Whether you’re a home gardener, a CSA-er, or a regular farmers market, it’s easy to get irresistibly pristine, freshly-picked produce than your household can possibly consume in its highest state of maturity.
Do-it-yourself enthusiasts and fermentation enthusiasts are well equipped to deal with this seasonal abundance. But for the rest of us, we can take comfort in knowing that there is a much faster and easier way to go. All we need is freezer space, sturdy containers and basic know-how to maximize our premium to the fullest.
It’s true that some fruits and vegetables freeze better than others. Water particles expand when they turn into ice, destroying the cell walls that give fruits and vegetables their texture and crispness. However, this isn’t necessarily a problem depending on how you plan to use them. Even the extra half of a watermelon that you couldn’t finish eating can be crushed, frozen, and later mashed in gazpacho or a smoothie.
On the other hand, dense frozen vegetables like carrots, green beans, or corn can be virtually indistinguishable from fresh ones when added to a soup or stew.
Here are some guidelines to help you bring fresh summer flavors to your meals year round.
Choose high quality products at the height of taste. Make sure it’s free of bruises and soft spots. Fruits should be fully ripe but still firm, vegetables should be tender and young. Do not wait for the product to spoil to freeze or expect it to continue to mature after thawing. To get the freshest taste and maximum nutrients, freeze your products as soon as possible after harvest or when the fruit is at its peak and immediately after preparation. Rinse and drain the product well without letting it soak and pat dry before proceeding.
Freeze the products as soon as possible. The faster it freezes, the more of its natural texture and flavor you’ll retain. Make sure your freezer is set to zero degrees Fahrenheit (-17.78 degrees Celsius) or colder, and consider how much space you have have to work. Overfilling the freezer can cause the temperature to rise. So before you begin, leave those unidentifiable lumps of ice with no chance of ever being eaten.
When and how blanched. Most vegetables benefit from a quick dip in boiling water followed by a dip in an ice water bath to stop boiling. Blanching slows down the enzymes that degrade texture, taste, color, and nutrients. It also loosens the skin of whole tomatoes and peaches to make them easier to peel. (Cut an X in the bottom first.) Blanching times will vary based on the size and density of the product, and getting it right is important. The University of Minnesota Extension has a handy vegetable table that you can use to set your timer accordingly.
How to keep colors alive without heat. Many fruits can be frozen raw. But some – like peaches, apples, and pears – tend to turn brown after being cut in the open air. Throwing them in some lemon juice or ascorbic acid (like Fruit-Fresh) will keep the colors bright.
Add some sweetness. While not essential, sugar can help fruit keep their texture and taste in the freezer for longer periods of time. Put the fruit in the container in layers, sprinkle some sugar between each layer and let it stand for about 15 minutes before sealing. Or cover with sugar syrup.
Use your cookie sheets. Placing small whole berries, diced or sliced fruits, or blanched vegetables in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet is a great way to speed up the freezing process while they hold their shape and keep them from clumping together. If you need to fill more than one baking sheet, put another sheet of parchment on top of the products and stack them. Once frozen solid, remove them with a spatula and transfer them to freezer bags or airtight containers.
Part control. Measure out the servings based on their intended use (as part of a specific recipe such as a pie filling, or as an individual or family-sized side dish). Remember that the larger the portion, the longer it will take to defrost and cook.
Freeze herbs. Fresh herbs on a stick – or just the leaves – can be spread out on a baking sheet and frozen in freezer bags before packing. You can also put the leaves in ice cube trays and cover them with water or olive oil. After freezing, pack the cubes in freezer bags and only take out what you need. Or mix the herbs into the pesto and freeze in the same way.
The right packaging is crucial. Contact with air is the enemy of frozen food. Tough, zip-up freezer bags specially designed to prevent freezer burn do a great job and are practical and space-saving. Vacuum seals that remove air before the bags are sealed are great if you have one. If not, you can go low tech by putting a straw in a corner and sucking the air out before sealing. Or just squeeze the air out with your hands. Rigid plastic containers with tightly fitting lids or freezing jars made of glass also work well. Fill the containers almost to the top, leaving about half an inch of headroom for expansion, but avoiding excess airspace. Packing too tightly in glass containers can lead to breakage.
Label your packages. With a sharpie, clearly write the name of the item, the amount of contents, and the date it was packed.
To defrost or not to defrost?
It is generally preferable not to thaw fruits or vegetables before using them in most recipes. It is better to let them thaw during the cooking process. They are less likely to overcook and pulp, especially in a soup or stew. Vegetables can also go straight from the freezer to the microwave – no extra liquid is needed. There are exceptions, such as spinach, which must be drained thoroughly before being mixed into a dip. Berries and other fruits should also be kept in the freezer until just before use. Before adding them to muffin or cake batter, lightly coat the fruit with flour to prevent it from sinking. Add a bit of extra thickener to a cake filling to prevent it from flowing. And expect to add about 5 minutes to the baking time.
Even easier: put a handful of frozen berries or cut fruit in a bowl, add a dollop of Greek yogurt and sprinkle with a dash of honey and nuts. It’s a refreshingly healthy way to start the day with a touch of summer, no matter what time of year.
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