<strong>The best, safest ways to freeze leftovers</strong>

Margaret Prouse prouse@pei.sympatico.ca
Published on April 25, 2012

I used to know how to manage meals for two, but I think I need a refresher course.

When I try out a family-size recipe, as I frequently do, I don't always organize the leftovers well, and we end up eating the same food until we're tired of it. My husband kindly says he loves leftovers, but I think that on some days, I've even pushed him to the limit.

There are many strategies for dealing with leftovers: feed them to the dog, share them, refrigerate them to serve in the next few days, freeze them to use later or throw them out. The first one doesn't work for us, as we have no dog. Most of our family lives a little too far away for sharing. I've been taking the lazy method of wrapping up leftover cooked foods, and putting them in the refrigerator. That's good for one more meal, but eating the same meal three days in a row can be too much, even when the dish tastes good the first time.

The problem is that it's a poor idea to freeze food that has been prepared for a few days. It should be frozen when it's fresh because it loses quality with each day, and quality never improves with freezing.

I am now taking a more careful approach, so that we can take advantage of leftovers without wallowing in monotony.

After our meal, I'll re-package the leftovers into the amount we'd use for a single meal and chill it. Foods always cool more quickly when divided into smaller portions and placed in shallow containers. The best way to chill dense foods such as chili, chowder and some pasta dishes is to place them in a sink full of ice water and stir at intervals to bring the hot food from the centre of the container to the outside walls of the container for chilling.

There are good, disposable foil containers for freezing foods, but I like to make use of re-usable containers as much as possible. One trick that I have learned is to grease a casserole dish lightly and line it with foil before filling it with food to be frozen. After a few hours, it is easy to lift the foil liner full of frozen food from the container, and wrap it securely for storage, freeing up the casserole dish for other uses. Then, when it's time to reheat the frozen food, it can be popped back into the same dish and place in the oven.

Wrapping for frozen foods should be water-tight and vapour-proof, to prevent freezer burn and off-flavours. Heavy-duty aluminum foil and freezer bags are excellent. Bags made from lighter plastic such as bread bags and storage bags aren't as good, and food deteriorates more quickly in them.

When foods are frozen in rigid containers, such as soup in glass or plastic jars, it is wise to choose straight-sided jars, and necessary to leave space for the food to expand. I have lost several large bottles of delicious soup by filling them too full.

Here is what the experts say about freezing various types of prepared foods.

For combination dishes, such as stews or spaghetti sauce with meat, make them as usual, omitting potatoes from stew, as the texture of potatoes usually suffers when they are frozen. To serve, thaw in the refrigerator, and then reheat solid foods to at least 74 C (165 F) within two hours at oven temperatures of 165 C (325 F) or higher. Reheat liquids to a rolling boil. Use within six months.

Creamed meats, fish and poultry made from recipes with a minimum of fat freeze best, as fats are often the first components of foods to take on off flavours. To serve these foods after freezing, thaw in refrigerator, and then reheat to at least 74 C (165 F) within two hours at oven temperatures of 165 C (325 F) or higher, stirring occasionally to make smooth. Alternately, the frozen food may be heated over boiling water. Use within four months.

Non-meat casseroles, such as macaroni and cheese, can be chilled as quickly as possible, packaged and frozen. If frozen in oven-proof containers, they can be uncovered and baked at 200 C (400 F) 1 hour for individual sizes or 1 ¾ hours for litre (quart) sizes. They can also be heated in a double boiler over boiling water. Heat until internal temperature reaches at least 74 C (165 F). Use within four months.

An instant-read food thermometer makes it easy to determine when reheated food has reached the appropriate temperature. I make good use of one that I bought at a grocery store several years ago; they are also sold in hardware stores, kitchen supply stores and sometimes even at dollar stores.

I have learned that I cannot trust my memory and must label packages with the contents and date to make all the other work useful. With this little extra bit of work, it's easier to use the freezer to make good use of the food that we buy and prepare.

Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at margaret@islandgusto.com.