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Everything You Need to Know About Freezing Food

Updated May 6, 2020
Truth: Make-ahead meals should be as delicious as they are convenient! Otherwise, why bother? MORE+ LESS-
If you’ve ever been disappointed in the results of a frozen meal, you’re in luck! Experts from the Betty Crocker Test Kitchens have shared their meal-freezing know-how, and we’ve broken down their advice into six simple steps. Follow these steps and you can be sure your will meals stay fresh—we’ll tell you how to avoid freezer burn—and reheat beautifully.

If you’ve ever been stumped on which foods to freeze and how exactly to freeze them, you’re in luck! Maggie Lyon of the Betty Crocker Test Kitchens is here to share her meal-freezing know-how. Maggie isn’t just an extraordinary recipe developer, she’s also a busy mom and an absolute master of meal prep, so these tips for preparing, storing and reheating your frozen meals aren’t just test-kitchen approved, they’re real-life approved too!

According to Betty Crocker recipe developer Maggie Lyon, freezing make-ahead meals is an easy five-step process that includes preparing a freezer-friendly meal, cooling the meal and popping it in your freezer. Once you’re ready to eat your meal, all that’s left is thawing and reheating! Read on for a breakdown of each of these simple steps.

1. Pick Recipes That Freeze with Ease

One of the questions we get most frequently from our community members is whether a recipe will freeze well, and because of that, it’s also a frequent topic of discussion in the Test Kitchens. Through lots (and lots) of testing, we’ve found a rule thumb that’ll help you be able to tell at a glance whether a meal is freezer-friendly.

It’s best to avoid freezing low-starch, dairy-heavy meals, like creamy soups.
It’s best to avoid freezing low-starch, dairy-heavy meals, like creamy soups.

Starchy foods like noodles and potatoes help prevent dairy from separating and curdling—think: cheesy lasagnas and other high-in-starch recipes, such as the following:

2. Avoid Freezer Burn

It’s the foe of every cook who wants to save time or get ahead by freezing food: freezer burn. Once it takes hold, your food just won’t reheat as well—the texture will be off and the flavor will be muted or funky. Freezer burn happens when you place food in containers and seal them while the food is still hot. The steam that forms inside will freeze into ice, causing freezer burn, which in turn leads to a soggy result when you thaw and reheat the meal.

To avoid freezer burn, cool food completely before freezing.
To avoid freezer burn, cool food completely before freezing.

Cooling Tips:

  • Cover food with plastic wrap, venting it so that moisture can escape.
  • Allow food to cool completely in the refrigerator.
  • Transfer food to storage container(s).

3. Pack It How You’ll Use It

make-ahead-turkey-bean-freezer-burritos_04

Whether you’re freezing leftovers or a meal you’ve prepped for future use, the pros know that there’s a bit more to it than just popping it all in a bag and throwing it in the freezer. Of course, you’ll want to package it up in a durable container that’ll keep moisture in and pesky odors out, but you’ll also want to use a container that’s appropriate to the meal and quantity of food.

Freezing food intended for individual meals or lunches in single-serving sizes will make it more convenient to defrost and serve later.
Freezing food intended for individual meals or lunches in single-serving sizes will make it more convenient to defrost and serve later.

Packaging Tips:

  • Freezing food at peak freshness is key to better-tasting meals, so wrap up your meal as soon as it’s cooled.
  • Pick containers that fit the quantity of food or divide into smaller portions where it make sense. Smaller containers will freeze more rapidly, defrost quicker and take up less freezer space.
  • Packaging in freezer-grade resealable plastic bags is a great way to save space as bags can be laid flat and neatly stacked. Bags work particularly well for soups or stews.
  • Plastic and glass containers with tight-fitting lids also make good freezer containers, particularly for casseroles. An oven-safe glass container, like a Pyrex® dish, is ideal since you’ll be able to bake in it without transferring to a new container.
  • If you don’t want to take a casserole dish out of circulation for months at a time, line your dish with foil coated in cooking spray, freeze the casserole until set and then transfer the foil-lined casserole to a freezer-grade resealable zip-top bag.

4. Keep it Fresh in the Freezer

A freezer thermometer will help you preserve your frozen pantry. Most food will freeze at 30˚F but should be stored at 0˚F or colder to maintain quality and taste. A trick to maintaining the temperature in your freezer is to keep it well stocked because frozen food will help maintain the temperature of the whole freezer. Yet another reason to have a steady supply of go-to frozen meals!

Most meals can be frozen for 2 to 4 months.
Most meals can be frozen for 2 to 4 months.

Freezing Tips:

  • If you are in and out of your freezer frequently, such as getting ice several times a day, it’s best not to store food for more than two months.
  • If you have a chest freezer that mostly stays closed, foods will keep for longer.
  • To maintain quality, cheesy dishes and meat-heavy dishes shouldn't be frozen for longer than two months.

