How to Safely Freeze, Thaw, and Reheat Food

It's time to make friends with your freezer.

Frozen Casserole
Photo: Meredith

Freezing food is a game-changer. Not only does it preserve food for the long and short term, it also saves you loads of time in the kitchen when you make and save freezer meals for later. When you ready to eat, you can pull them from the freezer to either finish cooking or simply reheat for busy weeknight meals. We'll share tips for how to freeze foods the right way, plus how to thaw and reheat them safely.

How to Freeze Foods

Before freezing hot food, it's important to let it cool down. Heat will raise the temperature of the freezer; and the food will not freeze uniformly, the outer edges of the hot dish will freeze hard quickly while the inside might not cool in time to prevent spoilage. After that, you'll want to wrap it correctly to preserve the quality of the food. Here's how to do it:

1. Cool It Off

  • Cool precooked dishes as quickly as possible before they are placed in the freezer.
  • For fastest cooling, place the pan of hot food in a sink filled with ice water (or in a larger pan of ice water). If you're cooling a soup, stew, or sauce, stir occasionally to help it cool evenly.
  • Once the dish is cooled, portion it into meal-sized containers or packages. Label and date the containers. Place them in a single layer in the coldest area of your freezer until completely frozen. Rearrange as necessary.

2. Wrap It Right

Poorly wrapped foods run the risk of developing freezer burn and unpleasant odors from other foods in the freezer. Follow these simple wrapping and container tips to ensure the quality and safety of your food:

  • Use only specialty freezer wrappings: they should be both moisture-proof and vapor-proof.
  • Leave as little air as possible in the packages and containers. When freezing liquids in containers, allow a small amount of head room for expansion. When using freezer bags, be sure to remove as much air as possible before closing.
  • Wrap solids foods like meats and baked goods tightly in foil before you bag them.
  • Use rigid containers with an air-tight lid and keep the sealing edge free from moisture or food to ensure proper closure.
  • Secure wrapped packages and containers with freezer tape, and write the dish and the date on the tape with a marker.
  • In many cases, meats and fish wrapped by the grocer or butcher need no extra attention before freezing. However, meat wrapped on Styrofoam trays with plastic wrap will not hold up well to freezing. If the food you want to freeze was not specially wrapped, then re-wrap them at home.
  • Freeze in small containers with no more than a 1-quart capacity to ensure that freezing takes place in a timely manner (i.e., within four hours). Food that is two inches thick will take about two hours to freeze completely.

3. Don't Crowd the Freezer

A temperature of 0 degrees F (-18 degrees C) is best for maintaining food quality. Proper air circulation is key to keeping your freezer operating at maximum efficiency.

Freezing does not kill bacteria, yeast and molds that might be in your foods — it merely holds them at bay by keeping them inactive. If the freezer's temperature is disturbed often or altered for an extended period of time (such as a door left ajar or power outages) these microbes can compromise your food's safety.

How to Safely Freeze, Thaw, and Reheat Food

How Long Can You Freeze Foods?

Although freezing keeps food safe for an indefinite amount of time, eventually the flavor will be affected. If the food is obviously damaged (shriveled, with white or frosty spots) it should be discarded.

This chart lists recommended storage times for popular precooked foods — casseroles, soups, lasagna — to ensure high-quality results:

Type of Food

How to Safely Thaw Frozen Foods

With the exception of muffins, breads, and other baked goods, do not thaw foods at room temperature. Bacteria can grow in the thawed portion of prepared foods, releasing toxins that are unsafe to eat even after cooking.

To ensure that your food is safe to eat, follow one of these proper ways to thaw:

  • In the refrigerator: This is the slowest but safest thawing technique. Small frozen items might thaw in a few hours, while larger items will take significantly longer — overnight and then some.
  • In cold water: Place the frozen food in a leak-proof bag and place in a large container of cold water.
  • In a microwave on the defrost setting: Plan to cook the food immediately after it has thawed in a microwave, because some areas of the food might have begun cooking during the defrost cycle.

How to Reheat Frozen Foods

Different foods require different methods for reheating or cooking/baking after freezing. Here are some quick guidelines:

  • Cookie dough: Set frozen cookie dough (frozen slices, dough balls, or cut-out shapes) on a lined baking sheet and bake as usual. Give them a little extra baking time to make up for their frozen start. Get tips for freezing cookies and cookie dough.
  • Casseroles: You can either thaw a frozen casserole overnight in the fridge or put it in the oven while it's still frozen. A thawed casserole can be reheated (or finished baking) following recipe directions, while a frozen casserole will need extra oven time. If you're starting from frozen, you can put the casserole in the oven while the oven heats up. Just be sure the casserole reaches 165 degrees F for food safety. Get more tips for freezing and thawing casseroles.
  • Meats: Thaw meats overnight in the fridge; make sure to use a tray to catch any drips. You can safely cook after thawing.
  • Soups: You have a choice here: thaw frozen soup overnight in the fridge, thaw it in the microwave, or run water over the frozen package to thaw it in the sink. Then heat it on the stovetop or in the microwave. Get tips to freeze and thaw soups.
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