Are you committed to a low carb, whole-foods lifestyle, but have trouble keeping up with the extra cooking? While we do, indeed, have the most control over the ingredients in our food when we prepare it ourselves, the majority of us have busy lives and are not able (or even willing) to cook every meal from scratch. A little extra planning and prep can really lighten your load!
One of the simplest ways to make your life easier in the kitchen is “bulk” cooking. Of course, you could hire a personal chef, but that’s not in the budget for most of us! I learned early on as a food professional about the advantages of preparing foods in quantity. It takes almost the same amount of time to prepare and clean-up a meal for 2 as it does for 8 or 12. My philosophy is that if it takes more than 30 minutes to prepare, I’m going to get more than one meal out of it!
In addition to saving time and knowing what ingredients are actually in our food, cooking from scratch and bulk cooking have two more big advantages. First, it saves a lot of cash! Second, that savings enables us to invest in higher-quality ingredients, for example: pastured meats, locally-sourced foods, and organic foods. While these are not necessary to effectively follow a low carb way of eating, the quality of our ingredients can often make a difference in terms of health and taste.
Successful bulk cooking includes properly storing your creations so that they will be fresh and tasty for as long as possible. I’m going to share some pro tips I learned from my years as a professional chef and caterer. You’ll find that in nearly every recipe on this blog I will give suggestions for “leftovers” or extra portions for that particular item.
What the Heck is This?
I’m going to put this out there right now — you must mark each item with the contents, as well as the date it was prepared. I know this may seem like a hassle of an extra step. I know this because I, myself, used to store unidentified objects thinking that I would absolutely remember what they were when I went to use them. Now, perhaps your memory is better than mine, but unless an item was particulary identifiable, I wouldn’t even know what it was, much less how long it had been in there. That’s less than appealing when we’re simply trying to find something good to eat without a lot of effort. Bulk cooking is a waste of time and money if we don’t use what we make. And we probably won’t use something if we don’t know what it is.
The good news is that it takes just a minute to label your portions. If I’m using a bag, I write on the bag (using a permanent marker ) what the item is, the date I stored it, and sometimes the quantity (i.e., “8 oz or 2 cups”). For all other storage, I use a piece of freezer tape (like this) with the same info scrawled on it, also with a permanent marker. Regular masking tape won’t work and it’s can be difficult to remove later. Freezer tape adheres well, but is easy to remove. You’ll want to use the marker and/or apply the tape before the item is frozen (it won’t work very well once it is frozen).
Keep it Airtight
Whether you’re storing food in the cupboard, the refrigerator, or the freezer, packaging it properly in an airtight fashion will always give you the best result. Keeping out as much air as possible will keep items fresher, reduce “off” flavors, and help prevent freezer burn. My food storage arsenal includes plastic and freezer bags (zipper-style), heavy-duty foil, disposable aluminum pans, BPA-free storage containers, and glass storage containers. Vacuum-sealed bags are good, too. My vacuum sealer machine broke a while back, though, and I haven’t bothered to replace it, although I might at some point. If you have one, by all means, use it.
- Plastic and Freezer Bags (zipper-style). Regular plastic bags have their uses, but for freezing, they don’t protect food as well as freezer bags. Sometimes I will use non-freezer plastic bags or plastic wrap for portion-size servings and then transfer those individual portions to a larger quart- or gallon-size freezer bag for better protection.
- I use bags frequently for freezing stocks, soups, stews, and sauces because it is the most efficient way to store them. I fill the bags, carefully pressing out excess air before sealing, lay them flat on sheet pans, and freeze until solid. Then I transfer the frozen bags to plastic bins, stored on end, kind of like index cards. That makes it easier for me to sort through them and they’re not falling all over the place.
- When filling bags with liquids, I will fold over the top edges of the bag to give it more structure and to keep the zipper-area clean so it will seal well. I’ll often place the bag in a tall-sided bowl, so it doesn’t tip over easily while I’m filling the bag.
- Heavy-Duy Foil and Disposable Aluminum Pans. I use a layer or two of foil to wrap large items that don’t fit well into plastic bags or containers, a large roast, for example. It’s also useful for covering disposable aluminum pans (like this and this). These kind of pans are great for dishes like casseroles, and can go straight from the refrigerator or freezer into the oven for reheating. I cover the pan with foil, then insert the cardboard lid on top for rigidity. I remove the cardboard lid before reheating, though.
- Storage Containers. I prefer containers made out of freezer-safe BPA-free plastic or glass that have snug-fitting plastic lids and are stackable. In general, rectangular containers are more space-efficient than round containers.
- I do like to use round glass jars, such as mason jars, for storing items in the refrigerator or freezer that can fit in the door shelves. They are quite airtight and are good for condiments, sauces, nuts, and seeds. I keep various sizes on hand, and I prefer the straight-sided “wide mouth” style. They’re easier to fill and to clean. I also have some French-style “working” glasses with lids that are useful (like this and this). They’re stylish, though a little more costly than mason jars.
