Category Archives: cooking and baking tips

Tips and tricks for cooking and baking.

How to Make a Holiday Baking Cheat Sheet

OK, guys…Halloween is over and Thanksgiving is JUST around the corner.  While everyone else is on the hunt for antacids and stretchy pants, I’m raiding the baking section of my local grocery store to plan for my holiday cookie platters!

Baking Christmas cookies is a tradition I picked up from my dad.  He used to bake cookies for family and friends every year, and since he’s now passed, I’ve taken on the duty of turning my own little kitchen into a butter and sugar paradise.

I always make his favorite cookies:  gingerbread snaps, peppermint canes, butter cookies, almond cookies, and cranberry bread…but every year I try to make a few new cookies to help switch things up.  This year I have a lot of new recipes I want to try, and it can definitely be daunting to figure out exactly how much of everything is needed so you can buy all your supplies in one shopping trip!

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However, I’ve found a way to make this insanely easy and stress-free.  The answer?  EXCEL.  Excel is seriously a life-saver.  If you don’t have Excel, you can also use Google Sheets…it’s free and works exactly the same.  PLUS, you can access your Google Sheets from any device that can connect to the Internet, which is super helpful in a pinch.

For my purposes, I’m using Google Sheets this year, as my home computer doesn’t have Excel.  And I’m gonna take you on a step-by-step tutorial on how to use any spreadsheet program to make your holiday food shopping so much easier!  While I use this for cookies, you can also use this for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any occasion when you have to bake or cook several recipes at once.

First things first—gather all your recipes.  Open up Google Sheets or Excel and, in the first row, type “Ingredients” in the first column, “Amounts” in the second column, and “Recipe” in the third column.  Then you’re just going to import all your data, putting the ingredient in column 1, how much of that ingredient is needed in column 2, and what recipe that measurement belongs to in column 3…so your chart should look a little something like this:

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Keep going until all your ingredients for all your recipes are listed.  It will also help you in the long run if you list ingredients the same throughout the sheet.  For example, list “flour” and “all-purpose flour” just as flour.  That will make this much easier to sort in the next step!

Also you can freeze row 1 so it remains at the top of the sheet as you scroll down through your data.  To do that, just highlight the first row, then go to View—Freeze—Row 1 and the top row will remain at the top as you scroll down your list.

Once everything is added, create a new tab and copy and paste all the info from the first tab into the second.  Highlight everything but the top row:

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Then do a right-click, select “Sort Range” and sort by Column A, AàZ:

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Now all your like ingredients are grouped together.  As you can see, I have Heavy Cream, Salt, Sugar, and Butter listed several times:

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Now comes the fun part!  Next we’re going to combine all the double-listed ingredients.  So for butter, I’d combine all the measurements (1 cup, 1 cup, ½ cup) and type “2½ cups” in the “Amounts” column, then delete the two rows I don’t need:

So this:

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Becomes this:

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Go ahead and do that with all instances of doubles.

Finally, I like to add one further step of organization and just put like ingredients together so I’m not running all over the grocery store.  For that, I turn the “Recipe” column into an “Area” column and type in the section of the grocery store where I would find said item:

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That way I can walk through the grocery store once, get everything I need, and head out.

This method has been pretty foolproof for me since I started using it about two years ago.  It makes it so much easier when I don’t have to guess how much stuff I need and I know I’m getting just enough ingredients to make everything I want to make.

If you plan on baking a lot like I do, you might have an instance where, after you tally your totals, you end up needing something like “40 cups of flour” or “15 cups of sugar”.  For instances like that, keep in mind that one bag of flour can contain anywhere from 15 to 20 cups of flour, depending on the type of flour, the brand and whether or not it’s sifted.  There’s really no great conversion for how many bags of flour you’ll need, but a 5 lb. bag should give you a good 15 cups at least.  For sugar, the average is about 2¼ cups to 1 pound…so a 4 lb. bag should contain about 9 cups.

Knowledge is power!  Learn fun facts, hints and tips, and creative ways to use every day items with “The Buzz” posts on Thursday.

