There’s no better time than the coming of autumn to begin to practice bulk cooking.
Bulk cooking– making large batches of staple foods and even whole meals in advance– can seem pretty daunting in the heat of summer, but as the cooler weather sets in, turning on the stove seems less like a chore and more like a pleasant way to spend an afternoon!
Why Bulk Cooking?
Bulk cooking– and meal planning generally– can help you save money, ensure easy quick meals around the house, boost your intake of beans and whole grains, and maybe even help you reduce food waste too.
Unless you live with like six people, it’s probably not practical to do all your cooking in bulk. But, if like me you live with one person only, it might have never crossed your mind to cook extras of all your foods. But whether your live with six people or live alone, our helpful tip and tricks will show you that bulk cooking really is for everyone!
How to Get Started with Bulk cooking
First, think of your favorite meals that you already cook: what part of these could be cooked ahead of time? The sauce, the grains, the beans? Unless you’re eating salad for every meal, I would bet that many of the components of your meals can be made ahead of time.
Finding the right ingredients that can be cooked in bulk is the beginning of your bulk cooking success– and there are more than you might imagine! Ingredients that can be cooked in bulk include:
1. Beans and lentils
2. Grains like brown rice, wheat berries, barley
3. Dips and sauces like hummus, pasta sauce and dressings
4. Blanched veggies
6. Baked goods like cookies and muffins
All of these items can be cooked during your free time and frozen for future use. Think of all the quick meals you can make if you have ready-made wheat berries, lentils, and sauces? Simply pull your frozen ingredients from the freezer, let thaw, and dinner is almost ready!
Bulk Cooking Techniques
Of course, the cooking technique depends on your food, so here in this section we’ll detail the bulk cooking techniques, suggestions and tips for the foods listed above. Of course, if your favorite cooking method isn’t listed here, let us know in the comments how you cook up your favorite foods for bulk cooking and storage.
1. Beans and lentils
Black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas (see our hummus suggestions below), lentils, split peas and more can be cooked and stored for up to six months. My preferred method of bean cooking is with a slow cooker, because I find it gives my beans the perfect texture, and makes them infinitely more digestible.
Black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas and the like: Soak overnight or eight hours in water. Drain, rinse, and add to slow cooker. Add kombu and cook for 6-8 hours on low. Check for doneness, and when beans have finished cooking to your liking, set aside to let cool completely. For stovetop cooking, soak as directed, but add to a large stockpot and cover with fresh water, along with kombu. Bring to a boil, and cook on low heat for about one hour. Check for doneness, then set aside to cool.
Once beans have cooled completely, divide between your freezer containers, including some of the cooking liquid. You can drain them completely, but I think that having a bit of liquid keeps them a bit fresher. I usually keep one in the fridge for the current week and freeze the rest. You can always drain before using once they are thawed. Keep in the freezer for up to six months.
Lentils and split peas: Cook in fresh water (no need to soak) until very soft, about 30-45 minutes. Follow the same directions for cooling and storing– the directions are the same for the cooking liquid.
Bonus: As you might imagine, since lentils freeze so well, curries do too! I often make Mung Bean Dal, Tamarind Lentils or other lentil based dishes in bulk. Follow the recipe (or double it!) and let cool completely before storing for the freezer. They taste exactly the same after freezing, and make meal prep super fast!
2. Whole grains: wheat berries, barley and brown rice
Whole grains are great additions to your meals whatever the season, but their long cooking time makes them a hassle during the summer.
Plan ahead in the fall months for quick summer grain-based salads and meals! All grains have various cooking and prep times, so be sure to know your time limitations before you start a pot of wheat berries!
Wheat berries (and also farro, barley, rye, spelt and whole oat groats): These super hearty grains add fiber, protein and minerals to our diet. Most need to be cooked for about 45 minutes to an hour in fresh water. Unlike beans, you should let cool completely and then drain off the cooking liquid before storing. Whole grains can also be cooked in the slow cooker: add grains and water to cover, then cook on low for 3-4 hours. Wheat berries and the like can be used in big salads or as a grain side to your meal.
Brown rice: These are quicker than wheat berries- taking just about a half hour to cook, but it’s good to have some frozen brown rice on hand. Since all liquid will be absorbed while cooking, you can just let cool then move to freezer containers. I’ve tried to bulk cook and freeze quinoa, and had mediocre results, so keep this grain for fresh cooking.
3. Dips and sauces: hummus, sauces and dressings
Homemade sauces are really the secret to awesome meals: whether you’re making sweet sauces or savory, or dips and spreads like hummus, you will have luck with many of them in the freezer.
