Cooling before freezing is necessary for two important reasons: firstly, extra heat will raise the temperature of the freezer, and secondly, the outer edges of the hot or warm dish will freeze hard quickly while the inside may not cool in time to prevent spoilage.
Follow these steps when preparing and freezing your own main dishes to ensure food safety and quality:
Cool precooked dishes as quickly as possible before they are placed in the freezer.
For fastest cooling, place the pan of hot food in a sink filled with ice water (or in a larger pan of ice water). If you're cooling a soup, stew, or sauce, stir occasionally to help it cool evenly.
Once the dish is cooled, portion it into meal-sized containers or packages. Label and date the containers. Place them in the coldest area of your freezer until completely frozen. Rearrange as necessary.
Save yourself from the dinnertime crunch by preparing your own meals ahead of time. Form your own "make-ahead meals" club and invite friends over to prepare a week's worth of dinners--or just throw an extra meatloaf in the oven when you're preparing tonight's main dish.
It's Cold in There
Not all freezer containers are created equal: use specially designed freezer bags, airtight containers, and aluminum foil to maintain the quality of your foods. Poorly wrapped foods risk damage from freezer burn--a loss of moisture which affects both taste and texture--and can absorb or transfer smells from other foods in the freezer. Follow these wrapping and container tips to ensure the quality and safety of your food:
Use only specialty freezer wrappings: they should be both moisture-proof and vapor-proof.
Leave as little air as possible in the packages and containers. When freezing liquids in containers, allow a small amount of head room for expansion. When using freezer bags, be sure to remove as much air as possible before closing. Solids such as meats and baked goods should be wrapped tightly in foil before you bag them.
Use rigid containers with a tight lid and keep the sealing edge free from moisture or food to ensure proper closure.
Secure wrapped packages and containers with freezer tape, and write the dish and the date on the tape with a marker.
In many cases, meats and fish wrapped by the grocer or butcher need no extra attention before freezing. If the food you want to freeze was not specially wrapped, then re-wrap them at home. Meat wrapped on Styrofoam trays with plastic wrap will not hold up well to freezing.
Freeze in small containers with no more than a 1-quart capacity to ensure that freezing takes place in a timely manner (i.e. within four hours). Food that is two inches thick will take about two hours to freeze completely.
Thawing foods at room temperature is a bad idea--with the exception of muffins, breads and other baked goods. Bacteria can grow in the thawed portion of prepared foods, releasing toxins that are not safe to eat even after cooking. To ensure that your food is safe to eat, follow one of these proper ways to thaw:
In the refrigerator: Plan ahead, as this is the slowest but safest thawing technique. Small frozen items may thaw in a few hours, while larger items will take significantly longer--overnight and then some.
In cold running water: Place the frozen food in a leak-proof bag and place it under cold running water. If this seems wasteful, put the plug in the sink, and keep an eye on the water level. Bail out extra water and use it for your plants.
In a microwave on the defrost setting: Plan to cook the food immediately after it has thawed in a microwave, because some areas of the food may have begun cooking during the defrost cycle.
Best if Used By:
Although freezing keeps food safe for an indefinite amount of time, that doesn't mean it'll taste good: eat your dishes within a reasonable time period for quality's sake. And if the food is obviously damaged (shriveled, with white or frosty spots) it should be discarded.
This chart lists recommended storage times for popular precooked foods--casseroles, soups, lasagna--to ensure high-quality results:
Type of Food
* Tomato/vegetable sauces = 6 months
* Meatloaf (any type of meat) = 6 months
* Soups and stews = 2-3 months
* Poultry and Meat Casseroles = 6 months
* Poultry (cooked, no gravy) = 3 months
* Poultry (with gravy/sauce) = 5-6 months
* Meatballs in sauce = 6 months
* Pizza dough (raw, homemade) = 3-4 weeks
* Muffins/quick breads (baked) = 2-3 months
Don't Crowd the Freezer
A temperature of 0 degrees F (-18 degrees C) is best for maintaining food quality. Proper air circulation is key to keeping your freezer operating at maximum efficiency.
Freezing does not kill bacteria, yeast and molds that may be in your foods--it merely holds them at bay by keeping them inactive. If the freezer's temperature is disturbed often or altered for an extended period of time (such as a door left ajar or power outages) these microbes can compromise your food's safety.