Freeze Meat to Save Money—and Trips to the Grocery Store
Freezing meat and poultry makes it easy to stock up when your market has a sale and means the makings of a great dinner are always on hand. Whether you're talking about pork chops, ground beef, bacon, a whole turkey or chicken breasts, starting with fresh, high-quality meat and poultry, and freezing it when it's at its prime, yields the best results. How meat and poultry are frozen, how long they are frozen and how they are defrosted also affect the final taste, texture and even appearance of meat and poultry, which means it's important to follow a few key guidelines. Read on for everything you need to know about freezing and defrosting beef, pork, chicken, turkey and ground meat. (Check out our 3 Best Tips for Freezing Homemade Meals here.)
How to Freeze Meat and Poultry
Whether you are freezing red meat, poultry, ground meat, bacon or sausage, one of the most important steps is wrapping it airtight to prevent freezer burn, which occurs when food is exposed to air. Although freezer burn isn't dangerous, it can negatively affect the taste, texture and appearance of food. Meat and poultry can be frozen in their original packaging, but it's usually not airtight, so it's best to add a second airtight layer or to transfer the meat or poultry to new, airtight wrapping, especially for longer-term storage. If you bought your meat or poultry vacuum-packed, it's already airtight and ready for the freezer.
When wrapping meat, poultry or anything else, squeeze out as much air as possible but leave a little room for the food to expand while freezing. First wrap the food in plastic wrap or freezer paper, followed by a layer of foil or an airtight freezer bag for an extra layer of protection. You can also use a double layer of airtight freezer bags. Proper wrapping also protects meat and poultry from any off flavors in the freezer.
Another step that helps prevent freezer burn is to freeze meat and poultry quickly, which means your freezer needs to stay at 0°F—use an appliance thermometer to double-check. If your freezer door is opened frequently during the freezing process, the temperature may fluctuate, so consider keeping the freezer door closed or using a secondary freezer that isn't opened as often. And it's also important to label and date your frozen items, so you can easily keep track of what they are and how long they've been frozen.
If you do end up with freezer burn, which usually appears as gray-brown dry spots, simply cut these sections off before cooking. If there's a lot of freezer burn, while it's not dangerous, you may be better off cutting your losses.
How Long to Freeze Meat and Poultry
The longer food is frozen, the greater the chance of freezer burn and the greater the decline in quality. Though meat and poultry can safely be frozen long past these time frames, these are the USDA's recommendations on how long to freeze meat and poultry to maintain top quality:
Bacon and sausage: 1–2 months
Uncooked roasts, steaks and chops: 4–12 months
Uncooked ground meat: 3–4 months
Uncooked whole poultry: 12 months
Uncooked poultry parts: 9 months
How to Thaw Frozen Meat and Poultry
There are three safe ways to thaw frozen meat and poultry, and none of them involve leaving meat on the counter at room temperature! (Want more meals from your freezer? These Slow-Cooker Freezer Meals Are Going to Save Your Weeknights.)
Defrost in the Fridge
The best way to defrost meat and poultry is in the refrigerator, which requires some advance planning. Smaller cuts can thaw overnight, while larger items may require a day or two. For large roasts and whole turkeys, plan on a day of defrosting for every 5 pounds. Once defrosted, beef and pork can safely stay in the fridge for three to five days or be refrozen. Chicken can also be refrozen but once defrosted can only be kept in the fridge for up to two days before cooking or refreezing.
Defrost under Running Water
If you're not the plan-ahead type and want to speed up the thawing process, place meat or poultry in a leakproof plastic bag and submerge it in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes to make sure it stays cold. Plan on cooking the meat once it's defrosted instead of putting it in the refrigerator. (Check out these 7 Ingredients You Should Always Have in Your Freezer.)
Defrost in the Microwave
Thawing meat in the microwave is the quickest method but should be done with care. The microwave can defrost meat unevenly and may start to cook parts of the meat or poultry. Check progress frequently and plan to cook it immediately.
Freezing Cooked Meat and Poultry
Cooked meat and poultry can safely and successfully be frozen for up to three months, and the same rules apply—proper wrapping is essential for preventing freezer burn and maintaining quality. While you need to fully cool any cooked meat or poultry before freezing it, it's best to freeze when it's at its prime (the day you cook it) rather than when it should actually be going in the trash.