Exploring the deepest depths of your home freezer can reveal an archeological gold mine or nightmare. Ready-made dinners! Ice cream delights! Half a container of soup, some frozen peas? This block of some sort of meat? Hmm… and what is that?
This time of year is great for cleaning out the freezer. With a bit of planning in the socially distant pre-Passover frenzy, you’ll be able to identify and organize everything in the cold box and clean the shelves, drawers and containers. Along the way, you’ll be able to create several weeks of meals and save time.
Most freezer food should be eaten within a year, some within a month of freezing. This chart from FoodSafety.gov is a guide to safe freezing. In general, heavily frosted packages and bags are not an indication that an item has gone bad. Rather, it means that oxygen and water vapor have been able to get into your package and have formed ice crystals. While your food likely won’t taste the best on its own, it is probably still perfectly safe to eat. Items in this condition will require different cooking methods, as suggested below. If you’ve had a power outage, a closed freezer will keep your food safe for 48 hours. If you food is below 40 degrees in that timeframe, you can refreeze it safely, but, again, with a potential decrease in quality.
To start, clean out and inventory:
- Remove everything from your freezer and spread it out on your counter to make your review easy. You can also store items in the fridge or in a cooler with an ice pack if you’re going to take more than about 30 minutes.
- If necessary, defrost the whole freezer according to the manufacturer’s directions.
- Wipe down the inside of the freezer with a one-to-one vinegar-water mix, and then dry everything well.
- If you have an icemaker, empty it out, clean the ice bucket and wipe down the external parts.
The easily identifiable items will take no time to check. Here are some ideas to help you come up with uses for those hard to consider foods.
Veggies: Frozen veggies are a terrific and easy way to get healthy ingredients into your meals. However, if you have, say, just a quarter of a bag of vegetables, try making a super quick stir-fry with other leftover items. Use rice or cauliflower rice, your once-frozen veggies, some fresh vegetables and a favorite protein like meat or tofu. You can even add a scrambled egg. Finish with a splash of soy sauce, flavored vinegar or a spicy sauce.
Meat: Smaller pieces of meat, such as cubed stew meat, ground meat or boneless, skinless chicken cutlets are especially susceptible to freezer burn if not properly vacuum sealed. Heavily frosted or “gray” meat is still safe to eat, though you probably wouldn’t want to feature it as the main course on the plate. Instead, use it as a flavoring in soups and stews. Try a tasty and filling bean soup as a pantry cleaner. Using whatever dry beans you have on hand, throw in some lentils, your meat, a can of diced tomatoes and finish with fresh herbs. After a few hours on the stove, you’ll have a filling meal for lots of hungry eaters.
Commercially made ready-to-eat meals, appetizers or snacks: Eat them, and free the space. Just do it.
Frozen sweets: Splurge a little! Eat that ice cream bar or snack pack. If you’re Passover prepping, you still have time to stretch out those delicacies without overloading. Frozen fruit makes terrific smoothies or a topping for other desserts. However, if your container of ice cream has become crystallized and leathery, it’s time to say goodbye.
Unmarked and unknown: Toss it. Don’t play that game.
Tips For the Future
Proper packaging: Oxygen and moisture are your enemies. When freezing food, try to squeeze out as much air as possible, and make sure fruits and veggies are dry before trying to save them. If you portion out fresh meat, be sure to wrap individual pieces tightly with plastic wrap before freezing flat on a cookie sheet. Then move to a freezer bag or reusable container. Even better, invest in a vacuum-sealing system to best preserve your food.
Label: Mark your food package with the item’s name, the date you cooked (or froze) it, the date by which it should be eaten and important info such as whether it’s meat, dairy or pareve or any allergens you included. Be sure to use freezer-safe labels, as regular stickers will fall off in the cold.
In general, try to be more conscious when you buy frozen food or freeze leftovers, and give your freezer a once-over every month or so to avoid accumulating mystery foods that you’ll just end up tossing later.