Against the Freezer

by Ben Miller

I thought Mark Bittman’s Minimalist column yesterday on how to properly take advantage of a freezer was interesting. And while I definitely think his points about carefully labeling things is certainly something worth taking to heart, I have to disagree with the overall premise. Instead, rather than looking at the freezer as a must use, I think we should think of it to be used sparingly and only in a few cases. (Unless you are Emily, who seems to have mastered the freezer unlike anyone I’ve ever met.)

In my mind, freezers are really only good for three things: dark chocolate, already frozen pasta (such as ravioli from Vacce), and fruit for smoothies.* I understand Bittman’s arguments for grain and stock, so I’ll give him those, but I have to draw the line at nice bread and meat/fish.

Nice bread, I find just doesn’t work. If you freeze a whole loaf, you have to defrost the entire thing because you can’t cut it because it’s too hard. And then, even once you toast it, it never quite tastes the same. Sandwich bread is fine, but if you’re using it everyday for lunch you’ll easy go through a whole loaf before it goes bad, so why bother?

Arguing against meat/fish in the freezer seems counterintuitive given that most people use it for that purpose. But there’s several reasons why.

First, meat and fish never quite cook the same after being unfrozen. I remember that one of my biggest kitchen disasters was trying to sear a scallop after thawing it. It just turned into a wet sloppy mess. I’ve had similar experiences with other fish fillets. You basically can’t get a nice sear on anything, which pretty much rules out any sort of stove top cooking. Not the end of the world, but it is limiting.

Second, is there anything more annoying than trying to thaw this stuff? I can’t remember the last time I took a piece of meat or fish out of the freezer more than a day in advance, placed it in the fridge (the FDA recommended way of thawing things), and didn’t end up having to soak the thing in cold water for several hours to get it thawed enough. And even in most of those cases I still had a block of ice in the middle piece of the meat.

Third, it leads to overconsumption of meat. Now, I’m an unapologetic carnivore, but I don’t like to waste things or use more than I need to. Hence, I always buy meat and fish with a plan to use it for a specific recipe or day of the week. If I know I’m going to be too busy to cook in a week, then I don’t buy meat that will go bad that week. With fish, I only buy it the day I’m going to cook it.

But think about how this calculus changes when the freezer is concerned. Eight pounds of chicken for only $1.99/pound? Why not? I can stick the rest of it in the freezer where I’ll never use it again and throw it out three months later! It completely separates the prudent shopping for what we need decisions from what seems cheap and too great a deal to pass up.

I understand that freezers serve a useful purpose and that can be great for preserving certain ingredients. But please, buy your meat/fish/bread when you’re going use it and keep it away from the freezer.

*Frozen fruit is perfect for smoothies because you can use it as a substitute for ice. Take frozen fruit (mangoes, strawberries are best) and blend it along with vanilla yogurt, a banana, and a some orange juice.

Image used under a Creative Commons license from flickr user corporatemonkey.

10 responses to “Against the Freezer

  1. Not to be obvious, but you can slice the bread before you freeze it… and while I only use frozen bread for toast, toast rubbed with some garlic is great to serve with any soup. I can’t say I find toast from frozen bread to be inferior.

    I thought his idea for concentrating stock(and then thawing with extra water to taste) to save space was the best, but the fact remains that as the sole meat eater in our apartment I can’t justify the freezer space for carcasses… so that’s out.

    The beans idea was interesting, but I wonder whether frozen and thawed beans are substantially better than canned? I make beans for dishes that rely on them, but if I just want to add a cup of them to something is frozen the way to go over busting out a can? I’m not convinced.

    I agree with him that pasta sauces freeze well.

    We basically just use our freezer for convenience foods… from Trader Joe’s and the like… otherwise I’d really rather do frequent small shopping trips to avoid waste and needing to freeze thing and have consistently fresh food… even if it’s less economical than bulk purchases.

  2. moderndomestic

    The best way to defrost and heat up an entire loaf of bread from the freezer is to preheat your oven to 350 degrees, take the loaf and wrap in tinfoil, and place in the oven for 25 minutes or so. It will be hot and crusty and absolutely wonderful. I do this for dinner parties all the time.

    Other wise, I second J.W. Hamner’s comment about pre-slicing the bread if you intend to use it to make toast straight from the freezer. Works like a dream.

    I’m actually not against Bittman’s freezer concept. My problem is that he treats this as if it is a new idea.

    Nigella Lawson the first two seasons of Nigella Bites constantly told her viewers to make better use of their freezers – she called it one of the most under-utilized appliances in the kitchen. It’s not a new concept.

    Also good point about the meat – there’s always a difference cooking frozen meat.

  3. I use my freezer as a guilt reducer to throw things away I’m otherwise attached to. Like when I have some meat, or a bone, or a fish head, and think, “wow this could be useful but I’ll never do anything with it… I should throw it away” .

    First I’ll get some foil and freezer bags. I’ll wrap the garbage tightly to prevent freezer burn, and label and seal the bags, pressing out the extra air. Then I’ll tuck it away and wait, as the freezer removes the guilt.

    It feels shameful to toss something useful in the garbage. But labeled with more than a year of age, and covered with a crystalline crust that smells of baking soda and oil lettuce I can toss almost anything away, completely guilt free.

