Whether it’s surplus ground beef, chicken breasts, or fish fillets, the freezer can be an extremely useful tool for saving time and money when you find yourself with more than enough meat on your hands. However, freezing your protein of choice should be done carefully to prevent damage to your meat or your health.
While the freezer allows you to store excess quantities of meat to reheat as needed, it’s important to follow these guidelines to guarantee your frozen proteins are safe and enjoyable to consume.
General Rules of Thumb
Meat should be frozen as rapidly as possible to prevent large ice crystals from forming throughout the meat during the freezing process. Larger pockets of ice will result in a leaching of moisture during reheating, which will make for dryer, tougher cuts. In order to facilitate this, it’s best to set your freezer temperature to 0 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.
Meat is best stored in meal-sized portions, and labeled with the cut, quantity, and the date of storage. If you are planning to use smaller portions of meat—like a single chicken breast out of a package—wrap your pieces individually to prevent exposing other portions to the freezer air while removing the quantity needed.
When initially freezing your meats, spread them in a single layer so that they freeze evenly. Once they are completely frozen, then they can be stacked in a more space-efficient manner. Never freeze pre-stuffed meat or poultry, as stuffing can develop bacteria during the cooling process, which will infect your meat upon reheating.
Although the freezer can keep your food safe indefinitely, the United States Department of Health and Human Services recommends that meat only be stored for up to a year. For peak quality, it is recommended that hot dogs, lunch meats, bacon, and sausage be stored up to 2 months in the freezer; hamburger and other ground meats up to 4 months; fresh beef, veal, lamb, and pork up to 6-12 months; and fresh poultry up to a year. While frozen meat is safe to consume beyond those time frames, the quality and flavor will decrease. Pre-cooked meat will retain its flavor for 2-4 months in the freezer.
As with any food freezing process, the most important thing is to minimize any exposure to outside, circulating air. For the best results, meats should be double wrapped in a combination of plastic wrap, foil, freezer paper, and airtight zip-top bags.
While a vacuum-sealing machine is ideal for packaging meats, as it completely drains and seals the bag to prevent any air circulation, freezer bags are also effective. Just be sure to drain the bag of as much excess air as possible before closing. One trick for total air drainage is to suck the extra air out of the bag using a straw, which is safe as long as your straw doesn’t make any contact with the raw meat.
Don’t freeze fresh meat in its supermarket wrapping unless you plan to heat it within a month. For long-term storage, add a second airtight layer to prevent freezer burn. Pre-wrapped meats can be fortified with a layer of airtight freezer paper, heavy-duty foil, or placed inside a freezer bag for protection.
Specifics for Chicken
Poultry is the trickiest type of protein to deal with in terms of food safety, so it’s important to prep chicken breasts for the freezer as soon as possible after purchase in order to prevent the risk of salmonella poisoning. Chicken should be stored in the refrigerator for no more than two days prior to being frozen.
For the best post-freezer quality, it’s best to repackage chicken in airtight bags. However, if you’re in a serious time pinch and choose to freeze your chicken in its original store packaging, be sure to wrap it in an extra layer of freezer-proof protection, like plastic wrap.
After thawing, if an entire chicken breast looks grey or dried out, it has developed freezer burn and should be thrown out. Smaller bits of freezer burn can be cut off after thawing.
Specifics for Fish
When freezing fish it’s always best to use the freshest fish possible. If the fish is whole, it must be prepped and broken down prior to freezing.
Depending on whether the fish variety is considered lean—including cod, snapper, grouper, flounder, whiting, and most other freshwater fish—or fatty—including tuna, salmon, mackerel, trout, and mullet—the fresh fish should be pretreated in two distinct ways for the best result. Lean fish should be dipped in a brine made of 1 quart of cold water and ¼ cup salt, which will firm the fish up. Fattier fish should be dipped in a solution made with 1 quart of cold water and 2 tablespoons of crystalline ascorbic acid, which will lower the chances of the flavor being altered or the fish going rancid.
If storing multiple pieces of fish in the same package, make sure to separate each piece with freezer paper. For the best-quality fish, create an ice glaze by placing unwrapped fish in the freezer until frozen before dipping in ice water and placing it back in the freezer. Repeat this process a few times until a coat of ice has been formed around each fish, and store in labeled freezer containers or bags.
According to the USDA, food should never be thawed on the countertop or in a garage, basement, car, dishwasher, porch, or outdoors, as thawing at or near room temperature significantly increases the chances of the meat developing bacteria. The safest methods for frozen food thawing are in the microwave, the refrigerator, and a cold water bath.
For the best results, meat should be thawed in the refrigerator; however, this is a slower process than the other methods, taking up to a few days for larger pieces of meat. After meat has been thawed in the refrigerator, it is safe to refreeze again (as long as it hasn’t been cooked or brought to room temperature), though the quality will go down with a subsequent freezing.
In a time crunch, small cuts of meat can be thawed more quickly by placing them (still in their freezer packaging) in a bowl of cold water, replacing the water every 30 minutes. Although it isn’t dangerous to cook meat directly out of the freezer, the process will take almost twice as long to cook, and will likely result in dry, low-quality cuts of meat.
For more tips for navigating your freezer, check out these guides on How to Freeze and Thaw Any Type of Bread and How to Freeze and Reheat Every Type of Soup.