Sometimes it’s more a question of quality than safety. Frozen food is a great example of this. When it comes to freezer burn, this problem is more of a quality issue. While safe to eat, the quality of freezer burned food may be poor.
But, before I go on, I must stress that the safety of food in a freezer is always based on the fact that the food and the freezer has been at zero degrees or below. If there has been a power outage and/or the food has reached a temperature over 40 degrees at any time while in the freezer, the safety of the food may be in question.
What is freezer burn in the first place? It is simply the result of air coming into contact with the food while it’s in the freezer. Usually there is a color change and dry spots develop on the food. Freezer burn may just be dehydration or food may also have an “off flavor”. While it may not look or taste appetizing the food is completely safe to eat. If the damaged area is small, it can be cut off before or after cooking. If the damage is extensive the food may need to be pitched.
To help keep frozen food from getting freezer burn, there are some fundamental tips:
Re-wrap meats when you come from the store. That thin film found on grocery store meat is not thick enough to keep air from getting in. For best quality rewrap meats with moisture and vapor–proof wraps or bags. This is also a good time to separate the food into serving-size pieces and remove foam containers to ease defrosting and cooking in the future.
Not all bags are created equal. Don’t use “storage” bags when you should be using “freezer” bags. Bread bags and plastic bags from grocery stores are not moisture or vapor proof and will not protect food in the freezer no matter how tight they are wrapped or how many layers have been used.
Air is not your friend. Since air is the real problem, make sure to squeeze as much air out of freezer bags and other container as possible before putting the food into the freezer. Those vacuum sealers do a good job of getting the air out when freezing foods.
Use freezer quality containers. Leftover margarine, cottage cheese or sour cream containers are not designed for this purpose and won’t do a good job of keeping that air out. Also, it is not recommended that you reuse the plastic containers and trays that come with microwaveable entrees. Use plastic containers or wide-mouth glass jars specifically designed for the freezer.
Prevent FISH food. Make sure everything that goes into the freezer gets labeled with its name and the date it was frozen. Often food get stuffed into the back of the freezer and forgotten. Develop a frozen food inventory and practice FIFO—First In-First Out. This will help prevent what food safety experts call FISH food—First In-Still Here.
If care is taken, the quality of frozen fresh foods like meat, poultry, fresh fruits and vegetables will be good for a year. Precooked foods and leftovers are best if eaten within three to four months. Sometimes veggies with a few freezer crystals, that have been frozen at the proper temperature, can be rinsed under a colander and then steamed. Using up food in the freezer on a weekly basis is a good budget-inducing habit that helps you avoid food waste.
Cheryle Jones Syracuse, MS
Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University
PS for a fantastic tip on how to use the freezer for planned-over meals see “Was the caterer just here?”