Guide to the preparation of food to be stored in the freezer.

Whether you are freezing raw meat, fresh vegetables or a homemade Shepherd's pie, there are guidelines that need to be followed in order to ensure that what you put into the freezer comes out in the best condition possible.

In another section of this freezer guide, we give in-depth information on how to best freeze certain types of foods, whilst on this page we offer a brief overview of how to store and organize food intended for long-term freezer storage.

Correct packaging

Some types of packaging are best suited to certain types of food. For example, a joint of meat should be wrapped in heavy-duty polythene and then placed in a heavy-duty polythene bag and sealed, whereas a pasta sauce could be packaged in a number of ways, such as in an airtight plastic container, glass jar or a polythene bag.

The first thing to do when you have a product to freeze is to choose the most suitable type of packaging according to that type of food.

This means that you should choose a container or wrap most similar to the size and shape of the food item. A few frozen vegetables should not be stored in a huge container, as a polythene bag will suffice. It is important to know how to package and store different types of foods and also different foods within each food type.

For example, not all fruits should be frozen in the same way, therefore if you are unsure, you should check each item separately, so that you are not disappointed once you have defrosted that product and found out that it has been ruined.

Another point to consider is how the food item is going to be cooked or reheated once it has been defrosted, as this could affect which type of material or container is used for freezer storage. Unbaked pies can be frozen in ovenproof dishes, so that they can be placed straight from the freezer into the oven to bake without having to hunt around for suitable dishes and transfer the pie from one to another.

Likewise, any foods that will be reheated or defrosted in the microwave should be wrapped or stored in microwave safe materials.

If you have a limited number of dishes at home and cannot spare one to leave it sitting in the freezer for several months, try lining the dish with heavy-duty freezer aluminium foil before placing the food into the dish.

Place the item into the freezer and once it has frozen completely, remove the dish, making sure that the food has carefully been wrapped in the aluminium foil, and return it to your kitchen. When you need to cook that food item, it can easily be transferred to the same dish and placed in the oven.

Preparation before storing

Once you have found a suitable storage container or materials for the items that you are going to freeze, you must also check whether there are any specific preparation guidelines to follow before freezing.

For example, vegetables are best when blanched (immersed in boiling water) first, as this halts the action of the enzymes within the vegetables and meat will possibly need to be jointed and have any excess fat removed for the best results.

Some types of foods can be frozen as they are whilst others may need liquid added or certain ingredients removed until after defrosting.

It is really important that only good-quality fresh food is frozen, as this will ensure perfect results later on.

Cool food before freezing

All food items must be cooled completely before packing and storing in the freezer. This is imperative, as if warm or hot food is placed into the freezer it can cause the temperature of the freezer to fluctuate and rise. This may have several effects on food that is already being stored in the freezer and also on the items that you are going to freeze.

If the temperature in the freezer rises above 0°F (-18°C), foods that are already frozen could defrost slightly and then refreeze. This will lead to a deterioration of the food item, as small ice crystals become larger on refreezing, thus damaging the cell walls of the food as they expand.

Once a product has been frozen it should stay completely frozen and not undergo changes in its storage conditions that will affect its quality after defrosting. Fluctuating temperatures will also lead to freezer burn, which could potentially destroy a food item resulting in having to discard it uncooked and uneaten.

Secondly, the cooler the item ready to freeze, the quicker it will freeze. This is important, as foods that freeze rapidly will not be structurally damaged by the freezing process.

The quicker an item freezes in the freezer, the better the quality of that item when it comes to defrosting, as much of the moisture content, vitamins, texture and flavour are retained.

When cooling foods intended for freezer storage, this should be done as quickly and as safely as possible. Do not leave any food, especially foods containing poultry, seafood, eggs, fish or meat, out to cool at room temperature, as this could cause bacteria to multiply, food contamination and the rapid deterioration of the dish.

Such items should be cooled quickly in the refrigerator or by placing the dish or original cooking pan in a sink or bowl full of ice cold water, which should be changed every so often to ensure the quickest cooling time possible.

Freeze small portions

Items that you are going to store in the freezer should be frozen in small or individual portions. This is so that they freeze quicker, thus ensuring a better quality product on defrosting and so defrosting for a certain number of people is made easier.

If there are only two of you at home, it does not make sense to defrost an item of food intended for six people and smaller items will also defrost quicker, which may help if time is lacking.

Remove all air from the packaging

Most foods should be packaged in airtight containers or wrapped tightly so that air cannot enter the package.

All excess air should be squeezed out of bags before sealing and containers should be filled to the top, so that less air is present.

The more air that is present, the greater likelihood that freezer burn or deterioration of the food product will occur, particularly when freezing foods that contain a lot of fat such as meat, fish or poultry.

When food comes into contact with oxygen in the air, chemical changes will occur, resulting in possible unwanted changes in texture, taste and flavour of the food when defrosted. In addition, the food will spoil at a much faster rate than if there were very little oxygen present.

For best results all excess air should be removed from a package, whilst all moisture and water should be kept in.

Freezing liquids

Although most foods require excess air to be removed from the packaging before freezing, this is slightly different where freezing liquids is concerned.

A slight gap or space should be left at the top of the container, as liquids will need the extra room, which will be filled once the liquid expands on freezing.

The recommended space to leave is 1-inch for 1 pint of liquid and 2 inches for a litre.

Label all freezer packages

Labelling each package that goes into the freezer is particularly important if you have a large freezer that is full of frozen items.

It is easy to forget what is inside each package and the date on which it was frozen. This means that you could end up defrosting something that you didn't want to defrost, as you mistook it for another item or that food stays in the freezer for too long and cannot be used, as the recommended storage time has passed.

Label each food package by using special low temperature freezer stickers that can withstand freezing temperatures without peeling off and write on the stickers with pencil, wax crayon, biro or marker pens to ensure that the ink does not run or wash off.

Label the food packages with as much information as possible for example, the date, the contents, whether the item is sliced, grated or whole, number of servings or portions and use-by date. This is important so that you know exactly when you should use the contents by.

As well as writing specific freezer storage details on the labels, it is also a good idea to use a colour-coded system so that knowing what is inside each package is easier when you are rummaging around in the freezer. Using red labels for meat, white for poultry, blue for fish, green for vegetables and yellow for fruit is a good idea.

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