, consider including some ingredients on that label. Be sure all sealing areas are clean and dry and to leave recommended headspace for expansion inside the package (https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze/headspace.html). Once packaged and sealed, and place in the coldest part of the freezer.
Quick, it’s time to eat! You can put your soup or stew in a pan for stovetop or bowl for microwave and cook right from the frozen stage. If you heat in your freezer container, make sure it is intended to be used for the hot temperatures the cooked food will reach. Be sure to stir to prevent burning on the stovetop and to evenly distribute heat with either method of cooking. Thawing in the refrigerator is safe, but takes some planning ahead. You can also thaw in the microwave even if you finish cooking on a stovetop or oven. And reheat your food to at least 165°F everywhere quickly, within 2 hours of starting. (If I have a broth-based soup that can be brought to a visible boil, I always do that myself to ensure adequate reheating.) If you want to quick-thaw under cold running water, be sure the package is leak-proof and keep running water moving slowly over the package or place it in a clean pan or bowl and submerge under cold tap water that is changed every 30 minutes. Be sure to reheat as above as soon as the food is thawed enough. To ensure the safety of your food, do not allow these potentially hazardous foods to stay in the temperature danger zone (40°F-140°F) for more than 2 hours at any time.
Planning ahead and freezing that favorite soup, stew or chili is a great way to keep homemade food on your dinner table without all of the stress and hassle of last minute cooking from scratch.