Like most people, I'm delaying each trip to the grocery store as much as possible right now which has led to a fun, little game of finding food in the back of my freezer and making a judgement call on if it's worth eating now or not. You know the types of foods I'm talking about: that California veggie blend that was bought with good intentions, bone broth that took forever to make but you never seem to be in the mood for, a healthy-ish frozen dinner. The only problem is, it's almost always covered in freezer burn.
Because freezer burned foods looks questionable both in terms of safety and taste, I decided to reach out to a couple experts to find out how exactly to bring it back to life. After all, now is definitely not the time to waste food.
"What's first important to know is what freezer burn is, exactly," says food safety expert Jeff Nelken. He explains that freezer burn happens when moist molecules from inside of the freezer make their way through the food packaging (or whatever you wrapped it in), and collect on the food, forming a type of frost. "As the molecules disappear, it turns into this cotton candy-like texture, which happens as you lose the moisture."
For the most part, Nelken says freezer burned food is safe to eat. This is especially true of produce, says Trevor Suslow, the vice president of Food Safety at the Produce Marketing Association. "[Produce] foods with freezer burn, if used directly or properly thawed, may have very noticeable loss of eating quality but are safe to consume or use in ways that mask the water loss and negative impacts on texture," he says. Translation: It might not taste or feel as good as non-freezer burned food, but it's completely safe to eat.
Looking for some healthy freezer foods to stock up on? Check out these picks from a top dietitian:
However, if you're dealing with food taken out of the freezer (from the store or at your house), left out on the counter for a while, and then put back into the freezer uncooked, you should not eat it. It may not be safe to consume because bacteria had a chance to form while it was sitting out—especially if it was 60°F or warmer, says Nelken.
About that eating quality...Both Suslow and Nelken fortunately have a few tips for making freezer burned foods taste better. "With freezer burn, it can dull the natural flavor in a food, so I recommend incorporating herbs and broths to give it new flavor," Nelken says. He recommends cooking freezer burned food on the stove (as opposed to the microwave) and incorporating either a miso broth or a chicken broth.
Suslow says berries can sometimes get freezer burn, and says incorporating them into a smoothie is one of the easiest ways to address that. "Blending freezer burned fruit with some other source of liquid should remove any issues of enjoyable use of the product," he says. You can incorporate herbs and spices here, too; warming ones like cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom all work well in a smoothie and add plenty of flavor.
If you're dealing with a food that doesn't lend itself to being cooked in a liquid, Nelken again advises making good use of your pantry spices. "The only pantry spice I wouldn't use to rehab freezer burned food is salt, because some frozen foods are already high in salt," he says. He also says adding lemon or lime juice can brighten the flavor profile of most freezer burned foods.
Now, to prevent freezer burn from coming back in the future...it's all about how you store things. Be sure to use freezer bags for any fresh food that you're freezing, and get as much air out as possible before popping those items into the freezer to lessen the risk of trapped moisture causing those dreaded ice crystals. And try to eat up what you've got before buying new things, since the longer something hangs out in the freezer, the more likely it is to get frostbitten.
Thankfully in general, freezer burned food is safe to eat and there are ways to give it new life. Looks like I can delay that trip to the grocery store a few more days.
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