Feeding the Freezer
Quick recap for those who are new, here… the Inhabited Kitchen method of planning for meals involves making sure that I have food on hand – often partially or fully cooked – that can quickly and easily be pulled together into a real meal, with little time or effort. This way we still eat well if I get home late from a gig, or if I have a migraine, or if I’m just too busy writing this to fuss around in the kitchen. It’s largely based on two facts – first, it doesn’t take much more time and effort to prepare some foods in quantity, and secondly, some foods actually take less space in the freezer after they are cooked, but before other ingredients are added.
I wrote about Slow Cooker Chili a few days ago. And chili is a food that I keep on hand fully cooked and completely ready to eat, and it is very convenient. I do try to have something like that around – chili, or meatloaf, or a frozen dinner. But I only have the freezer on top of my apartment sized refrigerator… It’s larger than any freezer I’ve ever had before (and honestly too large for this kitchen) but the freezer I filled for Rich’s parents last year is at least half again as big – and I’ve seen many larger. Not to mention stand alone freezers…
I simply don’t have the space for a dozen ready to eat meals in our freezer. I also don’t have space for a dozen ready to cook meals. This is a suggestion for slow cookers that has become popular – assemble everything you need in a zip bag and freeze that, then just thaw, drop the food into the slow cooker in the morning, and go. And people post pictures of two weeks worth of the preassembled bags, all ready to go, and it does look tempting – but where would I put all that?
But… when I made the chili, I did stop and brown the onion (though there is a work around for that, too) but I did not have to cut up the beef and brown it. I skipped lightly over that (because the explanation would have just made the post too long…) but since I have since replenished my supply – here you are.
Years ago, I realized that it was useful to buy a Family Pack of ground beef, and then brown all of it, sometimes even with onion or other seasoning, and freeze the prepared meat. Even with the onion, it takes less room than the raw meat, since I’ve cooked out and drained liquid and fat, and it is so helpful to be able to just toss a bit into a pan, skipping the whole first step of browning.
About a year ago, I took this the next obvious step, and started to brown cubes of meat for stew. When I bought Stew Meat as such, I always had to cut it anyway – I didn’t like the huge chunks I’d get – so instead I look out for good buys on chuck or round roasts. I buy a large roast, use part of it right away (usually in a pot roast) and cut the rest for later use. But then, I still had to brown it before using it, if I wanted a really good flavor – and freezing pulled out the juices and sometimes it was hard to brown recently thawed meat well, and half the time I wanted to put it right into a slow cooker, and not dirty another pan, and – the proverbial light went on.
The other day our local store had a good price on a cryovac sealed eye of round. Half is, indeed, in the slow cooker as I write, for dinner tonight (and plenty of leftover pot roast, to be frozen itself for later use!) But right off I sliced off a large chunk, and started cutting it up.
As I said, I prefer truly bite sized pieces, rather than fussing with a knife and fork in a bowl of stew. They also give me the freedom to use them in soup. Besides, that gives me more surface to brown, to get the wonderful flavor. Cook it in several batches, so you don’t crowd the pan, which interferes with browning.
So – set your good heavy pan over a low heat right at the beginning, to start heating up. Take the meat and put it on a good cutting board. You may notice that I do not use the wooden board on which I cut and prepare most foods for raw meat – I use plastic which is easy to scrub clean and sanitize (and which, in turn, I do not use for food I will then eat raw.) I suggest that you have a similar system. Anyway, cut your meat into pieces the size you, personally, want for later use, trimming fat and gristle as needed. (This round needed almost no trimming – the chuck roast I got previously required a great deal.)
Once the meat is cut, raise the heat under the pan to medium, and add a little olive oil – just enough to keep the first batch of meat from sticking. When the oil starts to shimmer a bit, it is hot enough to sear the meat. Add cubes of meat to the pan, making sure all of it touches the surface, and let it rest and sear two to three minutes. Then use a spatula to turn it over, so the browned side is up and you can sear the other side. You will notice that at least some juices are coming out of the meat, and if it has a lot of fat, some of it is melting – this is fine.
