Dear Mark: How to Freeze Produce

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frozen produce that has been stored in a refrigerator

Dear Mark,

Your website inspired me to join a CSA this past year, and I’m looking forward to frequenting my local farmers’ market again this summer. I absolutely love all the produce selections, but this has opened my eyes to how limited I am in the late fall/winter by what’s usually available (and affordable) in the grocery store. (I live in the Northern Plains.) I’d like to begin thinking about freezing some items to enjoy them post-season. What tips do you have for doing this? Thank you!

Thanks for the question! You’re correct—as incredible as it is to enjoy fresh veggies and fruits when they are in season, it’s smart to look ahead to the “scarcer” months. One of the best ways to carry over the season’s best, of course, is freezing. (Grok would’ve traded a lot of hides for a deep freeze chest….) This year, as you load up on seasonal produce in the spring, summer, and early fall, here are a few suggestions and resources for the best freezer prep and storage techniques.

 


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Set Up

Select your freezer space

First off, I’d highly recommend investing in a deep freezer. You can certainly make use of the freezer compartment of your refrigerator, but it’s typically a limited space and doesn’t stay as consistently cold as a deep freezer chest. (For best results, freezers should be kept at 0° Fahrenheit or less. A simple freezer gauge can give you an accurate reading.) Although items should still last a number of months, you aren’t going to get the same longevity using your refrigerator freezer (8-12 months for most produce when properly prepped and packaged).

If you’re worried about initial cost, keep in mind that there are plenty of good used deep freezers for sale. Check scratch and dent sales, classifieds, and Craigslist for starters. And also keep in mind that you have the potential to recoup much of that money within the first year alone, depending on how much you choose to freeze (produce, meats, etc.). It’s less expensive to buy good quality produce in season and make it last through much of the winter than it is to buy your full produce needs in the off-season. When you add the savings of cowpooling or other bulk meat/poultry/game storage, it won’t be long before your freezer will pay for itself.

Storage solutions for produce

As for wraps, bags, and such, don’t skimp. You’ll need high-quality storage to keep out moisture. Lined freezer paper and freezer tape can work for “dry” packing produce. Another option, particularly for purees or fruits that will be stored with juice, is freezer-appropriate canning jars. Many people find it more convenient to use plastic freezer bags (either the Ziploc kind or the self-cut kind that requires a heat sealer).

In any case, the freezer wrap or bags should be freezer-designated and vapor proof as well as pliant. The idea here is to mold the packaging as close to the outline of the food as possible to remove trapped air and to prevent the exchange of moisture. If the item is allowed to give off its own moisture, freezer burn will set in—those brownish, tough, odd-tasting areas on thawed veggies. Spare your produce the calamity and yourself the frustration (and lost money) by investing a little extra change in good storage solutions.

Prep the Produce

Selecting fresh produce

For the sake of taste and nutrients, you’ll want the freshest produce you can get your hands on. If you’re not a gardener yourself, the next best thing can be found in CSA packages or farmers’ markets, as you’ve discovered. Items are generally picked within a day or even a few hours of sale/distribution.

Washing and preparing the product to freeze

Wash, cut, peel and prep as needed. (The smaller the pieces, the more tightly you can pack your produce.)

Nearly all vegetables will need to be blanched before freezing. (A few like sweet potatoes and pumpkin should be thoroughly cooked before freezing.) The quick shot in boiling water or steam will halt the enzyme action responsible for natural decomposition. Too little, and you run the risk of not shutting down the enzyme activity (maybe even accelerating it). Too much, and you might be sacrificing nutrients as well as texture and taste. A brief “shock” in ice water immediately after blanching will keep the items from cooking further.

The timing on blanching, however, is a delicate dance. Check out this resource for specific blanching times for different vegetables. If you choose to “steam blanch,” the times are generally 1.5 times the length of traditional blanching.

Tips for freezing produce

A few other notes to keep in mind:

  • You won’t need a lot of complicated equipment, just some large pots, bowls, tongs, towels, and maybe wire baskets.
  • Although microwave blanching may work for small batches that will be eaten in a short period of time, many experts recommend against it for long-term freezing. There’s doubt that it halts all enzyme activity.
  • Certain fruits like apples, peaches, avocado, and pears should be stored with ascorbic acid to prevent discoloration. You might also consider it for vegetables like artichokes and sweet potato to maintain peak color.

Package Well and Freeze Fast

How to freeze fruits and vegetables

Once the vegetables and fruits are appropriately prepped, cooked/blanched, and cooled, allow them to thoroughly drain and dry. Kitchen towels can speed up the process, especially for certain intact items like green beans or whole berries.

Some fruits like apples and nectarines tend to freeze better with juice, but most vegetables and many fruits can be packed without any juice. After draining, you can tightly pack them in freezer bags or wrap and frozen in their bulk packaging. (Sugar or syrup packing is often recommended for fruit, but a small amount of juice and ascorbic acid can work just as well.)

If you have space, it’s a good idea to freeze fruits and vegetables in a single layer on a tray first, then immediately pack them in bags or wrap. This keeps them from clumping together and makes it easier to remove portions.

Cooked purees can be stored in large containers, but it’s even better to use silicone ice cube trays or containers designed especially for freezing single servings. This works especially well for baby food, where you only want to thaw a small amount at one time.

Organizing frozen produce in the freezer

Once you have your packages loaded and ready for storage, stack up already frozen items and move them to one side of your freezer. Spread the new packages across the open areas to encourage speedier freezing, which will discourage freezer burn and help preserve taste.

Have your own tips for freezing spring and summer’s harvest? Prefer canning or fermenting to freezing? Favorite uses for your frozen stores? As always, thanks for your questions and comments, and keep ‘em coming!

Other Food Waste Posts from MDA:

  • How to Best Preserve Produce
  • Seasonal Eating: Getting the Most Out of Winter Vegetables
  • How to Start Composting

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