Wednesday, September 3, 2008

So Now You've Got a Chest Freezer

Two days ago we discussed how to evaluate the cost of a potential chest freezer purchase. Yesterday we talked about how you might or might not make that purchase a frugal one. Today we're going to assume you've run right out and bought yourself a new chest freezer. So now what? Well, as a frugal person, you naturally want to get the most out of this expensive appliance. Here's how to do it.

Maximizing efficiency

Reducing the costs to run the freezer.
There are a few things you can do to slightly lower your electricity costs to run your freezer. Regular maintenance tasks such as defrosting and cleaning the coils are the chores that no one wants to do, but which really do make a difference in efficiency. Most chest freezers are not frostless. This means the food inside will keep longer because the unit does not cycle, but instead maintains a steady temperature. But it also means you'll need to unload the freezer and defrost it about once every year or two. Doing so allows the unit to cool more efficiently and lowers your electricity costs.

Be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions on where to situate your chest freezer. My model needs there to be good airflow around it, and there are guidelines for the range of temperatures the room should be at for many models. The company that made your freezer probably did fairly extensive research on the optimal conditions for operating your new investment. So take advantage of their findings.

The other thing that helps a little is to keep the freezer full. You don't have to use this as an excuse to load it up with "bargain" foods that aren't really bargains. Ice will fill space in your chest freezer just as well as anything else. You could stockpile ice cubes for your next party, or fill old milk jugs or soda bottles and freeze those solid. You can easily add or remove sealed jugs or bottles as needed to fill up or make room in your freezer. Just remember to leave a little headspace inside the bottle for the water to expand when frozen. Bottom line is: if you have trouble keeping your freezer full of stuff that's truly useful to you, you probably bought a model that's bigger than you needed in the first place.

Organizing your Chest Freezer.

You can't benefit from, or eat, what you can't find. As an owner of a chest freezer, I can attest that organization becomes a very real issue as the freezer gets full. The new chest freezer owner invariably succumbs to the allure of all that empty space waiting be filled, and commences stocking up with abandon. Unless you get a model with some serious built-in compartments, keeping a chest freezer organized is more of a challenge than it might seem.

I tried the milk crate system and rejected it. For one thing it left too much difficult to use space outside of the crates. And for another, the cold temperatures left the crates more vulnerable to cracking. We tried keeping a written inventory of stuff going into and coming out of the chest freezer. This might work for some families or individuals, but we're just not that meticulous.

Eventually I hit on the idea of using the heavy woven plastic bags that are sold as reusable shopping bags. It's easy to fill these by theme: pork, lamb, garden vegetables, fruit, fish, dairy, etc. Generally, the tops of the bags stay somewhat open when mostly full of stuff, making it easy to see some of the contents. That way I know generally where to find things, and the handles provide a good way of pulling things out of the freezer without throwing out my back. I can grab the handles and pull out one bag at a time without having to bend and lift. Then I rummage through the bag with the freezer closed, and return that bag to the freezer when I've found what I wanted. I use easily identifiable, miscellaneous stuff to fill the gaps around these shopping bags. I have found that the regular thin plastic shopping bags aren't very good in a chest freezer; at such a cold temperature they tear quite easily on several kinds of packaging.

How you go about filling your chest freezer will depend on both your tastes and your personality. But eventually it comes down to balancing the desire to use space efficiently with practicality. In my experience, the most important habit to get into with a chest freezer is to label everything you put in there. I mean everything. You will probably do as I did and tell yourself a few times that you'll recognize this extra pie crust/turkey giblets/baking experiment when you next see it. Trust me: you want to label that stuff. Anything that doesn't already have a clear explanation - write the name and date on it. If you buy labeled fresh meat with the intention of sticking it in the freezer, you may want to put the date you froze it on the label anyway, especially if you sometimes buy meats close to their "sell by" dates. That information gives you some sense of how quickly you need to use up the meat once it's thawed. Because if you're looking at a roast that's been in your freezer for a while and is now three months past its sell by date, how long is it safe to keep it in the fridge before you cook it? Label everything. In the end it'll save you mystification, frustration, and money.

