One of my favorite things to do on those rare weekends when the calendar isn’t filled with obligations is to make big batches of food to freeze for quick weeknight meals.
My problem is that my go-to recipes aren’t terribly creative. I tend to make big pots of red gravy, chili or red or white beans. Then I place two servings of the dish in zippered bags, label the bags with the date and dish name and freeze them flat.
On busy weeknights I just a pop a bag out of the freezer, make the rice or spaghetti as needed, and I’ve got a homemade meal in no time.
Recently, I’ve been considering expanding repertoire of make-ahead dishes. The 422-page “The Complete Make-Ahead Cookbook: From Appetizers to Desserts, 500 Recipes You Can Make in Advance” from the America’s Test Kitchen editors (2017, America’s Test Kitchen, $29.95) is a good place to start.
Each recipe includes a box labeled “To Make Ahead,” which tells you at which point the recipe should be refrigerated or frozen.
And the dishes are surprisingly diverse, from pizzas (make your own frozen pizza, why didn’t I that of that?) to pot pies to pound cake.
I started thinking about all the frozen entrees and desserts in the freezer case at the grocery and realized that just about everything I see there is in this cookbook, with tips on how to preserve flavors and textures. And if I make them myself, I can control the sodium and calories as well.
Best of all, the cookbook offers lots of great tips for efficiently and safely getting creative with make-ahead meals. Here are 10 tips from the book, and below the tips are three recipes that I am definitely planning to try.
- Thaw frozen casseroles completely in the refrigerator before baking. This ensures even heating and prevents them from drying out.
- Be sure to use temperature-safe dishes that can go from refrigerator to oven and vice versa without cracking.
- Consider storing prepped and partially cooked parts of a dish separately. For example, the enchiladas in the recipe below can be partially cooked and then stored separately from the sauce. Grains and dressings should be stored separately and combined for serving. Freeze soups without rice or pasta, then cook the starch and add when ready to serve.
- Recipes that call for chilling time often taste better when they can chill overnight. Use that to your advantage, so you can do the heavy lifting one day and the actual cooking the next day or two.
- Add fresh, final touches to brighten dishes. Toasted nuts keep their crunch; fresh greens, herbs and zests retain their brightness; and frozen peas keep their color. Strong-flavored additions like cured olives might be better to add before serving so that their flavor doesn’t overwhelm a sauce or salad.
- Label all make-ahead dishes well, with any necessary instructions. One tip: Copy the recipe and tape it to the container. Then, wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap and freeze so there’s no searching for cooking times or details when you or a family member is ready to cook.
- Use appropriately sized plastic or glass containers with tight-fitting lids or seals to avoid odor absorption when refrigerating or freezing. If you are using zipper-lock bags, squeeze all of the air from the bag before sealing and freeze flat for easier storage.
- Check your freezer and refrigerator temperatures to ensure that your food is being safely stored. The refrigerator should be between 35 and 40 degrees; the freezer should be 0 degrees.
- Defrost foods in the refrigerator, not on the kitchen counter. Bacteria double every 20 minutes that a dish is in the “danger zone” between 40 to 140 degrees. Food should not be in that temperature for more than an hour. Make sure soups and casseroles are reheated to 165 degrees before eating.
- Divide food into serving portions before freezing. This way, you will be able to defrost, heat and consume. Avoid refreezing if at all possible for safety and better taste.
This remains a multi-step recipe that takes about an hour to prepare. The America’s Test Kitchen editors bought tortillas and brushed both sides with vegetable oil before warming them in the microwave.
“The warmed tortillas were easy to fill and roll, and the oil sealed the surface of the tortillas, preventing them from becoming soggy so they held up during storage and baking.”
For this recipe, the enchiladas are baked partway through and stored separately from the sauce. Before serving, the sauce is added and the casserole is fully baked.
Monterey Jack cheese may be substituted for cheddar. For a creamier casserole, consider using an equal amount of queso fresco.
Serve with sour cream, diced avocado, shredded romaine lettuce and lime wedges.
Serves 4 to 6
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped fine
3 tablespoons chili powder
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips
2 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup minced fresh cilantro
1/3 cup jarred jalapenos, rinsed, patted dry, chopped
10 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (2-1/2 cups)
12 (6-inch) corn tortillas
Vegetable oil spray
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook until softened and lightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in chili powder, garlic, coriander, cumin, sugar and salt and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in chicken, tomato sauce and water and bring to gentle simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until chicken is tender and flavors blend, 8 to 10 minutes.
Pour mixture through fine-mesh strainer into bowl, pressing on strained chicken mixture to extract as much sauce as possible; set sauce aside. Transfer chicken mixture to bowl, refrigerate for 20 minutes to chill, then stir in cilantro, jalapenos and 2 cups cheddar.
Brush both sides of tortillas with remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Stack tortillas, wrap in damp dish towel, and place on plate; microwave until warm and pliable, about 1 minute. Working with one warm tortilla at a time, spread 1/3 cup chicken filling across center of tortilla, roll tortilla tightly around filling, and place seam side down in greased 13-by-9-inch baking dish; arrange enchiladas in two columns across width of dish.
Spray top of enchiladas with oil spray and bake uncovered until lightly toasted on top, 10 to 15 minutes.
At this point the enchiladas and the sauce could be placed in the refrigerator for a day or so.
