We’ve all been there, shuddering in the cold air of the freezer while blindly foraging through opaque bags and blocks for dinner. Freezing is a great way to extend your food supply, but things can easily get lost or fall prey to freezer burn. With the right gear, as well as a few savvy techniques for packing, thawing, and organizing your food, you can stock up and also ensure that nothing goes to waste. We conducted hours of research, including talking to food-safety specialists and cooking editors, to find the best gear and strategies for freezing food.
Freezing is one of the easiest steps you can take to make ingredients or cooked meals last longer. It requires much less effort than other methods such as canning, fermenting, or dehydrating. In addition, if you’re satisfied with the freezer space you already have, you don’t need as much extra equipment as you do for other preservation methods.
Freezing is a versatile technique. You can preserve a season’s bounty straight from the garden or grocery store (think summer berries for a tart, juicy pie on a wintry day, or spring peas to brighten a creamy pasta). You can freeze meals made in advance to pad your ready-to-eat supply. You can stock your freezer with citrus juice and minced herbs, alliums, or ginger root to add brightness to a dish at a moment’s notice, without a trip to the store.
It’s undeniable that some frozen foods do not retain the same flavors or textures as their fresh predecessors. But when you choose what to freeze wisely, and pack it using the right containers and techniques to maintain quality, you’ll give your future self a gift of ingredients and premade meals beyond what your pantry or even your fridge can accommodate.
The best gear for freezing food
Air and ambient moisture are the biggest enemies of frozen foods: They cause freezer burn, which creates a tough or rubbery texture after thawing. The right packaging can prevent that dreaded aftereffect. Elizabeth Andress, food safety specialist and professor of foods and nutrition at the University of Georgia, said, “Different types of [materials] will vary in how much air they let through them, as well as odors and what we call moisture vapor, or airborne moisture.” Airtight containers, as well as thicker bags, durable foil, and coated paper designed for freezing, can make a big difference in post-thaw quality. They’ll ensure that whatever you freeze stays better for longer.
The best heavy-duty freezer bags
Thick reusable silicone bags can help prevent freezer burn.
Zip-top bags are especially good for freezing food because you can more easily get all the air out of them than out of rigid containers. You can use them for everything from blanched spinach to chicken thighs and, after laying them flat to freeze, stack them to economize space. We like Hefty Freezer Slider Bags, but if you can’t find them, look for an option that’s labeled for freezing. Freezer bags are thicker than regular ones, so they’re less likely to puncture or tear, and they’re designed to be less brittle when frozen. We’ve found that bags with sliders are easier to fill and seal even with saucy foods, which can gum up the zippered seals on other bags.
You can wash and reuse a freezer bag until it goes kaput, but if you’re concerned about using disposable plastic, reusable silicone bags also work well. “Silicone allows even less transmission of air and moisture vapor,” said Andress. Of the reusable bags we’ve tested, we recommend the Stasher Reusable Silicone Bag Multi-Pack, which includes multiple sizes in bright, fun colors. These sturdy bags seal tightly, don’t impart any flavors, store flat in a drawer, and are dishwasher safe and easy to clean. The downside is that they’re much more expensive than plastic bags; a pack of four costs $50 at this writing. And because the Stasher bags are more rigid than plastic ones, it’s a little harder to compress the air out of them.
To get as much air as possible out of a bag before freezing, try pressing it against a table, hugging it to your body, or rolling it from the base toward the seal. If you’re sealing several bags at once, it’s worth filling a large container with water and using this handy trick for almost-like-a-vacuum-sealer results: Submerge a filled, barely opened bag into water with the zipper just above the water line. Let the air escape as you slowly sink the bag, and seal it right before you submerge the opening. This process can help push more air out of silicone bags, too.
Thick or coated wraps
For items that are too unwieldy to fit in a freezer bag, such as large cuts of meat, a loaf of bread, or a bundt cake, you can use any of several types of freezer-specific wraps to seal them tightly. It comes down to preference or what you have on hand. A freezer-grade plastic wrap will work but can be hard to find; Suzanne Driessen, extension educator in food science at the University of Minnesota, recommends Glad Press’n Seal Freezer Wrap, which is sold out online at this writing. If you have only regular plastic wrap, which is thinner, use multiple layers for better quality.