Portioning what you freeze

Thoughtful portioning is especially important with a chest freezer because a chest freezer usually runs at a lower temperature than the freezer attached to your refrigerator. So it's going to take longer to thaw a given item from the chest freezer.

I want to store foods in ways that make them easy for me to use quickly once I decide to take them out of the freezer. So I use a variety of storage methods. Soups and stews can go into plastic quart-sized yogurt containers. This leaves some difficult to use space around the containers, but it's a good portion size for a family of two. I typically make soups I intend to freeze a little on the thick side, then thin them after thawing. That way I can get 5-6 servings per quart.

I use the ice cube tray trick for things like citrus juice, pizza sauce, beaten eggs, and sometimes for pesto. Again, this is not the most efficient use of space in the freezer. But it allows me to thaw just as much of these items as I need very quickly. I've learned to portion meats the along similar principles. When I buy large quantities of bacon, I lay out a long sheet of plastic wrap, and then lay out the bacon in groups of two, three, or four slices, with a fold of the plastic sheet sandwiched in between each group. That allows me to reach in and remove only as much bacon as I want, without having to thaw the entire package at once.

Last year, the couple at Future House Farm showed off their beautiful array of produce stored in the freezer using the clever file method for ziploc bags. This consists of putting a liquid or semi-liquid food into ziploc bags, squeezing out all the air pockets, and then freezing the bags solid in a very flat shape. Once frozen, the bags can be stood up on edge and packed together like file folders. This works best when you either plan to thaw the entire contents at once (soup), or when the food will be frozen in a thin enough layer that you can just break off the amount you need whenever you need it (tomato paste).

Meal Planning & Freezer Inventory

Having a chest freezer full of food is a good feeling. But remember that you actively need to use this stuff up rather than just let it sit there as a hoard. It's a good idea to inventory what you've got at least a few times per year. If you have a lot of one particular item or items, make a note of the quantity on hand. Then keep that note in the kitchen to remind yourself to find a way to incorporate that item into your cooking at least once per week. If you've gone to the trouble of preparing ready to eat meals, keep a list of those as well. You're more likely to turn to them on the spur of the moment on a night you don't feel like cooking if you can simply look at your list and decide what to thaw. Isn't that better than just calling for pizza delivery?

Try to get into the habit of thinking about the evening meal early in the day, perhaps before you leave for work, or even the night before you cook. If you need to thaw something large from your chest freezer for use in the next 24 hours, place it in the topmost part of your refrigerator as early as possible. If your habits and lifestyle aren't going to include this much anticipation, then consider devoting one weekend per month to preparing meals that can go straight into the oven from the chest freezer. Search the web or your library for books on once a month cooking. You can find thin aluminum trays similar to pie plates in a range of sizes and shapes at most supermarkets. These are great for preparing small versions of casseroles and other dishes. And if you're careful with them, they can be washed and reused many times before they wear out.

-Whew! That's three days of talking about chest freezers. You know, when I started crafting these posts about chest freezers, I never imagined there'd be so much to say about them. I sincerely hope I've covered enough of the issues to put the chest freezer theme to bed. Onwards.


marci357 said...

I like your idea of using the mesh grocery bags with handles for organizing. I'd go one further and try for different colored bags - meaning yellow for chicken/turkey, pink for pork, green for beef, blue for fish, brown for deer and elk, or something similar... that would sure help me find things in a hurry :)

Kate said...

Thanks, Marci. The bags have done very well for me. If I had a bunch of different colored bags to use, I certainly would. Because the tops of the filled bags tend to be somewhat open anyway, I find it pretty easy to identify what's in each one at a glance.


Linda said...

I was looking for organization ideas, and I think the reusable shopping bags will do the trick. Thanks!

Jen said...

