Make Ahead/Bulk Cooking
Christmas is over and if you’re like most women there’s both the emotional let-down and the sense of being behind. As we head into January many people think about goals, setting new schedules, just all around making a new start with the new year. May I suggest Make-Ahead Meals, or cooking in bulk, if you aren’t already doing so.
Why Cook in Bulk?
I want to be honest and transparent here. Even when I had the family at home, I liked to cook every day. I liked getting in the kitchen and making a fresh meal. But I was home most years. And I generally don’t like leftovers. To save time there are some things that make sense to make in bulk. And when you’re working or have a big family, saving time becomes even more important.
Cooking in bulk also is important anyone living alone, especially for the elderly. I used to go to my mom’s house after my dad passed away and make her meals ahead and put them in the freezer. I could make a month or two of her main dishes in a day. Now I make things for myself in bulk and freeze them in single serving packages. I find if I don’t so that I don’t eat as well.
It’s also more cost-effective to cook in bulk. If you make foods based on sales, you are saving. Usually, if you’re cooking in bulk you are more careful to buy exactly what you need and not waste food, another savings. If you are baking or cooking your food ahead of time, you save on the energy for that. I know two people who would call stores before a bulk cooking weekend and tell them what they needed and ask for a special price. One of those two people actually had several stores that she would call. She would order based on the store who would give her the best price. She also called weekly for the best prices on organic vegetables, but that’s another post.
What Doesn’t Freeze Well?
There are some things that don’t freeze well. Some are obvious and some aren’t. Others that just need an adjustment to the recipe. Those things that don’t freeze well are:
- Vegetables that you want to serve cold and crisp, such as lettuce, carrots, cabbage, cucumbers, radishes, tomatoes, etc. That’s not to say they can’t be used in a recipe that is frozen. Iceberg lettuce is about the only lettuce that is usually never incorporated into a recipe that is cooked. Spinach, Kale, and other such greens are sometimes used in frozen recipes.
- Eggs. Whole eggs in the shell will burst as they freeze. But many things made with eggs don’t freeze well either. This would include meringue or an egg white frosting. It also includes some types of custards. Even though the National Center For Home Food Preservation issued a blanket statement that custard doesn’t freeze well, frozen custard is the richest and best form of “ice cream.” Again, the key here is how it is served. It stays frozen, or mostly frozen until you eat it so you’re not experiencing the separation. There are other things you can do to custard recipes that do make them hold up better, but the ideal for a custard pie or custard filling is fresh unless served frozen.
- Mayonnaise and creamy dressings will also separate when they thaw. So recipes with those type of creamy dressings don’t tend to hold up well.
- Milk sauces also tend to separate. I’ve tried freezing scalloped potatoes and cream soups and they just aren’t right when they thaw. A gravy made with milk would also fall into this category.
- Sour cream also tends to separate. So we’re getting the picture here of any dairy that is creamy doesn’t freeze well. Shredded cheese, on the other hand, is not creamy so it freezes well.
- Hard cheese. Hard cheeses tend to crumble after they’ve been frozen. The harder the cheese, the worse it is. If that is not a problem for your application, go ahead and freeze.
- Pasta. This one is a matter of personal preference. In most instances, I don’t like the flavor or consistency of casseroles with pasta in them once they’ve been frozen. The pasta tends to get grainy and just has an off flavor, as far as I’m concerned. Other people freeze casseroles all the time and just accept that loss for the convenience. The one pasta recipe I did make in bulk every time I made it was Lasagna. I don’t know why that seemed to hold up better, but it did. Maybe because the pasta was thicker and is wasn’t in a sauce, per se.
- Fried foods. Most fried foods don’t come out the same once they’ve been frozen. Again, there are techniques that will allow this to work, but as a rule, once deep fried you really don’t want to freeze the food.
- Spices. Some spices change their flavor. Some may lose or increase flavor, and in the case of curry, may actually take on a musty or moldy flavor once frozen.
Things I Like to Make in Bulk and Freeze
There are some things I do like to make in bulk and freeze. Some keep better than others.
- Lasagna. I always made multiple pans of lasagna every time I made it. Making lasagna is a lot of work. I figured as long as I was going to do all that, I might as well make it assembly line style and make 6 or 8 at a time. It only added about 30 or 40 minutes to the entire process and I had a bunch in the freezer. These actually make great gifts to take to a family in need of a meal. Most people like lasagna.
- Meatballs. I make these in bulk, bake them, then freeze. I use my KitchenAid mixer to mix the meat so it doesn’t get overworked.
- Meatloaves. For a family, you can mix and form the meat and freeze. With the salt already in the meat, it’s better to use this raw seasoned meat in about 3 months. For single servings, make the meatloaves in the bigger muffin tins, bake, and freeze. These make quick meals for lunches, kids warm and serve meals and for singles. Again, mix in the KitchenAid. I make different “flavors” and label well.
- Hamburger Patties. I make them ahead, press in my hamburger press and freeze. Sometimes I flavor them just as I would sausage or meatloaf and freeze. These are quick for me to pull out, throw on the George Forman grill and eat.
- Sausage. I make my own sausage from scratch. Following the “use within 3 months” rule, I’d make about 3 months worth at a time. When casings became incredibly difficult to find, I stopped making sausage and just made sausage for breakfast and Italian sausage for pasta dishes as needed.
- Scratch Sloppy Joes. Although not hard to make the recipe I gave you for Awesome Sloppy Joes, I like having them ready to go in the freezer for a lunch or quick dinner. Just pull out of the freezer in the morning and put in the fridge. By suppertime it’s thawed and easy to warm.
