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The science of freezing foods

Boxes of frozen fruit.

Freezing is a quick and convenient way to preserve fruits and vegetables at home. Home frozen fruits and vegetables of high quality and maximum nutritional value can be produced done correctly. Our directions are based on:

  1. The chemical and physical reactions which take place during the freezing process.
  2. Scientific knowledge of the effect of freezing on the tissues of fruits and vegetables.
  3. Food microbiology.

Chemical changes during freezing

Fresh fruits and vegetables, when harvested, continue to undergo chemical changes which can cause spoilage and deterioration of the product. This is why these products should be frozen as soon after harvest as possible and at their peak degree of ripeness.

Enzymes cause loss of color, flavor changes and nutrient loss

Fresh produce contains chemical compounds called enzymes which cause the loss of color, loss of nutrients, flavor changes, and color changes in frozen fruits and vegetables. These enzymes must be inactivated to prevent such reactions from taking place.

Blanch vegetables to inactivate enzymes

Enzymes in vegetables are inactivated by the blanching process. Blanching is the exposure of the vegetables to boiling water or steam for a brief period of time. The vegetable must then be rapidly cooled in ice water to prevent it from cooking. Contrary to statements in some publications on home freezing, in most cases blanching is absolutely essential for producing quality frozen vegetables. Blanching also helps to destroy microorganisms on the surface of the vegetable and to make some vegetables, such as broccoli and spinach, more compact.

Add ascorbic acid to fruit to control enzymes

The major problem associated with enzymes in fruits is the development of brown colors and loss of vitamin C. Because fruits are usually served raw, they're not blanched like vegetables. Instead, enzymes in frozen fruit are controlled by using chemical compounds which interfere with deteriorative chemical reactions. The most common control chemical is ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Ascorbic acid may be used in its pure form or in commercial mixtures with sugars.

Less effective methods of controlling enzymes

Some directions for freezing fruits also include temporary measures to control enzyme-activated browning. Such temporary measures include soaking the fruit in dilute vinegar solutions or coating the fruit with sugar and lemon juice. However, these latter methods don't prevent browning as effectively as treatment with ascorbic acid.

Limit air during freezing

Another group of chemical changes that can take place in frozen products is the development of rancid oxidative flavors through contact of the frozen product with air. This problem can be controlled by using a wrapping material which does not permit air to pass into the product. Also, remove as much air as possible from the freezer bag or container to reduce the amount of air in contact with the product.

Textural changes during freezing

Water makes up over 90 percent of the weight of most fruits and vegetables. This water and other chemical substances are held within the fairly rigid cell walls which give support structure and texture to the fruit or vegetable. Freezing fruits and vegetables actually consists of freezing the water contained in the plant cells.

Fruits and vegetables that are much softer when frozen and thawed

When the water freezes, it expands and the ice crystals cause the cell walls to rupture. Consequently, the texture of the produce, when thawed, will be much softer than it was when raw. This textural difference is especially noticeable in products which are usually consumed raw. For example, when a frozen tomato is thawed, it becomes mushy and watery. This explains why celery and lettuce are not usually frozen and is the reason for the suggestion that frozen fruits, usually consumed raw, be served before they have completely thawed. In the partially thawed state, the effect of freezing on the fruit tissue is less noticeable.

Textural changes due to freezing are not as apparent in products which are cooked before eating because cooking also softens cell walls. These changes are also less noticeable in high starch vegetables, such as peas, corn and lima beans.

Rate of freezing

Overloading the freezer with unfrozen products will result in a long, slow freeze and a poor quality product.

Control texture change by freezing as quickly as possible

The extent of cell wall rupture can be controlled by freezing produce as quickly as possible. In rapid freezing, a large number of small ice crystals are formed. These small ice crystals produce less cell wall rupture than slow freezing which produces only a few large ice crystals. This is why some home freezer manuals recommend that the temperature of the freezer be set at the coldest setting several hours before foods will be placed in the freezer. Some freezer manuals tell the location of the coldest shelves in the freezer and suggest placing unfrozen products on these shelves.

