Frozen vegetables can be a lifesaver when it comes to getting produce into your diet. They’re usually cheap, you don’t have to worry about using them up before they go bad, and in many cases they’re actually more nutrient-dense than fresh veggies.
That’s because the vitamins and nutrients in fresh vegetables degrade with time spent in refrigerated storage, and unless you live in a temperate climate and eat mostly local produce, your food can take weeks to get from the farm to your house — and even then, you’re probably not eating all your veggies the same day you buy them. Flash-freezing, however, preserves fruits and vegetables at peak ripeness and keeps more of their nutritional properties intact.
Frozen vegetables are super easy to toss into all kinds of dishes, but some recipes just aren’t the same without fresh ones. We consulted with food experts including chefs, a food scientist and a nutritionist for their advice on when frozen veggies will do the trick, and when you just have to go fresh.
Do: Mix into pretty much anything ― soups, stews, pasta, salads, etc.
“There is a saying around the chef world: ‘Wait for peas to come into season, then use frozen,’” said Tiffany Swan, a chef and food scientist who has worked with brands like Starbucks and PepsiCo.
“This is because, unless you are harvesting them yourself or you have a good relationship with a farmer and know they are only hours from the field, the peas are going to be starchy and tough.”
Our experts roundly gave frozen peas their stamp of approval for virtually any dish, even for salads or hummus. Because peas are blanched before freezing, Swan said, you can just thaw them out in the fridge overnight before using. If you’re adding them to a hot dish like vegetable soup or pasta carbonara, add them in toward the end of the cooking process so they get heated through, but not mushy.
Do: Steam it, rice it, mix it into soups or stews
Don’t: Salads or roasting
The pale cruciferous veggie is an “absolute yes to buying frozen,” said Lexy Rogers, a chef, forthcoming cookbook author, and “MasterChef” Season 11 finalist.
“Cauliflower can be expensive in comparison to other veggies, and if you are steaming this veggie it will taste almost identical to its fresh sisters,” she said. Rogers recommends using frozen cauliflower if you’re steaming it as a side dish, grating and cooking it in a skillet for cauliflower rice, or adding it to soups.
However, optimal roasted cauliflower starts with the fresh stuff ― if it’s frozen, the moisture content will keep it from browning nicely. Dietitian and writer Elisa Bremner seconds this and adds that if you’re planning to eat the cauliflower raw, such as in a salad, frozen won’t cut it.
“Nothing beats a fresh cauliflower in season, when they are sweet and crispy,” Bremner said. “I use those raw in salads or roasted whole. Outside of season, though, go with frozen.”
Do: Smoothies, spinach artichoke dip, creamed spinach, omelets
Don’t: Salads or sandwiches
This leafy green is somewhat controversial among our sources. Swan, for her part, always keeps some in her freezer.
“It’s great for adding a bit of vitamins and protein to any hot dish, makes quick work of anything that requires you to wilt down lots and lots of spinach, like spinach artichoke dip, and is full of fresh green flavor,” Swan said. “As with most frozen veggies, you want to use them in a way that they will be cooked in the final dish, as they have already been cooked in processing and you can’t go backward.”
Rogers, however, is less of a fan. “I almost never recommend buying frozen spinach, though I know quite a few who disagree,” she said. “Frozen spinach is already almost completely wilted down, so a pro side is you know exactly how much you’re getting without some of the guesswork of how much of the veggie will remain once cooked down.”
“The con: you can’t see what’s in the bag until after you’ve bought it and opened it.”
When deciding to buy spinach fresh or frozen, much of it comes down to your personal preference. Some people can’t stand frozen spinach, even in cooked dishes like soups, but others are fine with the taste and texture, and appreciate the convenience.
Do: Mix with pasta or grains
Don’t: Roast them
When it comes to green beans, the frozen vs. fresh question depends largely on how you plan to prepare them.
“If you are simply mixing the green beans in with pasta or with whole grains, frozen is a great choice, as their appearance and texture aren’t as important,” said Christina Bailey, a Culinary Institute of America-educated private chef and instructor of culinary experiences in partnership with Cozymeal.
“But if you plan to roast the green beans ― and this goes for any vegetable ― you want to start with fresh. The residual moisture that comes with frozen vegetables prevents all that delicious caramelization in the oven.”
Roasted veggies should go into the oven dry and oiled for best results. But otherwise, steaming your green beans or mixing them into a dish until heated through will do just fine.
Do: On its own, in salad, in hummus
Edamame is another vegetable that is just as good, if not better, purchased frozen.
“Fresh edamame isn’t widely available in groceries, and when it is, they are like peas ― the sweetness turns to starchiness pretty quickly,” Swan said. If you’re planning to eat it as a side dish or snack, straight from the pod, all you have to do is thaw them out and season as desired.
The same goes for use in pretty much any other dish, like blended into a hummus or added to a salad. Just thaw, remove pods (if applicable), and use as you would fresh.
Do: Anything cooked
Don’t: Snacking raw
Root vegetables like carrots tend to keep for a long time, so eating them before they start to spoil is less of a challenge than it might be for other vegetables. But if you find carrots kind of a pain to chop, good news: frozen carrots will save you some time and are widely applicable.
“Carrots can absolutely be bought frozen, as long as you’re planning on cooking them,” Rogers said. “They break down quite the same way as fresh ones when cooked.
Soups, stews, pot pies and even carrot cake can all be pulled off with frozen carrots. You might even be able to find them pre-shredded, in case a recipe calls for that. But for any dish that requires raw carrots, you really ought to use fresh.
“If you are planning on just munching on them with a little ranch or throwing them on a platter for a party, please buy them fresh,” Rogers said. Fortunately, “carrots are pretty cheap either way.”
Do: Soups, stews, mashed, mac and cheese
“Although winter squashes tend to be available year-round and last awhile (up to three months on your counter), peeling and cutting a fresh one is difficult and time-consuming,” Bremner said. She recommends using frozen butternut squash to save yourself some time and effort if you’re making something like soup, stew, or mac and cheese, where it needs to have a soft texture.
As with most vegetables, though, frozen won’t cut it if you’re planning to roast it ― the extra moisture will keep it from caramelizing and getting those nice, crispy brown edges.
“I would always prefer to use the fresh one if I’m roasting chunks for a bowl, salad or side dish,” Bremner said.