16

Over the last decade or so I have noticed that the quality of store-bought frozen meals has increased. And after heating, the quality of the frozen food is better than my own prepared meals that I freeze and reheat later. Vegetables, while usually not exactly crisp, are far less mushy than my leftovers even if they're vacuum-sealed. Pasta is pretty tender, sauces are pretty flavorful, and in pretty much every way my leftovers are outclassed after any length of time in the freezer.

As I understand, there is a fair bit involved in preparing those frozen meals at the factory but the most important element is rapid freezing in an extremely low-temperature freezer.

I recently saw a listing for a blast chiller small enough that it might reasonably fit in a residential kitchen, which led me to wonder: could I prepare food, freeze it in the blast chiller, and then heat it later, essentially making my own frozen meals with quality comparable to the mass-produced frozen meals available today?

For reference, here is a link to the type of frozen meal I'm describing (this is not intended to be an endorsement of or advertisement for this brand). Even if it worked as I imagine I'm not convinced that this is an economical practice for a home cook, but I am interested enough in whether or not it would work and if the flash-frozen food would last longer (or be more palatable for longer) than conventionally frozen leftover food.

35

Supermarket frozen food is not leftovers.

Aside from the fact that some things freeze well - chilli is almost impossible to break - & some things freeze badly … don't freeze leftover risotto, it is not a joyous reheat candidate … I think the significant difference is not in how fast they're frozen, but in the preparation method itself.

Supermarket chilled & frozen food is not leftovers, it's specifically cooked to be able to survive that last 15 mins in the oven or 3 mins in the nukerowave.
Pasta isn't cooked to be edible in the factory, it's cooked to be edible after having been chilled, then had some cold, half-cooked sauce dribbled over it, stored for 6 weeks, then nuked to death.

Rice, for instance, whether 'Chinese fried', 'Indian byriani', or 'Uncle Ben's plain boiled' never sticks because it was par-cooked (likely from already polished quick rice, then chilled & surface-dried whilst being separated further (see any online fried rice recipes for how this works to separate the grains) & not until then mixed with whatever 'chunks' or sauce are required for the final dish.
This then has been cold for most of its life already. It wasn't made to eat now.

Vegetables will be given little more than a par-boil (or microwave) so that they don't fall apart by the time they're married to whatever sauce. They're not fully cooked until the consumer has finished heating them. Can you even imagine giving garden peas an extra 5 mins in boiling water… no, so they won't even go in heated at all, they'll just go in raw, cooked only by you.

So, in short, your chilli will never need that kind of care & attention; your delicate broccoli florets will not survive having first been cooked sufficiently to eat.

Personally, I portion & freeze things that freeze well with no special requirements. Chilli, curries, stews are all completely unaffected by 3 months in the freezer (if they ever last me that long). Raw burgers, if a little more likely to get surface water whilst cooking don't suffer much. Pasta, no; rice, no (unless it was a 'dry' rice, plain boiled or similar, never in any kind of sauce) pastry, only uncooked… etc.

One thing I would say, as a home cook with nothing but "life experience" to tell me all this is…
"if it will freeze for a week, it will freeze for 6 months"
This is not a health recommendation, merely a guide as to what will ruin by the time it's frozen compared to what is indestructible. Compare frozen chilli to frozen beansprouts for a lesson you could learn in 24 hours ;)

(I realised I cannot comment on supermarket sauces, as I've never really found any that aren't just as bland as all heck compared to home-cooked.)

1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – rumtscho
    Feb 11 at 21:07
9

Absolutely yes. Blast chillers are used a lot more in (Southern?) Europe - I like to fly there in the summer and attend cooking classes and seminars. For example a risotto can be cooked very 'al dente' and then blast chilled on a tray, and (if kept frozen correctly) reheated later to finish the cooking process and served almost as if there wasn't any interruption. Same thing for a lot of other products.