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15 Common Food Questions ANSWERED

With so many types of foods available for purchase today, it can be hard to determine what foods to buy when.  How do I know when to use broth instead of stock?  What’s the difference between green onions and scallions?  Can I use light brown sugar and dark brown sugar interchangeably?

I know, adulting is hard.  But I’ve set out to try to clear up at least SOME of these questions that plague us every time we gear up for a shopping trip or embark on trying a new recipe.  In most instances, the changes in these common foods is pretty minimal, but in other cases swapping one for the other may change your end result completely.

So get ready to take back your pantry…here are 15 Common Food Questions ANSWERED.

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Baking Powder vs. Baking Soda

Both baking powder and baking soda make a big difference for baked goods, but powder and soda are much different, and are used differently.  Baking soda only has one ingredient:  sodium bicarbonate.  Sodium bicarbonate is a base that reacts when it comes into contact with an acid, like buttermilk or vinegar.  This reaction produces carbon dioxide in the form of bubbles, helping batter or dough to rise.  But when baking soda comes into contact with acid, it reacts immediately, which sucks for baking.  For many recipes, you want an extended reaction so the rising doesn’t take place all at one time.  Baking powder to the rescue!  Baking powder has two different ingredients that create carbon dioxide gas at two different stages of the baking process.  In addition to sodium bicarbonate, baking powder also contains two acids, one of which reacts when mixed with wet ingredients, the other reacting when it gets hot.  Cakes and muffins that use baking powder in the recipe often result in fluffier and lighter sponge because the batter is rising for a longer period of time and there’s an additional rising reaction after your batter is placed in the oven (this especially helps for bigger batches when you have batter sitting on the counter for an hour or so as you bake sheet after sheet).  Since they both contain sodium bicarbonate, substituting one for the other is possible, but it may or may not affect the taste of your recipe, as you will then also have to alter the amount of acid.

Whole Milk vs. Heavy Cream

Both whole milk and heavy cream are made from cow’s milk, but the major difference is the amount of fat.  Heavy cream, or heavy whipping cream, contains about 38% fat, so this is great for achieving stable results, such as making whipped cream or butter.  It will also resist curdling, so it’s great for soups.  As for whole milk, when milk is processed, the cream is taken out of it, then put back in manually, resulting in such labels as skim, 1%, 2%, etc.  For skim milk, there is no additional cream added once it’s been removed.  Milk labeled 1% or 2% has all the cream taken out, then added back in until it’s 1% or 2% of the total volume.  Whole milk is actually only about 3% fat, so really not that much different.  The “whole milk” label has less to do with the fat content and more to do with the fact that it’s pretty much unadulterated in terms of preparation.  In a sense, whole milk is the way it comes from the cow before processing.  So basically whole milk and heavy cream start off coming from the cow, but heavy cream has about 35% more fat added to it to help it stabilize.

Jam vs. Jelly

Let’s be honest…jam, jelly and preserves are pretty much all the same thing.  They’re all made from a combination of fruit, sugar and pectin.  The difference in what they’re called comes in the form the fruit takes.  For jelly, the fruit comes in the form of fruit juice…so jelly is often smooth when spread, making it great for picky eaters and for layering in desserts, like cakes and cookies.  Jam uses fruit pulp or crushed fruit, so you can often see pieces of fruit when you use jam.  It’s less stiff than jelly, so it’s great for using to flavor or mix in with other items, like icing or butter.  In preserves, the fruit comes in the form of chunks in a syrup or jam, so preserves can be pretty sweet.

Broth vs. Stock

While they both can be made with the same ingredients, stock is often thinner and less flavorful than broth.  Stock tends to be made from bony parts of the animal and various veggies, whereas broth is made using more meat and full bone pieces.  Stock has a fuller mouth feel and richer flavor, due to the gelatin released by long-simmering bones.  Broth is best used for the busy home cook.  It is great for chicken soup and for using in place of water for any recipe where you want to add a little chicken or beef flavor.  Stock is better for richer soups and stews, as it has more flavor and is great for recipes where you want to highlight the meat or fish flavor of a dish.