Aluminum foil will also conform tightly to baked goods or other non-uniform items. Opt for a heavier foil such as Reynolds Heavy Duty Aluminum Foil because it’s thicker and harder to tear if you’re stacking or moving things around. As an extra line of defense against freezer burn, you can first use a layer of plastic wrap before covering with foil.
For wrapping meats snugly, Andress likes using freezer paper like this one made by Reynolds. Freezer paper may be harder to find, but it’s another good, airtight alternative to plastic wrap. Freezer paper is not the same as wax, butcher, or parchment paper: It has a wax or plastic coating on one side that acts as a barrier to hold in meat juices but is uncoated on the other side so that you can easily write the contents and date on the outside of the package. If you choose to wrap your food in freezer paper, follow this demonstration of two folding methods (video) from the extension program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to make sure that you wrap it tightly. It’s a good idea to seal the paper with tape and to label what you’ve packed.
Even if you buy proteins such as chicken, beef, or fish prewrapped, it’s often best to transfer them to freezer packaging. “There’s short-term packaging and longer-term packaging,” explained Driessen. “So when you buy something from the meat counter in that plastic wrap, it’s designed for short-term use and not lower temperatures like a freezer.” The meat that you find packed on a tray covered with a thin film is not well sealed, so air and moisture can get in and cause freezer burn. Vacuum-packed meat wrapped in thicker plastic is likely fine, but for the best quality Driessen still suggests repacking it. If you’ve put meat straight from the store into your freezer, that’s okay, but Driessen recommends using that meat within two weeks for the best quality.
These glass Pyrex containers stack easily and are oven safe.
Compared with bags, reusable containers stack more neatly and may be easier to fill with liquids, stews, or soups. After testing dozens of sets for our guide to the best food storage containers, we recommend the Pyrex 18-Piece Simply Store Food Storage Set. These durable tempered-glass containers stack well and won’t pick up stains or smells. They’re also conveniently oven safe as well as freezer and dishwasher safe, though Pyrex cautions against moving them straight from a cold freezer into a hot oven for reheating—the shock of the sudden temperature change may cause them to shatter. Instead, let the container defrost in the fridge and then place it on a room-temperature baking sheet before transferring it to the oven. The extra layer provides a buffer between the very hot oven rack and the cold glass, lessening the chance of the container shattering (and preventing stuff from spilling all over your oven if the glass does break). We’ve used that method for baking chilled pies, and we’ve never had an issue.
The Pyrex containers aren’t leakproof—for that, we like the Glasslock 18-Piece Container Set. The Glasslock containers have locking lids that prevent leaks, but the lids also put stress on the lip of the containers, which makes the glass prone to chipping over time. For an affordable plastic set, we like the Rubbermaid TakeAlongs 40-Piece Storage Set containers, which are tight-sealing and microwave safe, although we found that they may soften in the microwave during defrosting.
Avoid reusing the cartons from yogurt or sour cream for freezing, because their lids don’t seal well and will let air in. “If you have a dip container where you peel off a plastic kind of top, then that outer lid may not have to be quite as tight a seal as if it were being manufactured for freezing,” said Andress. We’d also avoid plastic takeout containers, which can become brittle in the freezer and then crack or shatter easily.
You’ll never be able to get all of the air out of rigid containers, though tight-sealing lids can help. But try to fill the container as much as you can while leaving adequate headspace for liquids to expand as they freeze—especially when using glass containers that can crack or shatter. (We have some tips on how much headspace to leave in all types of containers below.)
Equipment to invest in
Vacuum-sealing ingredients is the best way to protect them from freezer burn.
