Do you think of your freezer as an extension of your pantry? You should.
Yes, we know the freezer is a marvelous holding pen for emergency frozen dinners, packaged frozen vegetables and ice cream. But it also can store a wide range of spare ingredients to have at the ready. Many foods that are not obvious candidates for freezing can be stored there in excellent condition. Freezing food is also a great way to reduce food waste, a big issue both in our country and our kitchens.
First, some general tips for freezing food:
Use freezer-proof, plastic, zipper-top bags, or glass or plastic containers, and just continue to recycle them. I have some containers I’ve been using for so long they’re on the cusp of becoming vintage!
The freezer-proof plastic bags will be labeled “freezer,” and they are thicker and sturdier than regular storage bags. When using them, press out excess air. The more air you remove, the better the food preservation. If you happen to have one of those vacuum-sealer machines, have at it; if not, press down on the bag to push out air before you seal it up tightly.
If you are freezing items in containers, leave about ½-inch headroom at the top because some foods, especially liquids, expand slightly when frozen. This way, the food will fill the container as it freezes, but not pop off the lid.
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Label each bag or container with the name of the food and the date you put it in the freezer. Use permanent marker, and if you are using a reusable container, make a label with masking tape so you can peel it off and put a new one on next time. We all think we’ll remember, but pureed raspberries can look a lot like tomato paste when they surface in the back of the freezer.
Now, for some good and perhaps surprising items you can freeze:
SHREDDED CHEESE. If you buy bulk bags of cheese, divide them into smaller, freezer-safe bags. Hard cheese can be frozen in chunks, but shredded freezes best. You can even use the cheese directly from the freezer, as it defrosts very quickly.
HOMEMADE PANCAKES OR WAFFLES. Don’t throw out those breakfast leftovers! Freeze them first on a baking sheet in a single layer, then wrap them in plastic wrap with a layer of wax or parchment paper in between each; slip them into freezer-proof, zipper-top bags; and freeze. You can defrost and heat these in the microwave.
FRESH HERBS. Roughly chop any fresh herb and put about 1 tablespoon of it in each container of an ice cube tray. Then fill up the sections with a little broth, water or olive oil, and freeze. Once the herby ice cubes are frozen, transfer them to a bag, seal well, label and pop them back into the freezer. Defrost before using, unless you are throwing one into a soup or stew. They will not be able to be used as a garnish, as their texture will be affected, but they can be used in dressings, marinades and such.
TOMATO PASTE. This is one of my favorites. When a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of tomato paste, don’t cover the rest of the can with foil and shove it into the back of the fridge. Scrape it into a freezer-proof bag, press out the air and freeze. Snap off pieces as you need it; just guesstimate what a tablespoon would be, and usually you can just add it frozen to a recipe. Most recipes calling for tomato paste involve heating it, and it will melt and blend in quickly.
COOKED GRAINS. Not only is this a great way to save leftover rice, quinoa, farro and so on, it’s a smart way to meal plan. Make extra grains when you make a batch for dinner, and then freeze them in small containers or bags. When ready to use them, defrost in the fridge, or if you are adding them to a dish, you can add them still frozen.
WHOLE FRUIT. Bananas freeze up beautifully right in their own skins — no plastic required! Defrost, peel and use them in baked goods like banana bread. Thawed or frozen, they are great in smoothies. You can also freeze whole tomatoes or peaches with their skins still on; wash, dry, and core or pit them, then freeze. When you thaw them, even partially, you can slip their skins right off. The tomatoes can then be chopped and used in sauces and other cooked dishes, the peaches in baked goods and smoothies. Some people skip the coring and the bags, and just freeze the fruit loose with skins intact.
BREAD. You can double-wrap bread in foil and then slide it into a freezer-proof bag. This is a great way to save half a baguette or another nice bakery loaf. Thaw it on the counter for several hours, or in the oven — how long depends on the size of the loaf. Packaged sliced bread can stay in its bag. Pull out slices as you need them; they will defrost quickly.
FRESH GINGER. You can freeze whole knobs of ginger, peeled or unpeeled, in freezer-proof bags. Then grate it directly from the freezer; once grated it will soften quickly.
CITRUS RINDS/ZEST. Many recipes call for just the juice of a lemon, lime or orange, but the rinds have lovely flavor locked up in their oils. Before you juice the fruit, either use a vegetable peeler to remove strips of the zest (the brightly colored outer part of the peel) or grate the zest. Store it in tiny containers. You can use zest to brighten the flavor of stews, soups, marinades, dressings, sauces, etc. Remove bigger pieces of rind before serving.
WHIPPED CREAM. This is a cute one. If you have leftover whipped cream or a can that is nearing its expiration date, scoop or spray fat dollops of whipped cream onto a small tray or plate. Place it in the freezer and, when solid, transfer the whipped cream to a container or freezer-proof bag. Freeze, and then pull out as you wish to float in a mug of hot chocolate.
SCRAPS FOR STOCK. Another green and economical thing to do is to save your vegetable, poultry or meat bones and scraps in the freezer. When the container or bag is full, it’s time to make homemade stock!
The Associated Press contributed to this article.