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You spend your hard-earned money on a package of juicy steaks. You take half and toss them on the grill and throw the other half in the freezer. Three weeks later, you have a hankering for some red meat only to find that gray spots cover your steaks. What gives? That, my friends, is a sign of freezer burn.
What is freezer burn?
Freezer burn is a phenomenon that occurs because of sublimation in food–a process where ice turns into water vapor, leaving meat tough and dry. Any time the temperature in your freezer rises above 0°F, sublimation happens.
What are the signs of freezer burn?
You can actually use all your senses to find out if a cut of meat has freezer burn.
See: If you look at a piece of meat and it has gray or brown spots on it, that is a tell-tale sign of freezer burn.
Hear: Give meat that's packaged in butcher paper a light squeeze. If you hear ice crystals cracking, moisture has come out of the meat and refrozen on the surface.
Touch: Freezer-burnt meat has a leather-like texture.
Smell: A quick whiff can also tell you if meat has developed freezer burn. A strong plastic-y smell is a good indicator of air exchange between your food and the freezer.
Is freezer-burnt food safe to eat?
Yes. Food that is exhibiting signs of freezer burn is still edible—assuming it hasn't been in the freezer for longer than is recommended. However, the loss of moisture means the food will be tougher and lose flavor.
What can I do about freezer-burnt food?
If you find your meat has just a bit of freezer burn, it could be savable. Let it thaw a bit, so you can examine the full extent of the damage. Next, cut off the affected areas. With poultry, remove the skin as well. (It'll taste gross now, anyway. Trust us.)
Brining can also help resuscitate meat, especially on the surface. We also suggest you use a lot of spice to mask the plastic flavor the meat will have acquired.
For heavily freezer-burnt meat, a stew might be your best bet. A low-and-slow approach will give the time the meat to absorb moisture and flavor.
If all else fails, freezer-burnt meat makes a great treat for the family dog. And if your dog won't eat it, then you probably shouldn't either.
How can I prevent freezer burn?
We've actually written extensively about freezer burn prevention. For brevity's sake, here's the cliff notes version:
Air-tight packaging: Water always seeks to go from wet areas to dry areas, like from your juicy steaks into the dry freezer air. You can prevent this interaction from happening by using air-tight packing, either with zip-top bags or vacuum sealers. You can squeeze extra air out of zip-top bags using this method:
Chest freezers: If you make bulk purchases of frozen food, you should consider investing in a chest freezer. These specialized chillers are better designed to maintain low temperatures, keeping your food fresh.
Eating: Actually cooking and eating the food you freeze in a timely manner is a the best way to prevent freezer burn. A magnetic to-do board that you stick on your freezer door can be a great way to keep a list of what is in your freezer and when you need to eat it by.