White Rice vs. Brown Rice

There are literally so many types of rice varieties in the world!  For us simpletons, the choice is usually simple:  white or brown.  It’s been ingrained in our heads that brown is better than white, but why?  The answer is fiber.  Brown rice is the whole grain with just the first outer layer (the husk) removed through milling…so it retains its fiber and germ, which contains vital nutrients.  White rice is brown rice that has been milled to remove the bran and much of the germ, reducing the fiber and nutrients.  Since white rice has been stripped of most of its nutritional value, it actually has a much longer shelf life than brown rice.  The essential oils still remaining on the brown rice start to go rancid after about 6 to 8 months, while white rice can easily last up to 10 years.  So, if you love white rice, you’re in luck!  If you prefer brown rice, buy it in small quantities.

Banana vs. Plantain

Not surprisingly, plantains are members of the banana family, but both taste very different.  Bananas are sweet and soft, while plantains are harder and only soften after they’ve been cooked down.  This difference comes in the amount of starch and sugar in both fruits.  While there are several types of bananas out there, the type we all know and love is the Cavendish banana, easy to peel and sweet to eat.  Plantains, on the other hand, contain a much higher percentage of starch and less sugar.  Because of this, they’re quite unpleasant if eaten raw.  To get the most out of a plantain, they have to be cooked.  They caramelize nicely and have a heavy potato-like character to them, making them great for both sweet and savory dishes.

Sweet Potato vs. Yam

While a yam is technically a TYPE of sweet potato, they are quite different.  Chances are not many people have even had a yam!  A true yam is a starchy root that grows in the Caribbean.  It’s rough and scaly and very low in beta carotene.  Depending on the variety, traditional sweet potatoes are usually orange, but can also be white or purple.  The orange variety was introduced to the US several decades ago in order to distinguish it from the white variety.  Producers and shippers chose the English form of the African word “nyami” (to eat) and labeled them “yams”.  So yes, here in America, sweet potatoes are often labeled both “sweet potatoes” and “yams”, which adds to the confusion, however, yams are actually a different TYPE of sweet potato with a different skin, meat and texture.

Granulated Sugar vs. Confectioners’ Sugar

Granulated sugar is the pre-form of confectioners’ sugar.  Confectioners’ sugar, also known as powdered sugar or icing sugar, is actually granulated sugar that has been finely ground and mixed with a small amount of cornstarch to prevent caking.  So can you make your own confectioners’ sugar in a pinch?  Absolutely!  A few rounds in a food processor will help turn granulated sugar into confectioners’ sugar (there are several recipes online for making your own confectioners’ sugar).  Since it’s finely ground, confectioners’ sugar is best used in recipes where sugar has to dissolve smoothly and provide sweetness…namely in frosting and icing.  So the simple answer is that granulated and confectioners’ sugars are the same thing, one is just finer than the other.

Ice Cream vs. Custard

According to the USDA, the standards for ice cream consist of 20% cream and 10% milk.  It can also contain anywhere from 10% to 20% fat, depending on how luxurious you want your ice cream to be!  While some may think it’s healthier, soft serve ice cream is actually the same thing.  Soft serve is made with the same ingredients as regular ice cream but is served in a machine that keeps it, well…soft.  The machine incorporates air and doesn’t allow the ice cream to harden, like a tub of ice cream would in your freezer.  Gelato has a higher ratio of milk to cream than ice cream does, and contains about 5% to 7% less fat than ice cream.  It’s churned very slowly, making it much denser than its counterpart.  Finally, custard contains a magical ingredient that makes it thick and happy and amazing:  egg yolk.  All the other ingredients are the same as regular ice cream, but the yolk helps add thickness to the final result.

Bourbon vs. Scotch

Not surprisingly, the difference between bourbon and scotch is minimal…basically it all comes down to where it was made.  Scotch is whisky made in Scotland.  Bourbon is whisky made in the US.  Scotch is made mostly from malted barley, while bourbon is distilled from corn.

