Most people don't really hate cooking — they just hate the pressure of coming up with something for dinner every night of the week.
Here's Jenny Stanger's solution for the 5 p.m. "What's for dinner?" panic: Every two weeks she spends two hours preparing two recipes, with each recipe large enough to make three family-size dinners.
"You can build up a good supply of dinners in your freezer this way," said the Pleasant Grove mother of three. She teaches a "Freezer Dinner" cooking class at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi and Ace Hardware in North Salt Lake, and she has a Web site, freezerdinner.com.
On the nights you feel like cooking, you can. But when you don't feel like it, use those "frozen assets" in the freezer.
"I believe that you need to have one meal a day for the family to sit down and enjoy," said Stanger. "Making freezer meals has given me more time with my family because there's less cleanup."
Most home cooks already do freezer meals in a limited form, such as making a double batch of lasagna and freezing half for later. Several cookbooks have expanded on the idea, such as "Frozen Assets: How to Cook for a Day and Eat for a Month," by Deborah Taylor-Hough (Sourcebooks, $14.95), and "Once-A-Month Cooking," by Mimi Wilson and Mary Beth Lagerborg (St. Martin's Griffin, $12.95).
But Stanger doesn't advise making a month's worth of meals in one cooking session. "I tried 'Cook for a Day and Eat for a Month,' but it seemed like I was actually prepping for a month," she said. "I think I spent four nights just chopping vegetables. It seemed impossible when I only had one set of pots. And it was hard setting aside that amount of time. Maybe you can get faster at it as time goes on."
Stanger outlines her own strategy in her self-published book, "Fantastic Freezer Recipes," sold on her Web site.
No matter how you do it, stockpiling frozen dinners offers some advantages:
• Your time is spent more efficiently. By chopping all the vegetables at once, you've saved the time it takes to get out and clean up the cutting board or food processor, for instance.
• Cost savings. "Cooking this way saves us $200 to $300 a month," said Stanger. You make fewer trips to the market, which discourages impulse shopping. And you can take advantage of bulk pricing and sales. Stanger suggested buying a whole ham and having the butcher dice it into cubes to use in casseroles, omelets, pizzas and so on.
• You can tailor the meals to your family's tastes and diets. "Making your own meals is healthier than fast food and pre-packaged frozen foods," said Stanger.
• Portion control. You can package the meals for your family's size and avoid waste.
• Family involvement. If you're not there, a spouse or child can pop the frozen meal in the microwave or oven.
• Handy emergency meals. "When someone in the neighborhood is having a baby or sick, you can go to your freezer and pull something out," Stanger said.
That's why Stanger first got started doing freezer meals.
"Before my first baby was born, I wanted to stock up in my pantry," she said. "But I stopped for awhile because some of the food didn't freeze very well. The sauces separated, and vegetables were soggy."
A few years later, she decided to try it again, but in two-hour blocks of time.
"I often do these at night after the kids are asleep, because usually I have two kids hanging onto my leg when I'm trying to cook," she said.
Before you go to the expense of tripling your favorite recipe for future use, Stanger advises testing its freezability. The next time you cook it, freeze a leftover serving overnight. Then thaw and reheat it later to see how it tastes.
Generally, water-based veggies and fruits, such as lettuce, celery or peaches, get soggy, although Stanger still freezes fruit for cobblers, jelly and smoothies. Cream cheese dries out unless mixed with other ingredients. Mayonnaise, custards and frostings will separate.
• Fully cooked noodles and fried foods become soggy when defrosted. So only cook noodles about 60 percent. Fried foods should be cooked to a light golden brown, and when it's time to serve them, bake at 425 degrees until the outside is browned and crisp.
• Mashed potatoes freeze well, but raw potatoes will turn black.
• Raw meat freezes well if it's in a sauce or marinade. "When mixed with a marinade or placed in a casserole-type dish, meats will cook up with more flavor and are usually more tender."
• Stanger recommends packaging foods in zip-top plastic bags, and double-bagging soups or sauces to prevent leaks.
Lay the bags flat in the freezer, so they can be stacked like bricks. Even without a separate freezer, quite a few dinners can be stacked in a refrigerator's freezer section, she noted.
• Lasagna or other casseroles can be made in aluminum foil pans.
• Line pizza pans and baking dishes with aluminum foil for easy cleanup, Stanger advised. Place the food in the foil-lined pan, freeze it for an hour, then take it out and wrap in more layers of plastic, label and freeze. To cook, place the frozen, foil-wrapped meal back in the pan.
• Let cooked items completely cool before freezing them. "My big tragedy was making spaghetti sauce for a family reunion," she said. "I double-bagged it, but because of the heat, the seal wasn't good so the bags burst."
• Sprinkle apples with sugar and cinnamon and freeze to use later in pies.
• Be sure to label each package with the item, date and cooking directions. "After about a year of denial, I started labeling everything because it all turns the same color in the freezer," she said.
