How to Freeze (and Thaw) Food—Plus How to Keep Your Freezer Organized

Browse dozens of clever tips for wrapping, storing, and thawing all the foods you freeze in this freezer fundamentals guide.

Organized freezer interior with stacked food containers, resealable bags, ice trays, frozen vegetable bags, and ice cream
Photo: James Worrell

Is your freezer overflowing with food that's been there for over a year? Don't view the freezer as an intermediary between the stove and the trash can. It might seem obvious, but only freeze foods you liked before freezing. You can do many things to keep soups and casseroles tasting almost as good as before they were frozen (more on this later), but no food will taste better after it's been frozen and thawed.

So ditch the frozen food you won't eat, then learn how to properly freeze the foods you often eat (hello, frozen avocados!). We're sharing some kitchen-altering freezer tips and answering several frequently asked questions: Can glass go in the freezer? Yes, but it needs to be tempered glass. Can you freeze eggs? Only if prepared correctly.

Keep reading to find out more. You may reinforce techniques you already know and also learn some new tricks to keep your food tasting fresh.

How to Freeze Food Correctly

  • Use the right containers. Use containers and wraps designed for the freezer; they are thick enough to keep moisture in and freezer odors out. Thinner sandwich bags and regular kitchen wrap―even when doubled up―are not durable enough to withstand the big chill. If you are going to freeze anything long-term in glass, make sure the glass is either tempered (the type used for canning jars) or specifically labeled for freezing. Since even freezer-safe glass can crack as food expands, always leave about 3/4 inch of space between the top of the food and the lid. Freeze in small portions and whenever possible, pack food in small containers. Large portions in large containers are slower to freeze. The faster food freezes, the fresher it will taste when it's thawed.
  • Slice before you freeze. Slice bread and halve bagels before freezing for convenient one-person servings. Slip bagel halves into the freezer bag back-to-back, so they're less likely to stick together.
  • Squeeze out excess air. Where there's excess air, there's freezer burn. When storing items such as sliced bread in a bag, squeeze out as much air as possible before sealing. However, when storing sauces, soups, or stews in containers, leave a bit of space at the top of the container. This step prevents the expanding liquid from freezing to the lid.
  • Store strategically once food cools down. Wait for hot foods to cool down to room temperature before freezing them. Then leave plenty of space around the container in the freezer so the cold air can circulate; this accelerates the freezing. When the item is finally frozen, stack it with everything else.

What to Freeze

Your freezer is not just a place to store chili and Chunky Monkey. Think of it more as the arctic extension of your pantry: A place to store staples―and even some specialty items―that will make your cooking more efficient and enjoyable. Here's how to keep several common freezer foods.

  • Berries: Spread berries (or any other small, squishable item, such as hors d'oeuvres, meatballs, drop cookies, and leftover cooked ravioli and tortellini) out on a baking sheet and freeze until solid, then transfer them to a resealable plastic bag. This method will prevent them from clumping together.
  • Flavor cubes: Use ice-cube trays to freeze the leftover broth, orange juice, or milk. Freeze portions of pesto, tomato paste, coffee, tea, or wine (for cooking, not drinking). Once solid, the cubes can be transferred to a resealable freezer bag for safekeeping.
  • Casseroles: Don't hold the casserole dish hostage in the freezer while waiting to use its contents. Instead, line the pan with foil, assemble the uncooked food in it, wrap, and freeze until solid. Then, lift out the foil and the contents. Transfer the block to a freezer bag until you're ready to thaw it and cook.
  • Eggs: You can freeze eggs as long as they are out of the shell and beaten. Store yolks and whites separately in resealable plastic bags. (If you're freezing only yolks, beat each with about a teaspoon of sugar first to keep them fresh.) Thaw under hot running water or in the refrigerator overnight.
  • Leftover pancakes and waffles: Let them cool, separate them with wax paper to prevent sticking, then freeze them in resealable plastic bags. To reheat, don't thaw―just pop them in the toaster oven.
  • Cakes: To preserve frosted cake (a whole cake or a piece), place it in the freezer uncovered until the frosting is firm—about two hours, depending on the frosting. Then, wrap the frozen cake in plastic, followed by foil. To thaw, unwrap the foil and the plastic, then reshape the foil, creating a tent over the cake. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight. Let the cake come to room temperature before serving.
  • Firm cheeses: Grate cheeses such as Parmesan, Romano, and aged provolone, and store in a resealable plastic bag.
  • Fruit: Freeze cubed melon, peaches, mangoes, watermelon, and bananas that are in danger of becoming overripe, and use them to make smoothies or frozen margaritas. Use the same method listed under berries to freeze.

