Surviving the thaw: to freeze or refreeze in the kitchen
Bacteria is dormant in the freezer but begins to multiple the warmer it gets
Freezing and thawing and freezing again is the order of the day on Calgary streets. But it raises the question — can you refreeze meat?
The common perception is that you can't, but why not? In fact, it's not the act of freezing and thawing that can be dangerous but rather the fact that it can be difficult to keep track of the time that a piece of meat has spent thawed or thawing.
It's cumulative and it may be tough to recall how long that roast you are pulling out of the freezer spent thawed before it went in. If it's refrozen, that time just adds up.
The bottom line is, if something is frozen and thawed, it can be refrozen — as long as it was defrosted safely. Most foods will still be safe if the temperature has not gone above 4 C, depending on how much time it has spent thawed, even while well chilled.
The same applies to storing fresh meat for too long before preparing it. Bacteria is dormant in the freezer and sluggish in the fridge but begins to multiply more quickly the warmer it gets.
To be on the safe side, it's never a bad idea to cook meat before refreezing it, rather than tossing it back into the freezer raw. As well, giving it a chance to break down first means it will freeze and thaw with minimum change to the texture (another issue with thawing and refreezing raw meat is that moisture is lost each time it thaws, which can dry meat out).
Stews and braises freeze beautifully, with extra liquid protecting against freezer burn.
Roasted chicken freezes really well too and makes a quick start to casseroles and dishes that typically begin with chopped, skinless, boneless chicken breast.
If you cook a large quantity of meat, chopping it before freezing makes it thaw more quickly and easier to add to other dishes.
Whether you're freezing foods cooked or raw, the more quickly it freezes, the better.
Commercial production plants flash-freeze products, which creates tiny ice crystals and minimal damage. If you're freezing food at home, it's best to store it in small containers or freezer bags pressed flat so that it freezes faster.
Here are a few ways to make the best of your freezer, whether you're planning ahead and storing meat in marinade or need to quickly cook that steak you had thawed to stash away for another day.
Quick peanut butter beef curry
If you find yourself with a thawed steak that needs cooking, this is quick to make and freezing it again in the curry sauce will protect it from freezer burn. Bonus — you won't have to cook another day. Just reheat and eat. It would likely be just as delicious with other types of meat too, or even shrimp or fish.
- 1 or 2 steaks, cut into bite-sized pieces or strips.
- Canola oil, for cooking
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 2 tsp. curry paste (or to taste)
- 1/4 cup peanut butter
- 1 14 oz (398 mL) can of coconut milk
Pat the beef dry with a paper towel and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle some oil into a large, heavy skillet set over medium-high heat and brown the meat, turning as you need to. Don't worry about cooking it completely through. Transfer to a plate.
Add the garlic and curry paste to the pan, then the peanut butter and coconut milk. Stir to blend and melt the peanut butter, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook for a minute or two, until well-blended and thickened. Return the beef to the pan and heat through, simmering a little longer if the beef is still too pink inside.
Serve immediately over rice or cool completely and freeze. To reheat, thaw in the fridge and warm on the stovetop or in the microwave.
Pulled chicken tacos
If you find yourself with thawed chicken thighs that need cooking, toss them into a slow cooker with a big whallop of salsa, some garlic and chili powder. Set it on low and forget about it.
When it's done, cool and shred with forks. The mixture will freeze well and can be reheated to make tacos (stuff shell or tortilla with shredded cheese, tomatoes, lettuce and avocado) or scatter over nachos for a hearty hockey snack.
- 8 to 12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 5 to 6 garlic cloves, crushed or chopped
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups salsa
- 1 tbsp. chili powder
- Pinch of salt
Put the chicken, garlic, salsa, chili powder and salt in the bowl of a slow cooker and toss with tongs to combine everything. Set it on low for six to eight hours. Pull the chicken apart with two forks and serve with flour tortillas or taco shells and your choice of additions, or cool and freeze for up to six months.
Serves six to eight.
Spicy roast shrimp and broccoli (or cauliflower)
Fresh or thawed frozen shrimp need to be used within a shorter time frame. If you find yourself with a bag that needs to be turned into lunch of dinner, this is a quick way to do it. Adapted from the New York Times.
