Your website inspired me to join a CSA this year, and I’ve been frequenting a local farmers’ market since May. I absolutely love all the produce selections, but this has me thinking that come late fall/winter I’m going to feel pretty limited by what’s usually available (and affordable) in the grocery store. (I live in the Northern Plains.) I’d like to begin thinking about freezing some items to enjoy them post-season. What tips do you have for doing this? Thank you!
Thanks for the timely question. I’ve actually gotten similar inquiries from a few readers this week. Yes, we’re rounding the corner on June if you can believe it. It’s a great time of year for taking advantage of the variety – try some new items, find new recipes for old favorites. (Anybody wanna share new discoveries?) However, as incredible as it is to enjoy fresh veggies and fruits now, it’s smart to look ahead to the “scarcer” months. One of the best ways to carry over the season’s best, of course, is freezing. (Grok would’ve traded a lot of hides for a deep freeze chest….) As you load up on summer produce, here are a few suggestions (and resources) for best freezer prep and storage.
First off, I’d highly recommend investing in a deep freezer. You can certainly make use of the freezer compartment of your refrigerator, but it’s typically a limited space and doesn’t stay as consistently cold as a deep freezer chest. (For best results, freezers should be kept at 0° Fahrenheit or less. A simple freezer gauge can give you an accurate reading.) Although items should still last a number of months, you aren’t going to get the same longevity (8-12 months for most produce when properly prepped and packaged). If you’re worried about initial outlay, keep in mind that there are plenty of good used ones for sale. Check scratch and dent sales, classifieds and Craigslist for starters. And also keep in mind that you have the potential to recoup much if not all of that money within the first year alone, depending on how much you choose to freeze (produce, meats, etc.). It’s less expensive to buy good quality produce in season and make it last through much of the winter than it is to buy your full produce needs in the off-season. When you add the savings of cowpooling or other bulk meat/poultry/game storage, it won’t be long before your freezer will pay for itself.
As for wraps, bags and such, don’t skimp. You’ll need high quality storage to keep out moisture. Lined freezer paper and freezer tape can work for “dry” packing of produce. Another option, particularly for purees or fruits that will be stored with juice, is freezer appropriate canning jars. Many people find it more convenient to use plastic freezer bags (either the Ziploc kind or the self-cut kind that requires a heat sealer). In any case, the freezer wrap or bags should be freezer-designated, vapor proof as well as pliant. The idea here is to mold the packaging as close to the outline of the food as possible and to prevent the exchange of moisture. If the item is allowed to give off its own moisture, freezer burn will set in. You know those brownish, tough, odd-tasting areas on thawed veggies? Spare your produce the calamity and yourself the frustration (and lost money) by investing a little extra change in good storage.
For the sake of taste and nutrients, you’ll want the freshest produce you can get your hands on. If you’re not a gardener yourself, the next best thing can be found in CSA packages or farmers’ markets. Items are generally picked within a day or even a few hours of sale/distribution.
Wash, cut, peel and prep as needed. (The smaller the pieces the more tightly you can pack your produce.) Nearly all produce items – other than a few like melon and herbs – will need to be blanched before freezing. (A few like sweet potatoes and pumpkin should be thoroughly cooked before freezing.) The quick shot in boiling water or steam will halt the enzyme action responsible for natural decomposition. Too little, and you run the risk of not shutting down the enzyme activity (maybe even accelerating it). Too much, and you might be sacrificing nutrients as well as texture and taste. (A brief “shock” in ice water immediately after blanching will keep the items from cooking further.) The timing on blanching, however, is a delicate dance. Check out these resources for specific blanching times tailored to specific fruits and vegetables. If you choose to “steam blanch,” the times are generally 1.5 times the given minutes for traditional blanching.
A few other notes to keep in mind… You won’t need a lot of complicated equipment – just some large pots, bowls, tongs, towels and wire baskets. Although microwave blanching may work for small batches that will be eaten in a short period of time, many experts recommend against it for long-term freezing. There’s doubt that it halts all enzyme activity. Certain fruits like apples, peaches, avocado, and pears should be stored with ascorbic acid to prevent discoloration. You might also consider it for vegetables like artichokes and sweet potato to maintain peak color.
Once the vegetables and fruits are appropriately prepped, cooked and cooled, allow them to thoroughly drain and dry. Dish or paper towels can speed up the process especially for certain intact items like green beans or whole berries. Most vegetables and many fruits can be packed without any juice. After draining, they can be tightly packed in freezer bags or wrap and frozen in their bulk packaging. Another choice is to allow individual pieces of drained vegetables and fruit to freeze on a tray first and then immediately pack them in bags or wrap. Cooked purees can be stored in large containers or in smaller portions/cubes that may be more useful for recipes or baby food. Some fruits like apples and nectarines tend to freeze better with juice. (Sugar or syrup packing is often recommended, but a small amount of juice and ascorbic acid can work just as well.)
Once you have your packages loaded and ready for storage, stack up already frozen items and move them to one side of your freezer. Spread the new packages across the open areas to encourage speedier freezing, which will discourage freezer burn and help preserve taste.
Have your own tips for freezing summer’s best? Favorite uses for your frozen stores? As always, thanks for your questions and comments, and keep ‘em coming!