The truth is, like so many other things that seem basic, there are a lot of little steps that go into freezing food to get the best results. If you really want your food to retain its taste and texture, you need to make sure you’re doing things like prepping it strategically, using the right containers, only freezing foods that can stand up to a frigid environment, and more. And if you’re someone who enjoys the convenience of having things like soups, smoothie packs, and muffins stashed away for a rainy day, it’s worth making a few tweaks to optimize your freezing strategy.
Here, experts point out the common mistakes people make when freezing food and share what to do to keep your food tasting delicious for longer.
5. Not blanching produce ahead of time
Wright says that most vegetables need to be blanched before they’re frozen in order to stop the enzymatic decay process, which is what’s responsible for deteriorating flavor, color, and texture. Stopping the process through blanching ensures that your fruits or veggies will be as good defrosted as they were when you first bought them.
Wright says that all you need to do it is to bring a pot of water to a rolling boil, and let your veggie of choice cook for just a couple minutes, until its color is more vibrant and its texture more firm. Of course, the length of time that you cook it will vary depending on the vegetable—something delicate like spinach (which is fine to freeze if you’re planning to eat it cooked later and not in a cold salad) will need about a minute, whereas something thicker, like broccoli, will need about two. If you add your veggies and the water stops boiling, bring it back up to a boil before you set your timer, because the blanching won’t actually begin until the water is boiling. After blanching, you’ll want to cool the veggies immediately to stop them from continuing to cook. Simply plunge them into ice water or run them under cold running water for another minute or two. Then, make sure to drain the veggies thoroughly before putting them in the freezer.
4. Washing certain fruits and vegetables right before freezing them
The wetter something is when you put it in the freezer, the greater chance there is that it’ll end up with freezer burn, says Wright. That’s especially true for fruits or veggies with delicate outer skins. She explains that you should never wash things like berries right before sticking them in the freezer because the moisture can toughen their skin. Instead, wash them well before you plan to freeze them and give them time to dry fully, or just put them into the freezer immediately and wait to wash them until you’ve defrosted them to use. (If you’re planning to use the fruits frozen, like in a smoothie, for example, you should always rinse and dry before freezing.)
3. Putting hot food straight into the freezer
Philip Tierno, Ph.D., clinical professor in the departments of microbiology and pathology at NYU Langone Medical Center, says that putting hot food straight into the freezer is a big no-no because it can bring down the temperature of your freezer and accidentally partially defrost whatever else you might have in there. Repeated melting and freezing can encourage bacteria growth and seriously mess with both the texture and flavor of your food, Not to mention that doing this can encourage excessive ice buildup in your freezer, which can be a beast to clean. To avoid all of this, he says you should always let your food come to room temperature before you transfer it to the freezer. Just make sure you’re not letting food sit out at room temperature for more than two hours—that’s one of the golden rules of food safety.
2. Not freezing food quickly enough
“Time is quality when it comes to freezing,” Wright explains. “When food freezes quickly there is less damage to the cell wall,” which can result in flavor and texture issues, she says. If you defrost something and it’s super mushy, she says it probably froze too slowly.
Thankfully, avoiding this problem is easy, because Wright says that all you have to do is either cut up whatever you’re freezing into small pieces, or freeze it in a smaller container. “The smaller the piece or the smaller the container the more rapidly the food freezes,” she explains. You can also speed up the process by lowering the temperature of your freezer to -10 degrees F a full day before you intend to freeze any food. Once everything is frozen, you can safely turn the dial back up to 0.
Wright says it’s also important to make sure that air can circulate around the food when it is first placed in the freezer, because this will also allow it to freeze faster. After the food is frozen, though, she says you can feel free to stack the bags and containers to maximize space.
Also, if you have food you know you won’t eat before it goes bad—for example, if you buy a large package of chicken and want to save a bunch for later—it’s best to freeze it immediately as soon as you bring it home. The sooner you freeze it, the less time there is for bacteria to grow.
1. Freezing the wrong foods
Mary Liz Wright, M.S., food safety expert and nutrition and wellness educator at the University of Illinois Extension, tells SELF that while most foods can be successfully frozen, a handful of items won’t fare well in the freezer. Some tender salad greens (like lettuce and mesclun) and watery veggies, like cabbage, celery, cucumbers, endive, lettuce, parsley, and radishes, tend to become limp and water-logged, which negatively impacts both their flavor and texture. (Sturdier greens such as spinach, kale, and Swiss chard actually do freeze well—more on that in number 5 below.) Also, baked or boiled potatoes become soft, crumbly, and waterlogged when frozen. And while raw egg whites are fair game, cooked ones will become soft, tough, and rubbery. Plus, she says you should never freeze plain pasta—it’ll survive much better when precoated in a sauce.
As for what you can freeze, pretty much anything else is fair game, provided you’re using the right tools and techniques, says Wright. Some things that are better suited for the freezer include soups, which will easily defrost and return to their original state. Pastas or casseroles that are already coated in sauce will also hold up well because the sauce will sort of shield the starchier ingredients within from the colder temps, ensuring that their texture and flavor is properly preserved.
The same goes for fruits and veggies with really wet interiors. Wright recommends packaging peeled peaches (and similar fruits) in a syrup mixture because this will prevent them from oxidizing and drying out. You should also store tomatoes in their juices to protect the flesh of the fruit. For things like apples, which have a lower water content but can still be subject to oxidization, she says to package them with a bit of lemon juice. (If they do oxidize and get brown, though, they’re still fine to eat.)