Freezer basics: The dos and don'ts of freezing food

Wondering which foods you can freeze and which you can't? Not sure whether those frozen chicken breasts are still edible? Here's our freezing tip sheet!

It’s such a shame to waste food, which is why we often turn to the freezer to help keep our edibles fresh a little bit longer. But if you’re like us, on occasion you’ve opened the freezer and wondered: A) What is that mysterious chili-like substance, exactly? and/or B) When exactly did I put those chicken breasts in there? That’s why we’ve provided this handy cheat sheet to help you know what you can and can’t freeze, and for how long.

What foods can/can’t I freeze?

Vegetables: Almost all vegetables with a few exceptions (eggplant, potatoes, artichokes, salad greens) are good candidates for freezing. To simplify your life, blanch and freeze vegetables in bite-size pieces so that you can pull them out and cook them in minimal time on weeknights. Freezer bags work well — be sure to record the freeze date on the side. Most frozen veggies can be safely stored for up to a year.

Meat: Ground meats (beef, pork, turkey, lamb), beef steaks, whole chickens and chicken pieces, roasting meats, shanks, etc. can all be frozen.

Seafood: Shrimp, and most fish filets freeze well.

Pantry items: Chicken and vegetable broths (great for stirring into a variety of dishes), spice pastes and pestos (try freezing in ice cube trays and then transferring to a plastic bag), nuts, flour (especially whole wheat flour, which goes rancid faster), breadcrumbs, pizza dough, bread and tortillas.

Fruit: Bags of frozen fruit are perfect for adding in to smoothies and also for baking. Freeze berries, pineapple, cherries, mango, and bananas. Bananas are especially good for baking once they’ve been allowed to go black in the freezer.

Dairy: Some dairy doesn’t take well to freezing — yogurts and soft cheeses generally don’t hold up (frozen yogurt is an exception, of course!). Butter can be frozen in its original packaging for up to a year. Milk, likewise, can be frozen (as can buttermilk), but frozen milk can develop a grainy texture when you defrost it, so it’s better for cooking or baking with rather than drinking.

How long does food keep in the freezer?

Vegetables: Most vegetables can be frozen for up to a year. Green beans are a bit more delicate and should be used up within 8 months.

Meat: Beef, pork and lamb can be frozen for 8-12 months, but keep in mind that ground meat has a shorter freezer life and should be used up within a couple of months. Poultry that’s been cut into pieces should be used up within half a year, while whole birds can be frozen longer, up to 1 year. Chicken and beef stock should last 3-4 months.

Fish: Shellfish and fatty fish such as salmon should be used up within a couple of months. Leaner fish such as cod has a slightly longer freezer life, up to 6 months.

Fruit: Frozen fruit is terrific in smoothies, and has a good shelf life of up to 12 months. If you’ve opened a package of frozen berries or other fruit, however, try to use it up within 6-8 months.

Leftovers (casseroles, soups, etc.): Most leftovers, if promptly frozen post-cooking, can be kept in the freezer for 2-3 months.

Dairy: Butter can be frozen for up to a year, milk up to three months.

It’s important to note that you can’t tell whether food is good or not simply by sniffing it. If you’re not sure, or you forgot to label the freeze date, throw it out!

What’s the proper way to store food in the freezer?

One of the most common mistakes we make is putting food into the freezer without labeling when we put it in there. Then we find ourselves scratching our heads, wondering if it was June or January when we added that homemade chicken stock. Label, label, label! With items such as stock, pesto, herbs, spice pastes, we like to freeze in ice cube trays and then transfer to a zip-top freezer bag. Flash freeze blanched veggies for an hour on a baking sheet before transferring them to a plastic bag (to help avoid clumping). If you don’t want to invest in a vacuum sealing tool, consider using freezer paper to help prevent freezer burn.

Can I refreeze food that’s been thawed?

We’ve read a number of differing opinions on this one – some suggest it’s okay to refreeze food if it hasn’t been out of the freezer a long time (for instance if you started to defrost a steak in the refrigerator and then decided against it shortly thereafter). However we’re going with the Health Canada view on this which is that it’s best not to refreeze thawed food for safety reasons.

What foods should I toss from my freezer?

Ditch the processed foods, including sodium-packed frozen dinners, sugary toaster pastries, etc. Try to stick to a freezer full of whole foods: meats, fish, stock, fruits, vegetables, and bread. And perhaps some ice cream!