Green Onions vs. Scallions

THEY’RE THE SAME THING.  No difference whatsoever!  Ok, moving on…

Onions vs. Shallots

Shallots have a much sweeter flavor than onions do…and are actually an onion/garlic hybrid.  In fact, shallots share about as many similarities with garlic as they do with onions, so they’re great for almost any and all savory recipes!  Their roots are garlic-flavored and made of cloves and their bulbs, which are the majority of the plant, grow similar to garlic.  You’ll often get 2 or sometimes 3 cloves in one shallot.

Light Brown Sugar vs. Dark Brown Sugar

Both varies of brown sugar are a mixture of granulated sugar and molasses, with dark brown sugar containing more molasses than light brown sugar.  Light brown sugar has a much more delicate flavor than dark brown sugar.  They can be used interchangeably depending on your taste preferences, but I prefer light brown sugar myself.  Dark brown sugar is great for adding rich flavor to stews or stronger molasses flavor to baked goods, like gingerbread.

Olive Oil vs. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Let’s start off simple first…olive oil, in all its forms, is oil obtained from the fruit of an olive tree.  Plain and simple.  The rest of the name is added based on how that oil is processed.  Extra-virgin olive oil is unrefined and is the highest quality oil you can buy.  It retains more true olive taste and has a lower level of acid than other varieties.  It also contains more of the natural vitamins and minerals found in olives.  This is olive oil to use with breads, salads and dressings.  If you’re going to splurge, do it on a good quality extra-virgin olive oil.  By contrast, regular olive oil is typically a blend between a couple varieties of olive oil.  It is lower quality than extra-virgin olive oil and contains a higher amount of acid.  It’s great for cooking, as it has a high smoke point and doesn’t have much flavor.  Can one substitute the other?   In short, yes…but keep this in mind:  extra-virgin olive oil SHOULD be used for dishes where you’re meant to taste the olive oil and should not be used to cook, as it burns easily.  Regular olive oil has little to no flavor and is great for cooking.  So yes, you technically CAN substitute, but keep in mind that flavor may change if you use extra-virgin instead of regular.

Tonic Water vs. Seltzer Water

Both carbonated waters are stables on any bar, but they’re not interchangeable.  Tonic water will add both sweet and bitter to whatever you’re creating.  It pairs particularly well with gin and, unlike many other waters, it contains calories.  Seltzer water is just plain water that has been artificially carbonated.  Club soda is also much like Seltzer water, but mineral-like ingredients are added to club soda to enhance the flavor.  These two (club and Seltzer water) can be used interchangeably.

 

Every Monday is a “Reci-bee” post, where I share my favorite recipes, recipe collections, and cooking and baking hints and tips. 

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15 Angel Food Cake Tips and Tricks

Happy National Angel Food Cake Day!

Anyone who has tried to make angel food cake before knows…it can be kind of a bitch.  The possibility of getting a sunken cake with a dense sponge scares a lot of people from trying to make this light and delicious cake…but with these helpful baking tips, you’ll be able to create a heavenly dessert that comes out perfectly every time!

  • Use cake flour to keep your sponge nice and light.
  • SIFT, SIFT, SIFT!
  • Separate your eggs when they’re cold, otherwise the yolks will break easily.
  • And speaking of eggs, your egg whites need to be 100% free of yolks. If you get yolk in your egg white, toss it and start over.  To save on eggs, separate each egg in a container before dumping the egg white into the bowl…that way if you get a broken yolk, you only have to toss one egg, not the whole batch.
  • LET YOUR EGG WHITES COME TO ROOM TEMPERATURE. This is perhaps the best tip when it comes to making angel food cake.  They should be at room temperature about 30-45 minutes after you take them out of the fridge.
  • When it comes to beating those egg whites, use a very clean metal bowl…or copper if you have one. Don’t use a plastic bowl, as plastic retains oil and fat from previous dishes and that residual oil will prevent your eggs from getting fluffy.
  • There is such a thing as overbeating your batter. Beat just until soft peaks form.  If you overbeat it, the egg whites will deflate and your cake will become dense.
  • As much as you may want to, don’t grease the pan. RESIST, DEAR BAKERS!!  The batter “clings” to the side of the pan, which helps it rise.  Greasing the pan makes it hard for the batter to cling and your cake will not rise as much as it could.
  • However, since you’re not greasing the pan, make sure you do use a “tube” pan with a removable bottom so it’s easy to remove the cake.
  • Also, make sure your tube pan has a center tube that is higher than the remainder of the pan. This helps with cooling and removing your cake.
  • If you absolutely must grease the pan, do a very light coating and dust the grease with sugar so the cake can still cling to something as it rises.
  • Smooth the surface of your cake before putting it in the oven. Angel food cake batter won’t even itself out, like a traditional cake batter would, so if you want a smooth look, you have to do it yourself.
  • Avoid checking the cake and opening the oven door too much. Changes in temperature may cause your cake to fall, and an underdone cake is always at risk of falling.  Try cooking your cake to the minimum time listed on the recipe, then quickly checking for doneness.  Use the oven light if you have one.  If not, make sure you open and close the oven door quickly to avoid a huge change in temperature.
  • Before putting your cake in the oven, gently cut the batter with a metal spatula or knife to break up any air pockets.
  • Cool pan upside down to help cake rise and release from pan.