- Bacon Strips. Once you start baking bacon strips, you’ll not want to make them in any other way. It’s quick, easy, they stay flat, and I’ve not had any problems with a mess. If it does splatter for you, just wipe out the oven once it cools so it doesn’t become burnt on grease. I bake up trays of them when they are on sale and freeze. Then I have bacon in a flash for breakfast, BLTs and the like.
- Bacon Bits. I render chopped bacon in order to keep the grease for future use. In the future, I’ll show you a quick and easy way to render a bunch of bacon bits easily. I did it at a catering gig once when I had to do 5# and they thought I was crazy until they saw the results. Then they all wanted me to tell them again how I did that. I nearly always have bacon bits in the freezer to add flavor or a garnish to meals. Think how fast your scrambled eggs would be on the weekend if you could just sprinkle in pre-made bacon bits from the freezer? And the clean-up is just your egg pan. Simple.
- Soups and Stews. Some soups and stews freeze well and some don’t. Broth always freezes well. It keeps better if it’s either lower salt or has been defatted. Likewise, chicken soup freezes well. I make larger batches of butternut squash soup and freeze. My recipe doesn’t have any dairy in it, so it freezes well. Lentil soup freezes well. It’s a little grainy went reheated, but not enough to stop me from making it in bulk. Vegetable broth and soup both freeze well, as does beef broth and soup. Beef stew may or may not freeze well. It depends on how you thickened the sauce. If you are specifically making stew for the freezer, skip the thickener and thicken when you reheat it. You also want to pull the stew a little underdone so the vegetables don’t turn to mush when you reheat.
- Savory Muffins. We had a small family but my husband enjoyed a bread with his dinner every night. He also liked a variety. Unlike my first husband who only liked yeasted products, Scott liked many flavors of quick bread. Sometimes I did a baking marathon and made up a bunch of muffins, but most often I would just make extra and freeze. Bread doesn’t keep very long in the freezer. For best flavor and texture use within a month.
- Cakes, Sweet Muffins, and Cookies. Cakes, sweet muffins, and cookies will keep 1-3 months. Some will keep longer. I used to have a relationship with an organic carrot farmer. At the end of the season, we would buy bushels of his carrots for $3 and make a couple dozen carrot cakes. Frosting them all the way to the edge to seal the cake from the air and pressing the plastic wrap right to the frosting would allow me to keep those cakes for an entire year. Usually, they didn’t last that long as everyone loved my carrot cakes. When asked to bring something to our church, to a friend’s house, or for a family in need of a meal my carrot cake was the usual request. No one ever said it tasted off, even after months in the freezer. Instead, it was a favorite request.
- Fruit Pies and Pie Fillings. Made up but not baked apple pies or just the pie filling. Again, I’d get the organic apples in fall and make all our pies for the year. I would also make a few pecan pies for my husband. These were not really in our budget and he was the only one who ate them, but being his favorite I’d make a few.
- Crepes. I have frozen them both flat between parchment paper and filled. I usually freeze them filled because I make a sweet cream filling and we eat them when they are just barely thawed. They’ve never lasted longer than a partial thaw, so I’m not sure if the cream would separate.
Making Your “Make-Ahead” Day Plan
If you’re new to this, start simple. If you eat meat, I suggest starting with your favorite ground meat recipes. The reason is that they are easy to multiply and easy to make up. And, it’s also just nice to know that you have all that meat ready to go in the freezer. Just add your side dishes and you’re done. So, let’s make our plan:
- Decide what you’re going to make and if you’re going to cook it prior to freezing.
- Decide how much you want to make.
- Write the recipe on a multiplier form, like one of the ones I wrote about in this post.
- Plan your day to make sure you can accomplish all of it in the time allotted. Now’s a good time to enlist help.
- Write up your grocery list.
- If you’re calling stores to order the meat ahead of time and trying to negotiate a better price, do that at least a week ahead of time.
- Assemble any cookware, mixing bowls, measuring equipment, and the freezer containers the day before you begin.
- Measure the dry ingredients and chop any vegetables for each recipe and place by the recipe before taking the meat out of the refrigerator. To get the greatest health benefits out of onions and garlic, they should be chopped, minced or sliced at least 5 minutes, preferably 10, before using anyway.
- Unless your recipe says differently, mix your ingredients together before adding them to the meat. You will be dealing with a lot of meat and you don’t want to have pockets of ingredients that don’t disperse into the meat. A whirl in the blender of your liquids and spices is a good idea. Add to any bread crumbs, stir, then add to your meat.
- Mix. My large KitchenAid will hold at least 5 pounds of meat (figure about 1# per quart-size listed for your mixer). How much you are making will determine your mixing vessel. If you get into this bigtime, you may want to invest in a buspan for your local restaurant supply store. The low sides and large capacity make it easier to mix. If your kids are doing the mixing, they will have to be trusted with those low sides, though.
- Bake, if baking before freezing.
- Package carefully, date packages, record how many meals you have on your freezer inventory list.
- Flash chill any dense hot foods before freezing. Meatballs and mini meatloaf muffins can be frozen on trays in the freezer, then bagged after they are frozen. Just allow them to cool a bit before placing them in the freezer. This keeps the food already in your freezer safe from a thaw and refreeze.
- Freeze. If your freezer has an “arctic blast” or “quick freeze” button, I would use it. Mine does on the top shelf.
As I stated earlier, I didn’t do all-out cooking weekends. I tended to do bulk cooking when an item was in season, on a super-sale, or just make extras when we were making it for supper. I will do a post in the future based on a book where they cooked most their entrées for 6 months in three days. I have met the author and used her book repeatedly over the years. It really turned around the way I approached bulk cooking. In fact, my original multiplier form came from her. She was also the guest post author in a previous blog entitled, More Mary Less Martha. Today’s post is an introduction to bulk cooking and to get practice using the multiplier form.