People have preserved food for thousands of years by salting, drying, smoking and pickling, and, more recently, by canning, but food storage only really approached perfection with the invention of the freezer. Frozen foods keep more of their flavor, texture and nutrition than other preserved foods, but freezing’s still not absolutely ideal. The cold can damage poorly packaged foods through a process called “freezer burn.”
It’s not hard to recognize freezer-burned meat. When you look through the packaging, instead of the usual healthy color you expect, some or all of the surface has an odd, leathery, khaki-ish look to it.
That’s freezer burn, and it’s a big problem. It’s caused by air getting inside the package with your meats, either because it was trapped in there when the meat was packaged or because it passed through the actual packaging. Most meats need a little bit of oxygen to pass through the packaging, so they’ll stay fresh-looking, but it’s not ideal in the freezer.
Freezer Burn vs. Ice Crystals
As your meat freezes, the moisture within the muscle tissues turns to ice crystals. Some of those crystals are exposed at the surface, and if there’s an air pocket, they’ll evaporate. This is exactly what happens when foods are freeze-dried, which is why freezer-burned areas have that dry, leathery texture.
Your meat will also oxidize as part of the freezer-burn process, which means molecules of protein, and, especially, the fat in the meat will physically change with exposure to oxygen. It doesn’t make them unsafe to eat, but freezer-burned meat tastes pretty awful.
Visible ice crystals inside the package don’t necessarily mean freezer burn, especially if you notice them during the first few weeks. That’s often just a sign of dribbled-out moisture in the package – called “purge” in the meatpacking businesses – that has frozen. It’s generally a sign that you will get freezer burn, though, so you shouldn’t ignore it.
Ugly Is Only Skin Deep
The good news is that you can often fix the problem just by cutting away the affected area. Freezer burn only affects the surface, so taking off that top layer is all you need to do to set things right. With a roast, slice away 1/8 to 1/4 inch from the affected areas, and you should be fine. If you freezer burn chicken with the skin on, just removing the skin will work. If it’s skinless, cut away the surface layer as you would with a roast.
With ground meats, let the package thaw slightly, and then use a knife or a spoon to scrape away the freezer-burned area from the still-good frozen meat inside. Once the nasty-tasting burned part is removed, the rest can thaw normally and should taste fine. If you thaw it completely with the burned part still on, some of that flavor will get into the meat.
If you freezer burn steak or a chop, that’s a little more difficult. Thick steaks and chops can be trimmed like a roast, but thin ones can’t because there’d be nothing left. Those can be discarded or used as a treat for your dogs. If you’re really trying to avoid waste, you can try to mask the taste.
Seasoning for the Save
When there’s nothing else to eat and you can’t cut away the dried-up areas, strong flavors are your friend. Try a strong marinade with steaks or chops, for example. With ground meats, you might opt for an extra-spicy chili or a ragu that’s loaded heavily with fresh herbs. You won’t usually be able to hide the flavor completely, but you can at least arrive at something that’s edible.
The Ounce of Prevention
The old saying about an “ounce of prevention and a pound of cure” really applies to freezer burn. With careful packaging, you can avoid the burn or postpone it dramatically. Some meats are sold already vacuum-packed, and those are well-protected against freezer burn. An inexpensive home vacuum sealer and some good bags will give you a similar degree of protection.
If you don’t have a sealer, using heavy-duty freezer bags and squeezing out as much air as you can – or sucking the air out through a straw – works pretty well. Butcher paper on its own is good, but not great. Sealing paper-wrapped meats in a bag or over-wrapping them with foil can extend your meat’s freezer life by a lot.
The plastic-wrapped foam trays you get from the supermarket’s meat case are one of the worst options because they contain a lot of air. Don’t freeze in those unless you’re really, really sure you’re going to cook those meats quickly. Instead, open the packages and bag up the meats. It’s an extra step, but your wallet will thank you.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.