Is it Time for A(nother) Freezer?

This 15 cu ft chest freezer might be a useful size compromise for some people.

We keep reading about increasing problems with meat processing plants – this article reports that over 25% of the pork processing capacity has closed down in just the last couple of weeks, and this article talks about grocers struggling to find meat supplies and a 30% increase in beef prices since February.  The really worrying thing is there’s every reason to expect further closures of all types of meat, poultry, fish, and other food processing facilities, and little reason to expect any easy full-capacity re-openings in the near future.

Whether in response to concerns about a growing shortage of meat, or “just because”; getting a freezer, or possibly an additional freezer, might be a good thing to consider.  If you shop strategically and buy food on sale and in bulk, and if you’re careful to rotate product in and out of the freezer, it will save you substantial money each year while also adding to your shopping convenience.

I’ve become quite proficient at buying things such as sale priced frozen fish pieces, sale priced ice-cream, and weekly meat specials, and filling up the freezer with those, as well as keeping and completely using convenience items that otherwise get half wasted and never finished – freezing bread and rolls, for example.

But for the last month or so the freezer has been constantly full, and my frozen food purchases are constrained by lack of freezer space.  At the same time I worry that meat shortages may become a problem, plus there’s the thought of buying meat at good prices now to avoid buying scarce meat at high prices later.

So maybe now is a good time to consider buying a(nother) freezer and filling it.  Freezers are always great things to have, in good times and bad.

What is the Best Size of Freezer

How long is a piece of string?  There’s really not a generally “ideal” freezer size for all people.  A single person living in a small apartment would come up with a much different size requirement compared to a large family in a sprawling large home.  A person buying a second freezer might have a different perspective to a person buying a first freezer, and so on.

There’s probably some sort of slightly comic “law” suggesting that no matter what size freezer you buy, you’ll inevitably fill it up and still want more space.  That might be true, but there’s something else to keep in mind as well.  While frozen food lasts a long time, it doesn’t last forever.  You don’t want to have a freezer with such a large capacity that if you were to fill it up, your typical rate of usage is such that the food frozen inside it would be well past any good-by dates when you finally get to consider eating it.

Surprising, this means there truly can be a “too big” freezer for you.  You have an idea for what rate of food rotation might apply to you and so you’ll be able to guess at what perhaps an up-to-but-not-much-more-than one year supply of food might require in the way of freezer space.

In terms of too small, it might be fair to say that anything less than about 6 cu ft is just too small to be of much practical value.

Freezer or Fridge-Freezer

This is an issue you’ll have to decide for yourself.

If you’re running out of space in your fridge as well as your freezer, or can see ways you’d benefit from more fridge space, then a combo unit would kill two birds with one stone, but the challenge can become finding one that has the appropriate amount of size for both chilled and frozen food.

Generally the combo units have a smaller freezer compartment, and for many people buying a second unit, they might want more freezer and less fridge space.

Which is Better – a Horizontal/Chest Freezer or a Vertical Freezer?

The answer to this depends in part on the space you have available for the freezer.  Generally vertical freezers use less floor area than chest ones.  Additionally, some freezers are designed to go underneath other items (these are usually expensive commercial freezers, though) which means you’re filling in space that is otherwise probably unused.

Most people find that vertical freezers allow for easier access, and with a good shelving system, you’re not going to end up in a situation where there are some things in the far bottom corner that you’ve not seen in years and no longer remember what they are.  On the other hand, that can be a danger with chest freezers (as we know from experience!).

A downside to a vertical freezer is the space is often less efficiently used.  The chances are you have gaps at the top of each shelf, and probably not all shelves have food coming all the way out to where the door closes.  This is an unavoidable side effect of the dimensions and shelving in a vertical freezer, but also is part of what makes it easier to access and see/retrieve food.

So the benefit of a chest freezer is you can usually pack more into a given number of cubic feet if the items are in a chest rather than vertical freezer.  You also have slightly greater energy efficiency and don’t lose as much cold air every time you open the door/lid.

If you have a great system for inventory-controlling your freezer, maybe the chest freezer is the better chioce, but if you’re the sort of person who rediscovers long-since forgotten food items a decade later (as I did just a week ago), perhaps the easier management of food in a vertical freezer is a benefit.

Talking About Shelves

Some freezers have fixed shelves, some have adjustable/removable shelves.  Some chest freezers have no shelves at all, some have some side panel dividers dividing the chest into two or three sections, and some have one or more movable baskets that hang from the top sides of the chest.

We like shelves or dividers, and we much prefer ones that can be moved rather than ones fixed in place.

What is the Best Temperature for a Freezer

If you do an internet search, you’ll quickly see a near unanimity of opinion that the ideal temperature for a freezer is 0°F (ie -18°C).

But if you’re an independent thinker, you’ll immediately notice the curiously round number that is being cited as ideal – what are the chances that 0° is not only a very round number, but also “ideal”.  Indeed, the use of the word “ideal” is highly suspect as well.

