A Love Letter to the Freezer, with choosing and care tips

The thermometer hit 1 below this morning, but it’s not the weather that brings freezing to mind; it’s the seed orders. That and the pre-surgery maps I made so Bill could understand my filing system. He puts up a lot of the food we freeze but I’m the one who moves it around so the tomatoes and corn are on the right in the big chest freezer and the soup assortment is on the 2rd shelf down in the upright.

that's venison on top

that’s venison on top

Somewhere on that shelf are, according to Bill: ” 2 cream of tomato, 3 curried corn, 1 squash and tomato, 1 cream of wild mushroom, 2 wild mushroom and duck, 2 summer squash and corn, 1 cream of morel.”  The minestrone is behind the first row of packets, so he didn’t count it.

Two freezers for two people who don’t entertain very often might seem a bit excessive, and the truth is we could get along with one. But we couldn’t get along without one. It’s our ticket to eating magnificently – and locally – all year.

As you can tell from the order of adverbs, our primary motive is gastronomic. The ecological benefits are a sort of lucky add-on. We need a freezer so we can:

1. Store a vast assortment of the perishable ingredients that make it easy and fun to cook, and

2. Have a  supply of heat-and-serve so large that “no time to cook” never stands between us and a good meal.

Ok, “never” is an exaggeration. But almost. No cooking marathons involved; it’s just a matter of making too much as often as possible. With a few obvious exceptions – ravioli come to mind – doubling most recipes doesn’t slow things down any more than pausing for a glass of wine.

I know, exaggeration again. But when you stop and think about it, quite a bit of the time spent cooking is time spent on things that doubling doesn’t change: getting out the food and equipment, applying heat and cleaning up.

Using a 12 inch sauté pan isn’t any more time consuming than using a 9 incher. It takes no more time to chop a cup of parsley than to chop a half cup. And many other operations, like peeling carrots and dicing potatoes, go more and more quickly the more you do (within reason, of course).

An Illustrative Partial Inventory

Ready to heat and serve main dishes and pasta sauces: a 4×7 inch chunk of lasagna, 1 ½ quarts chicken and wild mushrooms in mustard cream, 4 quarts duck and sausage tomato sauce, 5 quarts wild mushroom tomato sauce, 4 quarts Southwestern harvest stew ( corn, fresh shell beans, yellow squash, hot peppers – there were 10 qts. in September), 1 quart duck carnitas for taco filling or baked potato topping, about a pint of eggplant parmesan…that last will get used in a topping or filling or be eaten as-is when one of us is away and I’m mentioning it because most freezer guides imply small quantities of leftovers don’t count. False. They count huge, even unto the single slice of meatloaf, assuming they’re wrapped securely and you don’t forget they’re there.

Vegetables: whole tomatoes – enough to fill a freezer section roughly 2x2x2.5, about a dozen quarts ofraw tomatoes pureed in the cuisinart skins and all by Bill, 10 quarts of corn kernels, from both our own and purchased corn, around 12 pints of wild mushrooms cooked in butter – mostly hen of the woods and morels, 3 qts. shredded summer squash and onion base for squash tortilla

Given the value of made dishes like minestrone and vegetable stew, we don’t bother with freezing plain tender green vegetables like beans and broccoli. No matter how carefully you process them you wind up with frozen beans and broccoli, so the only reason to do it would be some kind of 100 mile vow.

Baked Goods: enough with the quantities. There is an assortment of breads, plain and sweet, home made and purchased. Tortillas from the good tortilla store that we don’t visit often. Cookies, brownies, parts of cakes… all packaged in smallish parcels; frozen baked goods stale fast when thawed. Also unbaked baked goods – piecrust, cookie dough and all like that.

MeatIn our case it’s mostly venison now that the pre-order chicken lady is no longer around to hand over 8 plump organic roasters each fall. But of course a freezer is the great enabler of local, humanely raised meat, still most commonly sold by the half or quarter.

