Freezing Fruits and Vegetables
Preserve a bumper crop by freezing these common fruits and vegetables
Pumpkin - The pulp of pie pumpkins as well as the standard Halloween pumpkin can be cooked and frozen for use later on. Pie pumpkins are sweeter and a little more denser, but other pumpkins make great pies and breads as well. Choose a pumpkin that is fresh with no bruises, mold or bug holes. Rinse the outside of the pumpkin to remove any existing soil that may be on the skin. To start, cut your pumpkin in half and scoop out the seeds and stringy pulp with a heavy spoon or ice cream scoop (save the seeds for roasting, if you like). Pie pumpkins can be microwaved since they are so small. Place the pumpkin halves or quarters in a microwavable glass bowl with a lid and microwave on high for about 10 minutes. Check pumpkin with a fork to see if they are done. You want to be able to easily scoop out the pulp with a spoon with no resistance. Continue to cook the pumpkin covered using 5 minute intervals until the pumpkin is done. If you are cooking a large pumpkin, cut it in half, scoop out the seeds and bake the halves in a 350 degree preheated oven on a roll pan that has been treated with non-stick cooking spray. Place the pumpkin cut side down so that they steam themselves. This could take anywhere from 30-60 minutes depending on the size of your pumpkin. Once the pumpkin is cooked, allow it to cool slightly before pureeing.
Pumpkin can be mashed with a potato masher, pureed in a blender or you can use an immersion blender to get a smooth consistency. Once pureed, pumpkin can be packed in bags or containers to be frozen. When you go to use the pumpkin after being frozen, you will want to let it drain in a wire mesh strainer so that it is more like the consistency of canned pumpkin. Because of this, I pack the bags with more pumpkin than I think I will need for a recipe because I will lose some bulk from liquid loss after draining. Add the pumpkin liquid to soups and smoothies or simply put it in your compost pile. Use the pumpkin within 6-8 months.
Summer Squash (yellow, zucchini, etc.) - I like to use zucchini in baked goods, and I prefer to use it after it's been frozen. To freeze shredded zucchini for short periods of time, simple peel and shred the zucchini and freeze it immediately in bags or containers. This zucchini should be used within 2-3 months. To freeze squash for up to 12 months, it should be blanched first before freezing. I don't generally freeze any squash except for baking because it becomes quite mushy after being frozen, but previously frozen squash is also good for sautéing and adding to soups, so I've included it in my list. To freeze squash in slices, simply slice the zucchini in the sizes you prefer (1/2" rounds are common), leaving the skin on to help retain it's shape, blanch for 3 minutes, drain well, then freeze in containers or bags. To blanch shredded zucchini for longer freezer storage, steam blanch zucchini for 1-2 minutes, immediately add it to a freezer bag or container and then submerge that into ice cold water until cool and then it can be frozen. Use within 4-6 months.
Tomatoes - Tomatoes are perfect for freezing if you like to make your own sauce. Previously frozen tomatoes can also be added to soups, stews and chili. Choose tomatoes that are just ripe and still firm with no bruises or bug holes. Over ripe tomatoes will become mush after blanching. You may also want to choose tomatoes that have fewer seeds such as plum tomatoes and any tomato that is advertised as being good for sauces. Blanch the tomatoes whole for no more than 60 seconds. After they have cooled in an ice bath, the skins will slide right off and then they are ready for cutting. Slice the tomato in half and remove any seeds with a small spoon and squeeze out any excess juice into a bowl. Place the tomatoes in a colander that is on top of a bowl to catch any more juices. Strain this juice from the seeds for smoothies, sauces or soups, or simply add it to your compost pile. At this point you can toss them in the freezer bags and containers, or you can cut them up more depending on what you will do with them later. Use within 10-12 months.
Winter Squash (acorn, butternut, hubbard, etc) - The same directions for cooking pumpkin applies here as well. Choose winter squash that has fully cured for several weeks, is firm and contains no bruises or bug holes. Wash the outside of the skin with water to remove an excess dirt. Cut the squash in half and remove the seeds and pulp with a spoon. Place the squash halves or quarters into a microwavable glass dish that has a cover and microwave on high for 5-10 minutes. Check squash for doneness by poking with a fork, then continue cooking in 2 minute intervals until soft. For large squash or to cook several at one time, place halved squash, cut side down on a roll pan treated with non-stick cooking spray then place in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30-60 minutes until they are soft. At this point you can scoop the squash out and puree or cut the squash up into cubes, depending on what you will do with it later. Many winter squash like this can be mixed with pumpkin, or completely substituted for pumpkin in bread and pie recipes. Use within 6-8 months.
