Reader question: “I have bought far more meat and cheese than usual due to the pandemic and now I am worried about it going bad. Is freezing meat OK? What about butter and cheese? How long will it last?” – Rebecca, Orlando FL
Answer: I have been teaching people cooking in their homes for years. One of the first things I do is to inventory their fridge and freezer. For many, the freezer turns into the Land That Time Forgot. I’ve found 14-year-old packages of hamburger in a client’s fridge.
With many people adding in much more food than usual, learning how to safety store foods like meat and cheese in your freezer is a critical lesson. A few key tips:
What Not to Freeze
For starters, don’t freeze anything past its expiration date. Freezing it will not magically make it safe to eat again. Prepared convenience foods from your supermarket generally should not be frozen. This includes those pre-stuffed chicken breasts or chops and fresh salads containing potatoes, eggs or pasta. Canned ham, too, should not be frozen, although whole hams, chops or roasts are fine. Eggs are tricky business. Don’t freeze eggs in their shells – they’ll explode. Hard-boiled eggs or egg substitutes that have been opened are also not freezer candidates. See below for tips on meats, cheese and milk.
Always let food cool before freezing
If you’re making meals and then storing the leftovers, it’s important to cool them and store in the refrigerator before freezing. This will assure that new, hot items will not affect already frozen items. Don’t overfill containers, as foods tend to expand when they freeze, so it’s important to leave a bit of headspace in containers. Also, wait until containers are frozen before stacking them.
Wrap meat twice before freezing
The packaging from your local supermarket alone will not keep your meat and poultry safe in the freezer. The trick to freezing meat, according to the Food and Drug Administration and the Meat Sciences department at Texas A&M University, is to wrap it twice, preferably in heavy duty aluminum foil, plastic wrap or freezer paper, or put the whole package inside a plastic bag. Personally, I remove meat from its plastic and wrap it in parchment, then plastic and then a layer of foil and then freeze. Alternately, you can seal meat, fish and poultry in heavy plastic using a vacuum sealer. This will allow the food to remain frozen longer.
How long will it keep in the freezer?
I recommend printing out this awesome flyer from the FDA has an easy-to-read chart that covers how long to freeze all kinds of food, including meat and cheese. It also includes how long stuff can last in your fridge, too. I keep a copy right on my fridge for easy reference.
Label and date everything
It’s easy to forget what’s what. Do what many professional kitchens do. Use blue painter’s tape and a sharpie to mark down the contents and the date. No tape? Write the contents on a piece of paper and secure in place with plastic wrap. Be sure to check your freezer regularly. One of my classic “clean out the fridge or freezer” recipes is soup. Check out my Soup 101 primer on how to make soup out of (almost) anything.
What about freezing cheese?
According to the National Dairy Board, softer cheeses like mozzarella and young cheddar can be frozen, especially when shredded. Firmer cheeses, like aged cheddar become crumbly and shift texture, so plan on using those in recipes, rather than highlighting on a cheese plate.
There’s an important key to freezing shredded cheese and it’s in the way you thaw it. This is because cheese contains a fair amount of moisture and this becomes frost when frozen. Allowing it to thaw slowly will allow this moisture to get absorbed back into the cheese.
Have blocks of cheese? Chop them into half-pound blocks or smaller and wrap twice in plastic or freezer bags.
What about milk and butter?
The Dairy Board suggests putting milk into small, air-tight containers
before freezing. Be sure to leave at least an inch at the top because milk,
like other liquids, expands when frozen. Personally, I find that freezing milk
tends to slightly change its taste, so try freezing a small amount to see if
you like it.
Once you’re ready to use the milk, let it thaw completely in the
refrigerator. Milk fats thaw separately than the water in milk, so if it’s not
completely thawed, you may notice that it isn’t smooth. A quick shake or stir should resolve this. Try to use thawed milk within three days.
I always keep butter in my freezer. Unsalted butter can last up to five months and salted can last up to nine. Keep it in its original packaging and then double wrap.
What about freezing fish?
Fish is best when cooked the day you buy it. If it must sit overnight, consider placing it on top of ice. Often, seafood sold as “fresh” in your supermarket case was previously frozen. Freezing raw seafood twice won’t render it inedible, but it will break down more of the protein so the texture will be a bit mushier when you thaw it again. Like meat, wrap fish twice. I prefer to wrap it in parchment first, then a layer of plastic or aluminum foil. Fish is best left to thaw in the fridge where, like cheese, it can reabsorb frost as moisture into its flesh. Fish are a good option for a vacuum sealer.
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