How to Freeze Meat Properly
How many times have you had to freeze meat throughout your culinary career? Between food prep, last-minute changes of plans, and canceled cookouts (oh, the tragedy!), odds are it’s more than you can count. But the real question is this: have you been freezing your meat correctly? It’s usually not as simple as throwing the package in the freezer, and doing so can actually reduce the quality of your meat without you even noticing. Now that’s a real tragedy!
“Fine,” you might say, “I’ll just buy it frozen!” We both know that isn’t always an option, so it pays to know the best way to freeze meat from the store. We’ll walk you through everything you need to know, from the science of freezing food to best practices and how long you can expect meat to last in the freezer. You might think we have no chill for going this in-depth, but we’ll keep the brain freeze to a minimum.
Why Should I Freeze Meat?
Not to be overdramatic, but the freezer is one of mankind’s greatest inventions. Freezers are designed to maintain 0°F or slightly colder, the temperature at which bacteria naturally found in meat and other food is held in a state of suspension. Because the harmful microbes can’t reproduce, long-term food storage is possible. It’s important to understand that freezing doesn’t actually kill microorganisms like bacteria, yeast, and mold; it simply makes them lie dormant to prevent their growth. If you don’t thaw frozen meat properly, these microbes will become active and potentially cause foodborne illness.
In addition to food safety, freezing preserves meat’s flavor, texture, and vitamin content over time. Minor reductions in these qualities are likely to occur over extra-long periods of storage — we’re talking months in most instances — but you can generally expect meat to come out of the freezer in the same state it was at the time of freezing. A modern miracle, indeed!
Tips for Freezing Meat
Your freezer does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to quality preservation and food safety, but you should pitch in with a few simple extra steps to make the process as effective as possible. The recommendations listed below are quick, easy, and integral to ensuring your frozen meat tastes as fresh and flavorful as possible even after an extended stay in the freezer.
Freeze Meat ASAP
The biggest factor in the quality and freshness of thawed meat is its quality and freshness at the time of freezing. It really is that simple: meat that goes into the freezer at the peak of quality will come out at the peak of quality. With that in mind, it’s best to immediately freeze meat that you know will ultimately end up in the freezer. This will take a bit of forethought and meal-planning, and it’s fine if circumstances prevent you from immediately freezing meat, but you’ll be happy you put in the extra effort when you pull out that steak or ground beef in a few weeks.
Repackage Store-Bought Meat Before Freezing
Freezing correctly is just as important as freezing quickly. We said above that tossing store-packaged meat in the freezer isn’t the best course of action, and that’s because of a process called sublimation. Sublimation describes the transition of a substance from a solid to a gas (in this case, ice to water vapor) without first becoming a liquid, which ultimately causes meat to lose small amounts of juice while frozen. If you’re having trouble conceptualizing sublimation, it’s why dry air in freezers causes ice cubes to slightly shrink when left for too long.
So, what does this mean for freezing meat? Though it’s totally safe to freeze meat in its original packaging from the grocery store, it’s not great for quality. This is because the plastic wrap used in most store-bought containers is permeable, which allows the dry air to rob moisture from the meat via sublimation. The air within meat packaging only worsens the issue while also causing freezer burn, so follow these steps to help meat sustain its quality in the freezer:
Remove the meat from its packaging.
Wrap it as tightly as possible in butcher paper or plastic wrap, leaving as little air as you can.
Wrap again in heavy-duty aluminum foil, which is impermeable and will fight off sublimation accordingly, then place your meat in the freezer.
It’s also possible to simply wrap the store packaging in foil before freezing, though the meat will still have to contend with the air inside the container. Keep in mind that this issue applies to store-bought meat in standard packaging; high-quality, vacuum-sealed products are packaged with long-term quality preservation in mind. By that same token, home vacuum-sealing is an effective way to package meat for the freezer. Just follow the instructions on your vacuum-sealer, and you’ll have freezer-ready meat.
Pre-Portion Meat for the Freezer
While pre-portioning frozen meat is an excellent way to food prep if you buy in bulk, it actually helps with quality preservation in a couple key ways. Firstly, smaller portions will freeze (and thaw) faster than larger ones, locking in the quality and freshness that much sooner. Why does a quick freeze matter? The longer meat takes to freeze, the larger the ice crystals that form on its surface will be — more time means more moisture drawn from within the meat. What’s worse, those large shards of ice can actually puncture the meat’s cell walls, allowing even more fluids to leak out and leaving the meat drier and less tender.
Secondly, you can thaw exactly what you need for each meal. This is important because meat loses quality each time it’s thawed and refrozen, so you don’t want to find yourself repeatedly refreezing meat because you defrosted more than you needed. Pre-portioning is also helpful for storage because you can stack flatly packed meat to free up room for other items. When you pre-portion meat, it’s always a good idea to label the packaging with the date, approximate weight, and type of meat inside.
How Long Can Meat Stay Frozen?
According to the USDA, you can freeze meat indefinitely. As we noted above, however, sublimation will eventually chip away at the quality, taste, and texture of frozen meat. No one wants to spend time gnawing on dry, tough meat simply because they left it in the freezer for too long, so try to limit your meat storage to months, not years.
How to Prevent Freezer Burn
Air is the chief culprit of freezer burn; it fuels the dehydration that occurs during sublimation, resulting in dry, tough, and discolored spots that have an off-putting taste and texture. The way to stop it, then, is to remove as much air from the equation as possible. There will always be dry air circulating in your freezer, but you can ensure your meat is packaged with little to no air pockets inside the wrapping.
As we outlined above, start by taking your meat out of the store-bought packaging and tightly wrapping it in plastic wrap or butcher paper. Follow that with a layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil, still making sure to leave as little air inside the wrapping as possible. From there, your meat is ready to go in the freezer! It’s worth noting that, while freezer-burned meat is safe to eat, it makes for an unpleasant experience that’s best avoided.
Make Sure Your Freezer Is Set to the Correct Temperature
Of course, properly freezing meat hinges on your freezer being set to 0°F, the temperature at which microorganisms are held in suspension. To ensure your freezer remains at 0°F, simply install a hanging appliance thermometer and check it from time to time.
Here’s a hack for monitoring temperature if you’re heading out on vacation or will be out of the house for a while:
Fill ⅔ a Styrofoam or plastic cup with water, then freeze overnight.
When the water is frozen, remove the cup from the freezer, place a quarter on top of the ice, and return the cup to the freezer.
When you return home, check the cup to see where the quarter is. If the quarter is still atop the ice, that tells you everything remained frozen while you were away. But if the quarter is near or at the bottom of the cup, you’ll know your home temporarily lost power because the ice will have thawed into water and allowed the coin to sink. That’s your signal that everything in your freezer has spoiled and must be thrown out for your safety.
That’s all for our guide to freezing meat! Keep your freezer at the correct temperature, follow our recommendations for proper storage, and enjoy high-quality meat well after you’ve taken it home.