Hi! I just found your blog looking for ideas to organize my freezer. I love the idea of the bags, but my husband, who used to work at an appliance store didn't think it would work because there is not enough airflow into the bags. How long have you done this, and have you had any problems with it and condensation? Thanks!

Kate said...

Jen, I can't think why airflow around frozen foods would be an issue. So long as you don't stack too many new things in the freezer all at once, the food should freeze solid pretty quickly. Once frozen, they can be packed pretty tightly together. I don't get any condensation on the foods in bags, only on the exposed walls of the chest freezer, where it then turns into frost. Hope this helps.

Siegfried said...

have you considered turning your chest freezer into chest fridge? it's reversible process and interesting fact about it is that chest freezers use about 10-20% of energy used by normal freezers. search the web for HOWTOs ;)
btw: very good blog!

Pippa said...

Thanks,Kate. I am an "Auspom', that is an Australian, originally from England,I live in the beautiful Southern Highlands of New South Wales. We have a vegetable garden and also like to cook, so we bought a chest freezer, what a pickle! I have just looked all through for help on organising my chest freezer and YOU have it. I will get those bags all in different colours for different groups and get organising!

Cathy said...

Thanks Kate - this was exactly what I was looking for! I'm pretty organized, but my writing the in/out inventory on a white board installed over the freezer only lasted about 2 months. Now, I just peer in there occasionally trying to remember what's still there...I will definitely try reorganizing into bags.

Myrnie said...

I just finished organizing my freezer- you have solved a YEARS' OLD dilemma for me! Haha, thanks!!

Mary said...

The bag idea is terrific! I'm trying to cook more. With two exhausting toddlers, I used to open the freezer, see chaos, sigh, close it, and put some macaroni and cheese on the stove for the 1000th time. Simply knowing what I've got to work with gives me that little push that I need at four in the afternoon, and helps me to plan ahead, too. THANK YOU.

Got Nothing? said...

I really like the grocery bag idea, Kate. But the white board inventory idea that Cathy said sounds perfect for my needs! Thanks on both!

Cherrypie2 said...

This was a great article. I have tried different ways of organizing my chest freezer over the years including crates and boxes. I like the idea of the reusable shopping bags. All of your tips show that you have some good experience with a chest freezer. I am ready to reorganize mine.


Unknown said...

I appreciate your thorough explanations and honesty. I am current defrosting my chest size freezer, and have found some of those fossils that you mention! I am frustrated that I have to throw so many dollar's worth of food away that was buried in the bottom and am looking for organizing ideas. The system my husband and I were thinking of was to use tall, thin laundry baskets for organizing items more vertically. We live on a farm and are going to pick up our processed beef and deer meat (hence the sudden let's clean out what is left and defrost while it's at its lowest capacity). Having one tall column of say ground burger, one of steaks, one of roasts, etc is what we were thinking. Adding your storage bag idea to this would be useful if there wasn't enough of one category to fill the basket, but the basket would also provide sturdy columns to keep things upright.

I also appreciate your honesty on inventory, as I just know us well enough that this process would not be kept up. However, I am going to be writing down a few of the main items (such as 2 hams, # sirloin steaks, etc) to prompt creativity when planning meals. We are a family with active kids involved in many events, and some weeks we only eat at home a couple of times, so planning ahead is key to making the most of what we have for resources and time to be together for that too few and far between home cooked meal around the dining room table. Best regards. Feedback appreciated from anyone on my idea or suggestions that have worked for others.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

Great minds think alike! My freezer is full of pop bottles with ice right now. It is the low end of the cycle, in terms of fullness. For organisation I have three stacked half bushel fruit boxes for produce, one basket that came with the freezer for miscellaneous and wonderful sturdy woven grocery bags for meats, for all the reasons you give. The location will have to be changed soon. It is on the deck, and the bears are getting too habituated. Tonight the first baggies of garden produce will go in. Snow peas, chard, and garlic scape pesto. Carry on frugals!