Stock your freezer with make-ahead meals to ease the pace of your most hectic days. Large-batch cooking combined with freezing saves time and money at dinnertime. Some meals can be frozen already cooked for reheating, while others are best stored uncooked or in a partially prepared state. Making your freezer and refrigerator the most hardworking elements in your kitchen is a good strategy for getting all your food preparation done.
Make-Ahead Freezer Basics
Use an appliance thermometer to ensure your freezer maintains a 0 degree Fahrenheit temperature. If cooking enough food for 2 meals at once, set aside the portion to be frozen before you serve the rest, rather than freezing leftovers at the end of the meal. Cool food slightly before freezer-packing. You can set a dish in a pan of ice water or on an elevated cooling rack for 30 minutes before putting it in the freezer. If made of plastic, make sure your bags or containers are the heavier-weight freezer grade. These prompt freezing strategies prevent the growth of bacteria and the accumulation of excess moisture. Mark and date meals so that you use them within recommended storage times. If unsure about the safest procedures, contact your local County Extension Service. Most frozen meals benefit from complete, overnight thawing in the refrigerator. Do not thaw frozen foods at room temperature.
Make-Ahead Cooked Dishes
Dishes characterized by how well ingredients mix together are excellent candidates for complete cooking before freezing. Use this technique with soups, stews, vegetable purees. Casseroles like macaroni and cheese or tuna and noodles, with dairy-based sauces prone to separation, store more stably if cooked before freezing, as do quiches and stratas. Cool these dishes slightly after cooking. Since cooks can differ on the need for complete precooking, follow directions for the recipe you have chosen to make. Thaw cooked dishes completely in the refrigerator, then reheat briefly.
Make-Ahead Uncooked Dishes
Meatloaf, meatballs and marinated individual portions of chicken or meat can be seasoned and frozen raw. Pastry-wrapped main dishes like calzones, empanadas or samosas may wrap raw pastry around a cooked filling. To let the ingredients of a meal like pizza keep their individuality even when in combination, directions may recommend freezing the assembled dish raw. Like cooked meals, raw frozen meals usually need complete thawing in the refrigerator to prevent growth of harmful bacteria. Move food directly from the refrigerator to the stove and allow the same cooking time you would for fresh, raw versions. Recipe directions for unthawed raw dishes may require extended cooking times.
Make-Ahead Meal Components
If your family likes a lot of menu variety, or dishes where ingredients keep their individuality, freezing components for make-ahead meals gives you a lot of flexibility. Freeze a frequent menu staple like home-breaded chicken breasts or fish fillets in a large batch, then bag them in quantities needed for meals. Thawed, they can be heated to restore some of their original crispness, then turned into chicken parmigiana or fish and chips, served plain, or combined with an Asian sauce and vegetables. Crumble and brown ground beef, packing it in meal-size portions for quick tacos or sloppy Joes. Freeze a big batch of marinara sauce in several sizes of containers to create a spaghetti feast, for chicken cutlets for 2 or a dipping sauce for mozzarella sticks and vegetables.
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