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Freezing Food

How to keep it safe and flavorful

Fine Cooking Issue 11
Photo: Sloan Howard
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Once when scavenging for dinner at a friend’s vacation home, we found some chicken in the freezer and planned a barbecued chicken dinner. As the poultry thawed, the smell of sour meat told us that we’d be eating only salad and potatoes that night. My friend seemed surprised to learn that meat and fish could spoil in the freezer. But sadly, the freezer is not a magic chamber where time stands still forever.

Although bacteria can’t grow when frozen, enzymes are still at work, destroying the quality of frozen meat and fish by causing fats to oxidize and turn rancid. Foods with a high fat content spoil more quickly. The type of fat also makes a difference: saturated fats are more stable than unsaturated, so beef (which is high in saturated fat) will last up to four times longer than fish (which is high in unsaturated fats).

How cold is frozen?

For maximum freezer shelf life, you need a freezer that holds food at a constant temperature of 0°F or below. If you’re unsure about the temperature of your freezer, test it with a freezer thermometer.

Some home freezers can maintain this temperature, but many don’t. Among the freezers that don’t are those inside the refrigerator, often called “ice-cube compartments.” These generally hold a temperature between 10° and 25°. Also be aware that opening the refrigerator frequently causes fluctuations in this type of freezer’s temperature and accelerates food spoilage. In general, ice-cube compartments are not intended to store perishable meats and fish for any length of time. Meat stored in this type of freezer should be used within two months and fish within three weeks.

If you’re serious about stocking up, consider investing in a free-standing freezer with its own temperature setting and a tight door seal. These freezers hold constant temperatures of 0° or below, and store foods safely for much longer periods. Beef stored at 0° can last up to eight months.

Approximate shelf life of meats and fish held at 0°F or below


Wrap foods tightly to preserve flavor

If you’re freezing meat yourself, start with the freshest product, trim off excess fat, and then wrap the meat tightly in good-quality freezer paper. Heavy-duty plastic bags will work, but be careful not to puncture the plastic with sharp bones. A moistureproof wrap will protect the food from the drying air of the freezer and prevent the condition known as “freezer burn.” The flimsy plastic film on fresh meat from the market is not adequate for extended freezer storage.

Wrap meats and fish in meal-size portions and always label and date each package. If you have a lot of food in your freezer, keep an inventory to help you figure out what’s inside without having to fish around with the door wide open.

Bring the food’s temperature down quickly

The faster you freeze the food, the better the texture will be when you thaw it. Place new additions to the freezer against the walls or on the floor of the freezer, as these are the coldest areas. Keeping your freezer about two-thirds full will also increase efficiency, but don’t add too much unfrozen food at once (no more than two pounds per cubic foot of freezer space). Never use your freezer to chill hot foods: this just raises the temperature of the rest of the freezer’s contents and creates a lot of frost.

Seasonings deteriorate when frozen, so any seasoned, processed, or cured meats or fish should be frozen only for a short time (one to two months). Pack leftover cooked meats and fish with some gravy or sauce to prevent drying, and keep them frozen for no more than two months.

Finally, refreezing deteriorates the texture of meat and fish. Be sure to get commercially frozen meat and fish home and into your freezer right away to avoid thawing.


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