Sauces: I can’t say I’ve had experience with every type of sauce out there, but in my experience you can freeze almost any sauce! Anything tomato-based (like marinara, barbecue, mole) will do great, as will anything oil based (pesto!). Nut butter, dairy or plant-milk sauces are iffy: these sauces will likely separate and look super wacky. They will still taste fine, but the texture might be off. Salad dressings should freeze just fine too, especially if it’s olive oil based. I’ve also frozen my awesome homemade chutney, fruit sauces, and so much more!
Hummus: By far my favorite thing to freeze is hummus, which is a big surprise for most people. You can find my detailed instructions about how to make bulk hummus, but it can be summed up like this: make a huge batch of chickpeas using the bean directions above, turn that into huge batches of hummus, and freeze in recycled hummus containers. To eat, simply let thaw overnight in the fridge. I always keep batches in the freezer for quick snacks and last-minute dinner parties!
A note about liquid storage: If you use canning jars for freezing, always choose the pint or half-pint size. As per the manufacturer, these are meant to be frozen, while the large quart size jars are NOT. I’ve found this the hard way, as my jars of broth or sauce have sadly exploded into freezer oblivion.
4. Blanched veggies
Of all the items on this list, veggies is the one I prefer the least, although it does come in handy. The only veggie that I truly like to freeze is kale, if there is a sale at the farmer’s market or at my local store. Otherwise, I find it really easy to quickly cook broccoli, cauliflower, carrots or more. Also, frozen veggies are easy and affordable to get at the stores pre-packaged.
Kale: Check out my recent post about how to freeze kale to always have greenery in your freezer.
All other veggies: Check out this list from Rodale’s to learn how to freeze carrots, broccoli and so much more.
5. Soups and Broth
Just like sauces, almost every soup can be frozen! This is great for the autumn and winter, as you can make the most of autumn produce and stock up your freezer for super quick and wholesome meals.
Soups: Vegetable based soups made from butternut squash, potatoes or tomatoes freeze really well, as do legume based soups like Tamarind Lentils or Chickpea Curry. Try out your favorites in the next few weeks, then stick them in the freezer to relish the yummy meal months from now! Soups should hold for about six months, if not more.
Broth: I love making homemade vegetable broth at home! It’s a great way to use up veggie scraps, and makes your soups, sauces and gravy extra flavorful. Find our tutorial for making homemade broth here. This can be frozen for up to a year.
But, be sure to store your soups safely: As written above for sauces, if you use canning jars, always choose the pint or half-pint size. As per the manufacturer, these are meant to be frozen, while the large quart size jars are NOT. I’ve found this the hard way, as my jars of broth or sauce have sadly exploded into freezer oblivion.
6. Baked goods like cookies and muffins
Who doesn’t love fresh baked cookies and muffins? Of course, when the craving strikes you might not have time to bake. Having sweet treats on hand is a great way to wean yourself off processed foods, and get creative in the kitchen. Once you have all your flours, sweeteners and oils out and the oven on, it makes sense to bake in bulk, and you can enjoy the fruits of your labor for months to come.
Cookies: Since cookies tend to be made in big batches, it’s easy to want to store some away. Once your cookies have cooled completely, layer onto a baking sheet and place in the freezer to freeze solid. Once the cookies are frozen, you can move to a storage container or (not green but awesome for baked goods) an airtight resealable plastic bag. Most cookies will keep for about 6 months in the freezer. Need some suggestions? How about our Nut Butter Cookies, Banana Chocolate Chip Cookies or Divine Oatmeal Cookies.
Muffins: Since muffins and cupcakes are usually made in batches of 12, it makes sense to freeze part of that for future snacks. You can follow the same directions for the cookies for excellent muffins. Enjoy them within one to two months, as they tend to get mushy after too long in the freezer.
Food Storage Solutions
Perhaps most importantly, before beginning any bulk cooking, you need to be sure you can store all your goodies properly!
Both for sturdiness and safety, we like to use glass containers with an airtight seal. There are lots of brands making these, and you should be able to find them easily at most stores. We always prefer glass containers, as all plastics are known to leak phthalates and other endocrine disruptors into our food supply.
Plastic comes in handy in a pinch, but glass is safer. It’s also more sturdy: when plastic is frozen it’s quite likely to break as food expands (I’ve had a lot of experience with this!), leaving plastic shards on the freezer, floor and maybe even in the food. Yes, glass can break too, but most glass containers are built to be freezer and oven safe, which means they are likely to be a bit more stable.
Learn more about safe food storage solutions from our friends at Eat Drink Better about plastic-free food storage, and learn more about endocrine disruptors throughout the home from the Environmental Working Group.
Image credits: Tomato sauce jars from Flickr Creative Commons by thebittenword.com; lentils/beans image, farro image, and glass containers from Shutterstock. All other images from the author.
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