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In an effort to improve my eating habits I am thinking of buying more vegetables and meats while at the store so that I have them to cook with. However, with a busy schedule it is hard to try and find the time to cook something complex and needing to cut vegetables, meat, etc. I don't want to use frozen vegetables either, as I want to start actually cooking more and not re-heating frozen items.

If I pre-cut all the vegetables beforehand, how long will the vegetables stay fresh before losing flavor and getting soggy or drying out? Also, is there a preferable storage method, such as Ziploc bags, Tupperware containers, or glass bowls/containers with plastic wrap?

As for meat, is there a temperature that meats should be stored at in the freezer to keep them from getting freezer burn? Currently, it seems that whenever I put anything in my freezer, it forms ice crystals the next day. I've tried lowering the temperature dial in the freezer a number of times, but I am afraid that if I lower it too much then it won't freeze the food and it will spoil.

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There is nothing against buying frozen vegetables. Sometimes they are even preferable over other possibilities (e.g. frozen peas are better than canned peas). Just don't buy the prepared, seasoned "pan mixtures", get the pure vegetables and treat them the way you would treat a raw ingredient. Commercially frozen vegetables are flash-frozen, so most of their taste and nutrition is preserved - probably more than if you leave a cut fresh veggie at fridge temp. –  rumtscho Apr 12 '12 at 20:11
    
@rumtscho I've never been a big fan of canned items anyway, but thank you for the knowledge of frozen vs. pre-cut vegetables! –  SirCobalt Apr 12 '12 at 21:06
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Adding on to @rumtscho's comment, a very very common preference in Italian restaurants is canned tomatoes over fresh. Tomatoes can be canned much closer to the farm than markets tend to be. Thus, they can be allowed to ripen much more as they don't have to be as firm to withstand travel. –  Eric Hu Apr 12 '12 at 22:50

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

For most vegetables, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to retain their quality once they have been cut. Your efforts would be much better spent either improving your cutting/chopping proficiency or in cooking entire meals ahead of time. Also, you could prepare components, such as sauteed onions or peppers, and maintain relatively high-quality versions of those.

Meat is a different story. You can do preparations in advance, and freeze individual portions for later use without degrading quality.

The best way to avoid freezer burn is to have a very cold freezer (ironically, easing the cooling settings on your freezer was having the opposite of your desired effect), and to prevent your food from coming in contact with air. You can use a freezer bag for each food item, making sure you squeeze all the air out of it first. However, if you are really serious about this, you would be well-served by investing in a vacuum sealer. Air is the big enemy here, so mechanically removing air from the system will greatly extend freezer life.

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Thank you for the tips/pointers! I will have to try turning my freezer back up when I get home! I never thought of preparing prepared components such as sauteing items beforehand. I've also been debating investing in a vacuum sealer, I just can't find one that is affordable and good quality. Again, thank you! –  SirCobalt Apr 12 '12 at 21:04

For general freezing, these three links suggest common things: tight wrapping and cold temperatures. Though these sources are hardly definitive sources, they're consistent with what I've seen elsewhere. If you want to prevent freezer burn, look to:

  • Minimize exposure to air. Seal your target foods in tight plastic. If there will be air gaps, cover them with oil or water to displace the air.

  • Make sure your freezer stays below 0 F. Understand that the freezer is only as cold as the average temperature of everything inside. When it's 75% air, a lot of those low-energy molecules will escape out whenever you open the freezer door. This is why one of the articles recommends freezing water bottles. One gram of water will absorb much more energy than one gram of air before changing 1 degree.

    If you want to go all-out, create an ice bath of water and ice, then throw your-food-to-be-frozen in the freezer. Water absorbs much more energy and transfers energy much quicker than air does, so this will freeze the food much faster. Be careful of creating a massive ice block, though. Flash freezing is this process, but using liquid nitrogen instead of an ice-water bath.

In addition to those tips, I also recommend looking into tried-and-true preservation techniques besides freezing.

  • Storage techniques: There are many time-tested storage techniques. Keep an eye out for some in the various cultures you encounter.

    If you want to preserve tomatoes, for instance, there's oven-drying. I've bought a silpat to dry tomatoes on a non-stick surface in the oven at a low temperature. Once fully dried, they keep in room temperature jars almost indefinitely. Ditto for dried fruits.

