Make Your Freezer Drought-Ready with These Food Preservation Methods
Freezing Methods of Preserving Food to Save Money and Reduce Waste
Do you have any of the following in your pantry or kitchen: lettuce, spinach, kale, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, grapes, almonds, strawberries, oranges, walnuts, apricots, dates, figs, kiwi fruit, nectarines, olives, rice, carrots, garlic, artichokes, pistachios, prunes, avocados, lemons, melons, peaches, or plums? If you do, and the crops didn’t originate from your garden or local farmer’s market, they probably came from either California or Central/South America. And because of those origins, food preservation methods are more important than ever.
Barbara Kingsolver said in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, “In the world map of produce, California might as well be its own country. A superpower in fact, one state that exports more fresh produce than most countries of the world. If not for the fossil fuels involved, this culinary export could have filled me with patriotic pride. Our country is not only arches and cowboy hats, after all. We just don’t get credit for this as ‘American food’ because vegetables are ingredients.
“The California broccoli would be diced into Asian stir-fries, tossed with Italian pasta primavera, or served with a bowl of mac-and-cheese, according to the food traditions of us housewives.” -Kingsolver, Barbara; Kingsolver, Camille; Hopp, Steven L. (2009-10-13). Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (p. 157). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
If you’re curious how dependent we’ve become on California produce, check out this article.
Oh yeah, and California is currently in the midst of a devastating drought. According to NASA scientists, it could get a lot worse.
Okay, I’m done scaring you. The point is: food is getting expensive. Produce that doesn’t come from California may travel overseas, relying on petroleum fuel and increasing the cost to the consumer.
What can you do? Start with a rain dance? We could use a few more of those. Then pull out those supermarket sales ads and buy a few packs of freezer bags to leverage some cool food preservation methods.
Modern food preservation techniques make it easy to take advantage of abundance when you have it. Food stored at 0 degrees will last indefinitely, though the quality declines after 6-12 months. If you find red bell peppers on sale for 4/$1, you can slice and freeze them to consume even if the price rises to $5.99/lb. Unlike with home canning, foods with any acidic or alkali component can be frozen. Pumpkin butter is too thick to safely water bath, but you can store it in a freezer container. Dry and oily foods can also be frozen without additional safeguards.
Use a freezer-safe container, remove as much air as possible, and correctly seal the container. Zippered storage bags won’t protect well; use actual freezer bags. Rather than disposable food containers, use freezer containers. You’ll be glad you did when you pull those fresh tomatoes out a year later and don’t have to throw them away because of the acrid taste of freezer burn. If you’re really dedicated, purchase a vacuum-sealing system, such as Food Saver, Seal-A-Meal, or the units sold by Ziploc. These suck the air from freezer-safe bags before heat-sealing them shut.
Directions for storing or freezing most food reside at Still Tasty. This amazing website provides the shelf life and food preservation methods for foods including meats, nuts, dairy, grains, oils, fruits, and vegetables.
Not all foods can be stored directly. When it comes to freezing, food preservation experts recommend blanching some vegetables. Blanching vegetables means quick-cooking the food to stop enzymatic action, preserve color and flavor, kill harmful organisms, and make the food easier to pack. To blanch your food, start with two containers: one large pot of rapidly boiling water and another pot of ice water. You’ll also need a colander, a slotted spoon or spaghetti fork, and a timer.
Wash your food, but don’t worry about drying it. Have the timer ready. Dunk your food into the boiling water, pushing down to ensure it’s all submerged. Start your timer and allow the food to cook for the designated amount of time. Once the timer goes off, scoop the food from the boiling water with the spoon or spaghetti fork and immediately plunge it into the ice water. Leave it there until it’s completely cooled. After that, drain it thoroughly in the colander, squeezing if necessary to remove as much water as possible.
Another blanching method involves steaming. Place your vegetables in a single layer in a steamer basket. Suspend it over rapidly boiling water and cover the pan. As soon as you close the lid, set the timer for one and a half times the amount recommended for water blanching. Plunge your vegetables into ice water and completely cool it down before packing into freezer bags.
Lay the bags flat in your freezer, stacking them while still unfrozen so they will solidify in perfect formation. You can use this just as you would use commercially frozen food.
It’s important to follow suggested cooking times, because otherwise you’ll overcook your food, resulting in a tasteless and mushy product. If you don’t blanch long enough, your food can be bitter. To see if your food needs blanching or to find the specific blanching time for this food preservation method, visit Still Tasty.