It turns out there’s no real magic associated with 0° at all, and rather than being ideal, it is a compromise.  Colder would be better, but will cost more money in electricity to keep a lower temperature.

But if you’re getting a modern, well-insulated, energy efficient freezer, we’d suggest dropping the temperature below 0°.  There are several reasons for this.

First, freezing doesn’t stop food decay entirely.  It massively slows it, and the colder it is, the more the reduction in decay speed.  So if you reduce the temperature more, you’re getting longer life for your frozen foods.

Second, a lower temperature means unfrozen foods will freeze faster.  Faster freezing is better, because the ice crystals inside the food are formed more quickly and they stay small, which means they don’t damage the food’s texture as much as a slower freeze/larger crystal size would do.

Third, putting unfrozen food into the freezer won’t mess up the frozen state of the other food already there because there is additional “coldness” in the freezer and food to better “absorb” the heat that is being released from the warm item, until such time as the freezer itself can remove the heat.

Fourth, if there’s a power cut, your frozen food will stay frozen longer.

So consider dropping the temperature to -10°F (-23°C).  You could go lower still.  We’ve not seen any commentary referring to temperatures below -20° so perhaps that might be considered the lower limit.  However, if you’re about to put a large amount of unfrozen food into the freezer, turn the temperature down as low as it can go some hours prior to putting the large amount of food into it, so as to speed up the freezing process.  Remember to turn the thermostat back to its normal setting a few hours later.

Auto or Manual Defrost

These days freezers offer either automatic or manual defrost capabilities.  An auto-defrost unit is very much easier and nicer, but it is a bit harder on the food inside it, especially if the food isn’t well packed and sealed.

Auto-defrost units use a bit more energy, but not enough to really influence your decision, and are said by some to slightly shorten food life.  Manual defrost freezers are a hassle to occasionally thaw out manually, and risk doing more harm to the food during that process than what you’d do with the auto feature.  Chest freezers are usually manual defrost, and vertical freezers usually auto-defrost (because they tend to frost up faster).

How often you need to manually defrost a freezer depends how humid an environment you are in (more humid = more often), how often you open the freezer (more openings = more often), how full it is (the emptier it is, the more often), and whether a chest or vertical freezer (vertical = more often).  Some people suggest you should defrost once every six months, others say once a year is okay, and the best thing to do is simply keep an eye on the ice buildup in the freezer.  Some people suggest defrosting whenever the ice gets to 1/4″ in thickness, others say 1/2″, and really there’s no magic number.

If you have two freezers (see below), we’d suggest choosing a manual defrosting unit for the “long term storage” freezer that you seldom open, and auto-defrosting for the one you’re opening every day.

How Long Does Food Keep in a Freezer

Answering this question depends a great deal on what sorts of food you’re freezing, and – most of all – how you’re packing the food items.

The easiest part of the answer is how important the temperature is.  As long as you’ve got a good steady temperature below 0°F, you’ve probably optimized the temperature side of things.

The major limiting factor with frozen food storage is how it is packed.  The big problem is that moisture migrates to the surface of the item while frozen, and may then evaporate off, creating so-called “freezer burn”.

The solution is to eliminate air spaces around your frozen food.  This means either filling containers, or vacuum packing.  A “Food Saver” type unit is an almost essential accessory to have, and has the added advantage of being a great way to create sous-vide packages.

When choosing a Food Saver, get one with a wide seal rather than narrow (ie at least 11″ wide), so you have more flexibility in how large a package you can seal.  You also want a unit with at least two vacuum settings – one for lots of vacuum (sometimes called “dry”) and the other for a more moderate level of vacuum (sometimes called “moist”).

A vacuum sealer (whether Food Saver or any other brand) unit is inexpensive ($35+ on Amazon), and if you’re going to be using it a lot, you can bulk buy bags at wonderfully low prices too.  If you want to be obsessive, you’d want to get barrier rather than permeable bags – ie, nylon bags rather than polyethylene, but if you’re going to do that, make sure your sealer will seal them.

There is no real need to get textured bags that allegedly help the air to escape out of the pack.  Any decent vacuum will ensure that all air rapidly exits the bag, even with perfectly smooth sides to the bag.

It is claimed in promotional materials for such units that foods go from about a six month life in “normal” packaging (whatever that is!) to 2 – 3 years in vacuum packed bags.  That should be all the justification you need.

Rotate the Food in Your Freezer

This is a key element if you’re going to make extended use of freezer capacity.  It is also a point we’re not very good about ourselves, alas.

Our father was excellent at this, and perhaps yet again there’s something we and possibly you too could learn from him.

First, he would label or at least use a Sharpie to write onto everything the date he placed it into the freezer.  It also can make sense to write what it is as well – one chunk of frozen meat can look very much the same as another.

Second, he kept a notebook by the freezer recording everything he put into the freezer and then updating it when he took it out again.

The key items to record would be date added, item description (possibly extending to quantities or weight), optionally a “use by” date, and where it was placed in the freezer.

