How to Make the Most of Frozen Vegetables
PSA: You don’t have to trade taste, quality, or nutrition for convenience when it comes to frozen veggies. With our tips and healthy frozen vegetable recipes, learn how a stocked freezer can be a busy cook’s best friend.
Jamie Vespa is a registered dietitian, nutrition and food journalist, and digital influencer who operates the health-centric food blog and social media accounts, Dishing Out Health. She champions the idea that food and the power of cooking can heal, inspire, and help us thrive. Featured frozen vegetable photos by Sherrie Castellano.
Frozen veggies deserve a little more credit. While you may have grown up only using a bag of frozen peas for a banged-up knee or for Mom’s tuna noodle casserole, their versatility stretches far beyond the familiar.
Not only do frozen veggies offer plenty of bang for your buck, they last longer than fresh veggies, and require way less prep work. They’re an easy, convenient way to hit your daily veggie quota, and for that, they deserve some grocery cart real estate.
If you’ve ever had a bad experience with frozen veggies, you know they can become limp, waterlogged, and bland when not prepared right. Perhaps this left a bad taste in your mouth (literally and figuratively); however, we’re about to put frozen produce back in your good graces. Read on for the ultimate guide on how to cook frozen vegetables to maximize the potential of freezer-to-table cooking.
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Basic questions about frozen veggies
Are all frozen vegetables created equal? How do they compare in terms of nutrition to fresh, and how long do they last in the freezer? Let’s explore these top three questions.
1. What are the best frozen vegetables to buy?
Just as some vegetables are better when bought fresh (looking at you, Brussels sprouts), some are actually superior in frozen form. These veggies will save you prep time while effortlessly elevating home cooking.
Artichokes: Unlike canned or jarred, which are often packed in brine or oil, frozen artichoke hearts are more of a blank canvas. They also spare you the arduous task of trimming and peeling fresh artichokes to unveil the precious (albeit tiny) edible heart. Add them to cheesy dips or pasta salad, or scatter over a veggie pizza.
I especially love frozen artichoke hearts in this creamy Italian chicken dish, which also calls for sun-dried tomatoes and capers (plenty of briny bite there!). Between the succulent chicken and garlic cream sauce, this one-pot wonder may be the tastiest way to sneak in extra veggies.
Corn: Not only do frozen corn kernels save you from shucking and slicing, they’re often way sweeter than fresh. Like most frozen veggies, corn is picked and flash-frozen at peak ripeness, which locks in its sweet flavor. Fresh cobs, on the other hand, can lose some sweetness on their journey from field to fork.
In creamy chicken tortilla soup, frozen corn is combined with masa harina to create quintessential corn tortilla flavor. The author notes you can make it spicier by adding more jalapeño or smokier with chipotle chili powder in place of the regular chili powder.
Spinach: We can all agree that blanching, shocking, and squeezing the moisture out of fresh spinach is not conducive to weeknight cooking. (Especially when the yield is next-to-nothing.) Frozen spinach is a win-win for cutting back prep time and holding up exceptionally well in the freezer.
Frozen spinach is a much-loved ingredient in cheesy spinach dip, and it turns out the same combination makes a decadent, restaurant-worthy filling for salmon.
Green Peas: Similar to corn, frozen green peas are often much sweeter than fresh. They also spare you from shelling and picking through a batch of pea pods, which have a short season. Add a handful of frozen peas to pasta Alfredo, pasta salad, or risotto for a pop of sweetness and color.
Green peas can also be whipped into a sweeter, creamier version of pesto. Pea pesto is fantastic as a toast topper, dip for veggies, or to dollop over a platter of barley risotto.
Cauliflower: For dishes like cauliflower “wings” that count on crispy cauliflower, you’re better off using fresh. Frozen cauliflower is best suited as a stand-in for potatoes, bananas, and even heavy cream when you’re trying to cut calories and/or carbs from a dish. Whether it’s replacing the potatoes in a mash, heavy cream in mac and cheese, or bananas in a smoothie, it’s the best-kept secret swap.
If you’re a fan of Frappuccinos, you’ll love this healthier smoothie, which leans on frozen cauliflower for creaminess. Between the coffee, cacao powder, and peanut butter, the cruciferous veggie’s flavor goes completely undetected.
2. Are frozen vegetables healthy?
When comparing fresh vs. frozen vegetables, most studies show no significant difference in nutritional value. This is because most veggies are picked and flash-frozen at peak ripeness, which also means peak nutrition. Think of the freezing process as Mother Nature’s pause button.
In some cases, frozen actually offers higher levels of nutrients than fresh, especially compared to fresh produce picked in cooler months before it completely ripens and develops a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals. In addition, during the haul from farm to fork, fresh produce can be exposed to environmental factors that can degrade more delicate nutrients like vitamin C.
As a general rule of thumb, go for fresh produce when it’s in season, and especially when it’s local. Any other time of year — or when convenience really counts — rest assured you’re getting comparable nutrients in the frozen aisle. After all, a vegetable in any form is better than no vegetable at all.
3. How long do frozen vegetables last?
If kept in their original packaging, most frozen veggies last anywhere between 8 and 12 months. (Higher moisture veggies like mushrooms and bell peppers veer towards the 8-month mark.) If you open a bag and only use part of it, place the rest in a zip-top freezer bag with as much air removed as possible. (Or, if you’re a real freezing aficionado, use a vacuum-sealing machine, such as a Food Saver.) Removing air will help prevent freezer burn and preserve the produce’s precious moisture.
