Meal Plan

What to Do With Ingredients That Are About to Go Bad

March 20, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

In the past week alone, grocery shopping has become enormously complicated. Maybe you aren’t able to leave home right now, or the nearest supermarket is all but stripped clean, or your go-to online delivery service has no available slots. In any case, the food that’s already in your fridge is precious. Today, we’ll break down how to make the most of it.


First Things First

The good news is, “almost everything freezes well,” according to Marion Cunningham in The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. This goes for raw foods and prepared meals. That said, there are some foods that don’t hold up well. Here’s Cunningham’s don’t-freeze list:

Cream cheese, soft cheeses, chopped liver, cream fillings, custards, egg-thickened sauces, meringue, and many cake frostings...hard-boiled eggs, most fried or breaded foods….foods made with gelatin...salad greens, radishes, cucumbers, celery, uncooked tomatoes.

Got it! Now let’s move on to what we can freeze, plus some other smart ways to stretch perishable ingredients.


Fresh Vegetables

Freeze for Better Dinners Later On

“Most vegetables take well to freezing,” according to The Joy of Cooking. Which means what you don’t have time to eat now can be preserved for weeks, even months, down the road. Note that lettuces, cabbage, and sprouts don’t love the freezer, so either eat those soon (salad? stir-fry?) or keep reading to learn how to ferment.

Fully cook, mash or puree, then freeze in airtight containers...beets, rutabagas, turnips, butternut squash, carrots. (To lower discoloration, you can add 1 tablespoon citrus juice to every pint of mashed vegetable.)

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Top Comment:
“Saute your chopped onions, or a mixture of chopped onions, celery, carrots and peppers, before you freeze them. You will use way less freezer space, and you will get a head start on future soups and stews.”
— Wilma A.
Comment

Blanch, cool, freeze on a sheet pan, then transfer to bags or containers...green beans, greens (such as collards, kale, or spinach), broccoli rabe, corn kernels, broccoli and cauliflower florets, Brussels sprouts.

Leave raw, freeze on a sheet pan, then transfer to bags or containers...chopped bell peppers, chopped onions, chopped leeks.

Or pickle away

Vegetables love to be pickled and fermented, which not only extends their shelf-life, but is a fun DIY project, too. Beyond cabbage, all sorts of produce, like Brussels sprouts and bell peppers, can be put toward saurkraut or kimchi.


Fresh Fruit

Freeze for baked goods, yogurt bowls & smoothies

Freeze on a sheet tray, then transfer to airtight containers or bags...blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, pitted cherries, hulled strawberries, chopped pineapple, chopped mangoes, chopped bananas (great for vegan ice cream!).

Make jam while listening to some jams

Even a refrigerator jam keeps for several weeks, which can significantly extend the life of something fragile like strawberries. Psst: You can also make jam with not-berry things like tomatoes and bananas.


Fresh Herbs

Air-Dry

If you have more herbs than you know what to do with, no worries. You can air-dry them at home (and they look so pretty in the process, too).

Turn Them Into Herb Salt

Herb salt wants to be sprinkled on top of buttered bread, tossed with olive-oily pasta, and shaken onto any protein, from fish to chicken to steak.

Make Pesto & Freeze That

In addition to herbs like basil, sage, and thyme, this is a great way to use up delicate greens like arugula, too.


Dairy Products

Cheese

While hard cheeses (such as Parmesan and Pecorino Romano) can be frozen for a few months, softer cheeses are trickier. My favorite solution for those: Make a big batch of mac and cheese, cool in the fridge, then freeze individual portions for at-the-ready meals later on:

Butter

Butter has your back. This ingredient not only lasts a while in the fridge, it can also be frozen for up to 6 months. Which could be put to use for practical things like sautéeing vegetables or scrambling eggs, or equally important things like cookies:

Cream & Milk

Cream can be frozen for up to a couple months. Just keep in mind that, afterward, you won’t be able to use it straight (e.g., in coffee or for whipped cream)—but you can use it in ice cream and cooking (like creamed greens). Milk can be frozen (seriously! Read more about that here). And if your milk has already started to go sour, use it instead of buttermilk:


Raw Meat & Seafood

Freeze ASAP

If meat or seafood hasn’t already been frozen, get it in the freezer as soon as possible and then rest easy.

Lots of Meat? Lots of Meals

If you have a large-format braising cut, like a pork shoulder or pot roast, make a big batch of something, then freeze it in smaller portions for future dinners. Think ragu to serve on pasta or polenta, or a beef stew to spoon over egg noodles or potatoes.


A Few Tips for the Road

Before you freeze something, label it. (I like painter’s tape and a permanent market, but work with what you’ve got.) Write down the ingredient, quantity, and date. For example: Blanched Spinach, 1 serving, 3/17/20. If your memory is as bad as mine (very!), this will make all the difference later on.

If a food isn’t good before it goes in the freezer…it won’t be good coming out of the freezer either! Add to the compost bin, if possible, and cut yourself some slack. There are a lot of balls in the air right now.

This post contains products that are independently selected by our editors and writers, and as an Amazon Associate, Food52 would earn from qualifying purchases. How are you preserving perishable food right now? Share tips and tricks in the comments below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Lynn M DiMarco
    Lynn M DiMarco
  • Wilma Alexander
    Wilma Alexander
  • jeankyung
    jeankyung
  • Rachel Phipps
    Rachel Phipps
  • Smaug
    Smaug
Comment
Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

5 Comments

Lynn M. March 30, 2020
Even better than freezing tomatoes, slice and dehydrate. They last for years in the fridge or freezer, can be eaten as chips and can easily be rehydrated.
 
Wilma A. March 29, 2020
Saute your chopped onions, or a mixture of chopped onions, celery, carrots and peppers, before you freeze them. You will use way less freezer space, and you will get a head start on future soups and stews.
 
jeankyung March 21, 2020
I've frozen cream cheese with decent results. I just put the unopened little brick (in the silver box) straight into the freezer, and thawed it in the refrigerator when I was ready to use it.
 
Rachel P. March 20, 2020
This is really helpful, except that fresh tomatoes *do* freeze well as long as you intend to cook them afterwards! During the summer when our greenhouse yields too many we always freeze great bags of cherry tomatoes which are almost integral to the sauce for my Mum's meatballs.

Also: don't try making kimchee with brussels sprouts. I have tried this so the rest of you don't have to make the same mistake - it brings out the sulphuric notes making them taste like sprouts that have been boiled for way too long!
 
Smaug March 20, 2020
Amen on the tomatoes- here it is March and I'm still having tomato sauces a million times better than anything you could make with canned tomatoes. In fact I don't think that for sauce purposes they're noticeably inferior to fresh summer tomatoes.