How long can you keep meat in the freezer?
By Mike Thayer
A lot of people are stocking up on freezer items these days, with a focus on meats. Some folks are doing so to fight inflation, prices of all meats are way up and will continue to do nothing but climb. Other folks are buying up meats as a result of world events and supply chain concerns, out of fear some items will become scarce or unavailable.
Having some ground beef and boneless/skinless chicken breasts stashed in the freezer is pretty standard for a lot of us. But how long can you keep meat in the freezer before it goes bad?
According to FoodSafety.gov, frozen meat that's kept at a temperature of zero degrees Fahrenheit or lower will actually be safe to eat indefinitely. But there are tangibles, like how the meat is wrapped and even how your freezer is packed that can make a difference in the meat quality down the road. So the question isn't really if the meat is safe to eat or not (given your freezer never quit at any point), the real question is, "Will the meat be good to eat?"
Freezer burn is the #1 culprit in making meat from the freezer not so good, as in tasty, to eat. Freezer burn is when air circulating in the freezer to keep things cold hits the meat, drying out a spot and making it leathery. A rip in the packaging and/or poor wrapping will result in freezer burn and you can't pan sear, roast or grill freezer burn out of a piece of meat. You can cut the freezer burn out of that burger patty or steak, but who wants to do that and eat 3/4 of a burger? Nonsense. Freezer burn is totally preventable.
Below is a list of meats and the recommended maximum time it should stay in your freezer. Going beyond the recommended time doesn't mean the meat will go bad, it just means the flavor and tenderness is in decline. Included with the recommended freezer times below are some tips and other guidelines so you won't have to ask yourself whether that steak you pulled out of the freezer is good to eat or not... Keep in mind that with most meats, the flavor factor hits its peak at the four month mark. Sure, you can freeze it longer than that, but that four month mark is key, when the flavor profile starts the decline.
Beef - Roasts, Steaks: Up to six months
Chicken - Whole: Up to one year
Chicken - Parts, skin on, bone in: Up to nine months
Chicken - Boneless/skinless breasts or thighs: Up to six months
Pork- Shoulder: Up to one year
Pork - Steaks, Ribs, Chops: Up to six months
Bacon: Up to six months... Um, I've NEVER had bacon stay in my freezer that long, it's TOO TASTY!
Sausages, raw - Brats, Breakfast Links/Patties/Chubs, Italian Sausage, Mexican Chorizo and the like: Up to four months
Sausages, pre-cooked, smoked - Andouille, Kielbasa, Hot Links and the like: Up to eight months
Hot Dogs: Up to eight months
Ground Meats - all types: Up to four months
Lamb - Rack, Shanks, Chops: Up to six months
Fish - Fatty types like Tuna and Salmon: Up to three months
Fish - Leaner types like Cod or Tilapia: Up to six months
*Vacuum sealing meats will extend freezer life another three to six months, but that is a story for another day.
Tip #1: Make sure your freezer is free of frost, clean and the temperature set at zero degrees Fahrenheit or lower. And did you know an empty freezer is not a very efficient one? The only thing that keeps an empty or nearly empty freezer at the proper temperature is the electricity needed to run it. When stocked properly, a freezer does not need to run as often to maintain the proper temperature, the frozen food inside is helping it do that. But an overstuffed freezer isn't so efficient either. Without proper air circulation a freezer has to work harder to maintain temperature and overstuffing can lead to blocking vents and sensors. Ideally, your freezer should be 75 - 80% full for optimum performance.
Tip #2: You can leave that steak you just bought in the Styrofoam bottom and plastic wrapped top if you want to, but doing so is the leading cause of freezer burn. Don't get lazy in thinking, "I'll be eating this next week, it'll be fine," and just toss it in. That packaging is designed for a fresh presentation, marketing you to buy it. It's not made for the freezer. Thin plastic wrap is also easy to tear when it gets placed in the freezer and bumps up against other products. Perhaps you didn't get around to having that steak the next week and you finally pull it out to grill three months later. Guess what? Freezer burn! If you don't have a vacuum sealer, invest in one. In lieu of that, always have freezer bags on hand when stocking the freezer. Foil and freezer paper are fine too but if none of that is possible, heck, repurpose the plastic grocery store bags if you have to and double wrap your meats.
Tip #3: Always label and date the meat your are freezing, i.e., Pork Chop, 02/26/2022 and keep a copy of this blog post in your kitchen or by the freezer somewhere. Properly labeling and dating your meats takes any guesswork out of the picture. Some people will just throw something in a bag and toss it in the freezer, then four months later pull it out and the bag is all frosty/icey and they ask themselves, "What the "F" is this?" Kind of makes meal prep a little harder, don't you think?
Tip #4: Organize your freezer and rotate your meats. Try to arrange your freezer by meat type and then date, with your oldest meats towards the front or top of your freezer. A beef section by date, a chicken section by date, a sausage section by date and so on... Don't just toss items in the freezer, that too, leads to freezer burn. It may sound time consuming to organize and rotate, but it actually saves you a lot of time in the long run. Look at all the bonuses: Bonus #1 - an organized freezer that is 75 - 80% full is a happy, efficient, air circulating right freezer, running at proper temperature. Bonus #2 - Items are much easier to find, no rummaging, no digging and pulling the older cuts of meat for a meal aides in the rotating process. I've read countless Facebook posts where a guy asks if the twice frosted over steak he found at the bottom of his freezer dated two years ago under a bag of chicken wings is OK to eat. Bonus #3 - When making a list for the grocery store or butcher shop, take a quick peak in your organized and properly product rotated freezer, it makes shopping easier and you won't spend as much.
Now that you know how to keep frozen meats at their optimum flavor profile, go stock up! You'll save money over future higher prices, you won't waste money by becoming a victim of freezer burn and you'll spend money more efficiently at the grocery store.
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