Freezing: A Quick & Nutritious Way to Preserve Garden Bounty

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One option is to freeze blanched vegetables on a tray until just firm, then package and store at 0°F or below. Photo: Pat Chadwick.

By Pat Chadwick
Piedmont Master Gardener

If your vegetable garden is like mine, it goes into overdrive around mid-summer, yielding overwhelming amounts of produce. Those seeds and tiny transplants we put in the ground in spring magically morph into monster-sized plants bearing gallons of tomatoes, beans, peppers, corn, summer squash, zucchini and more. 

Sharing the Bounty

If your garden plot produces more than you can use, friends and neighbors will appreciate your generosity. You can also share it with people in need. The Piedmont Master Gardeners have made this easier with the “Share Your Harvest” program, which connects gardeners with local food banks and food pantries serving the food-insecure in our community. Visit our website for a listing and interactive map showing when and where fresh produce can be delivered.

Any produce you don’t eat fresh from the garden or share with others can be preserved, but if you are daunted by the time and effort required for canning, dehydrating or brining your surplus veggies, freezing may be the answer. The point is not to let any food go to waste.

About 40 percent of food in the U.S. supply chain is wasted, and approximately 48 percent of that waste—about 44 million tons—annually occurs at home. Preserving food or donating excess fresh produce can help to cut down on food waste and protect resources like water and cropland used to produce that food.

Why Freeze Vegetables 

In addition to reducing food waste, there are other excellent reasons to freeze vegetables.

Convenience. Freezing is quick and simple, requires no special equipment, and allows produce to be preserved in small, easily managed quantities.

Shelf life. If kept frozen at 0°F or lower, most vegetables will maintain high quality for up to 12 months or more.

Nutritional value. According to Clemson Cooperative Extension, freezing is “the method of food preservation that preserves the greatest quantity of nutrients.” 

Even if you don’t have a garden, you can freeze vegetables from grocery stores or farmers’ markets and enjoy them all year long.

Freezing Basics

For best overall quality, freeze produce when it is young, tender, at its peak of flavor and as soon as possible after it is harvested. Vegetables with a low moisture content generally hold up well to being frozen and thawed before cooking. Examples include broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, corn, green beans, peas, squash, and sturdy greens such as chard, collards, kale and spinach. Results generally are not as good for vegetables with a higher moisture content, including onions, peppers and celery. Cucumbers, green onions, lettuce and radishes become mushy and watery when thawed after freezing. Whole tomatoes can be frozen, but they should be washed, dipped in boiling water for 30 seconds, and then cored and peeled before storage. Tomatoes also retain good quality when processed first into juice, puree, sauce or paste before freezing.

Among methods for preserving fresh vegetables, freezing saves the most nutrients.

Decide how produce will be used before prepping it for freezing. Cut vegetables into small or medium dice for soups, cut into large dice or chunks for stews and slice into rounds for layers of vegetables in casseroles. Make these decisions up front, and all the prep work for meals is done in advance.

As a general rule, don’t expect the same results using thawed vegetables that you get from roasting fresh ones. However, expect excellent results using previously frozen vegetables in cooked foods such as soups, stews, casseroles and frittatas.

Blanching Basics 

Most vegetables should be blanched before freezing. This simple process involves briefly plunging small quantities of vegetables into a pot of boiling water (water blanching) or heating in steam (steam blanching). Blanching deactivates natural enzymes that cause food to deteriorate, removes dirt and prevents microorganisms from growing. Blanching also sets or brightens food color, slows vitamin and mineral loss, loosens tomato skins for easier peeling, and softens food for packing into freezer containers.

Blanching vegetables requires equipment commonly found in most kitchens, including a large saucepan with lid; wire basket, perforated metal strainer, or cheesecloth bag to submerge vegetables into boiling water; a large bowl filled with cold water and ice to cool cooked vegetables; a slotted spoon to remove cooled vegetables from the ice water bath; freezer-safe storage containers (plastic freezer bags, rigid plastic containers or freezer-safe glass jars); and a marker or pen to label and date containers.

Correct blanching time is very important for overall quality. If vegetables aren’t blanched long enough, enzyme activity may continue during frozen storage, resulting in off flavors, off colors and toughening. If vegetables are blanched for too long, they may lose some of their flavor, texture and color. For the blanching times for specific vegetables, consult guidelines provided by The National Center for Home Food Preservation at nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze/blanching.html.

Steps for Water Blanching Vegetables 

Wash vegetables thoroughly, rinse several times and cut them into a uniform size suitable for recipes.

Bring water to a boil—one gallon for each pound of firm vegetables (about 4 cups) or two gallons for each pound of leafy greens (about 8 cups).

While water is coming to a boil, fill a large bowl with cold water and ice cubes and set aside. 

Place the prepared vegetables in a wire basket, lower it into the vigorously boiling water, and cover the pot. Start timing when the water returns to a boil.

After blanching, remove vegetables from the boiling water and immediately dip them into ice water until they are completely cool.

Remove the cooled vegetables from the water and pat as dry as possible. 

Steps for Steam Blanching Vegetables

Vegetables such as broccoli, winter squash, sweet potatoes and pumpkin may be blanched using steam. Steaming takes about 1-1/2 times longer than water blanching.

Bring one to two inches of water to a rapid boil in a saucepan that can accommodate a steamer basket. 

Arrange washed, cut up vegetables in a single layer in the steamer basket. The steamer basket must hold the food at least 3 inches above the bottom of the pan. 

Place the basket over the boiling water and cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid. Start counting the steaming time as soon as the lid is in place. 

After blanching, cool and dry blanched vegetables.

Two Options for Packing Vegetables for Freezer Storage 

Quickly package blanched vegetables into freezer containers. If using freezer bags, press out as much air as possible and leave one-half to one inch space at top of bag to allow for expansion during freezing. Alternatively, arrange vegetables in a single layer on a tray or sheet pan, freeze just until vegetables are firm, then pack for storage without headspace. Seal, label and store the packages in a freezer at 0°F or below. 

TIP: Vegetables will last a good long time when frozen, but they do eventually lose flavor, color and texture if not used within a year or so. A simple way to keep track of your freezer contents is to tape a list of them to the freezer door and cross off items as they are used. 

Make Good Use of Homegrown Produce 

For more on freezing fruits and vegetables, search online for Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 348-596 and USDA’s publication on freezing and food safety. 

You will find that freezing some of your bountiful harvest is quick, easy and rewarding. Just imagine eating corn on the cob from your garden in January! 

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