- 1 head of broccoli or cauliflower
- 3 to 4 tbsp. canola or olive oil
- 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
- 1/2 tsp. chili flakes
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 10 to 20 large raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
- 1 lemon
Preheat oven to 425 F. Toss the broccoli with about two tablespoons of oil, the cumin, coriander, quarter teaspoon of the chili flakes and half the salt and pepper. In a small bowl, toss the shrimp with the remaining chili flakes, salt and pepper, oil and the zest of the lemon. Cut the lemon lengthwise into quarters.
Spread the broccoli out on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet, add the lemon wedges if you like and roast for 15 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook for eight to 10 minutes more, just until the shrimp are opaque. Serve over rice, with a squeeze of lemon.
Serves two to four.
Pork, beef or chicken satay
Making satay is a great way to freeze meat. Buying it in larger quantities is more economical and you can cut what you don't cook right away into strips and put it in a freezer bag with marinade. This liquid protects against freezer burn and the small pieces of meat freeze and thaw more quickly.
- 2 pork tenderloins or 8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, or a couple steaks
- 1 cup orange juice
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 tbsp. lime or lemon juice
- 1 tbsp. packed brown sugar or honey
- 1 tbsp. grated fresh ginger
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 tsp. curry power or paste
- 2 green onions, chopped
Cut the meat into strips and put in a large, heavy Ziploc or bowl. Add everything else and stir or toss to coat. Refrigerate for two hours or overnight, or freeze up to six months,
Soak bamboo skewers in water while the pork is marinating. Thread strips of pork onto the skewers and grill or broil for about three minutes per side, just until cooked through. Serve hot, warm or cold, with peanut sauce for dipping.
Makes about two dozen satay.
Ground beef, or even chicken, turkey or pork, that needs to be cooked and refrozen can easily be shaped into meatballs, cooked and popped back into the freezer to shake out with a pot of pasta sauce another day. Or, turn them into Ikea-style Swedish meatballs with a little chicken stock, sour cream and the browned bits in the bottom of the pan.
- 1 lb. lean ground beef
- 1 small onion, coarsely grated
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
- 1 large egg
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tbsp. butter (optional)
- 1 tbsp. flour
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1/2 cup sour cream
In a medium bowl, gently combine the beef, onion, breadcrumbs, egg, spices and salt and pepper with your hands and shape it into one-inch balls. Heat a drizzle of oil in a heavy skillet set over medium-high heat and cook the meatballs, rolling them around to brown on all sides, until they are deep golden brown, crusty and cooked through. With a slotted spoon, transfer them to a bowl and set aside. At this point, they can be cooled and frozen in a freezer bag.
To make Swedish meatballs, drain the excess fat from the pan, leaving about a tablespoon —but leave all those browned bits. Add the butter if you like, or just leave the drippings in the pan, and the flour, and whisk to combine. Add the stock and stir, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan, until the mixture boils and thickens. Whisk in the sour cream and stir until it has the texture of creamy gravy. Return the meatballs to the pan and heat through.
Serves four to six.
With more surface area than whole cuts of meat, ground meats should be used sooner rather than later; even a small quantity of ground pork or turkey is enough for a batch of wontons, which can be plunked frozen into simmering stock for almost-instant wonton soup. Add broccoli, peas, asparagus, bok choy, carrots….whatever you have or like.
- 1/2 lb. ground pork, or half pork and half ground turkey
- 2 green onions, finely chopped, or some chopped fresh parsley or cilantro
- 1 tbsp. soy sauce
- 1 tbsp. rice vinegar
- 2 tsp. sesame oil
- 2 tsp. grated fresh ginger
- Wonton wrappers, thawed if frozon
To make the wontons, stir together all the filling ingredients just until combined. As with any meat mixture, don't overwork it or it could end up tough. Put a little water into a small bowl. Put a couple of wonton wrappers on your work surface, keeping the rest covered so that they don't dry out. Place a small spoonful of the pork mixture in the middle of each one, dip your finger in the water and run it along two edges to moisten. Fold the wonton over to make a triangle and press to seal, squeezing out any air bubbles that will turn your wontons into floatation devices in soup.
To freeze, lay them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and freeze solid, then transfer to freezer bags and store for up to six months. To make soup, drop fresh or frozen wontons into simmering stock. Add bok choy or any other vegetables you like and simmer for a few minutes (three or four) to cook the wontons through. The vegetables should cook along with them but still stay fairly crisp. If you want to add shrimp, add them at the end and cook just until they turn opaque. If they are already cooked, just heat them through.