How to Freeze Your Garden Harvest
Plan ahead to have plenty of fresh produce for flavorful meals, all winter long.
Photo credit: iStock/Qwart
Wondering what to do with a bushel full of Brussels sprouts or a zillion zucchini? If your garden ends up bigger than your stomach, first of all, give yourself a round of applause. An abundant harvest is a job well done!
Now, let's dig into what you can do with a surplus of herbs and vegetables—apart from make your neighbors happy with delicious acts of kindness. One of the more fruitful solutions? Freeze your bounty to keep home-cooked meals full of flavor, even when the weather turns cold.
Follow these steps to take your harvest from fresh-picked to fresh-frozen without sacrificing taste, texture, or nutrients.
Do Some Planning
Know what works. Make sure freezing is a good match for what you've grown. With a few exceptions—think lettuces, cucumbers, or celery—you can freeze almost any vegetable or herb from your garden. The National Center for Home Food Preservation provides detailed instructions for almost anything you'd grow, as well as advice about what not to freeze. If you discover that freezing isn't the best method for your harvest, don't despair! There are other great ways to preserve, like canning and drying.
Find the right time. Keep an eye on your plants so you can harvest at peak freshness (for an A-Z of common crops, read our guide, How & When to Pick Garden Vegetables). Pick your produce in the morning, if possible, and on a day when you know you'll have time to clean, chop, and pack everything into the freezer. You'll want to work quickly to lock in flavor, texture, and essential nutrients. The sooner you can freeze after harvest, the tastier the results.
Get to know blanching. Most vegetables will need to be blanched to kill organisms and neutralize the enzymes responsible for freshness. This means plunging them into boiling water for a short—but specific—amount of time, then instantly hitting them with an ice bath to halt cooking. Check this detailed blanching chart and jot down times for the veggies you plan to freeze. Herbs don't need to undergo this process, but because of that they look a little limp once out of the freezer and aren't great as garnishes. Instead, keep frozen herbs for cooking—just throw them straight into soups, stews, omelets, and anything else that needs a layer of flavor.
Gather Your Tools
Make space in your freezer and prepare your tools in advance, so you're ready the minute your plants say "Go!" (Plant whispering works both ways.) If you don't already have these items in your kitchen, you can find them at most grocery or hardware stores.
- A sharp knife, kitchen scissors, and cutting board
- Paper towels or clean dish towels
- A large colander for washing veggies
- Large bowls to hold produce (you'll use these for blanching, too)
- A large pot with lid and a mesh basket or strainer that fits inside
- A bowl big enough to accommodate the mesh basket or strainer
- Lots of ice cubes, frozen and ready to go
- Freezer bags in your desired size (½-gallon or smaller is best)
- Leak-proof, air-tight freezer containers
- Cookie sheets for freezing whole veggies or herb leaves
- Ice cube trays for freezing chopped herbs in water or oil
- A permanent marker (and optional freezer tape) for naming containers
Freeze Your Harvest
Before jumping into action, wash your produce thoroughly in cold water. Then, the moment will have finally arrived: You're ready to freeze your harvest! Just follow these 5 easy steps.
1. Chop. Leave smaller vegetables, like green beans and peas, whole. The rest of your produce you'll want to cut into smaller pieces. Greens, cabbage, and spinach do best with shredding, or separated into individual leaves. Slice, dice, or cube other vegetables, depending on your style—or perhaps, knife skills. For herbs, strip the leaves from their stems and gently pat them dry before chopping or keeping leaves whole. The only exception is parsley, which can stay on the stem. Since you won't be blanching herbs, skip to step 4 for those.
2. Blanch. Most veggies need to be blanched anywhere from 90 seconds (pea pods) to 7 minutes (whole onions). Refer back to the chart or your notes. Then, in a big covered pot, bring at least one gallon of water to a full boil for every pound of produce you're blanching. Place your chosen vegetable in the strainer or mesh basket, submerge it into the boiling water, cover the pot, and—this part is important—start your timer.
3. Cool. When your timer sounds, immediately transfer the strainer or mesh basket from the boiling water to a big bowl of ice water. The point is to stop the cooking process, so regular cold water won't do here. Submerge your produce in the ice bath for the same amount of time you blanched it, then drain any excess water and spread them onto kitchen towels or a cookie sheet to dry (excess moisture can reduce their quality when frozen). Top up the bowl with fresh ice water again, and for every new batch of blanched veggies.
4. Pack. Place your cooled, fully dry veggies into the freezer bags or airtight containers, keeping portions small so it's easier to defrost them later. Leave some head space for the contents to expand as they freeze: About ½ inch is all you need for containers, and 3 inches is good for bags. Gently squeeze any excess air out of freezer bags before sealing them tightly, and "burp" air from your containers by lifting one corner and pressing down on the lid before shutting it tight. (It's oddly satisfying, we know.)
Herbs can be frozen in a number of ways. You can place whole leaves in freezer wrap and seal them in freezer bags, or spread them out on a paper towel-lined cookie sheet, freeze, and bag later. If you're a top chef (or on your way), freezing chopped herbs in ice cube trays might be a good method for you. They become like little flavor bombs you can add to soups, stews, sauces, and more. To do this, press about 1 tablespoon of herbs into each cavity, add water or olive oil to the top of the tray, and freeze. Once the cubes are fully frozen, pop them out of the tray and seal them in a freezer bag for long-term storage.
5. Label and store. Use a permanent marker—and legible penmanship—to write the contents, quantity, and date directly onto each bag or container. Or, make labels with freezer tape so you can use the containers again next season. Place your bags or containers into the freezer, spreading them out for the first 24 hours to help speed freezing. After that you can stack them to save space.
Frozen veggies and herbs will taste great for several months, but should be eaten within the year. We're sure you won't have a problem with that, though, since their flavor will far surpass anything you'd buy off-season in a supermarket. Just open your freezer and choose exactly what you need for your favorite recipe!