• For safe defrosting, plan on 24 hours in the refrigerator. If defrosting in the microwave, use the food right away, because warm food is a breeding ground for bacteria. Don't thaw at room temperature; the danger of bacterial growth and food spoilage is greater, according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
• Most of the time, Stanger cooks her meals from the frozen state "because I don't have time to worry about defrosting." When cooking frozen lasagna and so on, double the regular cooking time. She also heats baked calzones in the microwave as one would the commercial Hot Pockets pastries.
• Discard any of the food if it has been sitting at room temperature for more than two hours.
• Use the meals within three months. After that, the color, flavor and texture may deteriorate.
3 tablespoons yeast
3 cups hot water (95-100 degrees)
3 tablespoons oil
9 cups flour
3 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 tablespoons oregano
1 tablespoon garlic salt
In a Bosch bread mixer, or large bowl, mix yeast, water and oil. Wait 5 minutes for the yeast to activate (turn frothy on top). In a large bowl, mix flour, salt, oregano and garlic salt. Stir the wet and dry ingredients together and add small amounts of water if dough feels dry. Mix or knead for 8-10 minutes. Dough should be elastic.
You can to freeze dough at this point. Just break into 3 pieces and place in a larger freezer ziptop bag. Label "Pizza dough" and freeze for up to 6 months. To use, defrost in the microwave on high 20 seconds. Then roll out for pizza, stromboli or calzones. Yields 3 pizzas or 2 strombolis. — Jenny Stanger
1 recipe Pizza Dough
Cheese and other toppings as desired
Pizza Sauce (see recipe below)
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Place pizza stone in the oven while it is heating up. Divide dough into 3 parts. Lightly oil your counter top and roll out each pizza with a rolling pin. Fold over edges and press down to form a crust.
Poke pizza dough all over with a fork to cut down on bubbles in the crust. Place pizza dough on pans by folding over half the dough on your forearm and then lift dough onto pizza pan. Bake 4 minutes at 500 degrees.
Pull out hot crust and top with 1/2 cup cheese first. This will keep the pizza dough from getting soggy.
Prepare Pizza Sauce (see below) and pour on top of cheese. Pile on toppings of your choice. Top again with cheese.
Cool pizza and wrap in plastic wrap without the pan. Label "500 degrees for 10-15 minutes" and freeze.
To serve: Do no thaw. Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Place pizza on a pizza stone and bake 10-15 minutes at 500 degrees or until cheese is melted and crust is golden. — Jenny Stanger
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1 tablespoon oregano
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Open can and pour oregano and garlic right into the sauce. Stir carefully so it doesn't spill. Pour can of sauce onto stromboli or pizza dough. Makes enough for 1 pizza. — Jenny Stanger
SAVORY PIZZA STROMBOLI
(Makes 2 loaves)
1 1-pound loaf frozen bread or pizza dough, thawed
2 egg yolks (reserve egg whites for later)
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese (or 6 Cheese blend)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 tablespoon oregano
16 ounces sliced pepperoni
4 cups (8 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese
Optional toppings: 4-ounce can mushrooms, 1 green pepper diced, 3 ounces olives, Italian sausage, bacon bits, browned Italian sausage, pineapple tidbits.
On greased counter, roll out dough into a 15-by-10 inch rectangle. Place the rectangle on a foil-lined cookie sheet.
In a bowl, combine egg yolks, Parmesan cheese, oil and oregano. Brush over the dough.
Sprinkle with pepperoni, mozzarella cheese, mushrooms, pepper, olives and other toppings. Roll up, jelly-roll style, starting with a long side; pinch seam to seal and tuck ends under.
Place seam side down; with a knife make slits every 2 inches along the top of the dough. Brush the top with egg whites and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Wrap and freeze 1 loaf with plastic wrap (label "350 degrees, 35 minutes"). Bake the other at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown. Serve with warmed Pizza Sauce.
To serve frozen loaf: Bake frozen loaf at 350 degrees for 35 minutes. Serve warm with Pizza Sauce (Sauce can be frozen and placed next to the pizza loaf). — Jenny Stanger
CARAMEL APPLE CRISP
Yield: 2 9-by-13-inch pans, 8 servings each
16 cups peeled sliced apples
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons cinnamon
1/2 cup margarine melted
2 cups flour
2 cups rolled oats
2 cups brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup margarine
1 10-ounce bottle caramel sauce (optional)
Stir cinnamon, sugar and 1/2 cup margarine into apples. Place apple mixture in 2 buttered 9-by-13-inch pans. (Use aluminum lined glass baking pan, or aluminum baking pans for easy cleanup.)
Mix remaining ingredients except caramel sauce with a pastry blender or two forks. Sprinkle over apple in pans.
Wrap one pan in several layers of plastic wrap and label "350 degrees, 45 minutes." Freeze.
Cook the other pan at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Serve hot with vanilla and caramel ice cream. Pour caramel sauce on top.
To serve frozen dessert: Defrost in refrigerator and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. If frozen, bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Each pan serves 8. — Jenny Stanger