If you wanted to be more official, you could give everything you put into the freezer a serial number and show that in your inventory notebook too, thereby ensuring no ambiguity about the items you’re removing.

If you keep that notebook, and a pen together with it, at/on the freezer, you have no excuse for not recording everything in and out.  That will help you rotate items, and not overlook/forget things, or let some things creep past their use-by dates.

Oh, as good as your inventory/record keeping system may be, we’ll wager it won’t be perfect, so whenever you defrost the unit, you should do an inventory check at the same time.  There’s nothing more frustrating that seeing in your records that there is one of whatever it is you want still remaining, but being unable to find it and realizing someone took it out without recording its removal.

Needless to say, you should plan/prepare for a defrosting experience by eating down as much of the stored food as makes sense, and transferring as much more over to your other freezer.  As for what is left over, another good part of planning is to do this on a cold day in winter when you can simply put the other stuff outside and not worry about it thawing; otherwise, fill your fridge as much as possible and simply keep the rest all together and throw some blankets over the items.

Optimizing Two Freezers

If you have two freezers, we suggest you have one for long term storage and one for short term storage.

If you are buying, for example, 20 lbs of something, and you pack it into ten bags each of two pounds, maybe you might put seven or eight of the bags in the long term freezer and two or three in the short term freezer.  Then when you’ve used up the two or three, you’d transfer another two or three from the long term to the short term freezer again.

The short term freezer is one you don’t mind opening and closing so often, perhaps it is also an auto-defrost freezer, and maybe you don’t run it quite as cold as the long term freezer.

Bulk Buying Meat

We’re fortunate to have a “traditional” type butcher in our area.  He sells freezer packs of food ranging from 10 lbs and up to as much as you want, or he’ll make packs to order.  He will also sell you entire sides of meat, and you get to choose how he cuts it up for you.

You can specify what weight packs, or how many portions per pack, and he’ll portion/pack it all as you request, and even pre-freeze it for you, making it much easier to add 50 lbs or more of meat all at once to the freezer.

The only drawback to his service is that he wraps the meat in “butcher paper” – white waxed paper.  If he’d vacuum pack into bags, it would be perfect, but being in the white waxed paper, there’s a severe limit on how long the meat will stay in best quality while frozen.  We’ve sadly switched from his service to buying bulk “boxed beef” from a commercial food supplier, and/or buying tactically at Costco, which continues to have the very best deal on ground beef we’ve ever found anywhere.

You should check to see if there is a similar butcher, or if not, compare your local Costco and any commercial type food suppliers in your area.  The larger the quantity you buy, and the further up the distribution channel you can reach, the better the price.  A supermarket marks up their meat by varying amounts, but often over 50% (note that a 50% markup is the same as a 33% margin) so if you can buy at wholesale, you’ve a good chance of getting much better prices.

The same is equally true of fish, and we’re fortunate to have plenty of fish processors in our area.  If you offer to buy 20 – 50 lbs of fish in bulk from them, they’ll probably sell it to you.

If you were really getting the bulk-buying bug, the best thing is to club together with friends/neighbors/work colleagues and do one very large buy for everyone.

Electricity Cost

The larger the freezer, the more it costs to operate (larger sizes necessarily have larger exterior walls which allow for cooling loss).  A vertical freezer will use more electricity than a chest freezer (perhaps 15%, maybe more, depending on how often you open it), because when you open a vertical freezer door, all the cold air comes spilling out, whereas with a chest freezer, because cold air is heavier, the cold air stays in the freezer with less energy cost to recool things after the door shuts.

Smaller chest freezers will run less than 50c a week, large 20+ cu ft units might go up to $1/week. A vertical freezer will cost at least 10% more than this, depending on how often you open its door, and how long you leave it open.

But even if the cost goes from $1/week to $1.25 a week, neither the extra cost nor the total cost is a huge number, and if you use the freezer well, you’ll get way more than that in savings as well as enormous convenience.

A Helpful Tip

Freezers work best when they are close to full.  Leave enough space for some air circulation, but otherwise, fill them.  If you don’t have a full load of food, put in bottles of water or anything else.

This gives you more “cold mass” so it can better absorb heat if you put more food in to freeze without causing so much temperature rise overall.  It also means when you open the door, less warm moist air comes in and so you have less frost buildup.

Warranty

I’ve seen freezers with warranties ranging from as short as one year to as long as five years.

While generally freezers and their compressor/cooling systems tend to last for long times, it goes without saying there’s more value in a five year warranty than a one year warranty, and because there’s no obvious industry standard, do check the warranty period.

Summary

Any time is a good time to add to your freezer capacity, and now is probably a better time than most, due to possible interruptions to our food supply, possible increases in pricing, and also because if you can buy a lot of meat at once, you cut down on the number of visits you need to make to supermarkets.

Stocks seem to be limited at present.  As well as local specialty stores, you can check online at places such as Amazon, Best Buy, Costco, Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart.  Many offer free delivery.

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