There is a huge, incredible difference between a blast freezer and a normal freezer, that is very apparent when you use one; you just cannot replicate the results of the first with the second, no matter what the portion size is.

The only problem is the price of blast freezers. So far, the very small residential ones that aren't bigger than a microwave cost a couple of grand. The ones used in restaurants are easily 4-7 grand. Unfortunately refrigeration devices are inherently expensive

The main reason that a blast freezer is helpful with the quality is that it's OK to start freezing the product when it's still piping hot; the temperature will drop very quickly, compared to spend quite some time until it gets to room temperature and then in the freezer where the lack of forced air will take many hours to bring down the temperature and form big ice crystals, that will create cellular damage to the food and make it much more soggy when it is brought up to temperature again.

5
  • Kudo for ice crystal growth size and resulting cellular level damage
    – Caius Jard
    Feb 10 at 13:07
  • Oh, I should have expanded on that, I almost assumed it was a known fact. Feb 11 at 10:41
  • I think very few people would appreciate the difference between flash-freezing and slow freezing; feel free to expand on it!
    – Caius Jard
    Feb 11 at 11:34
  • It must be Southern Europe, I have not seen (outside restaurants) a blast chiller in France (and I was considering one, once). I asked a friend in Germany - same answer. But as your last paragraph explains very nicely (+1) , it would be something very valuable to have.
    – WoJ
    Feb 11 at 13:49
  • On a side note, I often use an ice bath to cool 'piping hot' food quickly so that it can be put in the fridge/freezer.
    – JimmyJames
    Feb 11 at 16:58
4

I worked at a frozen foods factory/manufacturer/whatever several years back. They had a massive drive-in freezer that we took the prepared food into immediately after cooking. It was set at -40°* and had large fans keeping the air moving.

It was so cold, that if you had any humidity/water in your clothes, they would freeze in less than a minute. You needed good, thick soled shoes. Not only was it rough on the feet being that cold, but the water you usually ended up walking through would get tracked in and freeze your feet to the floor, if you weren't walking, so it would damage shoes.

Anyway, these freezers are designed to flash freeze the food, as in getting it frozen to the center in minutes, not hours like your fridge/freezer combo.

Well, quite simply, your home freezer is not designed to freeze foods, it's designed to keep frozen foods cold.

When you put unfrozen foods in your freezer, it takes hours to freeze them fully. During this lengthy time, ice crystals form between the fibers of your meat and actually "break" the fibers and force the nutritious juices right out of your meats.

So, when you thaw out your meats, you'll actually see all the juices that have been forced out of them, and then you’ll end up throwing that out or washing it down the drain!

In contrast, when you flash freeze meats, they are frozen so quickly that the ice crystals don't form between the fibers of your meats. When you thaw out flash frozen meats, you will keep all of the nutrients and juices inside the meat, instead of down the drain!

If you can find a freezer that'll freeze a meal in just a few minutes, then you are onto something. There's a lot of articles around that I found on how to "flash freeze" certain items in your regular freezer, but I haven't tested them, so I don't know how well they work, if at all.

Your freezer likely won't get to 0°F, though, which is what the USDA recommends for indefinite storage of foods.

The USDA recommends 0°F (-18°C) for indefinite storage of foods. You'll be lucky to figure out if your fridge is set correctly, unless you have a thermometer or you have a digital display. I have looked at a variety of brands and models, but none in the US seem to say what their temperature range is.

Well, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, any food stored at exactly 0°F is safe to eat indefinitely. So you can store your meat for as long as you like, as long as it stays at that temperature. The reasoning behind this, according to the USDA, is that keeping food frozen "prevents the growth of microorganisms that cause both food spoilage and foodborne illness."

https://www.womansday.com/food-recipes/food-drinks/a51056/how-long-can-meat-stay-safely-frozen/

The US tends to have dial of 1-5, 1-7, or 1-10 and 1 could be the warmest or coldest setting, depending on brand. Helpful, isn't it? the newer or more expensive model have digital displays, so that's a step in the correct direction.

