Freezer Meals: How Long Does Food Actually Keep?

The drive to prepare a meal can come in waves. You braise short ribs for hours on Sunday and struggle to gather the will to make ramen on Thursday. On those nights, it helps to have a freezer full of, well, braised short ribs. It’s cheaper than takeout, requires nearly no energy to reheat and feels like an act of care, past you taking care of present you.

The freezer is the best source of fully cooked dishes, homemade meals that need only to be heated through and, of course, desserts for sweet cravings. (It also remains a smart place to store many ingredients.)

And it’s as simple to stack up dishes in your freezer as it is to understand what keeps best and when to eat it.

You can freeze anything, though some foods are better suited and all start to diminish in taste, texture and scent over time. So it’s not exactly a matter of can, but should.

How water turns into ice largely determines what freezes best. As fresh ingredients with a lot of water freeze, their cell walls break, altering their texture. Cooking does something similar, which is why, with their broken cell walls, fully and partly prepared dishes maintain their integrity in the freezer.

The short answer is a year, maximum — not because the food will spoil, but because it’ll taste sad. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a cold food storage chart, for more precise timelines.) Two to six months is better for ensuring quality. So is wrapping the food tightly. Exposure to freezing air causes food to dehydrate, making it tougher and more bland (commonly known as freezer burn). The oxygen in that air can also cause food to oxidize, causing fats to taste rancid. Follow these tips for ideal food storage and be sure to label and date every item using masking or painter’s tape and a permanent marker, so you’re never left wondering what you have.

As long as your freezer is at or below zero degrees, bacteria can’t grow. The best way to tell if something seems fine to eat is to smell and touch it after it defrosts. If it smells rotten or rancid, and doesn’t feel the way it should — think mushy, mealy fish — trash it. If you’re not sure, take a little nibble. If it tastes good, enjoy.

But remember: The freezer is not a time machine. If leftover stew close to turning in the refrigerator is thrown in the freezer, it won’t thaw into impeccably fresh stew. Once thawed, it’ll return to its iffy state.

Soups, Stews and Braises: Anything liquid, soft or stored in sauce stays intact in the freezer. Stocks, soups (creamy, chunky or brothy) and stews of all kinds (from curries to chilies) can be ladled into sturdy airtight containers with at least an inch of room at the top. Braised meat or vegetables like collards should be smothered evenly in their sauce. Meatballs hold up especially well if stored in gravy, and from-scratch beans like these oven-braised ones keep their creamy, tender texture when packed with their starchy simmering liquid.

Ideally, thawing would occur overnight in the refrigerator, but these dishes can be quickly defrosted straight from the freezer. Run the sealed container under hot water until the ice block releases, then slide it into a saucepan. Add a scant inch of water, set over medium-high heat, cover, and simmer, occasionally breaking up the ice, until everything bubbles evenly for a few minutes.

Casseroles and Sweet or Savory Pies: Lasagna and anything like it — meat, vegetables or starch layered with sauce — are freezer heroes. Fully cooked casseroles can be wrapped tightly in their dishes, then unwrapped, covered with foil and heated in the oven. Leftovers can be portioned and sealed into smaller containers, then popped out and zapped in the microwave or baked until bubbling. A casserole with cooked components, such as tomato-meat sauce or creamed broccoli and rice, can be assembled in the dish, wrapped and frozen, then cooked through in the oven.

Double-crust pies should be assembled with raw dough and chilled filling. The whole thing should be frozen uncovered until rock hard, then wrapped tightly until it’s baked from its frozen state. Quiche should be fully baked, then frozen whole or in wedges. Thaw in the refrigerator, then heat in the oven.

All Manner of Dumplings: Any two-bite treat wrapped in dough — potstickers, samosas, mandu, pierogies, lumpia, phyllo rolls and the like — falls into a special freezer-friendly category. All can be fully assembled with cooked or raw fillings, then frozen uncovered on a tray until hard before being transferred to airtight containers. Then, boil, pan-fry, steam, deep-fry or bake them straight from their frozen state.

Dessert: Homemade sweets should complement your ice cream stash. Meringue, gelatin, cream desserts like trifles, and delicate baked goods like sponge cake or tuiles don’t hold up well, but nearly every other sweet does. Cookies can be frozen as dough or fully baked. Dough balls and slices should be baked from frozen; ready-to-eat cookies taste fresh when heated in a toaster oven. Cakes and breads can be kept whole or wrapped in slices, and those with a very fine-textured crumb, like this marble cake, keep especially well.

Cupcakes, brownies and other bars, waffles, unfilled cream puffs (and their savory gougères cousins) keep well in airtight containers and thaw quickly at room temperature. For goods meant to be eaten hot, a quick blast in the toaster oven refreshes their crispness.

Stocking a freezer may seem like a task for vigilant planners, but it’s especially helpful for those who don’t plot out a weekly meal plan. Anytime you’ve made too much of a dish that freezes well, wrap leftovers well and throw them in. And anytime you’re just too exhausted to cook, heat them up and be delighted with the meal you so lovingly made.

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