The key to getting the most out of your vacuum sealer and freezer is planning ahead.
For some people, this comes really easily. I’ve known school-run mums who subscribed to a cooking magazine every month and organised most of their family’s dinners from the Weekly Meal Planner pages. Thanks to Delicious Magazine or The Woman’s Weekly, they had the week’s cooking under control, from shopping list through to recommended side dishes and garnishes.
This is definitely a great way of getting meals on the table. And if you find deciding what to make each night a drag or simply don’t have the time to worry about the needs of a team of picky eaters, it can be a Godsend. However, it isn’t for me.
A vague notion that we’ll probably have some form of oven- baked chicken one evening and that some kind of pasta on Friday nights has been set in stone since the days when the kids had after school swimming lessons and needed the carbs, is about as organised as I get. I’m a cook who likes to see what’s in the shops and plan my meals as I browse the veg aisles and the butcher’s window.
BUT. I love a bargain, don’t like cooking every night and can’t understand people who only use their freezer for ice cream and ice cubes.
This means that I am a huge fan of vacuum sealing things and stashing them in the freezer for future use. Here are a few things that I’ve learnt along the way.
Label! Label! Label!
It may seem obvious, but don’t attempt to save yourself the 10 seconds it’ll take you to find a marker pen and write a description of the contents on the vacuum sealer bag before you throw it in the deep freeze and forget about it.
A combination of believing my memory is better than it actually is and sheer laziness has seen me scoop a meal into a bag, vacuum seal it and bury it in the freezer on more than one occasion, certain I’d remember what it was when I dug it out a few weeks later.
I was wrong.
My homemade pasta sauce looks very similar to my homemade pizza sauce and it’s downright impossible to tell if either of them has chilli in them or not just by looking at them. And when they are frozen solid, it’s even tougher.
So do yourself a favour, find that pen and label those bags.
And whilst you’re at it, make sure you put the date. Finding 3 different vacuum sealed pouches of cauliflower and chickpea curry and not knowing which has been floating around in the freezer for the longest might not be life-threatening, but given the info, you’d open the oldest first. Adding a date takes no more time and makes the chaos of everyday life a little more ordered.
When it comes to freezing food the golden rule is: You only do it once.
Never throw a 6 pack of steaks in the deep freeze without thinking about how many you will actually need when you come to cook them. Five weeks later you might fancy red meat and salad for dinner, go to get your steaks from the freezer and realise that you only want to cook 3 of them, not all 6. Well, you might have to eat steak for 2 nights in a row as the worst thing you can do is defrost the lot, cook the 3 you want and refreeze the others.
Refreezing is a major food poisoning risk.
So if you want convenience without a nasty bout of vomiting, putting a little bit of thought into portioning things out is a must. And that goes for raw ingredients, partially prepared meals and fully cooked dinners.
As mentioned above, taking a few minutes when you get home from the shops to separate big packs of things like chicken thighs into smaller portions can save you a lot of hassle in the future.
I advise that you make lots of smaller portions rather than a few larger ones. If you need 6 chicken thighs for a casserole, but know there’s a possibility that you’ll toss in a couple more so that you have something for lunch the next day, don’t vacuum seal 2 bags of 6 thighs. It’s smarter to go with a 6, a 4 and a 2 for the flexibility.
Remember also that taking items like fillets of salmon out of their regular supermarket packaging and vacuum sealing them for the freezer saves space as well as extending their use by date.
Partially Prepared Meals
We love a pumpkin, ricotta and spinach cannelloni in our house. However, it’s a labour of love as far as the prep goes. I have to cook the pumpkin and spinach, add and season the ricotta to complete the filling and then stuff it into those fiddly pasta tubes before baking it in a luscious tomato sauce. Oh. And did I mention that I have to make the tomato sauce too?
The upshot of this is that I often prepare only part of the dish at any one time and rely on my vacuum sealer and freezer to take care of the excess until I put the next batch of cannelloni together.
This means that whenever I make my tomato sauce, I go full witch and make a cauldron of the stuff. I will then think about other things that I have lying around in my freezer – like a family-size pack of cannelloni filling and the tray of meatballs that I vacuum sealed and froze the week before – and divide my sauce up accordingly.
Vacuum sealing and freezing in smaller batches gives me a lot of freedom when it comes to mixing and matching prepared bits and pieces. And after all, if I decide to make a veggie chilli and need a bigger portion of tomato base than I thought, all I have to do is defrost an extra bag of sauce. Simple.
If you are unsure which type of vacuum sealer to go for, you can read more here
Fully Cooked Dinners
If you go to the trouble of making a vat of chicken soup, don’t just eat what you want and then ladle the rest into a huge vacuum sealer bag and pop it in the freezer. Think about how and when you might want to use that soup in the future. If you plan to have it for family dinner at a future date, measure out the right amount for that meal, vacuum seal it and then decide what to do with anything that’s left.
My daughter is a huge fan of my chicken soup and also likes to have a break from the monotony of sandwiches in her school lunch. This means that she’s always keen to change up the routine with a thermos of soup. As a result, I often freeze individual portions, just for her. It makes life so easy to be able to pull a frozen bag out of the freezer the night before, knowing it’s a perfect portion and only needs heating up and pouring into a flask in the morning.
And if you’ve never tried your hand at homemade chicken soup before, you are missing out! There are literally hundreds of recipes out there, but if you want to give it a go from scratch you can read more here.