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Jenn Turliuk’s thinking of organizing a bulk cooking lesson/party. Whee! I thought I’d pass on some things W- and I have been learning about bulk cooking:
Standardize your food containers! The importance of this cannot be overstated. You’ll thank me later when you don’t have to shuffle around for matching lids, and when your containers stack beautifully in the shelf. Consider the maximum capacity of your freezer and how much of it will likely be taken up by other things like ice cream. Get as many sets of food containers as you think you need, and then get some more for replacements or fridge leftovers. We like the Rubbermaid TakeAlong containers, which are just the right size for us. Note: tomato-based sauces and fat/oil will etch plastic if heated, so transfer pasta and similar things to bowls before heating.
Make a shopping list, but be flexible. This will save you from having to run back to the store frequently. We make our list based on the sales, but we also keep an eye out for things that have discount stickers. Meat at 30% off on the last day of sale is just fine cooked, frozen, and turned into delicious lunches or dinners. (I recently bought five pounds of ground beef on sale so that I can turn it into meatballs.) Sort your shopping list by rough location so that you can check things off easily. We write our shopping lists on the back of envelopes, and we usually organize it like this: produce, bread, meat, dairy, other.
Rice and frozen veggies are good fillers. Most of our frozen meals are rice/some other starch + frozen veggies + some kind of meat. If people don’t like rice, you can substitute other things like potatoes instead. Frozen veggies help cool the meal down quickly, so you can store it in the freezer faster. Also, they give you more variety. (Don’t add too much hot food to the freezer at one time.)
We like storing individual portions of cooked meals so that they’re super-easy to microwave at work. Most once-a-month cookbooks focus on preparing casseroles and other things that you can freeze uncooked for later "fresh meals", but they might have good ideas. (We tend to not do the usual once-a-month-cooking strategies because we don’t like going through that many freezer bags, even if we wash and reuse them.) For more inspiration, take a look at the frozen dinners aisle. Chances are that you’ll be able to duplicate some of those at home. You can also look at those batch cooking places like Supper Solved. Another way to increase your freezer cooking repertoire – freeze a portion of leftovers from the meals you make to see if they survive the freeze-thaw process.
Try to store cooked meals rather than raw ingredients. Raw ingredients take up too much space and can get forgotten in the freezer. Ready-to-go meals are much more convenient.
Label. Always. Skip the fancy labeller. Masking/painter’s tape + Sharpie marker works fine. Label it before steam, condensation or freezing makes the lid un-stickable. We usually write down the initials of the item and the number of the month we made it, so chicken curry made in August is CC8. If you have time and space, you can write down the name of the food for easier recall. Labeling makes eating a variety of things much easier and avoids freezer fatigue.
Rotate your stock. If possible, put freshly-prepared containers at the bottom of the stack, or in a separate stack. That way, you can go through the old stuff before it gets freezer burn. This may involve taking everything out of the freezer and then stacking everything up neatly again. Gloves can help.
If you have a kitchen scale, you can use it to make your meals more consistent. Figure out what makes you just the right level of full at lunch.
If you can make room for a chest freezer, it is a totally awesome buy. It saves us lots of time. (Plus it will save you from fighting over fridge/freezer space.)
Good knives make a difference. Sharp knives are less dangerous and less frustrating than dull ones. Take good care of your tools: no throwing them in the dishwasher, no sticking them in a drawer without at least a knife guard.
Aprons make you feel more official and less worried about messing up your clothes. Ponytails are great for keeping hair out of the way. It may make sense to give your hair a good brushing before you start cooking, or even do the hairnet thing.
Plan your groceries so that you can cook lots of food on that day. Hard-core once-a-month cooks usually stock up on groceries on one day, then cook on the second day. If you cook in smaller batches (say, a week or two at a time), you can fit it into one day without getting too tired. This means not having to cram all that stuff in your fridge.
Batch your ingredients and parallelize your recipes. Review your recipes to see where you can combine ingredient preparation, or when you can do something while stuff marinates. Chop all the garlic together, etc. I don’t like chopping onions, so if I can chop everything else and then do four or five onions all together at the end, I’m all for that. Especially if I can get W- or a food processor to chop them instead.
An easy way to fill up your freezer is to double or triple your recipe whenever you cook. That way, it doesn’t feel like you’re doing too much extra work, since you’ve got the chopping board and the pots out anyway.
Frozen sauces and soups are easier to transport than defrosted ones. Allow for expansion when freezing. Don’t fill your containers to the brim, because liquid expands when freezing. Allow plenty of space. If you’re taking these to work, don’t defrost these the night before unless you trust your food container and lunch bag well, although you can defrost them in the morning.