5. Thaw safely

Food safety is a serious matter in the Test Kitchens, and we want it to be in your home, too. Knowing safe techniques for thawing your food will save you a lot of headaches (and stomachaches). Packaging food as described above is the first step.

The safest way to thaw frozen meals is in the refrigerator.
The safest way to thaw frozen meals is in the refrigerator.

Thawing Tips:

  • The refrigerator keep food at a safe and consistent temperature and is a good place to defrost foods that can’t be stirred like casseroles and other layered foods. A good rule of thumb is to pull your freezer meal out the night before a busy day.
  • If you can’t plan ahead (sometimes, busy days catch us off guard), use the microwave to quickly thaw stirrable foods like soups and stews. If you need to remove food from packaging that’s not microwave safe, thaw in cold water until food is soft enough to be transferred to a microwave-safe container. We recommend zapping in a large bowl, so you can stir without making a mess.
  • Submerging your frozen meal in a container of cold water is yet another method of thawing, but keep in mind water will need to be changed every 30 minutes and it will take approximately 1 hour per pound. For more details, refer to the USDA’s safe thawing guidelines.

6. Reheat Evenly

Make Ahead Cheesy Southwest Chicken and Pasta Casserole

Banish cold middles and dried-out edges from your experience of reheating freezer meals! Those pitfalls are common, but if you know the right tricks, they’ll never be an issue again.

The same logic for thawing frozen foods applies to reheating them.
The same logic for thawing frozen foods applies to reheating them.

Reheating Tips:

  • If it’s a meal that you can stir, like soups or stews, it's probably a good fit for the stovetop or microwave. Stirring throughout the heating process will allow for the food to heat evenly.
  • If it’s a meal that you can’t stir, such as a casserole, opt for the oven.
  • Whether you reheat in the microwave, on the stove or in the oven, always bring the internal temperature of the food to at least 165°F for food safety reasons.
  • Finally, add a sprinkle of gooey cheese; some buttery, crunchy breadcrumbs; or a fresh squeeze of citrus. The right finishing touch will make your meal irresistible.

Now that you know exactly how to prepare, store and reheat freezer meals for maximum deliciousness, put your knowledge to good use by making one of these freezer-friendly pasta dishes or another one of Betty’s best make-ahead recipes.

Psst … Want to know more about other foods that freeze well (and those that don’t)? Check out the handy list below.

Foods to Freeze

Food

How to Freeze it

Breads (quick and yeast), coffee cakes and muffins

Wrapped tightly, these baked goods will keep for 3 months in the freezer. Thaw by loosening wrapping and letting stand 2 to 3 hours.

Breadcrumbs

Plain or buttered, breadcrumbs keep well for about 6 months when stored in an airtight container, like a resealable zip-top bag.

Butter, including compound butter

Sticks or compound butter will keep for up two 2 months stored in airtight packaging.

Cake

Unfrosted cakes will keep for up to 4 months when wrapped in airtight packaging.

Cheesecake

Freeze for up to 5 months tightly wrapped. Thaw in refrigerator 4 to 6 hours.

Coffee

Whole bean or ground coffee, will keep in the freezer for up to 1 month.

Cookies and Cookie Dough

Stored correctly, dough and baked cookies will keep for 2 to 3 months. Get details in How to Freeze Cookies and Cookie Dough

Fresh Fruits

Bananas, peaches, berries and more fruits freeze well. Get the details in How to Freeze Fruit.

Fresh Herbs

Purée in food processor with olive oil and freeze in individual ice cube trays. Once set, store cubes in resealable zip-top bag for up to 6 months.

Flour

Store sealed in airtight packaging for 2 to 6 months. This is a good practice when conditions are particularly humid or if you are an infrequent baker.

Nuts and Seeds

Store in an airtight container for up to 1 year.

Pies

Pecan pie and fruit pies (baked or unbaked) will keep for up to 4 months in the freezer. Baked pumpkin pie will keep for 1 month.


Foods to Avoid Freezing

While you could technically freeze the foods below, we don’t recommend it for ideal preservation.

  • Cooked egg whites will turn tough
  • Crackers and chips will absorb moisture and turn soggy.
  • Cream, custard or meringue-topped pies will separate and lose texture quality.
  • Crumb topping on casseroles and desserts can become soggy. Freeze crumbs separately and add just before baking.
  • Dairy products, like cottage cheese, ricotta, buttermilk, cream, milk, sour cream and yogurt, lose texture quality.
  • Egg-white frosting and meringues for pies shrink and become tough.
  • Mayonnaise or salad dressings may separate.