The Cold Shoulder

Why food snobs shouldn’t snub the freezer.

As long as I’ve been cooking professionally, freezers have been viewed as a bit crass. On my first day working at a restaurant, my chef showed me around a vast kitchen equipped with two walk-in refrigerators and three outdoor sheds for dry storage. Then she pointed out the freezer, not much bigger than the stand-alone model my mother kept stocked with cubic yards of applesauce. “We don’t really freeze anything though,” she noted, before briskly moving on. The freezer was really for the pastry cooks; other than some nuts, huckleberries, and mozzarella curd (which we would dip in hot water and pull into fresh mozzarella), we savory cooks stored almost nothing in that cold, cold place.

With few exceptions, most of the restaurants I’ve worked for have subscribed to the same California-style cult of freshness, the ethos that has dominated the last 30 years of the post-Julia/James/Alice food revolution. For adherents, fresh seasonal and local foods are always better than frozen ones. (The philosophy is infinitely easier to adhere to in temperate Berkeley than in Fargo.) Frozen food bears the stigma of the heavily processed: Think Lean Cuisine, Hot Pockets, and Hungry Man. But there are signs that the anti-freezer bias may be softening, at least a bit. Even the owners of that first restaurant I worked at have since launched a line of frozen, par-baked breads so shoppers who live far from good bakeries can get something that closely approximates artisanal bread at their local supermarkets. The freezer, it seems, may be coming out of its ice age.

Home freezers first became very popular in the late ‘40s, some two decades after Clarence Birdseye made freezing much better by making it much faster (food was packaged in boxes, then frozen under high pressure, a process that created smaller ice crystals, which do less damage to food). Compared to canning, salting, and dehydration, freezing was a far less invasive way to preserve food for months, even years—no chemical additives, no heat sterilization, and little to no loss of flavor or nutrients.

With the memory of the Depression and wartime rationing fresh in everyone’s imagination, freezer evangelists discussed the virtue of buying fruit and vegetables in bulk, purchasing whole sides of beef, and then processing and storing these stashes not in the freezer compartment of a refrigerator but in a stand-alone freezer. The joyful frugality of early freezer manuals is downright alien to contemporary food writing, where hedonic pleasure (healthy or not) is the dominant theme. In her 1951 book Making the Most of Your Food Freezer, Marie Armstrong Essipoff emphasizes economy. She proudly quotes bargain prices she scored on high-volume frozen fish and vegetables purchased directly from packers. She revels in squirreling food away: “I enjoy the satisfaction of building a stockpile, and then relaxing for weeks or months, while magicking practically anything from my freezer shelves. For instance I prepare and freeze 50 pounds of onions in small bags ready for use …” Today’s shoppers can still follow Essipoff’s thrifty example by purchasing the giant family packs of chicken parts and fish that can be found at Costco, Sam’s Club, and the more citified Trader Joe’s.

When the home microwave gained popularity in the ‘70s, it became the freezer’s accomplice: thawing device and cooker combined. In a kitchen with a microwave, the freezer became an agent more of convenience than economy. Although the frozen TV dinner was introduced in the 1950s, sales of freezer meals and entrees exploded in the post-microwave era. (Such sales now make up the largest sector of the $30 billion frozen foods industry.)

But economy and convenience are no way to win over the foodies. Epicures are looking for a) greater flavor or b) greater status (and not necessarily in that order). A story in the New York Times this spring suggested that frozen sushi might offer both. Julia Moskin’s article surprised almost every food-loving person I know. Its gist: Most of the fresh fish we eat raw in sushi bars has been frozen at some point, and the USDA even stipulates that most fish destined to be eaten raw must be frozen to inhibit food-borne parasites. Moskin’s article quotes chefs at some of the New York region’s most celebrated sushi restaurants; some chefs revealed that they rely on medical-quality super-freezers that reach -70 F and are intended for organ storage. No food seems to celebrate freshness and unadulterated materials more than sushi, but it turns out that freshness is a function of how well the fish has been handled by the sushi master, not whether it comes straight from the ocean.

Connoisseurs who were surprised by the revelations in Moskin’s article should take a closer look at what else is showing up frozen these days. Quite often, the foodie’s choice pits frozen rarities versus fresh banalities. Luxury purveyor d’Artagnan offers frozen black truffles that extend the fungus’ season (usually December through March) to year-round. Exotic-meat purveyors can get you grouse, pheasant, and wild turkey (complete with buckshot), but more often than not the birds will arrive frozen. Chichi retailer Whole Foods boasts freezer bars, where customers can pluck bagfuls of frozen crab legs, scallops, and prawns. And those who hope to opt out of the industrial meat economy altogether will find that farmers of pasture-raised meats rarely sell their wares unfrozen. Personally, moving north from California has given me a more pragmatic view of the freezer. I flinched when one restaurant I worked at added a spacious walk-in freezer in an expansion, but we continued to turn out good food, using more offbeat seafood and meats than would have been available if we were limited to fresh, local fare.

I’m still not a total freezer apologist—poorly frozen food, with freezer burn and noxious odors, is depressing indeed, and even under good conditions, texture can be the downfall of frozen fruits and vegetables. But the truth is, the freezer extends our options, and sometimes even improves them. The Fat Duck, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in England, uses the remarkably sweet Birdseye frozen peas in its pea mousse because they are processed so much younger and faster than anything sold “fresh” in the markets. For my money, frozen octopus is a more tender bet than fresh. And the freezer is a great friend to buttery tart shells—freeze them up before baking for shrink-resistance and crispness.

Still, the freezer is a dark horse in the upscale food world. Even the sushi chefs aren’t broadcasting their use of frozen fish. But foodies who spurn the supermarket’s chilliest aisles should think twice: The freezer can reliably bring some otherwise unreachable flavors to our palates. We’re a long way from menus that read, “Spit-roasted, (previously super-frozen) baby lamb in a ragout of quick-frozen morels and blast-chilled spring peas.” But that doesn’t mean you’re not already eating it.