Many home cooks are confused about freezer burn, believing that a layer of frost on food means it needs to be thrown out. That's not the case. While freezer burned food is safe to eat—officials at the United States Department of Agriculture say it won't cause foodborne illnesses—the issue is quality. Freezers are harsh, dry climates, and freezer burn occurs when the moisture within the food makes its way towards its surface, eventually evaporating into the air inside the freezer. When this happens, meat and fish become dehydrated as dry pockets of tissue are left behind. Freezer burn is easy to identify as most foods appear discolored: beef and pork may turn an unappetizing shade of brown; chicken and fish may appear pinker with bright white hues throughout.
Even the most enterprising home cook won't be able to save dehydrated meat or fish, says Chef Joseph Pace, the director of stewarding and purchasing at the Institute of Culinary Education. The only way to use freezer burned meat or fish is to cut out the dehydrated section(s) before cooking. There are more ways to prevent freezer burn than there are to fix it. Here, Pace shares five tips for ensuring food stays hydrated in the freezer, including a surprising tip that may change the way you think about freezers.
Wrap Food Tightly
No matter what you're freezing, make sure the item isn't exposed to the air inside the freezer. Because of the lack of humidity in the air inside the freezer, airflow can cause the water accumulating on the item to become gas. "This is why you have frost on the side of your freezer—the lack of humidity causes water to draw out of food much faster," Pace says. "Then, that evaporated moisture attaches itself to the side of the freezer itself." Wrapping food as tightly as possible is the best practice for storing items in the freezer for longer period of time. Make sure every inch of the item's surface is covered, and, if possible, you'll want to place it in the smallest sealed container you can find.
Skip the Plastic
Wax freezer paper and butcher paper are more effective than conventional plastic wrap says Pace. "Wrapping your item tightly in waxed freezer paper can act as a barrier against the harsh air inside the freezer and can also prevent water from evaporating."
Beyond waxed freezer paper, Pace says investing in a vacuum sealer is the ultimate solution for preventing freezer burn. The process of removing all the air around fish or meat ensures that water won't have room to evaporate in the first place. If you don't have access to a vacuum sealer and don't have butcher paper in your home, Pace says that you can place your food in a freezer bag that's barely closed—and stick it in a pot full of water: "The weight of the water forces almost all of the air out of the bag, and you can zip it just before it's about to sink."
Rewrap Your Purchases for Long-Term Storage
When you purchase family-sized packs of poultry, beef, pork, fish, or shellfish from the grocery store, the meat or seafood is generally packed in a large foam tray and shrink-wrapped in plastic. Pace recommends rewrapping if the package shows signs of not being airtight. Even better? Rewrapping each piece of meat or fish individually, which better protects them.
Place a Cup of Water in Your Freezer
It might seem counterintuitive, but placing an open container of water in your freezer increases the humidity in the air around the food—even when the water eventually freezes. Simply fill a small takeout container (like those used for rice or soup) with water and place it in your freezer. The water will slowly evaporate, creating additional moisture in the frozen climate. This helps slow the process of dehydration in other foods, Pace says. Replenish the water every season.
Dip Your Food in Water Before Freezing
"Shrimpers and fishermen do this frequently when transporting their catch in the open seas," Pace says. "They will coat each fillet and shrimp in water before throwing them into a freezer; the coating of ice adds another protective layer to the fish itself to stop freezer burn." At home, Pace says you can dip fish fillets and cuts of meat in very cold water before wrapping and placing them in the freezer. The added layer of moisture will be the first to evaporate, rather than the moisture located within the food itself. Pace says it's okay to dip the item multiple times; you're aiming to create a coating of ice that's at least a fourth of an inch thick. "This is a pretty common practice, and it actually works really well," he says.