Is It Safe to Eat Freezer-Burned Food?

Wait, don't toss that frosty package of vegetables or those iced-over leftovers just yet! Here's what you need to know about food that has developed freezer burn and what to do about it. Plus, learn what causes freezer burn to begin with and how to prevent it.

a group of frozen food items like fish, chicken, fruit, and vegetables
Photo: Getty Images

Have you ever opened up the freezer, ready to pull out some meat or another frozen food, only to find it looks like it's covered in a layer of ice? That's freezer burn. But if you've chucked your freezer-burned food immediately in the past, you might want to reconsider. For everything you need to know about freezer-burned foods, including why it happens and how to prevent it, read on.

What Is Freezer Burn?

Freezer burn can occur when there is moisture lost from frozen food. All foods contain water, which forms ice crystals when frozen, causing dehydration. The dehydration makes the food dry and tough underneath a layer of thousands of ice crystals.

"Simply put, freezer burn is the process where water inside the cells of food—could be meat, vegetables, pizza, bread, etc.—evaporates and dehydrates portions of the food. This usually happens from the surface inward. Freezer burn causes off flavors and textures that most people will not be able to stomach," says Shawn Matijevich, lead chef of Online Culinary Arts & Food Operations at the Institute of Culinary Education.

What Happens When Foods Freeze?

There's a science to freezing your food, and it doesn't happen as quickly as you might think. "If we had the ability to look at the water in your freezer under a powerful microscope, you would see that even if your food appears to be frozen, much of the water is not frozen in the first several hours or days (depending on the size and composition of the item being frozen)," Matijevich shares.

The temperature of your fridge and freezer can fluctuate when it is opened and closed, especially if it's happening frequently and for long periods of time. Your freezer being overfilled can also lead to a longer freeze time, which can cause freezer burn. But that isn't the only issue, says Matijevich.

"Further complicating things is that water can also exist as a liquid in a super-cooled state up to minus 55°F. Freezing foods at higher temperatures—20°F to 32°F—means that the water will most likely crystallize into large, sharp crystals. This causes all sorts of damage to cell walls and increases the chances of water being able to evaporate or sublimate in your freezer."

What Happens When Foods Become Freezer Burned?

The oxygen being introduced due to evaporation will cause changes in the flavor and color of the food, particularly meats and other items that have not been well-packaged. But it's not only meat that can be afflicted. The longer any food stays in the freezer, the higher its chances of developing freezer burn.

Wrapping food, particularly meat, as tightly as possible is one of your best defenses against freezer burn. Make sure everything is entirely covered inside the smallest sealed container or storage bag possible.

What About Other Foods?

Aside from meat, another common victim to freezer burn is ice cream, which can turn a bit icy and scratchy when freezer burned. Like meat, it's still completely safe to eat. However, the textural changes may be more evident since you're eating a frozen treat. The affected areas likely won't be up to your normal standards in terms of creamy texture, but the remainder may be salvageable depending on how intense the freezer burn is. Moving forward, make sure that you keep your ice cream covered tightly.

If your fruits and veggies are looking a little freezer burned, they may also experience some textural changes when thawed and cooked. Try blending your fruits into a delicious smoothie, or spin your veggies into a hearty soup.

Is It Safe to Eat Freezer-Burned Meats & Other Foods?

So, is it safe to eat freezer-burned food? It's a common misconception that you lose out on nutrients if your food has been freezer burned, but it's actually just the quality that is degraded when freezer burn occurs.

Matijevich affirms, "There is no evidence that food loses any nutritional value or that any pathogens would develop that make you ill. It just tastes really bad."

Is It Safe to Refreeze Foods?

The answer depends on the situation, says Matijevich. "The more times you thaw food out and refreeze it, the more opportunity bacteria have to reproduce. You can mitigate this by only thawing food out under refrigeration and reheating only the portion you intend to consume. You should then refreeze the item as quickly as possible. Don't refreeze any food items that have been left out of the refrigerator for two hours or longer."

However, by deciding to thaw and refreeze, you are causing more cellular damage to the food, which can be an "easier path for freezer burn," Matijevich advises. Instead, try portioning your food out before freezing so you can take out what you need instead of refreezing.

How to Prevent Freezer Burn

Luckily, there are ways you can fight back against freezer burn:

  • Keep your freezer freezing: The ideal temperature for your freezer is as cold as possible, 0°F or below, says Matijevich. "At that temperature, water freezes into much smaller crystals. You get less cell damage and less opportunity for evaporation of the water. You also will have the best results if you use a high-quality vacuum bag combined with a very low temperature. Freezing is a great way to extend the edible life of your food, but you have to pay close attention to your process."
  • Wrap foods well: Since freezer burn occurs when air is introduced, make sure your meat and other soon-to-be frozen goods are properly wrapped. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service confirms that you can store meat and poultry in the freezer in the original packaging, but its protection may diminish over time as the packaging is permeable to air.
  • Stop freezing too soon: Are you freezing things too fast? The stark contrast between boiling-hot soup and your freezer can not only cause potential damage to the container it's being stored in, it can also be the culprit causing freezer burn. "This can cause a temporary thaw on the surface of your items that will undoubtedly be a prime opportunity for freezer burn to happen. Always make sure to chill your items completely in an ice bath or, at the very least, the refrigerator first," Matijevich suggests.
  • Keep track of your frozen food: Since freezer burn is more likely to occur the longer a food has been frozen, it's important to be mindful of how long your different foods have been in the freezer. Make sure your foods are labeled and well-organized, especially if you're buying in bulk.
  • Don't overload the freezer: Overloading the freezer, especially when adding multiple non-frozen items at once, can put too much strain on the appliance, resulting in a a slow freeze and a higher chance of freezer burn.

Bottom Line

In general, freezer burn is caused by water evaporating from the stored food item and can most easily be prevented by tightly wrapping your food, removing as much air as possible. While flavor and texture will undoubtedly suffer when food has been freezer burned, it is still safe to eat. Now that you know how to prevent freezer burn moving forward, make sure you're NOT freezing these foods.

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