People who freeze items frequently or who buy food in bulk may want to invest in a vacuum sealer to keep ingredients fresher for longer. Vacuum sealers get as much air out of a bag as possible, which helps reduce freezer burn. “In addition to pulling the air out of the package, they are much more preventative at letting anything [in the air] transmit through the plastic itself,” Andress said. We sealed ground beef and pork chops with 10 different machines for our guide to the best vacuum sealers, and all of them came out with minimal freezer burn after spending several months in the freezer. We recommend getting the easy-to-use Nesco VS-12, which offers powerful suction, several useful settings, and the option to single- or double-seal bags, but if it’s sold out you can find other suggestions in our guide.
How to package food for the freezer
Besides the containers and bags you use, how you pack foods will change how they freeze and thaw. Freezing things as quickly as possible is important for maintaining quality: The slower the process, the more likely it is that larger ice crystals will develop, making foods soggier or tougher when you reheat them. So avoid adding a ton of non-frozen food to your freezer at once, and consider lowering the temperature the day before freezing a load. Packing smaller portions will also help speed up freezing times.
When freezing cooked dishes, make sure everything has cooled down completely before you pack it. “Warm foods are going to cause condensation inside your packaging. And that again is very bad for frozen food quality,” said Andress.
If you’re freezing a meal with several components that will freeze and thaw at different rates, such as chicken and broccoli, take the time to pack them separately. Andress said to think about how air would flow in a container filled with different ingredients of different shapes when you’re deciding what to pack with what: “Any air pockets or trapped air around the food is very detrimental to quality,” she said.
For foods you want to freeze in bulk but use little by little, the dry-pack method—which involves packing foods up after they’ve been frozen—is key. This technique is great for berries that would usually clump together, balls of cookie dough you want to bake a few at a time, slices of bread, or bacon from a pack you won’t eat all at once. Line a baking sheet with wax or parchment paper (moist ingredients will stick to bare metal), arrange items in a single layer so they’re not touching, and then put the sheet in the freezer. Our favorite baking sheet, the Nordic Ware Natural Aluminum Commercial Baker’s Half Sheet, works great for this task (you can get it in smaller, quarter-sheet and eighth-sheet sizes, too, which may fit better into an already crammed freezer). Driessen recommends checking the items every 30 to 60 minutes and packing them up as soon as they are frozen, which usually takes one to two hours. Once they’re frozen, you can wrap up the portions and put them in containers or bags for extra protection or organizational purposes.
If you’re freezing a meal with several components that will freeze and thaw at different rates, such as chicken and broccoli, take the time to pack them separately.
For freezing small amounts of sauces, herbs, citrus juice, or condiments so that they’re easy to throw into a dish, use an ice cube tray. We recommend the OXO Good Grips Ice Cube Tray over others because it has a rigid plastic lid that keeps smells out and prevents spills; plus, it allows for easy stacking so you can maximize space. You can freeze cubes of pesto, tomato paste, lemon juice, minced garlic, or even individual, cracked eggs.
Foods expand when they freeze, so leave some headspace when you are putting anything in a jar, a container, or even a bag to prevent cracks or rips. Generally you should leave about half an inch of room, but the amount varies based on what’s inside and the kind of container you’re using. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has a chart to help determine how much headspace to leave in containers.
How to thaw frozen foods
The USDA offers several methods for safe defrosting. The best way to thaw is in the fridge, which keeps food out of the temperature danger zone in which present bacteria can rapidly multiply. To safeguard against spills or melting frost from the outside of containers, place packages on top of a baking sheet or in a bowl.
The disadvantage to thawing food in the fridge is that it takes a long time—it’s not a process you can start an hour before dinner. One faster option is to place sealed bags in a large mixing bowl filled with cold water (never use warm water) that you change out every 30 minutes until your food thaws. We recommend the deep Cuisinart Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls, which allow you to fully submerge large packs of meat or stew, but any large bowls you have at home will work fine. The large Rubbermaid Commercial Space Saving Food Storage Containers, which we like for dry food storage, would also work great for this purpose. If you need to thaw even faster, you can always use a microwave. Just make sure that you use what you’ve defrosted immediately, because food can start to warm up in the microwave, and you shouldn’t let it sit at an unsafe temperature at which bacteria can grow.