When reheating, you may have to microwave in two steps. Microwave it for a couple of minutes, then stir it and microwave it some more. Check for a cold centre – not fun to eat! It’s usually a good idea to let things defrost overnight (in the fridge) or all morning.
It’s encouraging to calculate the cost-per-portion. You can make lots of great meals for much much less than they would cost at a restaurant or even as take-out. For example, I think our cost per portion for chicken curry was around $2.50, and our cost per portion for lasagna or lamb korma was around $4-5. If you enjoy cooking (especially if you’re cooking with people you like, which turns it into a bonding activity instead of a chore), you might even consider the labour a benefit instead of a cost.
Assembly lines are good for packaging the meals. We usually pack each meal with rice (sometimes we measure this). Then we add the main part of the meal. Then we pour frozen vegetables. We secure the lids, add all the tape (for labeling it), then write all the labels. If the meal is too hot, we stick it in the fridge to cool down. When it’s ready, we clear out space in the freezer and stack things up properly.
Here are our favourite bulk meals:
- Chicken curry: three bags of chicken quarters, two packs of curry sauce; fuss-free and frugal – pot
- Shake-and-bake chicken: the no-name powder works just fine; easy to do this with two club packs of chicken drumsticks. – oven
- Pasta with sausages – pot
- Pasta with meatballs – oven
- Lasagna: two pans are just as easy to make as one pan of lasagna, and can cook simultaneously – oven
- Japanese croquettes: a little soggy after microwaving, but still yummy; if you have time to fry, freeze uncooked to make it crisper – skillet
- Lamb korma: pricy, but yummy – pot, food processor
- Bubble and squeak: great way to get rid of cabbage – skillet
- Okonomiyaki: freeze before topping with sauce; take sauce and bonito flakes separately – skillet (small is okay)
- Chicken tikka masala: watch out for the tomato in the sauce; heat in a bowl – pot
- Tonkatsu: a little soggy after microwaving, but yummy – skillet
- Rice and lentils: simple and frugal – rice cooker
- Rice and beans – pot
- Pinakbet: W- loves bitter melon – pot
- Beef stew – pot
- Japanese curry – pot
- Souvlaki – grill
- Barbecue chicken – grill
- Ham steaks – skillet or raw
- Hamburger steak – skillet
- Roast chicken – oven
- Yakisoba / yakiudon – wok
- Pad thai – wok
- Stir fry – wok
- Fried rice – wok, needs cold rice
- Congee – pot, can probably do this in a rice cooker
- Beef bulgogi: can be a lot of effort especially if you make plenty of appetizers (banchan) as well, but it feels totally indulgent to dig into a 10-course meal at work – skillet
- Wontons: movie marathons are a great time to wrap hundreds of wontons. Cook and freeze each batch instead of waiting until you finish them all, so that they don’t dry out or get soggy. Control portions – we find that 15 wontons is just about right for us (measure a decent portion, then use the scale to make this consistent by weight). This is important because if you stuff 30 wontons into the container just because they fit, people will eat 30 wontons per serving. – pot
There are probably lots of great vegetarian freezer meals out there, but I haven’t looked into them.
What a bulk cooking party could look like:
- A. Bulk cooking swap
- People choose recipes (keeping dietary restrictions in mind) and then bring stacks of cooked meals on the day itself (possibly already frozen).
- Swap 1:1, to increase variety and try different tastes.
- People choose recipes, keeping dietary restrictions and cooking methods in mind. Ex: one large skillet, one or two large pot meals, one quick oven recipe (~20 minutes), one long oven recipe (~ 60 minutes or more)
- Bring extra knives and chopping boards, or prepared ingredients.
- Bulgogi is great for this: one or two people in charge of cooking all the meat, and then lots and lots of people making little appetizers. Try to marinate the meat overnight. Ex: seaweed, soy potatoes, shiitake mushrooms, anchovies, green onion pancakes, meatballs, noodles… May require coordination.
Ideal bulk cooking party space:
- plenty of counter space for lots of people preparing ingredients while chatting
- multiple sets of knives, measuring cups, liquid measures, and chopping boards
- food processor
- one or two large pots
- a couple of 9×12 pans (foil is probably okay too) or other oven things
- dishwasher, so it’s not such a chore afterwards
- mixing bowls and lots of regular bowls for prep (we use rice bowls, cereal bowls, and soup bowls)
Bulk cooking is fun and a great time/sanity-saver. We use this to make work lunches frugal and hassle-free. Since W- and I enjoy cooking, we often make dinners from scratch, but it’s nice to know that lunch is in the freezer. Hope this helps!