    Fully dried tomatoes can have an undesirable leathery texture, so I opt for a partial dry, keeping the chewy tomatoes soaked in olive oil in the fridge. Again, storage lasts for quite a while.

    There's also pickling (for veggies...sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles..), brining (for meats, capers, olives...), smoking (lox), and curing (bacon) to extend food shelf life. A meat soaking in a brine will tend to last longer because of the high salinity. Corned beef is brined, and lasts well beyond an un-salted piece of meat.

    These techniques also have the side effect of making you front-load the work of flavoring your food. When you want to use foods preserved this way, there's one less thing to concern yourself with being properly flavored (once you have the technique down).

  • Intermediate ingredients. Stocks: Google how to make a vegetable stock out of your standard mirepoix (carrots, onions, celery). This can be used as a base for soups and, if reduced, for sauces. It's quite a simple process to make them and takes very little active-time. Stocks can be frozen and reheated to add quick flavor and nutrients into a dish. They don't really lose flavor in freezing, and can even be reduced, concentrated, and frozen in ice cube trays if you're lacking in freezer space.

    Broths: Similar to stocks, but built with bones. These are, again, a great addition...no, a necessary foundation to a sauce or soup. Like stocks, these can be frozen and lose little or no flavor, even reduced for space first if necessary.

Don't bother trying to preserve herbs, like cilantro or parsley. Their presence in foods is mainly for flavor, not nutrients. This flavor includes some volatile organic compounds that evaporate easily--once gone, they're somewhere in the atmosphere and can't be recovered.

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Studies have found unless you buy veggies directly from a Farmers Market, frozen from the supermarket does retain more nutrients and vitamins then buying it from the produce section. They are flashed frozen either the same day or the next from when they are harvested. Yes there are some fundamental differences in texture and color, such as parsley, basil, spinach, squash, celery and a few that I have missed, but that is freezing versus keeping fresh and you’re going to cook them anyway. A lot of the other answerers are correct on the how to’s, but I can’t imagine putting myself through all that hassle. There are staples I try to keep fresh on hand, celery (wrap in foil), onions, potatoes, carrots. I put them in the produce draws with paper towels on the bottom. They last longer than a month. Yes I did say potatoes, peeps I’m Irish, it doesn’t affect them. A little sweeter I know, but why is that wrong?

Parsley and Cilantro leaves may not be frozen with good results, but their stems can. I tie up the stems then freeze them. I just throw them in to whatever I am cooking still tied up. I also freeze chopped green bell peppers, not a fan but some dishes need it. When cooking frozen veggies, I find this works the best. Put into tempered glass bowl with micro proof lid. You can also use plastic wrap, it will vent itself. I like using clear glass so I can keep an eye on it without having to open up and take off the lid. Do not add water, just salt and sometimes a little sugar to brighten up the flavor. YES I said sugar, no responses please. Put in Microwave and cook for 3 mins, then shake about the bowl, return and cook another 3 to 6 mins. depending on the veggie. I try to slightly undercook them; by the time it makes the table they are perfectly done. Spinach the same way, then press out the extra water. You can tell they are cooked when you see a few tablespoon of water sitting on the bottom. I just drain it out.

Meat is easy too. Do Not use Zip Locks. Use really good plastic wrap, not the cheap kind, very important. Have you ever seen someone make tortilla sandwich wraps? They roll once, then pull it tight, then fold the side in and finish rolling it. Same principal here, roll once, pull it tight roll two more times. Then use the side of your hands to push out the air from the side and fold ends. Then roll the opposite way two more times pulling tight. You could then put in a zip lock to keep organized and it also helps buffer the food from the defrost cycle. Using this method, I never get freezer burn. I just pulled out pork chops I wrapped over 8 months ago, still looking perfect. Defrosting meat in the fridge works best, you don’t lose as many juices. There are other methods, but that is a subject for another day.

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If you plan to store vegetables in the freezer for any considerable length of time, blanch them first. This kills the enzymes that would otherwise cause continued deterioration of home-frozen vegetables in the freezer.

Don't actually cook them, just put them in boiling water for about a minute or two, cool them quickly in an ice water bath, then dry and freeze them. Doesn't matter so much how or to what degree they've been cut, but you'll probably find the whole process far less burdensome with larger chunks.

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