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Credit: Photo: Chelsie Craig; Food Styling: Pearl Jones
Freezer Week

2020 Is the Year of the Freezer

updated Sep 20, 2020
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In early March, Josh Cook, a Brooklyn-based political consultant, began to panic as his family’s freezer quickly filled to capacity. The standard-issue freezer — a long-and-skinny icebox built into the family fridge — didn’t have room for much more than leftovers. It was still the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, and Cook found himself among the first wave of shoppers stocking up for what they feared might be an extended quarantine. So was a neighbor, who persuaded Cook that a drastic purchase was imperative: an overflow freezer.

Credit: Photo: Chelsie Craig; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

“He was convinced things were about to get harder, and I’m neurotic, so I was convinced pretty easily,” Cook recalled. After a few failed attempts at tracking down a freezer — online searches at Home Depot, Amazon, and Lowe’s all came up empty — the two men settled on a three-foot-deep model from Best Buy, which they stashed in their apartment building’s garage. The two households split the cost and divvied up shelf space. The overflow freezer, now packed with Tetris-like precision, has been a godsend, Cook said.

If banana bread and sourdough are the “it” dishes of pandemic life, then freezers are the “it” appliance. Cook is just one of the scores of Americans embracing the freezer as a means of reducing grocery runs and stretching fresh ingredients. The evidence is more than anecdotal: Google searches for terms like “freezer” and “chest freezer” began spiking in early March, and OfferUp, the country’s largest mobile marketplace, is reporting a double- to triple-digit percent growth in the number of freezers sold on the platform each month since the start of the pandemic, as compared to the same months in 2019. But perhaps the most compelling evidence is from The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, which tracks the domestic shipment of appliances. The group found that 227,000 freezers were shipped in the month of June — a 41.3% increase from the number shipped at the same time last year. Roughly 163,000 of those were chest-style freezers, an 87.1% increase of such freezers sold in June 2019.

It follows that sales of frozen foods — which were already experiencing an uptick — also seem to be tracking skyward. Natural and organic meat purveyor Applegate says it’s seen a major uptick in sales of many frozen offerings compared to this time last year, including an 82.7% increase in sales of frozen breaded chicken, 48% in frozen breakfast sausage, and 52.6% in frozen burger patties. Amy’s, an organic brand known for its frozen meals, says it’s seen a double-digit surge in sales of frozen meals throughout the pandemic.

If banana bread and sourdough are the “it” dishes of pandemic life, then freezers are the “it” appliance.

What does all this mean in practical terms for the average member of Freezer Nation? “Our meal planning got to be much more advanced,” Cook said, adding that his family now maps out meals for weeks at a time. In his family’s half of the freezer are things like premium meats destined for the grill, stew-bound short ribs, ground pork for mapo tofu, and stacks of deep-dish pizza from Lou Malnati’s in Chicago. And in his neighbor’s half? Bulk boxes of flaky spanakopita, whole slabs of salmon, and various odds and ends from marathon Costco runs. 

Credit: Photo: Chelsie Craig; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

Many freezer-curious cooks are stashing ingredients they never would have thought to freeze pre-pandemic. Dawn Guy, a merchandiser in Norwood, Ontario, used to toss out things like beet greens and carrots tops, but now she’s freezing them for later use. Guy has also expanded her family’s once-modest garden and plans on “saving every bit of it via freezing or canning — but mostly freezing.” 

Stephanie Kwasniak, a nanny and freelance pastry artist in Lawrence, Kansas, has started freezing butter, sliced deli cheeses, hunks of bread, baby spinach, and bananas — all things she would have bought and used fresh before the pandemic. “The amount of things I have frozen that I never have before is honestly astonishing to me,” Kwasniak said. Huge batches of potato leek soup have proved a particular big freezer win. “It is a great freezer meal because it can be thawed in the refrigerator and eaten cold on a hot summer’s day or saved to be warmed up on a chilly autumn night,” she said.

Suzi Marketa Campbell, a homemaker in Innsbrook, Missouri, has become obsessed with the silicone mold brand Souper Cubes, which she uses to freeze individual portions of pot pie filling, green bean casserole, and cabbage potsticker filling. In a sense, Campbell has been making up for lost time: She started the pandemic with a pipsqueak of a kitchen freezer and decided to splurge on a hefty new one in early March. At long last, it finally arrived … in early July. “In the few months of waiting, knowing my freezer fantasy was coming true, I planned and visualized daily,” Campbell said. Oh, the potstickers she’d freeze! The soups! The crusty loaves of bread! “I lost a few nights of sleep,” she joked.