Tips & Explanations
- Produce Freshness - Choose produce to freeze that was picked fresh that day or purchased the same day. If it's been sitting in your fridge for a week and then you want to freeze it, the results will not be good. First of all, produce looses it's nutrition little by little each day. Once the produce has started to go limp, it will not hold up to the blanching process, which is key to successful freezing of produce. If you've waited too long to freeze your produce, cook and eat it immediately or just add it to your compost pile.
- What is Blanching? - Blanching is the process used to kill the enzymes and bacteria that is naturally present in produce to preserve freshness. To store frozen produce for any length of time, it is important to blanch it first. This process is accomplished by boiling or steaming the produce for a short time and then plunging that produce into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process.
To blanch produce with boiling water, simply fill a large pot 2/3 of the way full with water. You should also have a tight fitting lid for this pot. Bring the water to a boil on the stove using high heat or med-high heat. Once the water is boiling, the produce should be added all at once to the pot as blanching time starts immediately. Return the lid to the pot to make sure the water comes back up to a boil quickly; raise temperature if necessary. Once blanching time is complete, remove the produce as quickly as possible and place it immediately into an ice filled water bath to cool which will stop the produce from cooking any further. Generally, if the produce boiled for 2 minutes, it should be cooled for at least 2 minutes in the ice water bath. When I refer to blanching in any part of this article it is referring to the cooking time in the boiling water as well as the cooling off period in the ice water bath. You must do both to be successful in freezing your produce. For example, if I say to blanch for 1 minute, that means 1 minute in boiling water and then at least another minute in the ice water bath.
To blanch produce using steam, choose a pot that is the right size for the steamer basket you are using. Fill the pot with water so that it is not quite touching the steamer basket. Bring the water to a boil, then add the produce to the steamer basket, placing a lid back on the pot to keep the water boiling and to trap the steam inside the pot. Steam for the appropriate amount of time, then remove the steamer basket with tongs or a heat resistant glove and plunge it into the ice water bath to stop the cooking process. Generally, if the produce steamed for 2 minutes, it should be cooled for at least 2 minutes in the ice water bath. When I refer to blanching in any part of this article it is referring to the steam cooking time as well as the cooling off period in the ice water bath. You must do both to be successful in freezing your produce. For example, if I say to blanch for 1 minute, that means 1 minute in boiling water and then at least another minute in the ice water bath. Alternately, you can place the produce immediately inside the freezer container then plunge that container into the ice water bath to stop the cooking. This is good for produce you do not want more water added to or produce that might be shredded.
- Freezing - Freezing produce can be done in two ways. If you want to keep the produce as individual as possible, freeze it on trays lined with parchment paper first, in a single layer so that they are not touching each other for at least an hour. Some produce may require several hours of freezing first depending on size, density and the coldness of your freezer. Once they are frozen individually, they can be transferred to bags or containers for freezing. make sure you remove as much air as possible from the container before freezing.
- Types of Containers for Freezing - I prefer good quality freezer bags to freeze all my produce. I swear by FoodSaver® products as it's important to remove all the air from the container or bag before freezing and FoodSaver® makes that easy to do. Air inside the container will lead to frostbite which affects the flavor and quality of the produce greatly. If you don't have a FoodSaver® you can remove air from a bag by sucking the air out of the bag with a straw, or place the bag in a bowl of water. The water will push most of the air out of the bag as you seal it. If using non-FoodSaver® containers, fill the container almost to the top before putting on the lid. This will allow for a little expansion as the produce freezes and hopefully not too much air will be left behind. Another reason why I prefer bags over containers is that they are easier to stack in the freezer and the bags can be used multiple times if washed and dried well between uses. Also, you can remove just what you need, remove any excess air and reseal the same bag and put it back in the freezer.
- Freezing Times and Freshness - Generally most produce can be frozen for up to 12 months and still taste pretty good, provided it was blanched properly, put in an appropriate container with no excess air and frozen at temperatures below 25 degrees continuously during that time. If you are lucky enough to have a sub-zero freezer, that is even better.