TORONTO - Is your freezer a way station between the fridge and the recycling bin? You stock up on steaks and chicken breasts when they are on sale, but somehow end up tossing trays of freezer-burned meat months later? Do you find yourself scraping ice crystals off the top of storage tubs in an attempt to answer the question: Is this chili? Spaghetti sauce? Soup?
If the answer to any of those questions is yes, you may be tempted to make practising effective freezer management one of your new year's resolutions for 2014.
Experts say most foods freeze very well — eggs in the shell, mayonnaise and leafy vegetables are rare exceptions. But understanding the dos, don'ts and how longs will help you maximize the dollar-stretching capacity of your fridge's freezer or your deep freeze.
We got some advice from three experts on food freezing: Doug Goff, a professor of food sciences at the University of Guelph in Ontario; Rick Holley, a food safety microbiologist at the University of Manitoba and Elizabeth Andress, a food safety specialist at University of Georgia at Athens.
Here are some of their tips.
Leaner lasts longer.
With meats and fish, lean cuts last longer than those marbled with fat. Lean meat that are well wrapped can last up to a year, the experts say. The storage time for ground meat is shorter — about three to four months.
Lean fish can last up to six months but fattier fish types, such as salmon, should only be kept for about three.
The issue with fat is oxidation. Exposure to air will make fat go rancid. "Rancidity will continue, even in the freezer," Andress says.
Rancid food doesn't trigger food poisoning. But rancidity will affect the flavour, odour and texture of the product.
"You will find that there are two things that happen," Holley says. "Number 1 is that they lose their typical flavour. So bacon doesn't taste like bacon anymore. And it also picks up this rancid, cardboardy-like flavour as well."
Holley recalls once eating some expensive Italian sausage he'd frozen, as an experiment, for a couple of years. "Honestly, I would have gotten more satisfaction out of chewing on a piece of wood."
Sugar and spice isn't always nice.
It's a fact of freezing. Items that have high sugar or salt contents do not freeze as well as other foods. Think about the differences between frozen fruits and frozen vegetables; the latter retain a much better texture after freezing than the former, generally speaking.
It's because sugar and salts lower the point at which the foods freeze, creating a situation where the food may not freeze as thoroughly.
"That will then increase the rate of deterioration, both enzyme and chemical deterioration, and also physical damage to the product itself," says Goff.
"The more sugar there is in a product, the more difficult it is to freeze and shorter the shelf-life that it's going to have."
That means baked goods don't have a particularly long freezer shelf life. If your freezer is set to -10 Celsius to -15 C, the quality of these types of foods will start to change after only a couple of weeks. If you want to store them for longer, the freezer should be set to -20 C or lower, Goff says.
He also suggests you store these types of foods in the coldest part of your freezer. In a deep freezer, that would be at the bottom. In the freezer compartment of your refrigerator, it would be at the bottom and towards the back.
Cured meats also have a shorter shelf than a roast or chops because of the salts used in their preparation, says Andress, adding products like sausages and hot dogs will start to change after two months or so.
Holley agrees: "You should never really think that you can get much in terms of shelf life from a frozen cured meat product. It's just too easy to forget you've put them in the freezer. And two months goes by with the blink of an eye."
They don't call them "freezer" bags for nothing.
Wrapping food well is the key to successful freezing, the experts say. The aim is to keep air away from whatever you are freezing, and to keep the product's moisture in it so you don't end up with freezer burn.
Package things tightly. Andress says she will wrap items in plastic wrap, and then overlays that with aluminium foil.
If you want the meat you bought on sale to still be a good bargain six months from, don't go cheap on the cling film or the plastic bags. Sandwich bags and freezer bags are not interchangeable.
"Definitely don't get chintzy," Goff says. "If you want to freeze things and have good quality, it has to be wrapped well."
Another piece of advice: Don't throw meat or fish directly into the freezer in the packaging it was sold in. Grocery store wrap may be flimsy, says Goff, and there is often a pocket of air around the product if it's sitting on a Styrofoam tray.
Remove the original packaging and re-wrap the products, ensuring they are as air-tight as possible.
Oh, and while you are packaging products to freeze, don't forget to label them. Months from now you are unlikely to remember which steaks should be used up first.
The ice cream gauge.
As we now know, sweet things don't freeze that well, and that includes ice cream. Goff, who is an expert on ice cream — seriously — says unless freezer conditions are right, the quality of ice cream will deteriorate noticeably in as little as a few weeks.
It comes down to temperature. You need really cold temperatures, in the -18 C to -20 C range, to freeze ice cream well. At those temperatures ice cream will be too hard to scoop. (Zapping it in the microwave for 10 seconds, Goff says, will get around that problem.)
So if you don't have a thermometer in your freezer, you can guestimate how cold the unit is by whether ice cream stored in it is scoopable or not.
Another tip: As you work your way through a container of ice cream, the exposure to air in the container increases. That doesn't enhance the texture or flavour of the product. Goff suggests cutting a piece of plastic wrap and pressing it down onto the surface of the ice cream to create a barrier between the frozen dessert and the air.
On the Web:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a handy one-page guide on foods that can and can't be frozen, and how long they will keep. It is found here: http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/ucm109315.pdf
And the U.S. National Center for Home Food Preservation has detailed information on how to freeze a wide variety of foods. It is found here: http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze.html
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Prep Snacks Right Away
While unpacking groceries, put a pot on the stove and hard-cook half a dozen eggs for great grab-and-go snacks.
Get It Ready
Chop vegetables and refrigerate in clear containers.
Grab And Go
Wash fruit and put it in a bowl by the front door where family members can grab some on the way out.
Buy bigger, more economical packages of meat — even split them with a friend — and repackage into smaller sizes. Refrigerate or freeze; thaw only what you need for a meal.
Pull skin off chicken before refrigerating or freezing.
Start to marinate a package of steaks. Place them in a resealable plastic bag and freeze for a head start on a meal.
Inner Aisle Love
"[The] inner aisles make it trickier for us, where we have to read labels, maybe you've got a multitude of choices. ... Where do you start?" asks Carol Harrison, a registered dietitian based in Toronto. But she points out there are also gems that can be teamed with foods from the store's perimeter, like whole grains, quinoa, pasta, barley, beans and rice. Whole grains are useful for reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer and help with weight.
Turn to pantry staples such as soups, canned tomatoes and fish, nuts, nut butters and seeds toward the end of the week when you start to run out of fresh foods.
Don't Fear Pre-Chopped
"Slow down in the produce section and really explore all the options that are there because more and more grocery stores are trying to acknowledge that people are looking for healthy convenient foods," said Harrison. "So you will see the pineapple that's cored and cut up for you, vegetable platters you could put out for your family while you're getting dinner cooked, butternut squash that's ready to go, maybe into the oven or into a soup, so it's a great time saver."
Get The Kids Involved
Use shopping to teach kids how to make healthy choices. Treat it like a field trip — perhaps a March break outing — and go when the store is not busy and they're not tired. Give kids a task, such as picking out 12 mushrooms. Or ask what fruit they'd like to eat this week and have them choose one or two.