Cooking Ahead

Open a home freezer door and you’re likely to see one of three things: a well-stocked neatly organized selection of homemade ready-to-cook meals; a jumble of frozen vegetables and boxed microwave dinners; ice cubes and ice cream.

The first freezer is that of a Cooking Ahead devotee. A freezer full of pre-cooked or ready-to-cook food means a reduction in mealtime stress and a boost in table time.

Whether you use the freezer compartment in your refrigerator or have a stand alone freezer, you can save time by preparing and freezing meals ahead of time.

We recommend using a freezer thermometer to make sure your freezer is at 0°F. An improperly cooled freezer will result in reduced quality and storage time.

You do not need special freezer containers. Aluminum foil, heavy-duty plastic wrap and resealable storage bags are all good candidates for inexpensive freezer storage. Also, new and inexpensive plastic ware designed for reuse are excellent for freezing foods to give to others.

Proper labeling is essential when freezing foods. Steamed rice and risotto look a lot alike when peering through the plastic of a frosty container. At the minimum, write the name of the frozen food and the date it was frozen.

We also recommend writing the finishing or reheating instructions. This is especially helpful if you prepare food for others and for children. You might also want to write the number of servings.

You should put a "best used by" date on each package. Alternatively, keep a copy of a freezer storage time table like the one from Ziploc,, on your freezer lid or door. Anytime you are freezing large amounts of food, lower the freezer temperature control to its lowest setting ahead of time. After 10-to-12 hours, you may reset the control to its normal setting.

Also, spread foods out into single or thin layers for quick freezing. Soups and sauces in resealable plastic food-storage bags freeze quickly and stack like tiles, saving space and speeding thawing for use.

Remember, it is best to freeze foods at their freshest. This means planning on spending time packaging foods for the freezer after a grocery store trip. When preparing casseroles, line the dish with a layer of heavy (or double) aluminum foil. Fill the lined container with your casserole, then seal it and place in the freezer. When the food is frozen, you can remove the foil freeing the dish for continued use.

Anytime you prepare foods, think about making a double or triple batch. Freeze the amount you do not immediately need. We always do this with pasta sauces and soups, since they are so easy to heat for a meal.

Another example of this philosophy is to chop extra onion and cut up extra meat while cooking. We recently bought a beautiful four-pound tied pork loin roast. We made a pork roast from one half. The remaining half was cut into cubes and placed in the freezer for making pork green chile later in the week.

Our dinner guests ate half of the roasted loin. The other cooked half went in the freezer for pork fajitas with a tomatillo sauce a week later. You can see how this one roast was used for efficient (and tasty) Cooking Ahead.

Next time: Selecting and adapting recipes for freezing.