Frozen Food Storage: Keeping It Safe and Tasty

Is it time to clean out your freezer?
By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Got freezer space? We tend to keep all sorts of things in our freezers year after year. It's time to go through that freezer and dump everything you aren't going to eat in the next six months ... like that trout you caught three years ago, or the loaf of bread you bought at the two for one sale last year (the one that now has ice crystals all over it).

Get beyond the newly packed items in the front of your freezer and there will undoubtedly be some surprises. It might not be pretty! In my case, I found a couple of apparently melted and refrozen syrupy juice bars and an opened bag of frozen peas that had spilled out long ago.
We need all the freezer space we can get because many of us are at the brink of freezer overflow on any day of the week. We've got ice packs locked and loaded for the occasional sports injury; frozen vegetables and fruits for when fresh is absent or unavailable; frozen entrees for when dinner or lunch has to "make itself"; and frozen desserts and appetizers for when your kids' (or your) friends come around unexpectedly.
So what should you throw out? While the FDA notes that freezing can keep food safe almost indefinitely, that doesn't mean it will still have a good taste and texture. Basically, anything that is no longer identifiable -- as well as anything that makes you or your kids go "ew!" or "that's gross" -- needs to go.

The Golden Rules of Freezing Meals
To prevent those unwelcome discoveries in the back of your freezer, it helps to know how to freeze foods wisely in the first place. Keep in mind that when you freeze foods, you want to accomplish five things:

  • Prevent freezer burn.
  • Prevent moisture loss.
  • Prevent the transfer of smells to and from other foods.
  • Use what freezer space you have wisely.
  • Prevent food poisoning as your food cools.

The key to accomplishing these goals lies in the proper wrapping and storing of your meals. Here are the golden rules for doing so:

  • Leave as little air as possible in the freezer containers by removing as much air as possible from freezer bags before sealing them and by using freezer safe containers that closely fit the amount of food being frozen.
  • Wrap meats and baked goods tightly with foil before you place them in freezer bags. Keep in mind that freezing meat in the packaging from the store (wrapped in plastic on Styrofoam trays) isn't ideal and won't hold up well to the freezer temperatures. You are usually okay if you use them within a month, however.
  • To make sure your food freezes as quickly as possible to discourage bacteria growth, use small containers -- with a capacity no bigger than 4 quarts. Ideally, the food should be less than 3 inches thick within the container.
  • Cool your hot foods quickly before freezing them by placing the pan of hot food in a large container filled with ice or ice water, stirring often to keep the cold circulating. If you're cooling a lot of hot food, like a large saucepan of stew or chili, portion it into smaller, shallow containers.
  • Label and date freezer bags or containers, even if you think you'll be using the contents within a week or two.
  • Place the food items in the coldest part of your freezer, if you can, until they're completely frozen.
  • Thawing food at room temperature only works with muffins, breads, and other baked goods. For everything else, thaw in the refrigerator or use the "thaw" setting on your microwave.
  • Try to use your frozen foods within two to three months.
  • When freezing dishes containing dairy foods, keep in mind that while milk can be frozen, it might separate a little when thawed. Hard and semi-hard cheeses can be frozen in 8- and 16-ounce blocks that have been wrapped in plastic, then put in freezer bags. While the cheese will still have its characteristic flavor when thawed, it could be a bit crumbly and tends to work best when added to cooked dishes. The cheeses that fare the worst with freezing are cream cheese and cottage cheese. Blue cheeses are most likely to become crumbly.

How Long Can You Keep Frozen Foods?
And how long can you keep something frozen before it gets too icky to use? Check the use-by date for foods that were purchased frozen. For other commonly frozen foods, here is the FDA's recommended timetable for optimum quality:

  • Bacon and sausage: 1-2 months
  • Casseroles: 2-3 months
  • Soups and stews: 2 months
  • Frozen dinners and entrees: 3-4 months
  • Uncooked roasts: 4-12 months
  • Uncooked ground meat: 3-4 months
  • Uncooked whole poultry: 12 months
  • Uncooked poultry parts: 9 months
  • Cooked poultry: 4 months

For any food not listed, defrost it and check its quality. First, smell it. Anything that smells "off" should be thrown out, says the FDA. If it doesn't look as good as it used to but seems otherwise OK, you can try using it in soups or stews. (If it's got freezer burn, just cut off the "burned" spots.) For raw foods, cook them, and if you like the taste and texture, use them.

More Freezer Facts
Here are some other facts you may not know about freezing foods:

  • Freezing to 0 degrees Fahrenheit inactivates microbes (like bacteria and molds) but it doesn't destroy them. When a food is thawed, the microbes may become active again and multiply, in certain conditions.
  • You've noticed that water expands when frozen, right? Well, the high water content in fruits and vegetables causes their cell walls to break, due to the expanding frozen water within. This is why thawed foods sometimes have a mushy texture.
  • When your electricity goes off, you should keep your freezer door closed. A fully loaded freezer should keep food frozen for one to two days if the door isn't opened.
  • Most frozen vegetables can be cooked straight from the freezer, with the exception of corn on the cob, which should be partially defrosted first.

Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.

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