- Choose a container that will be mostly filled with food to minimize the amount of air in the container. However, when using containers for freezing liquid items, be sure to leave a couple of inches at the top so the contents have room to expand.
Take Steps to Preserve Texture
- When storing an item in the refrigerator, be sure it is completely cool before covering or wrapping. If there is residual heat, condensation will develop and can cause dampness and contribute to poor texture. If the item is temperature sensitive, be sure to transfer it to the refrigerator within an hour (for food safety), but leave it uncovered until it has finished cooling.
- Chill everything thoroughly in the refrigerator before you freeze it. The colder the item is, the smaller the ice crystals will be when it freezes. This will help maintain ideal texture, as well as help prevent freezer burn.
Is This Still Good?
- If a home-prepared item needs to be refrigerated, the general rule in terms of food safety is to consume it in within 5 days (counting the day you prepared it). Some items may be safer for longer keeping because of the types of ingredients they contain.
- Just because it’s safe to eat within 5 days, doesn’t mean a food will be at it’s best for that long. Some items might be at their best for only a day or two before the texture, flavor, or scent suffers. For instance, seafood is usually best used in a day or two. Our recipes will usually state if there’s a period of time within which something should be used for best results.
- For purchased food items, “sell by” or “use by” dates on things like milk and eggs, are guidelines. Even if something is within the sell-by, use-by, or within the 5-day rule, I still use a little protocol that I learned in culinary school when I pull something from the fridge:
- Look at it. If it looks funky (just not right), toss it.
- Sniff it. If it smells funky, toss it.
- If it looks OK and smells OK, but you’re still not sure, taste a tiny bit. If it tastes funky, toss it.
- You’ll want to do these steps in order, so you don’t end up tasting something funky that you could have ruled out by giving it the eyeball and sniff tests first! 😉
- Just as some items can end up being questionable before the sell by/use by dates (depending on how they were transported or stored before you purchased them), some items are still perfectly fine well after those dates, especially unopened dairy products. Eggs are usually good for 4 to 5 weeks after the “pack” date. Use the same criteria I listed above — don’t just pitch the stuff out just because the date has passed. My husband will do that, and it drives me crazy! I sometimes have to chase him away from the refrigerator the night before the trash pickup or he’ll start throwing things away willy nilly! On the other hand, if it’s a canned item that’s been in your cupboard for years and is well past the use-by date, just pitch it. Even canned things can go bad (coconut milk, in particular) over time.
- An exception to the look/sniff/taste goes for purchased items where the seal or container has been comprimised. Either return it to the store or pitch it. In this case, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
- If an item contains nuts or seeds, they are usually fine at room temperature for up 3 to 4 weeks, but I prefer to keep them refrigerated or frozen to preserve freshness. Nuts and seeds contain mostly polyunsaturated fat, which is the most unstable type of fat, so they will develop off-flavors and become rancid fairly quickly at room temperature once opened.
- As for how long items can be kept in the freezer, refer to these handy guidelines.
A Few Tips for Organizing
I’ve found it quite helpful to group like items together, especially in my refrigerator and freezer. That may sound kind of obvious, but it’s easy to simply jam things on to shelves where ever there happens to be an opening. If you have certain shelves, bins, or baskets that are designated for certain types of things, it can really cut down on items getting lost or forgotten, as well as the frustration level when you know something is in there, but you just can’t find it. It also helps others in your household, such as your husband/wife and kids, find things more easily, although it can sometimes be a challenge to have them put things back where they belong!
- In my refrigerator:
- Less temperature-sensitive condiments, such as pickles, olives, mustard, nut butters, are stored in the door shelves/bins. For other more temperature-sensitive condiments, such as mayonnaise and dressing, I place them together in bins that are the depth of the one of the shelves. It’s easy to pull them out when I need something, and I don’t have to remove layers of items to get to items in the back.
- Cheeses and cooked meats are in the same drawer.
- Fresh meats and/or seafood are kept on the lowest shelf in the refrigerator on a rimmed tray keep them as cold as possible and to catch any drips.
- Leftover meal portions that I don’t plan to freeze are kept together on a lower shelf as well.
- As I don’t keep much fresh fruit, except for lemons and limes or perhaps a few berries when they’re in season, I use most of my ‘fresh’ bins for veggies. I keep the sturdier items on the bottom, and the more delicate items layered on top.
- In my freezer, I group together on shelves and in bins:
- Stock, soups, stews, and sauces
- Cooked and ready-to eat meats and seafood
- Casserole-type items
- Uncooked meats and seafood
- Vegetables and berries
- Nuts, Seeds, and Baking Flours (almond, coconut, flax, etc.), usually in the door
- Low carb baked items, such as cookies and scones, are wrapped separately, but kept together inside a larged covered storage container, as they are more delicate and prone to freezer damage.
I hope these storage and freezing tips for bulk cooking have been helpful. If you have any questions, or tips of your own, please share them in the comments section below. We love to hear from our readers!
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