Credit: Photo: Chelsie Craig; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

Others are using their freezers for more than mere sustenance. About three months into Washington, D.C.’s stay-at-home order, digital content strategist Becka Wall made a striking discovery. “I realized: I can heat up frozen appetizers as a snack WHENEVER I WANT,” Wall said. She made a beeline for the frozen food aisle at the nearest Trader Joe’s and stocked up on frozen dumplings, pigs in a blanket, spring rolls, spanakopita, pizza bagels, pizza rolls, and all manner of other frozen apps. “We’ve heated them up for a start to a takeout date night, eaten them as a 3 p.m. snack — or 11 p.m. snack after polishing off a bottle of wine,” Wall said. “They’ve brought joy and variety to days that have otherwise felt very similar.”

Of course, no freezer exploration is complete without a major fail or two. Lee Waller, a safety manager in Scotland, found this out the hard way when she chucked a couple of whole avocados into the deep freeze. Freezing avocados can be done, but their texture, once defrosted, is not for everyone. “I defrosted them, but by the time I could actually cut them, they were like mush,” Waller recalled. “I just had to stick them all in smoothies.”

For Leslie Korein, a Los Angeles-based writer, director, and actor, freezer failure took the form of a whole honeydew melon. “Those things do not unthaw successfully,” Korein recounted. “I turned that fail into a win, though, because I buried the unfrozen, quickly-rotting melon in my yard and now I have little melon sprouts coming up! Cycle of life, baby.”

Cookbook author and TV host Ali Rosen is thrilled that the freezer is finally getting its due. After years of shopping around a freezer-focused cookbook and being told that no one was interested, a publisher finally picked it up in early April as frozen food hit an upswing. The book, tentatively titled Modern Freezer, is slated for a summer 2021 debut and will delve into Rosen’s favorite freezer-friendly recipes, which include everything from the expected casseroles (but with a twist!) to dinner party-ready appetizers (for when dinner parties are a thing again). It’ll also detail proper freezer etiquette, like squeezing out as much air as possible from a freezer-bound package (air begets dreaded freezer burn) and adequately labeling items so they don’t get lost in the freezer void.

“The entire history of food has been about canning and preserving and drying, about how we can take ingredients that we don’t have all year and make them last longer,” Rosen said. The food community has embraced and elevated these techniques over the past decade — pickling, fermenting, and so on — but for some reason, the freezer has been left behind. “I think that the freezer [has been] synonymous with TV dinners and stuff like that,” Rosen mused. With more people experimenting with freezers, that negative connotation is beginning to melt away. But Rosen believes the appliance still has a ways to go in the PR department. The freezer is not a dumping ground for forgotten leftovers, she said. “We have to get rid of this idea.”

Credit: Photo: Chelsie Craig; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

When used right, the freezer is a key part of the kitchen ecosystem that extends the life of ingredients without sacrificing quality. “People should think of the freezer as a continued [part] of the spectrum from counter to fridge,” she explained. “If you put something on the counter, that will last for X number of days. If you put it in the fridge, that will prolong the shelf life X more days. If you put it in the freezer, it’s going to further last.” That said, the freezer is not a magical time warp. Rosen suggests keeping most items in the freezer no longer than six months, because they can degrade even if frozen. She suggests keeping a running tab on what’s in your freezer at any given time; Rosen keeps an updated list in the Notes app on her phone.

No matter how one uses their freezer, those who’ve tasted its freedoms say they’ll never go back. There are still a lot of people who haven’t, though. Freezers are out of stock at retailers the nation over, and waiting lists are often months-long. 

“We started to see an increase in freezer sales around the first of March and that spike in sales shot up pretty rapidly to unprecedented demand,” said Dave McCalpin, vice president of refrigeration for GE Appliances. That demand has remained unusually high as the pandemic drags on, he continued, suggesting that interest in long-term food storage isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. “Our supply chain has significantly expanded output, and we continue to fill more orders every day.”

No matter how one uses their freezer, those who’ve tasted its freedoms say they’ll never go back.

Wait times remain long, though. At Abt, an Illinois-based electronics and appliance retailer, freezer sales rose by 400% at the start of the pandemic, but the store was cleaned out within a month. “Freezer stock is low or nonexistent all over the United States,” said Shirley Hood, who manages Abt’s content marketing. “A freezer ordered today will take at least a month or longer to ship.”

Josh Cook, for one, is relieved that he bought his freezer when he did. “I’m sure if we had waited another week, it would’ve been impossible to find,” he said. “Hand sanitizer and freezers were the hottest items in Brooklyn in March.”

Let’s hope that freezers are easier to come by in the months ahead. Fingers crossed, the pandemic will soon be a thing of the past — but our freezer skills are here to stay.