Chili is exactly the kind of comfort food that's worth making up in a big, big batch so you'll have lots for later. It's also exactly the kind of comfort food you'll eat until it's gone, so if you want to save some for later it's best to freeze it as soon as possible. Whether you leave it in its original thick version or thin it to a soup-like consistency, it freezes beautifully either way.
Freezing Food Safely Starts With Cooling
When you're freezing any food, there are a few basic rules you need to follow to keep things safe. The first and most important rule is to cool your food as quickly as possible. That batch of chili is pretty safe when it's hot and fresh, but as it cools below 140 degrees Fahrenheit it enters the food safety danger zone, where bacteria can multiply rapidly. It stays in the danger zone until it gets to fridge temperature, which is below 40 F. The faster you take your chili from above 140 F to below 40 F, the better.
A big batch in a big pot can take hours to cool, and that's just too long. Restaurants chill large pots quickly in a water bath, and even have frozen gel paddles to stir them with, but that's not practical at home. Your simplest option is to divide up the chili as quickly as possible into small, flat, shallow containers and spread them out across your counter in a well-ventilated area. They'll cool quickly, and once they reach room temperature you can put them into your fridge or freezer to finish the job.
Make Plenty of Space in Your Freezer
Don't just stack your newly filled freezer containers into one corner of the space available. Stacking them turns them back into one large pile of warm food and slows the cooling process. Instead, spread them around your freezer in a single layer. That way, the chili in each shallow container gets chilled – and leaves the danger zone – as quickly as possible. Once they're frozen, it's okay to stack the containers neatly in one spot so they'll take up less space.
Freezing Chili in Bags
Freezer containers can keep your freezer's limited space neat and orderly, but your food will take up more space than it needs to. More important, the air space left inside each container allows frost to form and shortens the storage life of your chili.
You'll get longer life if you use bags for the chili and remove as much excess air as possible. You can spoon the chili into zipper-seal bags, for example, squeeze the air out of them, and then freeze them in a single layer on a sheet pan so they'll stack neatly.
A vacuum sealer works even better, but you can't use it for freezing soup or chili directly because the suction cycle will pull moisture into the lip of the bag and keep it from making a seal. Your best option is to freeze the chili initially in containers, then transfer the bricks of frozen chili to your vacuum bags. They'll seal perfectly, and the finished bags will stack almost as neatly as the containers themselves.
Reheating Your Chili
When you're ready to reheat and eat your chili, you have plenty of options available. You can pop it into your fridge the night before so it thaws overnight, or thaw it quickly in a bowl or a sink of cold water. You can even take it straight from the freezer to the microwave, if you like, and from there to the table.
However you choose to thaw and reheat your chili, it has to be heated completely and evenly in order to be food safe. The USDA suggests you bring any leftovers to a temperature of at least 165 F for safety. You know it's higher than that if it's boiling, but otherwise you should check with a thermometer and stir the chili a few times to make sure it's heated evenly all the way through.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.