Don't overload the freezer

All freezer manuals give guidelines for the maximum number of cubic feet of unfrozen product which can be frozen at one time. This is usually 2 to 3 pounds of vegetable to each cubic foot of freezer space per 24 hours. Overloading the freezer with unfrozen products will result in a long, slow freeze and a poor quality product.

Changes caused by fluctuating temperature

Fluctuating temperatures in the freezer can cause the migration of water vapor from the product to the surface of the container. This defect is sometimes found in commercially frozen foods which have been improperly handled.

Store frozen fruits and vegetables at zero degrees F or lower

To maintain top quality, frozen fruits and vegetables should be stored at zero F or lower. This temperature is attainable in separate freezer units and in some combination refrigerator-freezers. A freezer thermometer can help you determine the actual temperature of your freezer. If your freezer has number temperature settings, such as from 1 to 9, check the manual to see what settings are recommended for different uses.

Storing frozen foods at temperatures higher than zero F increases the rate at which deteriorative reactions can take place and can shorten the shelf life of frozen foods. Don't attempt to save energy in your home by raising the temperature of frozen food storage above zero F.

Moisture loss

Moisture loss, or ice crystals evaporating from the surface area of a product, produces freezer burn - a grainy, brownish spot where the tissues become dry and tough. This surface freeze-dried area is very likely to develop off flavors. Packaging designed specifically for freezing foods will prevent freezer burn.

Microbial growth in the freezer

The freezing process doesn't actually destroy the microorganisms which may be present on fruits and vegetables. While blanching destroys some microorganisms and there is a gradual decline in the number of these microorganisms during freezer storage, sufficient populations are still present to multiply and cause spoilage of the product when it thaws. For this reason it's necessary to carefully inspect any frozen products which have accidentally thawed by the freezer going off or the freezer door being left open.

Nutrient value of frozen foods

Freezing, when properly done, is the method of food preservation which may potentially preserve the greatest quantity of nutrients. To maintain top nutritional quality in frozen fruits and vegetables, it's essential to follow directions contained in this bulletin for pretreatment of the vegetables, to store the frozen product at zero F and to use it within suggested storage times.

Freezing food: questions and answers

Q: What are the benefits and risks of vacuum packing foods for storage?

A: Vacuum packaging machines or vacuum sealers removes air and can extend the storage time of refrigerated, dried and frozen foods. Remember, vacuum packaging is not a substitute for the heat processing of home canned foods or for refrigerator or freezer storage. According to the National Center for Food Preservation, producing a vacuum means removing air from the contents of a package. In this oxygen free environment, the spoilage bacteria don't multiply very fast which helps maintain the quality of the food product. However, some dangerous bacteria like, Clostridium botulinum that causes the deadly botulism poisoning, only grow in oxygen free environments and without the competition of the spoilage bacteria can grow even faster. Unlike spoilage bacteria, disease-causing bacteria don't change the color or appearance of the food. Keep vacuum packaged perishable foods in the refrigerator or freezer. Care must be taken not to contaminate food during the vacuum packaging process-extremely clean hands, and clean and sanitized equipment and work surfaces are essential. Thawing food in the refrigerator is also critical.

Q: How can I avoid freezer burn?

A: Drying occurs on the surface of a frozen product that wasn't wrapped properly. The food is safe to eat but the quality is poor. To prevent freezer burn, remove all air and seal airtight.

Q: How much food can be frozen at one time?

A: Freeze only the amount that will freeze within 24 hours, which is usually 2-3 pounds of food per cubic foot of freezer space. For best quality set the freezer temperature at minus 10 degrees F. at least 24 hours ahead of freezing quantities of fresh food. Once frozen, maintain a temperature at zero degrees F or less. Use an appliance thermometer to check the temperature of your freezer.

Q: Will food spoil if it stays frozen longer than the recommended storage time?

A: No. This is a quality versus a food safety issue. Recommended storage times insure maximum quality. Food stored longer will be safe to eat but you may notice changes in flavor, color and texture. For best quality, use frozen fruits and vegetables within 8 to 12 months.

William Schafer, emeritus Extension specialist and  Suzanne Driessen, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2018

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