Every Monday is a “Reci-bee” post, where I share my favorite recipes, recipe collections, and cooking and baking hints and tips. 

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10 Kitchen Staples You Can Make Yourself

Why spend money on things you can make yourself?  From must-have condiments to DIY baking supplies, these Make-It-Yoself Kitchen Staples will allow you to create your own amazing sauces, spice packs, and more.

Besides being able to say, “Why yes, that ketchup IS homemade!”,  making your own seasoning packets and sauces also gives you the ability to control your sugar and sodium intake.  PLUS, homemade always tastes better!

So toss that 3-year-old bottle of ketchup.  Don’t waste money on those salty seasoning packets…get creative in the kitchen and have fun making your own kitchen must-haves with this list of DIY Kitchen Staples!

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Condiments:

DIY Homemade Ketchup
Don’t Waste the Crumbs

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Ridiculously Easy Homemade Mustard
Simple Good and Tasty

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BEST Homemade Mayo
Satisfying Eats

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Homemade BBQ Sauce
Gimme Some Oven

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DIY Spice Packs:

Taco Seasoning
The Pioneer Woman

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Ranch Seasoning
Damn Delicious

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Chili Seasoning
Whole New Mom

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Baking Supplies:

Homemade Buttermilk
My Frugal Adventures

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Confectioners’ Sugar
The Burlap Bag

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Baking Powder
A Bright and Beautiful Life

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Every Monday is a “Reci-bee” post, where I share my favorite recipes, recipe collections, and cooking and baking hints and tips. 

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10 Must-Know Baking Hacks

To celebrate World Baking Day (May 17th), I’ve collected a few of my favorite baking hacks that I find myself coming back to again and again.  Some of these I learned from friends and family…others I picked up along the way by trial and error.

Baking shouldn’t be intimidating!  It’s really fun and actually quite easy to experiment with different flavors and textures.  Cake won’t rise?  Canned frosting tastes terrible?  Don’t worry!  There’s a hack for that! 😉

800-pie-crustIf your flour or sugar needs to be sifted, pay attention to how it’s phrased in the directions. For example, “1 cup sifted all-purpose flour” (flour is measured AFTER sifting) is not the same as “1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted” (flour is measured BEFORE sifting).

For better results, use a liquid measuring cup to measure liquid ingredients and dry measuring cups to measure dry ingredients.

For lighter, fluffier baked goods, spoon flour into measuring cups and then level it off. Do not use your measuring cup as a scoop, as this will cause flour to pack down and actually give you more flour than you need.

If you’re measuring sticky items, like honey, syrup, or molasses, spray your measuring utensils with non-stick cooking spray to prevent sticking.

Baking temps matter! For a fluffier cake, bake at a lower temperature (325 degrees F – 350 degrees F). Cakes will bake denser at higher degrees (375 degrees F – 400 degrees F).

Hate that canned frosting taste? Take the frosting out of the can and whip it with an electric mixer for a few minutes to beat in air and add volume. Add a few drops of vanilla or almond extract to add more flavor.

