Freezing is an economical way to store food, if done properly. Buying extra chicken breasts when they are on sale, for example, and freezing them until you need them can save hundreds of dollars each year—more for an above-average size family. The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline gets thousands of callers each year, however, unsure exactly how to freeze food for safe use later. And, if not done properly, freezing can actually create more food waste in your home and actually COST you money. So, take the time to learn how to freeze, store, and thaw your foods properly.
What to Freeze?
Most foods can be frozen. Even canned foods can be frozen, as long as you take them out of the can first; never freeze canned foods in the can, as they can become unsafe for eating. But, some foods do not freeze as well as others. If properly wrapped, raw meats will freeze well, the USDA indicates, while cooked meats, which have lost moisture during the cooking process, often do not maintain their original quality as well or as long. Some foods just do not freeze well, period; the USDA cites mayonnaise, cream sauce and lettuce as examples. And, they indicate, eggs cannot be safely frozen in the shell, as the shells often crack during the freezing process. If this happens, discard the egg. However, if an egg does freeze and the shell does not crack, it can be thawed in the fridge and safely hardboiled. Using an egg that has been frozen for other purposes will probably not work, they indicated, because the freezing causes the yolk to become thick and syrupy, and blending will be poor. But, on the whole, most foods do well in the freezer.
Is Freezing Safe?
In a word, yes.
The USDA suggests keeping frozen food stored at a constant 0 °F:
Freezing keeps food safe by slowing the movement of molecules, causing microbes to enter a dormant stage. Freezing preserves food for extended periods because it prevents the growth of microorganisms that cause both food spoilage and foodborne illness.
On the other hand, the USDA warns, while freezing does inactivate bacteria, yeasts and molds, the microbes will become active again when the food is thawed, so one should always take precautions against foodborne illness with thawed frozen foods, just as one would with fresh foods.
And, the USDA points out, freezing does not destroy nutrients, as some consumers worry. In fact, with meat and poultry, there is little change in nutrient value during freezer storage, the USDA indicates. But, the enzyme activity that leads to deterioration of food quality is not stopped when food is frozen, only slowed. So, freezer time is an indication of food quality when thawed. And, blanching—brief, partial cooking—can help prevent deterioration of many vegetables.
To prevent freezer burn, the USDA indicates packaging is an important detail. Many of us will freeze meat directly in its original package. While this is safe, it is not the best packaging to prevent freezer burn. Rather, the packages should be either overwrapped or the food should be removed from the package and rewrapped. Unopened vacuum packages can be frozen as-is, as they are not permeable to air.
Freezer burn, while it decreases the quality of the cooked product, is not dangerous, the USDA points out, suggesting that some freezer-burned foods can be salvaged by cutting away the freezer-burned spots. Some improperly wrapped foods, however, will have to be discarded completely, not because they are unsafe, but simply because the quality of the freezer-burned item is too poor to salvage. So, do take the time to properly wrap your foods before putting them into the freezer.
Thawing Foods Safely
When you are ready to eat a frozen food item, there are three safe ways to thaw the food, the USDA indicates:
- In the refrigerator.
- In cold water.
- In the microwave.
“Never,” the USDA says, “thaw foods in a garage, basement, car, dishwasher or plastic garbage bag; out on the kitchen counter, outdoors or on the porch. These methods can leave your foods unsafe to eat.”
Can you refreeze? Yes, if the food has been safely thawed, it can be safely refrozen. However, there may be some loss of food quality, the USDA explains, due to moisture loss. However, the USDA indicates that foods left outside the refrigerator for longer than 2 hours (1 hour in temperatures above 90 degrees F) should not be refrozen. And, should your freezer fail, the USDA indicates a full freezer of food will keep about 2 days if the door is kept shut, while a half-full freezer will last about a day.
For more freezer safety tips, including a chart of suggested freezer times for common foods, visit the USDA online.
Image: Wikimedia Commons