If you don't wrap chicken correctly, you'll see visible signs of freezer burn after a few days. Even with freezer burn, chicken stays safe to eat indefinably in a freezer continually registering below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. But after about nine months in the freezer, even if you've wrapped the chicken carefully, some freezer damage toughens the texture of the chicken and creates slightly bland or musty-tasting flavors.
The Science of Freezer Burn
Freezer burn refers to the moisture loss in foods, including chicken -- similar to an actual burn caused by high heat that dries up the water contained in any food. The process happen in two ways:
- Improperly wrapped chicken allows air to suck away the moisture from the surface of the chicken, drying it out.
- When the water molecules in the chicken freeze, they move from the inside of the chicken to the outside toward the coldest sections of the freezer next to the walls. In the process, the entire piece of chicken becomes dehydrated.
What to Look For
Freezer burn on any part of chicken in pieces appears as white or whitish-gray, dry-looking spots around one or more edges of the pieces. The white, leathery areas show most clearly on skinless chicken pieces, but freezer burn also shows up on the skin. If freezer burn has occurred for more than just a few days, you may also see small ice crystals.
Cooking Freezer-Burned Chicken
If only one or two corners of a piece of chicken have freezer burn, you can go ahead and cook it as is, and it's unlikely to show a difference in taste or texture, especially if you use a creamy or spicy sauce over the chicken. When the consistency of the chicken is important, such as with poached chicken you plan to use for chicken salad, simply trim off the white area with a sharp paring knife.
Preventing Freezer Burn
The flimsy plastic wrap on the top of a typical chicken package allows air to reach the surface of chicken. To protect the chicken, place the entire package in another sturdy freezer bag that is specifically designed to keep air out.
Foil also works well to keep air from reaching the chicken. Either wrap the packaged chicken again with foil, or wrap each piece of chicken separately, first in plastic, pressing out all the air as you seal the bag, and then again in foil.
Susan Lundman began writing about her love of cooking, ingredient choices, menu planning and healthy eating after working for 20 years on children's issues at a nonprofit organization. She has written about food online professionally for ten years on numerous websites, and has provided family and friends with homemade recipes and stories about culinary adventures. Lundman received her M.A. from Stanford University.