Kitchen Questions: What can I freeze?

Virtually any food can be easily and safely frozen, but not all retain their integrity after thawing. (Bob Fila / Chicago Tribune)


Q As a single person, I often can’t finish my costly refrigerated ingredients quick enough before spoiling.

Can I freeze all staples?

A: Healdsburg chef Mateo Granados has almost too much fun freezing food. He keeps a liquid nitrogen tank in the kitchen of his Mateo’s Cocina Latina and uses the colorless, odorless liquid to flash-freeze interesting edibles like horseradish mousse to dollop on fish, or whole hibiscus flower to garnish a frozen hibiscus margarita.

“You peel off the leaves and pop them in your mouth,” he said, encouraging guests to eat the glass-like, icy pink and fuschia petals that billow with clouds of fog. “They crackle on your tongue.”

Well, that’s all great for a fancy experience in a nice restaurant, but how many of us have had a similar but unhappy result with precious food when we open our freezer? It seems strange that it can be difficult to do something so simple as freezing, but we’ve all unwrapped a once beautiful beefsteak and found it covered with icy fur.

It doesn’t have to be so. Virtually any food can be easily and safely frozen, according to the Department of Agriculture. Not canned food, bottled liquids or eggs in shells, but take the stuff out of its container, and it’s good to go.

That said, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Being able to freeze food and wanting to eat it after defrosting aren’t guaranteed companions. I’ve frozen Mexican crema, mayonnaise, cream sauce and milk, to woeful results. Sauces like mayo are emulsifications of eggs, oil and vinegar or lemon, and the components will separate into a soupy or curdled mess when thawed.

Milk, meanwhile, expands when it’s frozen, and if you don’t leave room in the container, it can burst. If it survives, the milk often separates into a thin, grainy texture suitable only for cooking.

For best results on all frozen food, check your freezer’s temperature to make sure it is constantly at 0 degrees. And make sure the freezer door closes 100 percent tight. It seems like an obvious thing, but a tiny air gap can cause your food to defrost.

Next, if you think you won’t eat all the meat you just bought, freeze part of it right away. The USDA notes that food frozen at its peak keeps that quality better when thawed; meat and poultry maintain their quality longer when frozen raw.

Vegetables, on the other hand, do best when blanched, ice-bath dunked and patted dry before freezing. It has to do with enzyme activity that deteriorates food unless it is neutralized by acids. Since most vegetables that freeze well are low in acid, it helps to give them brief, partial cooking.

Then, consider packaging. It’s perfectly safe to toss meat, chicken and fish into the freezer in their original grocery wrappers, but the plastic is often air-permeable, resulting in those grayish-brown leathery spots. It’s best to overwrap with freezer paper, freezer cellophane or freezer aluminum foil, which are heavier than household wraps.

Don’t use containers like cottage cheese cartons that may crack when frozen, and always stretch plastic wrap or foil on top of a sturdy plastic container, under the lid, since the lid may shrink or stretch during handling and let in air. For extra protection, a container also can be placed in an airtight sealed plastic bag.

Finally, freeze food as fast as possible to maintain its quality. Rapid freezing — like using nifty liquid nitrogen — prevents large ice crystals from forming. To speed things up in a normal kitchen, though, simply spread all your staples out in one layer, stacking them only after they are frozen solid.

Then thaw and enjoy. The USDA promises that proper freezing retains flavor as well as your valuable food nutrients.

Send your food and wine related questions to Press Democrat Food Writer Diane Peterson at