Cooking from the Deep Freeze

🕔Jan 31, 2011

If you have ever searched for lamb chops among fossilized waffles, fumbled with containers labelled ‘Saskatoons 2003,’ or pushed past shopping-bags of crab apples that you haven’t had time to turn into jelly, then you are taking part in the great northern sport of freezer archaeology.

Putting up food and using a deep freeze is a major part of northern life. Whether your freezer is full of moose, lamb, berries, kale or frozen pizza, chances are you depend on your freezer to save yourself money, time, and reduce food waste.

To be a freezer-savvy northerner, you need to pass four levels of understanding:

Freezer care
Food storage
Using your frozen food
When plans fail

Freezer care: cold in, clean, and power on
Freezer smarts start with getting to know the equipment and learning how to take care of it. Old or new, a freezer is a useful tool for northern life, but freezers are on average 50% more efficient today than they were in 1990. These gains can be lost if the appliance is not cared for properly. Follow these suggestions to ensure top freezer efficiency:

Check the rubber door seals to make sure they are clean and tight. An easy way to check the seals is by putting a lit flashlight into the freezer. Shut off the lights. If you can see light around the door, your seals need to be replaced.

Set the freezer temperature at -18C. This setting will maximize efficiency and prevent food from spoiling.

Defrost and clean the inside of the freezer once a year.

Do not place warm food in the freezer; allow it to cool on the counter first.

Keep the freezer away from heat sources and two to three inches away from walls to allow the cooling system to function properly.
Clean the condenser coils regularly so the air can circulate, vacuum dust from behind the freezer, and clean any air intakes or fans.

If your freezer is in a high-traffic area, clearly mark the outlet ‘FREEZER: DO NOT UNPLUG’ so there are no accidents. If there is a possibility of overloading the breaker in that area of the house, a night-light plugged into the same outlet will let you know if there is power to your freezer or not.

Food storage: label, wrap, and organize
Locating the right package and being able to use it are the two main objectives of food storage. Labelling, wrapping, and organization are the tools you need.

Labelling your food prevents bad surprises and prevents waste. How many times have you set aside a mysterious container because you just didn’t want to deal with what might be inside? Use a permanent marker to label your containers; it only takes a few seconds and will save you from serving mashed turnips for dessert instead of applesauce. In addition, always date the packages; unless it is wine, scotch, or fruitcake, older is not better.

Use compartments in your freezer to keep things neat and organized. Baskets, milk crates or wooden boxes all work well. Organize them to allow airflow, which will help the freezer run efficiently.

Making sure the food is usable after defrosting is the next major achievement. Freezer burn is the main side-effect to avoid. Freezer burn is actually the result of dehydration and oxidation. If food is not wrapped tightly, the moisture in the food will migrate to the inside of the wrapping or the inside of your freezer in the form of ice crystals. When the moisture escapes, it leaves space for oxygen to come in direct contact with the food, which changes the taste and texture. Auto-defrost freezers constantly remove moisture from the freezer and increase the chances of freezer burn. Although freezer burn does not make food unsafe to eat, the taste and texture is unpleasant.

The most effective way to stop freezer burn is to wrap all food tightly and remove as much air as possible. Vacuum sealers work well, but good results can also be achieved with plastic wrap and freezer bags. Another way to help reduce freezer burn is to place a few ice cream pails full of water in the freezer. Allow the water to freeze, then remove the lids. The increased moisture in the freezer from the ice in the pails will reduce moisture loss from your food.

Using your frozen food: be creative and consistent
Food in the freezer is usually a combination of things thoughtfully made ahead of time, an assortment of raw ingredients saved from the garden, or leftovers waiting for a second chance. While it may feel great to have a bulging freezer to support you, should a zombie apocalypse occur, you will waste less food and save more money by committing to regularly using the food you store.

Even if food isn’t freezer-burned, it can sometimes pick up a flavour that can only be described as ‘that frozen taste.’ One way to get around this is to marinate meat that has been frozen. Marinades made with strongly flavoured ingredients, such as garlic, soy sauce, lime, lemon and ginger, help rejuvenate slightly freezer-tired food. A simple marinade that works well for salmon is ¼ cup of soy sauce + ¼ cup of olive oil, 2 cloves of fresh garlic, 1 tbsp of ginger and the juice of half a lemon.

If you are not satisfied with the texture of fruits or vegetables after they defrost, consider this an opportunity to make soups and sauces. Last winter I thought I would save time by freezing pears instead of canning them. I didn’t have pears for dessert, but I did discover the divine combination of seared halibut cheeks in pear sauce.

If using food in the freezer is not top-of-mind, try designating one night per week as ‘freezer night.’ This will help create the habit of using up what you have and will decrease your weekly grocery bill.
When plans fail: strange leftovers and dregs

When plans fail
Sometimes even the best-laid plans go awry or a large-scale meltdown will occur and there is nothing to do but write off your cache. But even if the food is no longer fit for you or your family, the spoils can be made useful. Vegetables, fruit and berries can be composted or fed to pigs or chickens. Check the want ads for requests for freezer-burned meat; owners of sled dogs will happily take it off your hands. If you have a small amount of fish that is no longer edible, you can make your own fish fertilizer for the garden.

So, take the freezer challenge: use something frozen in your dinner this week. As for me, I’ll be making kale soup, with rhubarb crisp for dessert.

Homemade Fish Fertilizer

Thaw freezer-burned fish and chop into pieces. Use a blender or food processor turned on high and blend the fish with water to create an emulsion. Place the emulsion in a five-gallon plastic pail with a lid. Add water until the pail is ¾ full, and seal. Open and stir each day for two weeks. Strain (or not), and use.