I recently read an article that pretty much condemned the way I currently cook. I cook from scratch on a daily basis. We enjoy a lot of variety around here, but that variety comes with much work on my part. The article ridiculed this "old-fashioned" way of cooking as time and money wasting. Ouch! The truth always cuts deep. The author is right. I could utilize my time much more wisely with a bit of planning and the good use of a freezer.
Efficient Cooking Methods
Freeing Up Freezer Space
Organizing the Unit
Efficient Cooking Methods
Instead of repeating the same steps day in and day out, utilizing any of the following efficient cooking methods would save a lot of time and headache, and still provide a variety of nutritious meals for my family.
1. Multiply the recipe and then freeze the extra meals for later in the month. For the most part, you are saving time by getting two or more meals completed with the same amount of energy you'd spend on one meal. Defrosting and browning two pounds of meat takes about as much time as browning one pound. It doesn't take much to chop up a few more vegetables and add another quart of water to the stew you're cooking. In addition, you don't need an intensive plan to begin building up a freezer full of meals. Decide what you want to make and double the recipe. When you can pull these meals from the freezer later in the month, without pulling out pots and pans to start from scratch, you'll easily see how much time you've saved.
2. Use one day to cook all your meals for the next month. Unlike suggestion number one, this method takes much planning. (Your Cook'n software would certainly come in handy here). In the end, however, you'll spend two or three days in the kitchen for a return of 27-28 days out of it. The idea behind this method is that you plan a month of meals, shop for all the groceries needed in bulk, combine cooking processes, and then put the meals together and freeze them.
For example, you'd stew all the chicken required for Chicken Divan Casserole, Chicken Curry, and Barbecued Chicken Pizza all in one pot, all at one time. Then you'd remove the chicken from the bones and toss it into each individual recipe. You'd cook all the rice needed for the month and either combine it into the Chicken Divan Casserole or portion it into freezer containers to serve with Chicken Curry. You'd chop all the celery, onions, green peppers, and so forth at one time.
If you would like more information on this method of cooking, I suggest trying a time-tested month plan first. You can find step-by-step instructions and recipes in such books as Once-A-Month Cooking by Mimi Wilson and Mary Beth Lagerborg and Dinner's in the Freezer by Jill Bond. Once familiar with the intensive planning required, you'll be able to incorporate your favorite recipes to come up with a month plan of your own.
3. Lastly, prepare and freeze frequently used items, storing them in small containers, to pull out as needed for quick-throw-together meals. Each time I'm serving spaghetti, lasagna, or even pizza, I start simmering the sauce on the stove, adding herbs and spices, etc. How much easier it would be if I made up an entire batch of the spiced tomato sauce all at once. Then, I'd just have to pull it from the freezer, defrost and heat the sauce, and pronto I'd save time. Other staples used frequently include browned ground beef, cooked chicken, cooked rice, frosting, pesto, gravies, cooked beans, muffins, rolls, bread, bread dough for pizza, pie crusts, and so forth. Having half the meal prepared and in the freezer not only give you ideas of what to make, but allows you to throw a meal together quickly, making it less tempting to skip a meal or eat out.
Freeing Up Freezer Space
Don't count yourself out of the freezing world just because you only own the freezer that came with the refrigerator. You can increase the space in that small unit by adding dividers and shelves. Be innovative and you'll soon see you can fit quite a bit more in there than you thought possible. Often, just a thorough cleaning of the unit will free up quite a bit of space, as old packages of who-knows-what are sent to the garbage!
If after stacking and reorganizing your refrigerator/freezer unit, you still find the space is limited, take heart. Today, you can buy chest freezers inexpensively in a variety of sizes that can fit into even the smallest apartment. The rule-of-thumb for how much freezer space you should invest in is 4-5 cubic feet per family member. Remember, though, that freezers use the least energy when they are full. If you just don't think you could fill a 20-cubic foot freezer, even with a 4-member family, opt for a smaller size. It will still give you more freezing capability than the refrigerator unit.
Square containers make the most of freezer space. I especially love the containers found on the canning aisle of supermarkets, and typically used for freezer jams. These square plastic containers come in 2-cup, 3-cup, and 4-cup sizes. The pint (2-cup) size seems to hold just the right amount of ground beef, cooked beans, and sauces needed for meals. These stack neatly, are inexpensive, can be used over and over again, and are clear enough to let you envision what's inside. Another alternative is to freeze foods in freezer bags. Once frozen, these stack nicely and of course are usually see-through.