Alternately, you can cook many frozen foods directly from the freezer, as long as they will heat fast enough. Premade frozen meals such as soups or stews are fine to defrost directly in a pot. If you have a sous vide setup, it’s the perfect option for heating a pack of stew or a cut of meat pulled straight from the freezer. Just make sure that the food is well sealed in a heavy-duty freezer bag or vacuum-sealed bag and that your water bath remains at a temperature above 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Driessen recommends adding about 30 to 60 minutes to the cook time.
An electric pressure cooker is also a convenient way to cook frozen items, including meat, quickly, although you may need to add some extra cooking time (Instant Pot has a table with suggestions for fresh foods that you can use as a baseline). We recommend the Instant Pot Duo 6-Quart, which is simple to use and comes with a durable stainless steel inner pot. But Andress advises against putting anything frozen, especially meat, straight from the freezer into a slow cooker, which takes too long to heat foods to safe temperatures and thus allows bacteria to grow.
How to organize your freezer
A freezer can be a black hole. But if you organize it well, label what’s inside, and make an inventory of what you have, you can avoid letting food sit there for ages untouched. Instead, you’ll be rich in ready-to-use, easy-to-find food that you can grab in an instant.
Most things keep in a freezer for a very long time, but you should still keep track of what’s inside so you can use what you’ve stored efficiently—while it still tastes good. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has a timetable for the lifespan of frozen foods, but you should use your best judgment when it comes to deciding if it’s too late to use something. “As long as that food stays frozen, then there aren’t any bacteria at work or even molds,” said Andress. “But quality will continue to deteriorate in the freezer.” Everyone perceives the shift in quality a little differently, but it’s a good idea to use things within around eight to 12 months of freezing.
To keep track of expiration dates, label packages with tape and markers that won’t disintegrate in colder temperatures. We like the hardy FrogTape Multi-Surface Painter’s Tape that many kitchen professionals use, but you can use freezer tape too. Write the date and ingredients on tape labels with a Sharpie Fine Tip permanent marker so the writing won’t rub off.
We recommend keeping an inventory of what you have and what you’ve used, whether that’s with a spreadsheet or a written list that you tack to the fridge with a magnet. Consider doing an occasional freezer edit, where you go through and reorganize your freezer, whether it’s every quarter or every year.
What can you freeze?
You can freeze almost anything. But harsh temperatures can cause physical and chemical damage to cells and tissues, which makes some foods limp or watery after thawing. For example, you’ll never get the same satisfying bite from a crisp leaf of lettuce after you’ve frozen it, and cream will never whip to as fluffy a texture. There are many recipes that freeze very well, though: Soups, stews, casseroles, cakes, and cookie dough are just a few examples. Even ingredients such as sour cream, tofu, and eggs can be revived after freezing, and items such as tortillas and bread can be zhuzhed up in a toaster or pan.
For recipe ideas or advice on what will freeze best, NYT Cooking (Wirecutter is a part of The New York Times Company) has a guide to freezing many ingredients, as well as several recipe roundups like “Recipes to Make and Freeze” and “Having a Baby? What to Cook and Freeze Now.” The National Center for Home Food Preservation also has extensive guidelines for freezing, although some of the recommendations are dated and taste preferences have changed. Andress recommends contacting your local cooperative extension office if you have questions.
- Elizabeth Andress, food safety specialist and professor of foods and nutrition at the University of Georgia, phone interview, November 25, 2019
- Suzanne Driessen, extension educator in food science at the University of Minnesota, phone interview, November 25, 2019
- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, November 23, 2004
- National Center for Home Food Preservation
- Freezing, Encyclopaedia Britannica, September 28, 2018
- William Schafer and Suzanne Driessen, The science of freezing foods, University of Minnesota Extension, 2018
- Melissa Clark, How to Freeze Just About Everything, The New York Times, March 26, 2020
- Margaret Eby, How to Store Any Vegetable to Keep It Fresh As Long As Possible, Food & Wine, March 30, 2020
- Jonathan Chan, Are Freezer-Safe Plastic Bags a Waste of Money?, Reviewed, September 17, 2019
- Danilo Alfaro, How to Freeze Anything, The Spruce Eats, March 26, 2020