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Autumn brings busy days, with harvest season, chauffeuring children to activities and off-farm work schedules. Even the special cooking for holiday meals makes for jam-packed days. Those are the times when it is convenient to fall back on prepared dishes that can be taken from the freezer to be heated and served. It may take some planning to allow time for food to defrost before heating, and some prepared foods can be taken directly from the freezer and reheated without first thawing.

Consider the quality of food choices, nutritional benefits, and safe food practices when freezing your own meals.

Freezing will not improve the quality of the food, so select only high-quality ingredients. Not all foods freeze well. Cooked egg whites become tough, rubbery and spongy. Mayonnaise, sour cream and sauces made with milk may separate and become watery; using a modified food starch helps reduce separation. Potatoes, cooked macaroni, spaghetti, beans and rice become mushy and taste warmed-over, so try undercooking starchy ingredients to overcome the mushiness problem. Fried foods lose their crispness in the freezer. Casserole toppings can be frozen separately to prevent sogginess.

The intensity of seasonings changes during freezing, so season lightly before freezing and adjust the flavor during reheating. Cloves, pepper, garlic and celery become stronger when frozen. Onion, salt and chili powder weaken in flavor.

Preparing your own convenience meals allows you to meet special nutritional needs of your family. You can reduce or omit salt, sugar and fat as desired.

Use safe food handling practices when preparing foods to freeze. Watch the temperature. Keep perishable food in the refrigerator until you are organized and ready to cook. Read through the recipe, get out all other ingredients and packaging materials, and lastly, get out perishable ingredients. Work quickly to keep foods that will spoil out of the danger zone of 40 to 140 F. Food frozen at zero F or below will always be safe if it was safe when it went into the freezer.

Choose packaging materials that help maintain quality and prevent freezer burn. Select material that can seal airtight and is made for freezing. Look for the term “freezer” on plastic bags; this indicates a plastic that will allow less evaporation than bags designed for general storage. Freezer bags make the most sense for slow-cooker meals. The bag of food can be thawed in the refrigerator and added to the slow cooker in the morning before you leave for the day. Pasta dishes or casseroles freeze nicely in disposable foil pans that can be taken directly from the freezer and put in the oven and cooked from a frozen state. Freezer-to-oven-safe containers can also be used. Both need to be tightly covered with heavy plastic wrap or foil; then overwrapped with a freezer bag. Label items with the date, a brief description of the food product and cooking directions.

Food freezes more quickly when several smaller containers or packages are used instead of one large one. Food that is 2 inches thick should completely freeze in about two hours. Spread packages out in one layer on various shelves, and then stack them after they have frozen solid.

Freezing preserves food for extended periods because it prevents the growth of microorganisms that cause food spoilage and foodborne illness. Only the quality suffers with long freezer storage when ice crystals form and break down cell walls. Over time oxidation occurs. Freezer burn, little brownish-gray patches on the surface of the food, is not harmful but makes the food dry and distorts the flavor. Fats reacting with oxygen may become rancid. For this reason, suggested storage time in the freezer is relatively short for prepared foods compared to plain vegetables or a raw meat roast. A few examples of recommended storage times are as follows: combination meat dishes, 4-6 months; spaghetti or ravioli in sauce, 4-6 months; chicken ala king, 2 to 4 months; meatloaf, 3-4 months; meat pies, 4-6 months; macaroni and cheese, 2-4 months; soups, 4 -6 months; baked beans, 6 months.

Thawing frozen foods is another food safety issue. Do not thaw foods at room temperature. Some casseroles can be taken from the freezer and baked without freezing. These will take 30 to 60 minutes longer to bake than when baked from the fresh state. Food to be reheated in the microwave oven needs to be thawed either in the refrigerator or at the defrost setting in the microwave oven and then immediately reheated at medium high. Creamed soups and creamed meats may be heated over boiling water to prevent burning; stir to keep liquids smooth. Reheat all cooked foods to at least 165 F within two hours of removal from the refrigerator or freezer.

If you have food preservation questions, a home economist is available to answer questions on Wednesdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., by calling 717-394-6851 or writing Penn State Extension, Lancaster County, 1383 Arcadia Road, Room 140, Lancaster, PA 17601.

The Well Preserved news column is prepared by Penn State Extension.