In ancient times, during the winters and in cold climates, people used the weather to freeze and preserve their food. In the mid-1800s, fishermen began using metal pans and salt to freeze their catch for commercial sale. Then along came Clarence Birdseye, whose pioneering discoveries and inventions made it possible for all of us to copy his methods for home freezing our own food.
Birdseye was born in Brooklyn in 1886. As a young man he majored in biology at Amherst College, but he quit school and went to work as a naturalist for the U.S. government.
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He was posted in the Arctic where he watched how the combination of water, wind and ice instantly froze freshly caught fish. When the fishermen would fry up the fish, it was as moist and tasty as fresh fish.
Watching closely Birdseye could see that the cellular structure of the fish was frozen so fast that there was no time for ice crystals to form. The idea of being able to serve his family and friends a diverse selection of freshly frozen meats, fish, fruits and vegetables was an exciting concept for a man who in his heart was a cook.
In 1923 he made a $7 investment in an electric fan, buckets of brine and huge cakes of ice. Birdseye invented, perfected and patented a system for packing fresh food into waxed cardboard boxes and flash freezing the goods under high pressure.
In 1929, Goldman-Sachs Trading Corp. and Postum Co. bought Birdseye’s patents and trademarks for $22 million. This eventually became the General Foods Corp., which founded the Birds Eye Frozen Food Co.
In 1930 Birdseye went into a joint venture to manufacture the boxes and in 1934 he began leasing refrigerated boxcars to transport these frozen foods. The Eastern seaboard states were the first to get this remarkable food. Soon it was possible to ship frozen food coast to coast. However it wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that frozen foods of all sorts turned into the business they are today. But, like any other food, we need to know our sources for the frozen food we eat. Often frozen food is processed heavily with artificial additives and ingredients. Knowing where your frozen food comes from is as important as knowing where your fresh food comes from. And reading labels is also important.
The best-case scenario for freezing food involves using food grown on your own land when it’s seasonably ripe. Then you know the whole story. The second best is knowing the farmers who have grown the food you are about to freeze.
The third choice is freezing foods from a local organic or sustainable farm picked in season when the vegetables and fruit are ripe. (When you buy produce from your local supermarket, the food may not have been ripe when it was picked and may not be ready when it went on sale. Thus, when you unfreeze it, you might get mush. But of course that’s not always the case.)
The methods for freezing produce are fairly simple to master and can provide you with fresh-like fruits and vegetables through the year. It is important to remember a few tips:
While most vegetables should be washed and blanched, most fruit does not need to be blanched. Berries should be washed, patted dry and laid out on a baking sheet and frozen.
Peaches, plums and nectarines should be quartered and frozen on a baking sheet. Tomatoes should be washed, dried, quartered and put in a Ziploc bag.
Not all food lends itself to freezing. For instance, you should not freeze most dairy products (although some folks freeze milk). Eggs and canned goods will explode if frozen, and these make a mess.
Freezer burn will ruin frozen foods. This damage is created when air comes into contact with frozen foods.
Frozen foods lose some of their nutritional value. Vitamins C and B suffer the biggest nutritional losses, according to a 2007 study in the Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture. Levels of polyphenolic substances, which act as antioxidants to protect cells, are also lower in frozen fruits.
Finally, even though preserving food in your freezer will prolong the availability of produce, frozen food won’t last forever. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a helpful chart to help you determine how long you can keep various frozen foods.
And, in case of minor injury, a bag of frozen peas or blueberries placed on a bruised or swollen ankle works great as an ice pack.
How to freeze fruits and vegetables
Most vegetables should be washed and blanched (quickly cooked in boiling water) before freezing.
1. Bring 1 gallon of water per pound of prepared vegetables (about 2 cups) to boil in a large pot. Add vegetables, cover, return to boil.
2. Transfer the vegetables to a large bowl of ice water.
1. Spread fruit or vegetables on a single layer baking sheet and freeze until solid.
2. Pack the fruit or veggie in quart or gallon size freezer bags. You may use a vacuum sealer at this point, though you do not have to.
3. Place the packaged frozen foods in your freezer.
Berries in the freezer. Credit: Katherine Leiner