Yes, Frozen Food Can Go Bad — Here's When to Throw It Away
The freezer’s a great kitchen tool for those stocking up or meal prepping for the apocalypse. But can frozen food go bad? The short answer is yes.
The long answer is that, while food can safely last almost indefinitely in the freezer, the quality of that food — its taste, color, and texture — declines the longer it’s under.
So if you want to avoid eating gray, farty chicken meat, read on for recommended freeze times and tips on how you can tell if you’ve over-frozen your food.
How Long Can You Freeze Different Foods?
Good news: According to the FDA, keeping foods frozen at or below 0°F (-18°C) keeps them safe to eat almost indefinitely. Why? “Freezing to 0°F inactivates any microbes — bacteria, yeasts and molds — present in food,” according to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
But while the freezing process does little to affect the nutrient value of food, its quality starts to degrade significantly past certain durations in the icebox. Here are the maximum freezer times the FDA recommends to ensure the best quality, taste, and texture of commonly frozen foods.
|Bacon and sausage
|Cooked meat||2-3 months|
|Cooked poultry||4-6 months|
|Frozen meals or casseroles||2-3 months|
|Frozen soups or stew||2-3 months|
|Raw chops (with bone)||4-6 months|
|Raw fish (lean)||6-8 months|
|Raw fish (fatty)||2-3 months|
|Raw ground meat||3-4 months|
|Raw poultry (breast, legs)||9 months|
|Raw poultry (whole)||12 months|
|Raw shellfish||3-6 months|
|Raw steaks||6-12 months|
You can find the whole chart here.
The FDA doesn’t offer guidelines for how long to keep frozen fruits and vegetables, but the National Center for Home Food Preservation recommends no longer than 12 months.
How Can You Tell if Frozen Food Is Safe to Eat?
For best results, employ all three of the following measures.
1. Make sure it’s the right color
According to USDA FSIS, an easy way to tell that frozen food is still high in quality is if it’s the same color it was when you froze it. Raw meat should be bright red and raw pork should be bright pink. When these are improperly stored or sit in the freezer too long, they tend to turn dark or pale brown due to lack of oxygen. Likewise, frozen fruits and vegetables tend to get paler when they’ve been frozen for too long.
2. Check for freezer burn
“Signs that quality has started to decrease include the formation of ice crystals, or a change in color of food,” says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, a plant-forward registered dietitian nutritionist in the New York City area. Both of these are what’s known as freezer burn.
According to USDA FSIS, freezer burn is what happens when air comes into contact with frozen food, and it shows up as “grayish-brown leathery spots.” You can usually cut away the freezer-burned spots on a food item and eat the rest without compromising taste.
3. Label and date frozen food
Perhaps the simplest way to know whether your frozen food is still good is to label it when you put it in the freezer. Information should include the food type, date it’s frozen, and the date after which it’s projected to decline in taste, texture, and quality.
What’s the Best Way to Freeze Food?
Frozen food can degrade faster if you don’t handle it properly, but there are a few easy ways to ensure it maintains its quality for as long as possible.
- The FDA recommends putting store-bought frozen foods in the freezer as soon as possible, and making sure your freezer is always set to 0°F (-18°C) or below.
- “Food should be frozen in air-tight, freezer-safe containers,” Gorin says. “Even then, it won’t last forever. That is, if we’re talking about taste.”
- Keep meat and poultry in its original packaging, but wrap this packaging in additional airtight plastic wrap or freezer paper if you’ll be freezing the item for longer than 2 months — this helps prevent freezer burn.
Which Foods Freeze Best?
Technically you can freeze almost any food, but some foods freeze better than others.
“Frozen fruits will last six to nine months in the freezer,” Gorin says.
Best: Berries, cherries, grapes, tropical fruits
“I like to keep a supply of frozen wild blueberries in my freezer,” Gorin says. “I can use them for so many different types of recipes — from a wild blueberry peanut butter smoothie to wild blueberry pancakes.” Other berries, cherries, and grapes also work well in recipes like this.
She also loves freezing peeled, ripe bananas for smoothies, chocolate nice cream, and baking. Frozen tropical fruits like mango and pineapple will add a similar sweetness to smoothies, while frozen melon chunks are great for making sorbet.
Worst: Apples, pears
Unless you’re cooking these fruits before freezing them — for pie filling, or applesauce — you’re best served eating them raw to preserve their texture.
“Frozen veggies will last eight to 10 months,” Gorin says.
Best: Blanched vegetables
Vegetables contain enzymes that can cause flavor and color changes over time. Blanching vegetables — flash boiling or steaming, then quickly cooling them with ice water — before freezing slows these enzymes. This, according the University of Minnesota, removes bacteria from the veggies’ surface. You can blanch any plant food, but vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, corn, peas, green beans, and leafy greens work especially well.
Worst: Raw vegetables
Because of the enzymes still active in raw vegetables, they tend to lose color and flavor in the freezer, and even more once you cook them.
Fish, poultry, and meat
Animal proteins can last anywhere between one and 12 months in deep freeze.
Best: Whole poultry, large cuts, lean fish
Larger pieces of meat have less surface area by weight, so they retain more moisture when frozen, Gorin says. This helps preserve their original texture upon thawing and cooking. Likewise, lean cuts of fish are delicate but contain plenty of moisture.
Worst: Small cuts of meat, fatty fish
Small cuts of meat have more surface area, and have already lost some moisture in the butchering process. Fatty cuts of fish lose much of their texture and flavor after protracted freezing.
Key to successfully freezing food is locking in as much moisture as possible.
Best: Soup, stew, chili, saucy dishes
Anything submerged in liquid or sauce will taste better when it’s reheated because it won’t dry out.
Worst: Salad, fried food, eggs, canned food
Raw dishes like salads can’t be frozen, because their delicate contents will lose their texture when thawed. Fried foods will get soggy in the freezer, and aren’t easy to crisp back up.
The USDA also warns against canned foods or eggs in shells, since both can expand and explode in the freezer. Canned food, however, can be frozen once emptied.
- FSIS www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/freezing-and-food-safety/
- The science of freezing foods extension.umn.edu/preserving-and-preparing/science-freezing-foods
- Effect of Freezing on the Shelf Life of Salmon www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6109546