How to Safely Freeze Meat
Every year thousands of calls are received by the USDA Meat and Poultry hotline. Many of these are from individuals who are not sure about the safety of items stored in their home freezers. Few of us really understand how freezing protects food, but the fact is that almost any food can be frozen.
The ability to freeze, defrost, and then safely eat foods has nothing to do with whether you will actually enjoy the taste and quality, however. For example, some foods (such as cream sauces, lettuce, and mayonnaise) remain safe to eat after freezing but are typically not enjoyable because they just don't freeze well. Meat, however, does quite well if prepared properly for the freezing process. Raw meat in particular does a great job of maintaining its quality if properly protected.
One important fact to remember when freezing any food is that freshness and quality at the time of freezing will have a major impact on the condition of the food once it is thawed. For example, foods that are frozen at the peak of freshness tend to taste better than foods that were frozen near the end of their usefulness.
Foods that are frozen at 0° F or lower retain their vitamin content, flavor, texture, and color. Freezing food at this temperature inactivates any bacteria, yeast, or mold that may be present in the food. Once thawed, however, microbes can again begin to multiply leading to food-borne illness if food is not handled properly.
How Long Can You Freeze Meat?
Number of Months
Bacon and Sausage
1 to 2
Gravy, Meat or Poultry
2 to 3
Ham, Hot Dogs, or Lunchmeats
1 to 2
4 to 12
Uncooked steaks or Chops
4 to 12
Uncooked Ground Meat
3 to 4
2 to 3
Uncooked Whole Poultry
Uncooked Poultry Parts
Uncooked Poultry Giblets
3 to 4
Uncooked Wild Game
8 to 12
Meat that has been frozen will remain safe indefinitely. The quality of the meat will change drastically, however. As you can see from the table above, different kinds of meat have different recommended freezer storage times. For foods not listed in the above chart, a quality check may be necessary prior to preparing them for cooking. First, check the odor of the food. Does it smell rancid or just off? If so, it should probably be discarded. Next, check for any discoloration. Though some color change is expected in frozen foods (for example, the bright red color of freshly purchased meat may turn dark or pale brown), other forms of discoloration may be an indication of substandard quality or freezer burn.
What is Freezer Burn?
Proper meat packaging prior to freezing is essential to preventing (or at least reducing) freezer burn. Freezer burn is the discoloration of frozen foods due to oxidation and dehydration. If air reaches the food, it will cause moisture in the outer layer to evaporate into the air, leaving behind dry pockets in the food tissue.Typically, meat that has been freezer burned, has brownish-white discolorations. On other foods, freezer burn may appear as puckered white splotches. Surprisingly, freezer burned food is quite safe to eat. But, while it is not harmful, freezer burn greatly affects the flavor and texture of foods.
There is no way to reverse freezer burn and the best course of action is simply to cut away that portion of your meat and discard it prior to cooking. If your meat is heavily freezer burned, it may become necessary to discard the entire thing.
How To Freeze Meat: Step One - Meat Packaging
The meat packaging found in most grocery stores is generally safe for short term freezing. This kind of meat packaging, however, is permeable to air and the quality of the meat will diminish quickly over time. If you plan to store meat for a prolonged period, it is best to add an additional overwrap or to repackage the meat all together.
The goal of proper packaging is to protect the meat from moisture as well as air. Meat packaging for the freezer should:
- Be Moisture/Vapor Resistant
- Be Durable
- Be Leakproof
- Be Safe in Low Temperatures
- Be Resistant to Oil, Grease, and Water
- Protect Foods from Off-flavors and Odors
- Be Easy to Seal
- Be Easy to Label
There are several techniques and materials that can be used to accomplish these goals. Some prefer freezer paper and freezer tape. Others use plastic wrap or freezer bags. Vacuum sealing is also a popular method to remove air and seal out moisture. A combination of these different materials is sometimes used for extra protection.