How to Thaw

The flavor and texture of foods you've kept in the freezer can depend on how the foods are defrosted. Slow thawing in the refrigerator is the gentlest method, resulting in the least change in texture and taste. If you can't wait overnight (or several days for a large piece of meat), there are alternatives.

  • Thaw safely in cold water. The temperatures of meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy foods should never get higher than 40 F until they are cooked. If you need to thaw them quickly, your best bet is to dunk the bag in cold water. Meat should be completely immersed―you don't want any part exposed to warm air.
  • Use the refrigerator overnight. Freeze marinated meats in a resealable plastic bag, then defrost in the refrigerator overnight. The meat soaks up the marinade as it thaws. This method is great for tough cuts, which tenderize in the freezer as well. The technique will also prevent freezer burn on the meat because the liquid "wrap" prevents air from affecting the meat's surface.
  • Enlist the microwave. Use the defrost setting (or 30 percent power) to thaw foods slowly in the microwave. Microwave frozen foods partially covered and check them every few minutes. Stir whenever possible to ensure even thawing, or turn over and reposition pieces of meat or fish. Remove them from the microwave as soon as they are thawed (they should be flexible and soft but not warm). If you defrost meat in a microwave, cook it immediately afterward. Since most meats vary in shape and thickness, they can defrost unevenly and become warm in parts before they completely thaw.
  • Freeze flat for a quick thaw. The greater the surface area, the faster the thaw, so use shallow, flat containers. Freeze broths, sauces, and other liquids flat in freezer bags, then stand them up sideways for storage. They'll thaw quickly when you remove them and submerge them in a bowl of hot water (or hold them under hot running water).
  • Think portion control. Freeze soups, spaghetti sauce, and lasagna in one- and two-portion containers, which thaw more quickly and guarantee you won't have to thaw more than you need.
  • Refreeze thawed foods. The flavor may suffer slightly, but you can put defrosted cooked meat, fish, and poultry back into the freezer as long as they thawed in the refrigerator and never got warmer than 40 F.

How to Organize a Freezer

  • Post a list outside of what's inside a deep freezer. Record the date you stored each item. Use a magnetic pad or an erasable message board.
  • Use square Tupperware whenever possible. Square containers can be stacked and positioned in corners and don't take up as much space as round containers.
  • Stack similar foods together. If you have a side-by-side refrigerator-freezer, designate one shelf for meat, one for baked goods, and one for vegetables.
  • Edit the contents of your freezer periodically. Reorganize so that the oldest items are always in front and are, therefore, used first.

What Is Freezer Burn?

Freezer burn occurs when the air dries out the surface of foods, toughening the texture and worsening flavors. The burn is easy to identify (it's frosty and gray), and it can be prevented by wrapping foods in airtight freezer-designed packages. (Be sure to keep the freezer door open only as briefly as possible. Too much exposure to warm air can cause temperature fluctuations, which invite freezer burn.)

If your ice crystal-scorched food hasn't been in the freezer longer than the recommended storing time, cut off the offending area as it thaws and cook as planned. Keep in mind: There's nothing unsafe about freezer burn. It might not taste good, but it's not going to make anyone sick. To help prevent future freezer burn, ensure you're keeping your freezer at the ideal temperature.

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