Every minute or two, use the spatula to stir the meat, so that a new side browns. You may not get all sides of all pieces, and that is all right – this meat is not fully cooked, after all, and you will continue to cook it later. When it is mostly browned, remove it from the pan with a slotted spoon, and put it in a heatproof bowl to cool. Let the pan heat again a little, then continue with more cubes of meat. Repeat the process until you have cut and browned all the meat.
Let it cool, and then bag it in sealed freezer bags. I do not press the air out at this stage, as I want the cubes to have enough room to freeze without sticking – once they are frozen I break them up a bit in the bag so that I can remove small amounts at a time.
Last week, when I decided to make the chili, I went to the freezer, and took out the last bag from my most recent batch, and weighed it. I had twelve ounces of meat, decided that was the right amount, and put the bag down in the fridge to thaw. If it had held more, I would have shaken out the amount I wanted into a container, covered it, and put it in the fridge, returning the rest to the freezer.
And now, you see – if I needed to set chili up in a rush in the morning? I’d cook the beans overnight (or just open a few cans… that is always an option.) I would either have already frozen chopped and sauteed onion, or I’d have browned extra onion the night before, when I cooked dinner, and put it aside. If I were using whole chilies, as I did, I’d have prepared them the night before – or just used my favorite chili powder out of a bottle. And this is how I can set up chili in the slow cooker in ten minutes in the morning, with comparatively little work the night before – weeks earlier, I spent half an hour or so to do this one step for many meals.
Remember, the meat is not cooked through, and there may be some uncooked on the outside – I continue to handle it as raw meat for food safety reasons. (Make sure the family doesn’t sneak bits while it is cooling. Yeah, I caught him in time…) I want it to continue cooking in the stew, soup, or chili for better flavor… without being cooked to death.
And so – one side note – in some circumstances, you may want to follow browning with a simmer, so that the meat is fully cooked, and can simply be added to a sauce or leftovers just long enough to heat. You lose a little flavor that way, but it can be worth it if you want to set something up for someone who may have trouble cooking. I did that with pork chops last year, for Rich’s parents, so they could just heat them without worrying about cooking them through. I can see doing that and then just putting them with some sauce in carried meals to microwave. It’s not something you’d typically do – but it can solve some problems, and is worth remembering.
Either way, it’s a very helpful technique for fast easy meals at a later date. Usually I just do it all on a day when I do have some time, and then continue making stew with the final batch – including all the drippings, for added goodness! That way, it really doesn’t take much longer than I’d spend anyway on the pound or so I need for that recipe – and I’ve saved the step for at least two or three other days.
Brown several pounds of beef cubes and then freeze them. They are ready to drop right into a slow cooker without fuss, but with the delicious flavor.
- 3 lbs. beef round or chuck (or more)
- oil for pan
- Set a heavy fry pan over heat so that it heats evenly and thoroughly.
- Cut the meat into bite sized pieces - the size you want to use in stew, soup, chili, or whatever.
- When the pan is heated well, add oil. When the oil shimmers, add beef cubes in a single layer, so that they each sit on the hot pan to sear. Do not crowd the pan.
- After 2-3 minutes, when the meat has browned, use a spatula to turn them. Repeat every couple of minutes, still on high heat, until most surfaces have been browned. Remember, you do not want to fully cook the meat - just brown the surface.
- Remove beef to a heat proof dish to cool, repeat the process, in several more batches, until done.
- Once meat has cooled, package it for the freezer, and freeze. Use later in recipes that call for browning stew meat.
Pre-browned meat is particularly helpful for slow cooker recipes, since you can set it up in the morning without having to stop, cut and brown the meat, and wash a pan.
Do remember that the meat is not fully cooked - this is intended to simmer in your final recipe, improving the flavor of both meat and sauce.
3 pounds of meat is my suggested minimum - since recipes typically call for a pound or more. It can be well worth it to do this with a whole 7 pound roast, especially if your family (and freezer) is larger than mine.