When ready to bake, pour sauce over enchiladas, covering tortillas completely, then sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup cheddar across center of enchiladas. Cover dish tightly with greased aluminum foil and bake until enchiladas are hot throughout, bubbling around edges, and cheese is melted, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve immediately.
This dish takes about 45 minutes to prep.
“Sauteed garlic and red pepper flakes provided a savory foundation to our easy sauce, and two big cans of crushed tomatoes added rich, long-simmered flavor in short order,” the ATK editors write.
A middle layer of ricotta creates “creamy pockets of cheese, while a topping of shredded mozzarella and grated Parmesan gave the ziti a nicely browned crust.
The dish is finished with chopped basil to make the dish “fresh-looking and bright-tasting.”
Baked Ziti with Ricotta Cheese
12 ounces (1-1/2 cups) whole-milk or part-skim ricotta cheese
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
12 ounces whole-milk mozzarella cheese, shredded (3 cups)
3 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (1-1/2 cups)
1-1/2 pounds ziti
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Mix ricotta, 2 tablespoons oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper together in bowl. In separate bowl, combine mozzarella and Parmesan.
Bring 6 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add pasta and 1-1/2 tablespoons salt and cook, stirring often, until just beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Reserve 1-1/2 cups cooking water, then drain pasta and set aside.
Dry now-empty pot and add remaining 2 tablespoons oil, garlic, and pepper flakes and cook over medium heat until fragrant but not brown, about 2 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, bring to simmer, and cook until thickened slightly, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Stir pasta and reserved cooking water into sauce. Transfer half of pasta mixture to 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Dollop large spoonfuls of ricotta mixture evenly over pasta, then spread remaining pasta mixture evenly over ricotta. Sprinkle with mozzarella mixture.
At this point, the casserole can be refrigerated.
Place baking dish on aluminum foil-lined rimmed baking sheet and bake until spotty brown and bubbling around edges, 25 to 35 minutes. Let casserole cool for 20 minutes. Sprinkle with basil and serve.
This recipe works to “streamline this classic dish and make individual pot pies that we could pull out of the freezer and bake any time.”
“There are many challenges that arise in making a pot pie with a beautiful flaky crust, tender and flavorful chicken and vegetables, and a creamy sauce; when we added ‘freezer-friendly’ to the list of requirements, this recipe became an even taller order.
“First, we decided to use small disposable loaf pans, which would make storage and reheating easy and allow us to serve only the number we needed (without all our ramekins being tied up in the freezer).
“Browning boneless, skinless breasts before cooking them in broth gave our pie the deepest chicken flavor (without the hassle of roasting). A bit of thyme and lemon juice brightened up the creamy filling, and a bit of extra liquid ensured that the filling didn’t dry out in the freezer.”
Storebought pie crust streamlined the process.
“To make the crusts sturdy enough to hold up on top of the filling, we made a double-thick crust by gluing two crusts together with water. To make sure that the crusts didn’t overbrown in the time it took the filling to warm through, we covered the pies for part of the baking time.
Like bright green peas? Don’t thaw them before adding them to the filling.
Finally, depending on how many people you are feeding, you can bake all six pies at once or bake one or two at time. Be aware that ready-made storebought pie dough rounds typically come two to a box.
This recipe takes about 90 minutes to make and a total about 2-1/2 hours to prep, before freezing.
Individual Chicken Pot Pies for the Freezer
1-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
5-1/2 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 onion, chopped fine
1 celery rib, minced
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole milk
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme or 3/4 teaspoon dried
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 (9-inch) store-bought pie dough rounds
1-1/2 cups frozen peas
6 2-cup disposable aluminum loaf pans
1 large egg, beaten
Pat chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add chicken and cook until well browned, about 2-1/2 minutes per side. Add broth and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until chicken registers 160 degrees, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer chicken to cutting board and broth to large bowl.
Melt butter with remaining 1 tablespoon oil in now-empty pot over medium-high heat. Add carrots, onion, celery, and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook until lightly browned and softened, 8 to 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, add flour, and cook for 1 minute. Whisk in milk, thyme, and reserved broth and bring to simmer. Cook, whisking often, until sauce thickens, about 10 minutes.
Shred chicken into bite-size pieces using 2 forks. Off heat, stir in lemon juice and shredded chicken and season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer filling to bowl and let cool completely. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well-chilled, about 1 hour.
Place two dough rounds on lightly floured counter. Brush surface of each round with water, then place remaining 2 dough rounds on moistened rounds, pressing gently to adhere.
Position one inverted loaf pan on one layered dough round. Using sharp paring knife, cut out piece of dough using pan as template. Repeat twice more for total of three dough pieces, then repeat process on second layered dough round. Discard excess dough.
Stir peas into chilled filling, then evenly divide filling among loaf pans. Top each pan with one dough piece, then use fork to seal edges. Using paring knife, cut three steam vents in each pot pie.
Tightly wrap each loaf pan in two layers of plastic and one layer of aluminum foil, then freeze pot pies completely.
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Unwrap frozen pot pies and arrange on rimmed baking sheet. Brush each pot pie with egg and cover with foil. Bake until filling is starting to bubble, about 40 minutes. Uncover pot pies and bake until crusts are golden brown, about 35 minutes. Let pot pies rest for 10 minutes before serving.
Find other quick weeknight meal recipes here.