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Chill Out! A Guide to Freezing (and Defrosting) Food

Did you go a little nuts in the early days of COVID-19, and now you’re staring down meat, veggies and dairy in your freezer that are months old? Don’t worry, these days many of us are buying food in bulk to reduce trips to the store due to the virus.

Freezing  is one of the best ways to extend the shelf life of some foods and combat food waste. But if frozen improperly or for too long, you could be in for an icy reception months later.

Isabel Jacobs, a clinical dietitian at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix, came to the rescue with helpful freezing (and defrosting) tips to save you time, money and ensure your food still tastes delicious—even months later.

What NOT to Freeze

“The good news is that there are plenty of items that are good to go in your freezer,” Jacobs said. “However, there are a handful of items that won’t fare well at all.”

Since there are only a handful of foods that aren’t great frozen, we’ll go ahead and get those out of the way. These foods include:

  • Raw eggs still in their shell (when frozen, they can expand and crack); hard-boiled eggs (they can get rubbery and tough)
  • Lettuce and other water-packed veggies, such as cucumbers, onions and peppers (they can get freezer burn, leaving you with limp, soggy veggies)
  • Mayonnaise and cream (they separate and curdle when frozen)
  • Canned vegetables (they can be frozen if removed from can)

How to Freeze Just About Anything

Depending on the size of your freezer and the types of food you eat, freezing food and meals can be a real time-saver.

Before you throw things in your freezer, however, stock up on some of these essentials: resealable plastic containers, plastic freezer bags in assorted sizes, heavy foil, plastic wrap and a Sharpie or marker for dating when food went in the freezer.

“Putting dates on food stored in the freezer takes the guess work out,” Jacobs said. “It also helps you follow the ‘first in, first out’ rule so you utilize older food items first."

Whether you have a deep freezer or a standard freezer, the principles of freezing food items are the same. Here are some things you can freeze and specific tips for how to do so.

Raw Meat: Beef, Chicken and Seafood

If you aren’t planning to use meat right away, it’s important to freeze when you get home from the store and not leave it sitting in the fridge for a few days.

How to freeze: Remove meat from packaging and place in an airtight heavy-duty foil, plastic wrap or plastic freezer bag. This will help prevent freezer burn and extend the shelf life of your meat.

Storing: Fresh, uncooked beef can last in the freezer for 3 to 4 months, uncooked chicken about 9 to 12 months and uncooked seafood 3 to 12 months.

Fresh Produce: Fruits and Vegetables

Fruit and vegetables are best stored when they are at peak season.

How to freeze fruit: Wash and let air dry completely before storing in a container or bag. Depending on how you’ll use them later, you may want to chop larger fruit into bite-sized pieces—but leave smaller berries intact.

How to freeze vegetables: Wash and prepare vegetables as you would for consuming, such as chopping carrots or cutting broccoli into florets, and let them dry completely. For optimal taste, cook vegetables al dente (just before fully cooked), let them cool completely and then place in a freezer container.

Storing: Fresh fruit and vegetables can last 8 to 12 months in the freezer, but beyond this time, you may lose quality in taste.

Breads

When frozen correctly, frozen breads can maintain freshness.

How to freeze: For store-bought bread, you can store in the original packaging. For homemade or bread purchased in the bakery, make sure it’s cooled completely, cover in plastic wrap and then wrap it in foil. This double wrap will ensure it keeps its freshness.

Storing: Store-bought can be stored up to 3 months and homemade bread up to 6 months. Any longer, and your bread may suffer from freezer burn.

Leftovers or Pre-made Meals

Whether it’s soup, a casserole or cooked meat, pre-made meals and leftovers are great to freeze and enjoy later.

How to freeze: Make sure food has completely cooled on the counter (no more than two hours) or in the refrigerator and place it in a freezer-safe container or bag and seal tightly. Putting hot food directly in the freezer can bring down the temperature of your freezer and partially defrost whatever else you have in there.

Storing: Leftovers with cooked meat or chicken can be stored in the freezer for 2 to 6 months. Egg-containing casseroles are best eaten within 2 to 3 months.

For a more comprehensive list of cold food storage, check out this list put together by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

How to Properly Defrost Food

In some cases, your frozen food items can be used straight from the freezer. Those frozen bananas and berries can go straight into a smoothie or shake. In other cases, though, you’ll need to plan ahead and properly defrost and thaw food before working with it—especially when it comes to working with raw meat.

Jacobs shared three safe options for thawing food:

Refrigerator thawing: Expect one full day to thaw per pound. For a large turkey, it will take several days.

Chicken, ground meats and seafood remain safe to prepare and cook after one to two days after being thawed, while red meats can last up to five days refrigerated. You can refreeze once thawed; however, you may sacrifice quality.

Cold water thawing: This method is quicker than thawing in the refrigerator but requires more attention on your part. Before placing items in the cool water, make sure your food is in an airtight bag so no water seeps in.

Submerge the bag in cold water and change the water out every 30 minutes. A 1-pound package can thaw in 1 hour or less where a 3 to 4-pound package may take several hours.

Food thawed with this method should be cooked immediately and not refrozen.

Microwave thawing: Cook food immediately after being thawed in the microwave. Keeping food partially cooked after using the microwave to thaw can pose as a food safety hazard.

If you have more questions about freezing and food safety, check out the USDA website. For other tips on staying healthy and well, visit bannerhealth.com.

Freezing Foods Guide Infographic

Safety Infographics

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