Ingredients (This is the specialty-grocery-in basement part. Most of these things are shelf-stable if used fast but if the assortment is big enough you can’t use it fast enough): Perishable flours like whole wheat, garbanzo, buckwheat and cornmeal, unsweetened coconut, pecans,walnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, blocks of real-deal lard; maple syrup

There’s also pesto and wild mushroom duxelles and a lot of other stuff but by now the idea should be pretty clear.

Choosing Between Chest and Upright (two really is a bit much; our upright was a gift).

Chest freezers are usually less expensive per cubic foot of storage space, and they use less power than uprights because the cold air mostly stays put when you open the door.

On the other hand, it’s a lot easier to organize an upright; it doesn’t masquerade as a convenient tabletop, and if the chest lid stays open for eons while you move the layers around in search of something buried, the cold loss probably evens out.

The differences are small enough so that the best choice is probably the one that’s easiest to use, because you will actually use it. Thebest way to save on power is to have a modern, energy star freezer and set it up someplace cool and dry. The best way to have tasty frozen food is to be sure the freezer is manual defrost; most chest freezers are, many uprights aren’t. Apologists say the daily shots of heat that foil the frost in frost-free freezers are so brief they don’t affect the food. In my experience this is blatantly untrue. They use more power, too.

Minimalist Alternative: The freezer part of a refrigerator/freezer has more room in it than you might think if you keep the packaging to a minimum. Many things that come in boxes don’t need to stay in boxes after the box has enticed you to buy them. A flat quart bag of soup (see picture) takes up much less room than a yogurt tub. Try not to buy too much ice cream.


* Keep the freezer close to full. All those edible icecubes help save on power and may literally save your bacon if there’s a power outage. In spring, when stocks are depleted, pave the bottom with gallon jugs of water – which make very handy ice blocks btw.

* A full freezer is actually2/3 -3/4 full. If air can’t circulate it drives the compressor crazy.

* Gaskets wear out eventually. There are two ways to test for tightness. 1) Close the door on a dollar bill and try to pull it out; if it comes easily it’s new gasket time. Do this  in several spots to be sure. 2) Put a bright flashlight in the freezer and turn out all the lights. Hope you don’t see anything. If it’s an upright, test each shelf.

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  • ruralway Said,

    Man, this is impressive. We purchased an energy star upright freezer a few months ago and I love it. I have to confess I went with a self-defrost
    model because after suffering for years with a huge, donated 1950’s freezer from my sister-in-law that made a mess in the garage every time it needed defrosting, I crumbled. Now, I have no excuse for not processing more summer garden food except for lack of time. I pureed basil with water and froze it in ice cube trays last year and I like the results-I pop a cube or three into soups or sauce and summer just wafts across the kitchen.
    Being active in a sustainablility group, I’ve struggled with the whole idea of using electricity to store food. For me it is the best option for now. I need to be very careful about my intake of sodium ( getting older is great, no?) and canning uses too much. It will be hard to give up pickles and I love making them-but, oh well.
    And you mentioned surgery again-I hope all is ok, or will be-best thoughts sent to you both.

  • leslie Said,

    Hi RW
    Congrats on the new freezer. Even a frost free one will probably do better at keeping food quality than something from the ’50s. ( I say probably; some ancient appliances are STILL performing fine all these years later.)

    As far as sustainability goes, why not think of it this way: electricity itself isn’t evil; wrongheaded methods of generation are the things that pollute and warm the planet. I’m hoping to still have our freezers when “buy green ” is an option from our power company.

    There are a few places that already offer this, none of which I can think of at the moment. But even in our current imperfect world, if you use the freezer to cut way down on trips to the store and long-distance eats bought there, running it might well be no more polluting than all the driving that otherwise would be done – by both you and the food.

    And thanks for mentioning sodium; I never stopped to think about the salt angle. Wow! THAT sure knocks a hole in a lot of low-tech preserving.

    (thanks also for the good wishes; surgery was to repair the acl I tore last spring – while dancing! Phooey. I’m healing well but won’t be able to negotiate the very steep, narrow cellar stairs for quite a while yet, hence the map)

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