Frozen foods

Freezers are often unsung heroes of kitchens. Too often foods enter a freezer only to be forgotten before being exhumed from blocks of ice and discarded months later. But putting the freezer to better use can improve the way people eat and add to the flavor of the foods they enjoy.

Some people may turn up their noses at frozen foods, feeling that they lack the freshness of unfrozen foods. But that's not necessarily true. According to the food science department at the University of Florida, technology behind frozen food processing enables fast freezing times and prevents the formation of large ice crystals that can damage cells in fruits and vegetables. Food processors pick produce at the peak of ripeness and then the foods are quickly frozen, rendering them in a state of suspended animation. That means the food will not ripen further or rot like fresh food might if it's not consumed immediately.

Fresh produce that is shipped is often picked ahead of time to account for long shipping times and time spent in the produce section of grocery stores. Enzymes break down sugars and other compounds, destroying color, texture and nutrients.

Another advantage to frozen foods is the cost. Many items can be purchased for reasonable prices, often lower than fresh varieties, like frozen vegetables at around a dollar per bag/box. And because the frozen foods will remain fresh until they are used, shoppers don't risk waste from throwing out perishables unnecessarily.

When using frozen foods in recipes, follow package directions on whether to thaw or cook directly from the freezer. Also, when saving extras or leftovers, be sure to properly seal them in an airtight container to preserve freshness. Look for special freezer-safe bags and containers.

It's also possible for home cooks to create their own frozen food inventory from gardens and potted herbs, and by breaking down "club-sized" meat and poultry packs into portioned servings to use throughout the week. These items may have a slightly shorter freezer shelf life than professionally frozen foods because home cooks cannot achieve a flash-freeze like commercial manufacturers. When storing meat, the United States Dietary Association recommends that you store different types of meats in the freezer for no longer than these durations:

• Ground meat: 3 to 4 months

• Pork chops: 4 to 6 months

• Fish: 6 months

• Beef, veal, and lamb steaks: 6 to 12 months

• Poultry: 9 months

Frozen foods can be healthy and convenient. Don't let their packaged nature fool you; frozen foods are healthy and delicious.

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