Friday, August 1, 2008
Tricks of the Trade: tips for cooking for your freezer
Part of the "Meals for a Month" series.
I'll keep discussing the many benefits of cooking a big batch of meals for your freezer, but for those of you already motivated enough to consider it, here are some tricks of the trade, so to speak:
1. Assortment of methods: Pick recipes which include a variety of preparation techniques. You don't want to have to cook 10 casseroles or lasagnas on the same day. Instead, pick a couple of casseroles, some marinated meat recipes (for which you simply need to mix up a marinade), some stove top recipes, and a soup or two. There are also crock pot recipes you might consider--you will need to assemble ingredients, but not have to do much else.
2. Assortment of ingredients: This is especially important if you are really planning to eat everything up within one month. No one wants meat loaf 8 times in one month--or even chicken every single night. We eat chicken mostly, but I threw in some beef and pork--even a fish dish! We also eat lots of vegetarian meals, so I froze two vegetarian recipes. This will provide variety.
3. Multi-task those recipes: Here's an example. We like chili, so I made up two batches of chili (one meatless, the other beef and bean). I have a great recipe for Chili-Dog Pie which calls for hot dogs and 2 cans of chili as the base (cornbread on top). I packaged some of my homemade chili into appropriate sizes for the base of this casserole and the rest in an amount that we might eat as regular chili. If you need lots of chicken stock and also need to cook lots of chicken, consider boiling the chicken and using the resulting chicken stock.
4. Space savers: What if you don't have a nice, big, stand alone freezer? There are some ways around this. If the whole dish freezes, then a portion of that same recipe should freeze. So, make the most labor intensive portion and freeze in a ziploc bag. Ideas: the fillings for lasagna, manicotti, stuffed shells, and so forth. Just cook the pasta on the day you want to serve the meal, add the thawed filling, and bake! Same thing holds for Mexican dishes: freeze the fillings for chimichangas, burritos, enchiladas, etc. On the actual day, the hard part is done and you simply assemble. You can also double or triple meals you cook on a semi-regular basis and keep a steadily rotating supply in your freezer on hand for those busy days when you can't cook.
5. Time savers: Meals you don't have to actually cook on the big "cooking day" will of course save you time that day. This includes mixing up marinades, assembling recipes you will cook later (freezing separate bags of sauces, raw meat, veggies, etc. that will all combine into one meal later), and recipes like chili or soup that don't involve many separate steps (the "dump and cook" variety).
6. Wrapping/Labels: I like to line my baking pans with foil and then pop the frozen casserole out and put the whole thing in a ziploc bag or rewrap with another layer of foil. I prefer ziploc bags for nearly everything else. Make sure you use freezer quality wrapping; use 2 layers of wrapping for best freezer burn protection. Label everything! I made up little labels with thawing/cooking directions on them and made another double set for my kitchen (computer--printed them out). Then, I can see at a glance what will be baked to reheat, what will be simmered, etc. before I head to the freezer to open that crucial door (and let all the cold air out!). I make my decision with the door closed, then open the door and quickly grab the meal of choice. One thing I learned from my sister is to package up smaller amounts in quart-sized ziploc bags (or even gallon sized if quart isn't big enough). Then, put ALL the ingredients for the meal (the extra cheese for instance) into another gallon ziploc bag. All the parts of the recipe are in one place and the larger bag acts as that crucial second layer of freezer burn protection (it's also clear so you can see what you're grabbing).
7. Don't overanalyze this: Just pick some recipes and commit. This doesn't have to be the world's most amazingly coordinated month of meals. Pick some things that interest you and don't sweat the details. The point here is not necessarily to cook the most healthy or the most economical, but to feed your family a variety of reasonably healthy and cost-effective (and tasty) meals with reduced stress and a more pleasant chef at the table :). You'll no doubt learn as you go and become better and better at big batch cooking.
8. How to save money: You can plan for a cooking day perhaps a month away, plan your recipes, and gather your shopping lists. Then, you have a month in which to watch for sales on your chosesn ingredients. You can also shop stores like warehouse clubs, but not everything is cheaper just because it's in a giant container. Add up the amounts you need (all the ounces of salsa for instance) and figure price per ounce. Is that giant 67-ounce bottle of Pace Picante really cheaper than the store brand at your local grocery store? Warehouse clubs typically have very reasonable prices on meat and cheese, especially if you're wanting to get the show on the road and don't have time to wait around for a good sale to hit your local grocery store. Know what's typically on sale during the time of year you plan to cook. My next attempt will be sometime in late summer/early fall. Apples will definitely feature into the day's list (did you know apple dumplings freeze?). If you're going to be cooking closer to Thanksgiving, plan some turkey related meals because turkey will be on sale. You should also consider the sizes typically available for your ingredients: would it be most cost effective to double or triple a recipe? If a recipe calls for 1/2 a bag of chocolate chips, then doubling it would be more effective than tripling.
9. Where do I put the hot pans? This was the quandary I found myself in after I'd baked a huge amount of chicken breasts. Every square inch of my counter top was devoted to other meal prep tasks. Thankfully, my dining room table was cleared off (wonder of wonders), so I was able to trivets out and put the pans on those. Next time, I'll make sure my tables are cleared before I start in case I run into that problem again!
10. Keep a running survey: When you pull out the meal of the day, ask spouse and/or kids what they think. Do they like it? Any requests on their part for the next round?