Before I begin to explain about freezer burn, I want to give you a tip that has to do with freezer burn. If you buy frozen berries at the grocery store, feel the bag to see if the berries seem to be frozen separately. If they are one solid block, they may already be freezer-burned! Berries packed in bags are normally quick-frozen separately. Frozen berries in boxes, however, are frozen in water so expect them to be a solid block. Obviously, discreetly frozen berries in bags are a more convenient choice.
But let’s say you buy those berries and use half the bag. You store the other half in the freezer. Before long, you notice that there is a big layer of frost on all the berries, or worse, they are all frozen together in a big mess. They are freezer-burned. You may also notice that their color has darkened and they have become unsightly.
What Causes Freezer Burn?
Freezer burn occurs due to moisture loss from food. This occurs especially when food is improperly wrapped. The dryer cold air dries out the food through sublimation resulting in dried out surfaces. Sublimation is the transition from ice directly to vapor without any in-between step. Freezer burned food may have splotches of discoloration or be completely discolored, looking “burned.” The texture and flavor are affected. Despite how unsightly it is, and how it affects the taste and texture of food, the food is not dangerous to eat. Essentially, the surface of the food has been ‘freeze-dried,’ though not in a good way.
This can happen to any of the food in your freezer. The results depend on the composition of the food. It results in white or grayish patches and, sometimes, brown-colored or brownish-gray spots and, often, a spongy texture. When food is not stored in moisture-proof wrapping, or the package is slightly open or torn, freezer burn is more likely. Ironically, those individually frozen berries, though convenient, are much more prone to freezer burn than the berries frozen into solid blocks of ice. The same is true of any individually frozen foods.
Modern Freezers are More Prone
When I was young, the deep freezer was common. This is what we called the very large chest-style freezer units that opened at the top. We needed them to store large amounts of food such as frozen peas and vegetables, meats, and the frozen pies my grandmother would bring home from the wholesale restaurant store (she owned a diner and so could purchase wholesale). No Costco in those days!
These freezers still exist. You can buy very large ones or very small and quite inexpensive ones such as the Danby Upright Freezer, which comes in several sizes, from 3.2 cubic feet to 8.5 feet. Older-style freezers like this, including the type that used to come at the top of refrigerators, required regular maintenance. Unlike modern units, they did not have automatic-defrost capabilities. Thick layers of frost, and sometimes plain old ice, would build up on the sides and bottom of the unit. There was no magic solution. You had to take out all the food, shut down the unit, and let the ice melt. You could speed up the process with warm water and you could carefully chip some of the ice away. However, no matter what you did, the task was arduous and annoying. Plus, the more you tried to speed it up the more frost-bitten your hands would get.
Modern freezers no longer have this problem. However, they are more prone to freezer burn. Although freezer-burn was, of course, not unheard of in the older freezers, especially in foods packed near the door, it is more common in newer freezers.
Automatic Defrost is Not Magic, It’s Just Your Freezer Turning Off
Automatic defrost may sound like some fancy technology that auto-magically deals with the frost problem, but really, it is nothing more than the freezer cycling on and off. In other words, the freezer is doing the same thing that we did in the old days, only more often. The freezer allows itself to warm up to a temperature that can be well above the freezing point. In fact, it is possible that the inside of your freezer reaches temperatures of up to 50 F at certain times! So much for frozen food.
This cycling of temperature prevents the build-up of frost on the interior surfaces of the unit. The older units, on the other hand, simply stayed frosty all the time. They never turned off. The biggest source of temperature fluctuation was opening the door to put food in or take it out. So, believe it or not, this means that an old-fashioned freezer is better for long-term storage of frozen food. The food will remain at a lower and more steady temperature and, in turn, will be less subject to freezer burn.
So, now you understand that freezer burn is all but inevitable, what can you do to prevent it? The number one thing you can do is to use things quickly enough and to not store them for over-long periods of time. Different foods can be stored for differing lengths of time in the freezer.
Proper Meat Wrapping for Freezer Storage
Since meats are usually stored for the longest periods of time, especially in rural areas where people hunt or raise their own livestock, knowing how to protect your meat from freezer burn can make it last a lot longer. The best way to do this for a long haul is to use a three-layer process.
- First, wrap the meat in plastic wrap.
- Second, over-wrap in aluminum foil
- Third, wrap in freezer paper and secure with freezer tape (See Reynolds Freezer Paper, Duck Brand Freezer Tape)
Plain old masking tape like painters use will not work in the freezer because the adhesive is not meant to stand up to extremely cold temperatures. Most freezer tape is meant to be written on, so you can use it to label the food as well.
If the food is vacuum packed, as much of our meat is today, then it is all but immune to freezer burn and you can store it for long periods in its original packaging. See also Can I Freeze Meats in Their Supermarket Package?
Vacuum packaging your own food, as well, is a good way to prevent freezer burn and achieve much longer storage times.
If you are using a very large freezer for longterm storage, then dating foods and keeping an inventory, while rotating the older foods to the front or top of the freezer, is a good way to freezer burn damage and wasted food. If the food is only partially damaged, you may be able to cut the freezer burned portion away after thawing.
Before you do waste freezer burned food do remember that the food is still perfectly safe. As long as a food has remained frozen, it is safe indefinitely. It may not taste as good, and the texture may be altered, but it is still quite safe to eat. Below are some suggested freezer storage times for various foods but be aware that these times are for quality purposes only, and are not safety guidelines. However, strict adherence to refrigerator storage times (40 F or below) is much more important, as spoilage will occur (fridge storage times not given here).
Storage Times for Freezer Foods
Meats (Beef, Veal, Lamb, Pork)
- Steaks: 6 to 12 months
- Chops: 4 to 6 months
- Roasts: 4 to 12 months
- Hot Dogs: 1 to 2 months (can be stored in unopened package, or wrapped well when opened)
- Lunch Meats: 1 to 2 months (can be stored in unopened package, or wrapped well when opened)
- Bacon and Sausage: 1 month
- Ground Meat: 3 to 4 months
- Whole bird (chicken, turkey, etc.): 1 year
- Pieces: 2 to 3 months
Leftover Meat or Poultry
- Cooked meat and poultry: 2 to 3 months
- chicken nuggets and patties: 1 to 3 months
- Pizza: 1 to 2 months
Soups and stews can be frozen for 2 to 3 months.
Freezer burned chicken breast image © Acreagemedia
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