Keep berries and chocolate suspended in your desserts and baked goods by first coating them with flour. A very light coating will work. Great trick for cookies, cakes, and muffins!

If you’re having trouble with your cakes and cookies not rising properly, try replacing your baking powder.

When baking cookies, make sure you bake like-sized cookies for even baking. Use a scoop for plop and drop cookies and bake similar-sized cut out cookies together to make sure everything bakes evenly.

If you have empty cavities in your muffin tin or doughnut pan, add water in the empty cavities to help your baked items cook evenly.

Knowledge is power!  Learn fun facts, hints and tips, and creative ways to use every day items with “The Buzz” posts on Thursday.

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How to Use Your Favorite Herbs

If you’re a beginner gardener like me or you’re looking for easy window plants to liven up your home this spring, herbs are a great solution.  They can grow in medium to full sunlight and plants like basil, parsley, sage, and cilantro are great to have on hand for your cooking needs.

Use this helpful printable chart to keep track of how to use your favorite spices!

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While they may all look similar, herbs vary in taste, texture, and usability.  Some, like the bay leaf, offer wonderful flavor to soups and stews but should not be eaten.  Others, like cilantro or basil, can be chopped up and added to just about anything…even desserts!

To Grow In or Out?

Herbs are not only food for humans, but hungry bunnies, chipmunks, bugs, deer, and other wildlife that might come visit your garden…so grower beware–if you grow your herbs outside, make sure you fence them in or protect them so you can enjoy them, too!  Herbs are also great for indoor gardening and grow easily on a windowsill in medium to full sunlight.  Last year we planted basil, sage, lavender, and cilantro in our little Chicago windowsill and had delicious fresh herbs all season long.

Dry Spell

Dried herbs are more concentrated versions of their fresh counterparts; however, not all herbs are good when dried.  Do some research before drying your herbs and store dried herbs in a cool, dry environment.

These herbs are great when dried:  bay leaves, oregano, sage, and thyme.  They will keep 1-2 months when dried and dried herbs make great gift ideas for hostesses or friends who love to cook.

 

What’s your favorite herb to cook with? 

Every Monday is a “Reci-bee” post, where I share my favorite recipes, recipe collections, and cooking and baking hints and tips. 

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How to Properly Freeze Foods

Using your freezer to store bulk food is a great way to save on money and space, but be weary of what you freeze…some foods freeze beautifully while others can’t quite take the cold.

Not All Fruits and Veggies Are Equal

While most berries freeze wonderfully and have a much longer shelf life frozen than they do fresh, not all fruits and veggies are granted the same luxury.  As a general rule of thumb, if a fruit or veggie has a high water content, it won’t freeze well.  Foods like watermelon, cucumber, celery, and oranges just get mushy after freezing.  Fresh cheeses and yogurt can also sour and become unusable if frozen for too long.

Bakers, REJOICE!

However, foods with higher fat content (butter, avocado), grains, and meats are great for storing in the freezer (great news for you bakers out there!  You can keep all your baking materials fresh for months in the freezer!).  Most freezer-friendly food should be consumed within 6 months if possible, but you could stretch the lives of some foods to last you up to a year if stored properly.

Here are some foods that can stand up to the chill, and some that should just be left out of the cold.

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Freezing Ready-Made Meals

Prepping and freezing is also a great way to portion out meals and plan food in advance so you’re not scrambling last minute to come up with something for dinner.  Casseroles and pasta dishes often freeze easily and don’t change in taste or consistency when defrosted.  You can also bake and portion out cookie dough and bake cookies as needed for a warm, fresh cookie whenever you need one!

As always, check food labels before freezing anything…and make sure anything you store in the freezer is protected from frost by storing items in air-tight containers.  I also suggest labeling and dating anything you store in the freezer to keep track of what you’re storing.  If you find that you’re freezing a lot of food, it might be worth it to invest in a vacuum sealer to ensure freshness.

 

What foods do you keep in your freezer?  I store my chocolate in the freezer to help with portion control!

Knowledge is power!  Learn fun facts, hints and tips, and creative ways to use every day items with “The Buzz” posts on Thursday.

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