Freezing food is great for storing food over long periods of time, but there are some risks. Namely, freezer burn, which most commonly affects meat and poultry. This condition occurs when water molecules in the food freeze out, forming an icy skin.
Although freezer burn doesn't make food unsafe to eat, it can ruin the taste and texture. Nothing beats the taste of fresh food, right? Luckily, there are ways to tell if food is freezer burnt.
Recognizing Freezer Burn
When taking food out of the freezer, start by checking it carefully for patches of dryness, discoloration or wrinkling. A frosty coating of ice crystals is also a sign that your food may be freezer burned; scrape off the frost and look for telltale dry patches.
The exact color of freezer burn varies depending on the food. For example, it tends to be white on poultry and it's a dark or grayish-brown on meat. If it's ice cream, freezer burn shows itself through a thin or thick layer of ice crystals on the ice cream.
The key to preventing freezer burn is to make sure you are packaging your food securely before freezing. Freezer burn occurs when the food comes into contact with the colder air inside the freezer, so minimize it by limiting contact with air. This may mean limiting the amount of times you open your freezer door each day, since the constant exposure to air isn't helping matters.
Wrapping your food in ordinary plastic wrap won't do the trick. Instead, wrap your food in aluminum foil or seal it in an airtight freezer bag or plastic container. Try to get as much air as possible out of the wrapping before sealing them. If you're packaging an item that's already in a plastic wrapper, simply put your new packaging around it as an additional layer.
Keep an Eye on the Clock
Even the most securely-packaged food won't keep indefinitely in the freezer. To avoid freezer burn, be sure to thaw and cook within the recommended time period. For instance, you can keep a steak in the freezer for six to 12 months; by contrast, you should eat frozen hot dogs within one to two months of freezing them.
Again, note that this doesn't mean these foods are unsafe after this time period is up, it merely means that they may not be at their best quality. It may help to write the date that you placed it in the freezer right on the package of food. By doing so, you are doing yourself a huge favor in the event that you're ever unsure of how long a food item has been in the freezer. With time stamping, you will have that information readily available.
What to Do With Freezer-Burned Food
Freezer burn tends to dehydrate and damage food in the areas most exposed to air. Unless an item has been in the freezer for a very long time, some or even most of it should still be fine.
If you want to still eat and cook with it, simply cut away and discard the affected sections and you should be able to enjoy the rest. You may even be able to use freezer-burned meat in soups, stews or chili, where the loss of flavor and texture won't be as noticeable.
If it's your ice cream that has developed freezer burn, you could use it in other recipes instead of tossing it out. For example, adding the ice cream as an ingredient to milkshakes and other kinds of desserts will help disguise any freezer burnt flavor.
Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.