  4. I don’t know about other peoples’ experiences but when I buy my meat from farmers markets or from farms directly, it’s always frozen. At that point I don’t think I have to defrost and eat all in one week especially since the farm I use only delivers once a month.

  5. Most scallops sold at fish markets were previously frozen. You have to get the water out with a towel or paper towels before cooking them. Also, if you want to defrost a piece of meat, put it in a pan shallow enough that the meat is just submerged when the pan is full, raise one end slightly, and run a trickle of water into the raised end. That’ll fully defrost a fairly thick chunk of meat in about an hour. Rather than making blanket statements that imply that you know more about this stuff than Mark Bittman, you might want to get some humility and ask other people about these things. Your butcher or fishmonger are often good resources for questions about how to handle their products.

  6. Let me second Arlene’s comment. I don’t eat a lot of beef, and almost all of it is bought at the farmer’s market. That’s always frozen, and I’ve never had a problem getting a good sear on it.

    And, while I have heard the complaint about fish, I’ve never had a problem with beef or chicken thawing except for items that have the “injected solution” issue. Basically, if you buy a Giant brand roaster or skinless boneless chicken breast, I wholly agree. It ends up cooking funny. But if you buy relatively unprocessed meat, it’s fine.

    I usually buy my chickens whole in 4 or 5. Then I separate the legs and thighs from the breast. The breast is frequently packed away boneless for convenient cooking. I wrap each breast separately in freezer wrap, then put all of them in a zip top bag. If I have an extra, I also like to make a ballotine out of one, which can be frozen. I don’t like the classical “wrap it in cheesecloth and boil it” preparation, but do love it stuffed with some spinach (yeah, frozen and thawed), bread, parmesan, pine nuts, raisins and provolone, then roasted.

    I take all the carcasses and make stock, which I then refrigerate overnight, skim the fat from, and reduce WAY down, preferably to 25% of its original volume. Yeah, it turns dark as it reduces. So what. That gets frozen in 4 oz and 8 oz containers. I don’t mind reconstituting 4 cups and using 1 or 2, as I just use the rest that week.

    I also keep one package of frozen puff pastry in the fridge at pretty much all times for impromptu desserts. Frozen blackberries and some chocolate chips, wrapped in puff pastry and baked for 20-25 minutes, is the easiest, fastest dessert EVER. Doesn’t take a lot more effort than opening a pint of ice cream, and it’s great.

    Basically, I use my freezer as a plan ahead when I can afford to spend a Saturday cooking. As the spring winds down, I FILL the sucker with chicken and beef stocks, since once the summer comes, I’m not heating up the house making stock.

    The flip side is that, toward the end of August, I will buy all the basil they’ll sell me at the farmer’s market and make pesto without the parmesan (it gets gritty in the freezer), and pack that away in 1/2 cup plastic cups, defrosting it all winter to get the taste of summer. I find that, to keep the frozen pesto looking good, it’s best if I blanch the basil for 30 seconds and then shock it in ice water, and also add ground up vitamin C to the mix (the anti-oxidant actually works!), though it’s sometimes hard to find vitamin C with no added flavors.

    That said, I’ve never thought it enough of a time saver to make lasagna ahead, and I have to agree with J.W. Hammer that, well, for beans, it has to beat a can, and I doubt it will.

  7. Yeah, as others have noted, a lot of the seafood you can buy at the store has already been frozen once, typically on the fishing boat that caught it.

    I’m surprised to hear you say that meat doesn’t freeze well. I typically buy a rotisserie chicken, eat what I can and then pick off and freeze the loose meat. It’s incredibly useful to have on hand, and doesn’t seem to suffer at all for having spent some time in the cold.

  8. I must say I have to disagree on your approach to meat in the freezer. I very rarely have to throw out meat — and when I do, it’s usually something I didn’t label and forgot what it was. I have found that being able to buy meat in bulk has really saved my budget. In addition, members of my family hunt and freeze what they get (again saving $$$$ — a single deer properly butcher will yield over 40 lbs of meat).

    If the meat and fish are wrapped properly and frozen QUICKLY, then there is little problem with too much liquid when thawing. Scallops are among the meats that suffer most from this treatment, so I don’t recommend that.

    The cheapness of vacuum systems makes it easy to protect your meat (and other foods) from freezer burn. Failing that, buy some butcher paper, wrap your food tightly in plastic wrap, then in the butcher paper and label. Your food will stay safe from freezer burn for several weeks.

  9. I’d like to second me2i81’s comments about scallops: they simply require some drying after thawing to ensure a nice dark sear. I make frozen scallops several times a week and never find them wet or sloppy.

    Now, I would never recommend that anyone freeze a beautiful cut of something special and fresh (Copper river salmon comes to mind), but the freezer is still my friend.

  10. Ben, don’t forget about storing nuts in the freezer. I think Bittman was right on about that. I don’t care for cold nuts for noshing purposes, but for other uses, it’s great. I can’t tell you how much $$ I’ve wasted throwing out rancid nuts from the pantry.

    I have also used the freezer for keeping stock, which I never remember to use and usually throw out about a year later. Putting up quart-sized bags of tomato sauce was a more successful endeavor for me, particularly when my CSA share gave me 40+ pounds of tomatoes and piles of herbs.

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