Apparently the UK/EU has an actual standardized system for this: https://www.bosch-home.fr/nos-astuces/nos-conseils/froid/congeler-mes-aliments-dans-mon-congelateur

As an aside, yes, there's a good reason for some restaurants and other food prep businesses to have walk-in freezer at -40°.

* The Celsius and Fahrenheit scales meet at -40°, so it doesn't matter which you label it, since it's the same.

9
  • 1
    Your freezer likely won't get to 0°F 0°F = -18°C. Freezers in Europe are standardized at -22°C (-8°F) (mine shows -23°C when measured)
    – WoJ
    Feb 11 at 13:52
  • @WoJ - agree. I set mine to -19, though it does go down to -25 if I set it that low.
    – unlisted
    Feb 11 at 19:08
  • Hmm...my freezer easily gets down to -20F when set just a bit below halfway on its thermostat, so I have a feeling it could go a good bit colder than that. It's an older free-standing freezer, so maybe it gets colder than what's normal here in the U.S.?
    – bob
    Feb 11 at 19:44
  • FWIW, I've looked at a variety of freezers and can't find where any of them say how low they go. I find plenty of recommendations of setting your freezer to 0F (-18C), but none of the non-commercial manufacturers/brands or models that I've read their specs for actually say what their lowest temp is. Feb 11 at 19:56
  • I've looked at a variety of freezers and can't find where any of them say how low they go - In Europe we have stars to indicate the temperature (you can have a look at bosch-home.fr/nos-astuces/nos-conseils/froid/…, in the middle of the page there is a table). **** means -18 to -24°C
    – WoJ
    Feb 11 at 20:15
1

There are plenty of foods that do well when frozen and reheated, typically those that are in a moist sauce (to protect the individual ingredients from freezer burn), and can be used for frozen meals like Tetsujin has mentioned. I currently have adobo pork, cuban pork, poached chicken thighs, chili, and a few other things in my freezer right now which I can then use as-is with a starch and some vegetables, or re-purpose into casseroles or the like.

My mom tends to go for more prepared dishes like things such as lasagna, shephard's/cottage pie, cabbage rolls, stuffed peppers, etc. But she also has a chest freezer to store them. I'll occasionally take some stew-like meals and take a few portions to make empanadas, calzones, or similar bake them, and then freeze them for later, but that's more equivalent to hot pockets than what I think of as a "meal".

There are plenty of cookbooks that focus on "make ahead meals", "once a month cooking", and "freezer cooking", and although some focus on these types of meals, there are some that also talk about other techniques that could be used to achieve what you're trying to do. Most of them make the assumption that you're cooking for more than one person, and not attempting to make individual meals, though.

In many cases, you don't attempt to make a meal and then freeze it. You may freeze meal-sized portions of mains and sides individually, so that you can mix & match to create more variety. You may par-cook or even fully cook part of the meal, and freeze that, then add a gelled sauce to it that will melt when the meal is reheated.

As a simple example -- portion out some QIF (quick individually frozen) vegetables like peas or corn, then add either salted butter or a compound butter on top of it. When heated, the butter will melt and add flavor to the vegetables. But if you work quickly, you can assemble little packages that will be fully cooked when cooked at the same time & temperature as the main requires for reheating.

You can do similar things with rice and a main ... let the main cool until it gels, then sit upon a layer of chilled rice. When reheated, the sauce then soaks into the rice.

But I think that part of the problem is going to be finding suitable containers suitable for how you're going to reheat it. You can get cases of "three compartment aluminum trays" online, which would allow you to pack them with food (to reduce airspace & freezer burn issues), and then reheat them in the oven.

Although microwaving might be more convenient for reheating, the multiple compartment microwavable containers that I'm finding online have domed tops that are going to make it difficult to remove air. (I personally use heavy weight deli containers, but I only thaw them in the container, then move them to a plate or bowl to fully heat)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.