How to prepare frozen vegetables
While inherently simpler to prepare than fresh, frozen veggies do require some strategy to optimize their taste and texture. Whether you choose to steam, roast, or sauté, what’s most important is not overcooking them. Bear in mind they’re already blanched (or par-cooked in some way), so all they really require is reheating.
How to thaw frozen vegetables
With the exception of greens such as spinach, frozen veggies actually perform best when cooked without thawing first. Just expect a little excess water in your recipes when using high-moisture varieties like mushrooms and bell peppers. For spinach and other greens, partially defrost them and squeeze out excess water before cooking.
How to season frozen vegetables
To compete with their fresh counterparts, frozen veggies need a little extra love in the seasoning department. All your usual contenders are key — salt, pepper, garlic powder, etc. — but also think acid, fat, and maybe some heat. Acidic ingredients like lemon juice will give the veggies a fresh lift, and fats like butter and olive oil will make them more unctuous. To really raise the bar as you consider how to make frozen vegetables taste good, grate some fresh Parmesan on top, drizzle with chili oil or add red pepper flakes, or toss with crumbled bacon. For maximum flavor, season and garnish after heating.
This roasted frozen broccoli recipe uses acid (lemon), seasonings (garlic powder), and a salty umami booster (Pecorino Romano) to make frozen florets downright irresistible.
How to cook frozen vegetables
There are multiple methods for cooking frozen vegetables, and one to avoid: boiling. Boiling an already blanched frozen veggie will send it on the fast track to mushy town. Plus, it can leach out certain water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C. The following are the best ways to cook frozen vegetables.
How to sauté frozen vegetables
This method is best for softer veggies like peppers, onions, and zucchini.
If you’re wondering how to cook frozen vegetables so that they are not soggy, for stovetop cooking, using a cast-iron skillet will be your best chance at introducing some crispiness. Start by heating a glug of oil in the skillet over medium-high heat. Once hot, add frozen veggies and cook, stirring only occasionally to ensure they make sufficient surface contact with the pan, until just tender, 5 to 7 minutes.
How to roast frozen vegetables
This method works best for broccoli, cauliflower, and butternut squash (vegetables that are individually frozen as loose pieces).
Start by preheating a greased sheet pan in the oven at 450°. (The high heat helps evaporate moisture so the veggies roast rather than steam.) Once the pan is hot, spread frozen veggies in a single layer on the hot baking sheet, making sure there is no overlap. Roast until the veggies are crisp-tender. Cooking time varies depending on the veggie, so check for doneness after 15 minutes, but know it could take up to 30 minutes.
Try this next recipe for roasted butternut squash, which eliminates the hassle of peeling, slicing, and dicing a whole squash. The result is deliciously sweet squares with caramelized edges and tender, creamy centers.
How to steam frozen vegetables
Steaming frozen veggies is no different from steaming fresh vegetables — it just takes half the time. For stovetop steaming, add 1 to 2 inches of water to a small saucepan with a lid. Insert a steamer basket or sieve over the water, making sure the water doesn’t touch, and bring the water to a boil. Scatter the vegetables over the steamer basket in the boiling water, cover the pot, and reduce the heat to medium. Check the vegetables after 3 to 5 minutes, and remove them from the steamer basket once they’re warmed through.
Frozen cauliflower gets steamed and mashed in this riff on shrimp and grits. With only 5 ingredients and a 15-minute time stamp, it’s elegant enough for a special meal, yet streamlined enough for weeknight cooking.
How to microwave frozen vegetables
While the microwave isn’t going to do frozen veggies any favors in terms of texture, it’s still an effective cooking method when you’re crunched for time. Simply place the frozen vegetables in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 4 to 6 minutes. Because microwave cook times vary, test the veggies at 60-second intervals, stirring between each, until they’re sufficiently warmed through. (Remember that you’re reheating more than cooking.)
Easy dinner recipes with frozen vegetables
While frozen veggies can work as stand-alone side dishes, they’re best in recipes with a lot going on, like stir-fries, pot pies, soups, and fried rice. This way, the less-than-perfect texture of frozen veggies won’t make the final product any less delicious. Here are some of our favorite ways to use them.
Use a bag of frozen fajita veggies in place of fresh peppers and onions in this easy chicken stir-fry. Serve it over steamed rice for a better-than-takeout meal.
Curtail your time cutting carrots and broccoli by using a bag of frozen mixed veggies in this speedy beef stir-fry. Pro tip: Add an extra bag of broccoli for the classic beef and broccoli experience.
With only 5 ingredients, it’s no wonder this ground beef vegetable soup is officially titled “Busy Day Soup.” And with one of the ingredients being mixed frozen veggies, you can switch up the variety each time you make it. Try green beans, carrots, corn, and peas for starters, and then go from there.
Frozen mixed peas and carrots are the go-to duo for classic shepherd’s pie. You can prep this all-in-one meal days ahead and bake it at your convenience.
This chicken pot pie is all about humble convenience items: frozen veggies, canned soup, and biscuit mix. Still, you’d never guess that such a streamlined cooking method creates such a rich and homey taste.
A pan of veggie-packed fried rice is one of the simplest and most satisfying weeknight dinners out there. This recipe employs frozen peas to bolster the rice with a pop of sweetness and color. For a vegan frozen vegetables recipe, replace the butter with vegetable oil, and feel free to add some diced tofu for extra protein.
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