Organizing the Unit
The freezer will save money and time only if the food stored in it is utilized. Too often, food hides in and around new additions. Months and sometimes years later, you'll discover that extra casserole or those fresh green beans you blanched long ago. While still edible (since frozen food cannot spoil from microbes) the nutritional value, texture, and flavor of frozen items diminishes month by month, year by year. Wasted effort! Wasted time! Wasted money! Avoid these mishaps by implementing the following steps.
a) Keeping a perpetual inventory of every item placed in the freezer. Tape the list to the unit with an accessible pen or pencil. Discipline yourself to keep it up faithfully. Having a freezer chart of the best if used by dates nearby will also make the inventory easier to keep. See the table below.
||Best if Used By:
|12 lbs ground beef
||/ / / / / / /
|2 Chicken Divan Cass.
|24 cans orange juice
||/ / / / /
b) Arrange like items together. Keep all bread items on one side. Place all frozen vegetables together. Use baskets or boxes for just juice, or just sauces. Store prepared meals together. Keep all the uncooked meats in one area. You get the idea.
c) Be ruthless with labels! Buy some freezer or masking tape and a permanent marker or grease pencil. Store these items at the point of first use so you'll be less likely to ignore the labeling step. Every time you open the freezer and study an item to determine what it is, you are letting out quantities of cold energy. Save time and energy costs with simple labeling. Write what the food is, the date frozen, and how it is prepared (sliced, whole, diced, stewed, etc.) On casseroles and prepared meals, write short thawing or cooking instructions too, so you won't have to dig out the recipe later.
d) Rotate the food. When adding new items, place them in the back or at the bottom of the freezer and bring the old to the front or top.
e) Finally, if you don't know what it is, throw it out and learn from your parting sorrow . . . or guilt!
Food safety sense tells us that thawing food on the counter, in the sink, in the basement, garage, or a garbage can at room temperature promotes bacterial growth and spoilage. Instead, plan ahead and thaw in the refrigerator, use a microwave oven or if wrapped well, under a steady stream of running cool water. If defrosted in the refrigerator, food can typically be frozen again if not needed. However, some quality may be lost in the product because of moisture loss. Use the following guidelines for defrosting individual foods.
Baked goods: Cover and thaw at room temperature
Bread Dough: Thaw overnight in the refrigerator in a greased bowl. The next day, set out, warm to room temperature, and continue with recipe.
Casseroles: Thaw partially or completely in the refrigerator (pull out night before), and reheat in oven. If only partially thawed, allow up to 50% more heating time. For best result, though, let it thaw completely for about 24 hours.
Fruit: Thaw partially at room temperature as it is best served with some ice crystals. If used in a cooked dish or smoothie, pull it directly from the freezer f or use.
Meat: Thaw in refrigerator (1 day/5 pounds), microwave, or sink full of cold water (ensure the water stays cool).
Unbaked goods: (Cookie dough, muffin batter, pastry) Bake directly from freezer.
Vegetables: Cook directly from freezer, cutting cooking times in half as compared to fresh vegetables. The exception is corn on the cob. Cook just like fresh cobs.
The following items need additional help once removed from the freezer:
Dairy: (Milk, Yogurt, Sour Cream) Stir after thawing as these separate when frozen.
Egg Yolks: Use in scrambling as freezing makes them syrupy and thick
Cheese: Hard cheese crumbles, but this is still fine for cooking. Shred cheese and toss with a bit of cornstarch to prevent sticking, and then freeze in a large bucket or freezer bags. Alternatively, cut cheese into one-pound portions and freeze. Thaw in refrigerator. Cream cheese turns slightly gritty and can become watery. You may overcome this partially by beating it and combining it with other ingredients. Cottage cheese separates, becomes mush, and slightly gritty. Stir after freezing.
Cooked Vegetables, Grains, Pasta: Freezing softens these items, so slightly undercook them to prevent overcooking and mushiness when warmed up later. Add raw noodles to cooked soup after cooling and before freezing, or add them when reheating the frozen soup.
Gravy: May need to add broth to thin it out once reheated
Sauces: May separate after reheating; simply whisk back together
Seasonings: (onions, herbs, flavorings) These change once frozen. Onions, paprika, and celery seasonings grow stronger in the freezer. You may wish to add less of these than called for by the recipe. Pepper, cloves, garlic, green pepper, and imitation vanilla turn bitter. Reduce or add after thawing.
Whipping cream: Freeze for use in sauces because it will not whip up fluffy once frozen; you can freeze previously whipped cream, however.
* DVO welcomes your kitchen hints and cooking or nutrition questions! Email us and we'll post your hints and Q/A's in upcoming newsletters! *