Foods that Need Blanching
- Swiss chard
- Peas (snow and shelled)
- Green and snap beans
- Sweet corn
Some Foods that Need to Be Cooked, with Methods such as Roasting or Frying, before Freezing
- Winter squash, including pumpkins
- Sweet potatoes
Other foods not listed may need blanching or cooking.
Foods that Do Not Need Blanching
You’re in luck! You can throw these right in a freezer bag, squeeze out the air, and stash them in the freezer. But a quick tip: First, slice them into the form in which you will use them. Freezing destroys the cellular structure, resulting in a limp plant when thawed. You can still slice limp peppers and tomatoes, but it’s much easier to slice them while still firm.
For this food preservation method, prepare your foods by washing them and cutting out the stems, cores, and seeds. It also helps to slice or chop them into similar sizes so they will freeze and thaw at an even rate. When these foods thaw, they will release water/juice into the bag, which may be discarded or used in recipes. You do not need to thaw these before using them in smoothies or soups: just remove them from the bag and toss them right in!
- Nightshade fruit (tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, tomatillos)
- Sliced and shredded summer squash/zucchini
And What about the Other Bounty from the West Coast?
California produces most of the America’s almonds, pistachios and walnuts. These can be stored in a cool, dry cupboard, but they contain oils that can go rancid with long-term storage. Freezing slows down the decomposition process. If you’ve purchased almonds in bulk at a great rate, stash in freezer bags everything you won’t immediately use.
The cost of olive oil is bound to rise as well. But you can pour your unflavored or herb-infused oils into freezer containers or canning jars. Be sure to leave an inch or so of headroom at the top, because oil expands as it freezes. When it’s time to use your oil, thaw on the counter until it reaches a liquid state. Do not immerse a frozen jar in hot water, as the temperature differential can break the glass.
Whenever we have a drought anywhere in the country, the cost of meat rises because feed costs have also risen. If you see meat on sale, buy it in bulk, grabbing a box of freezer bags on the way to the checkout. Portion the meat into quantities you’re likely to eat in one sitting. Squeeze out all possible air, as any remaining air can cause freezer burn. Vacuum-packing systems are especially valuable for meat storage.
Though most of our grains come from the Midwest, they can also be frozen to preserve life and flavor. This is especially important for whole grains, which still have the oil-rich germ and can go rancid faster than processed grains. If you’re in possession of fresh homegrown cornmeal, stash it in the freezer to retain that rich, nutty flavor absent in store-bought cornmeal.
Fresh herbs can become limp and bitter if stuck directly into a bag and frozen. A simple and delicious food preservation method for herbs: chop them and stuff them into ice cube trays. Finish filling the trays with liquids such as juice, broth, or water. When the cubes are frozen, crack them out of the tray and store in a freezer bag. Your herb cubes can be dropped directly into soups and stews for fresh flavor. Even a basic pesto can be made by combining basil, garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and, perhaps, a little Parmesan cheese and pine nuts.
I prefer to pour oil-based concoctions into flexible silicon ice cube trays, as they don’t freeze as solidly as water-based liquids and don’t pop out as easily. This basic pesto can be thawed in a microwave or on the counter then tossed with fresh pasta.
And if your grandmother insists you use her marinara recipe for your homegrown tomatoes and you’re unsure if it will give your family botulism if you bottle it up, simply freeze it. You can alter the recipe, adding in low-acid foods such as peppers and spices, without putting yourself in danger. Blowout sales on garlic and garbonzo beans can turn into several quarts of hummus, which lasts several months without losing flavor if stored in a good container.
Foods that Do Not Freeze Well
Unfortunately, this modern food preservation technique doesn’t work for everything. Lettuce and cucumbers should be eaten fresh, as freezing will produce a bitter and wilted food. Whole eggs expand, cracking the shell and letting in dangerous bacteria. Cheese is still usable after it is frozen and thawed, but it tends to achieve a crumbly texture. Naturally crumbly cheeses such as cotija and stilton won’t be affected as much, but cheddar loses its smooth, grate-able finish and cream cheese may become dry.
Fatty products such as coconut milk, cream, and egg-based mixtures like mayonnaise tend to curdle and separate when thawed. Celery, melons, avocados, bananas and hard-boiled eggs become rubbery. However, that problem can be solved with avocados by making guacamole, freezing the yummy dip, and using it immediately after thawing.
Armed with a pot of boiling water, some freezer bags, and close monitoring of sale ads, you can snag those good finds though they grow scarcer. Purchase an amount that is prudent to you and process as necessary. Then sit back and watch food prices continue to rise, secure in the knowledge that thanks to a few smart food preservation methods, the bell peppers in your freezer were 4 for $1.