How to Freeze Meat: Step Two - The Fast Freeze
Freezing food as fast as possible is the best way to maintain quality. Slow freezing creates large ice crystals which cause meat to "drip" and lose juiciness. Ideally, a 2-inch steak should freeze completely in about 2 hours. This is not always possible at home. But if you are one of those lucky few who have a quick-freeze shelf in your home freezer, use it. Another tip is to spread multiple packages in a single layer on the shelves of your freezer instead of stacking them. This will allow each package to freeze as quickly as possible. Feel free to stack them once they are all frozen solid.
Between 40°F and 140°F bacteria can grow rapidly. When defrosting meat on the counter, the center may still be frozen, but the temperature of outer layer can drop well within this range. Bacteria can then flourish, increasing the likelihood of illness once consumed.
How to Freeze Meat: Step Three - Defrosting Meat Safely
Defrosting meat may seem as simple as placing it on the counter or in the sink and walking away, but this is not the best way to ensure a delicious and safe meal. The method you use when defrosting meat is just as important as the method you used to wrap and then freeze it. it is important that meat is kept at safe temperatures during the big thaw. This prevents food-borne illnesses in those that consume it later.
If meat should reach levels above 40°F while thawing, bacteria that may have been present prior to freezing can begin to multiply. Meat, as well as any other perishable food, should never be left at room temperature for longer than two hours.
There are three safe ways to thaw food. These are:
- Refrigerator Thawing
- Cold Water Thawing
- Microwave Thawing
Of these, refrigerator thawing is probably the most efficient. It ensures the food remains at a safe temperature during the thawing process. Refrigerator thawing can, however, take time. It requires planning ahead, particularly for larger items which can take hours or even days to thaw completely. After thawing in the refrigerator, ground meats, seafood, and poultry remain safe and of good quality for an additional day or two. Red meats remain safe for an additional 3 to 5 days. Refreezing meat that has been thawed in the refrigerator is also safe, but this will result in a loss of quality.
Another Option: Cooking Frozen Food
Meat can be cooked from the frozen state. it will take a considerably longer time to cook, however, than if it were thawed first. Depending on size, frozen meat can take 50 percent longer to cook than the same thawed product. If you choose to cook your meat in a frozen state, use the oven, the stove, or the grill. Do not cook frozen meat or poultry products by slow cooker. This increases the liklihood of foodborne illness in those who consume it later.
Cold water thawing is faster than refrigerator thawing, however, this process may require much more attention. If you plan to cold water thaw your meat, you must make sure the meat packaging is leak-proof with no wholes or tears. If water somehow finds its way into the packaging, bacteria from the air may also creep in. Meat tissue can also absorb the water, resulting in a waterlogged and unappealing piece of meat.
To properly thaw meat in cold water, the bag should be completely submerged and the water changed every 30 minutes. Of course, the larger the package the longer the thawing time. Once your meat is completely thawed using this method, it must be cooked immediately. Refreezing meat after cold water thawing is not safe unless the meat is cooked.
Microwave Thawing has been found to be safe, however, food defrosted in this way should be cooked immediately. This is because microwaves tend to warm food unevenly with some areas becoming warmer than others. Remember, temperatures above 40°F are considered the "danger zone" where bacteria can flourish. Microwaves often result in areas that have been partially cooked and have reached this temperature or greater. Leaving the meat for later cooking can, therefore, result in foodborne illnesses in those who consume it. In addition, refreezing meat thawed in the microwave should only be done once the meat has been thoroughly cooked.
Refreezing Meat: A Do or a Don't?
One of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to food storage is: Is refreezing meat after it has thawed safe? According to the USDA, refreezing meat without cooking it first is quite safe as long as it was thawed in the refrigerator. You should be aware, however, that refreezing meat will result in a loss of meat quality. This is because moisture was loss during the thawing process. Refreezing meat that was thawed outside of the refrigerator longer than 2 hours (1 hour in temperatures greater than 90° F) is not recommended. Always check to make sure the color and smell of any food is good prior to using.