A freezer can be a lifesaver. You simply toss in pieces of fresh meat or leftovers, come back after some days or even weeks, and you’ll still find them fresh and intact. While most of us already know how useful freezers are, we might be wondering just how long they can keep frozen meat preserved.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, any piece of meat can last indefinitely when it is consistently stored at 0°F (-18°C) or lower in the freezer. At this temperature, microbial contamination or growth is prevented, and the enzyme activity that causes food spoilage is slowed down.
However, depending on its type, freezing meat for too long may affect its quality. Read on to learn what happens to the meat that’s kept in the freezer for too long and find out how to tell when frozen meat has gone bad.
Can Meat Rot in The Freezer?
The simple answer to this question is no. Meat can only rot when left outside the freezer. As long as it is stored in the freezer, the action of microbes and enzymes that cause food spoilage is prevented.
However, it is important to note that rotting is a gradual process. When a piece of meat is not frozen at the recommended temperature of -18°C (0°F), it can start losing its quality. Lengthy freezer storage, especially under fluctuating temperatures, can also cause a piece of meat to lose its color, texture, and quality.
While meat stored in the freezer for too long probably won’t make you sick, it may lose its nutritional value or give an acrid taste or smell. For this reason, it is best to consume frozen meat within its recommended storage time to ensure maximum quality.
Recommended Meat Freezer Storage Times
Freezers may have the capacity to store food for thousands of years, but it’s probably not the best idea to leave food in there for that long (unless you prefer meat that tastes like shoe leather).
In order to maintain food quality and ensure you’re not storing meat in the freezer longer than you should, it’s important to follow the recommendations of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the USDA for meat freezing time limits. Of course, just make sure you remember we are talking about fresh meat and not the stuff in the can.
According to the USDA freezer storage chart, fresh whole chickens and turkeys can be stored in the freezer for up to a year. Chicken and turkey parts such as breasts, thighs, and wings can be frozen for a maximum of 9 months. Giblets should not spend more than 3 to 4 months in your freezer, and the same goes for ground chicken.
Fresh Meat (Beef, Veal, Pork, and Lamb)
The FDA recommends keeping roasts in the freezer for not more than 4 to 12 months. Steaks can last between 6 to 12 months, but chops should be taken out of the freezer after 4 to 6 months. Offal or variety meats such as brains, hearts, livers, and kidneys should not exceed 3 to 4 months in the freezer.
Cooked Meat and Leftovers
For maximum quality, fried chicken has a limit of 4 months. Cooked poultry dishes should be consumed between 4 to 6 months. Chicken nuggets and patties have a maximum storage time of 3 months.
Cooked or meat leftovers from beef, veal, lamb, and pork should not spend more than 2 to 3 months. Processed meat such as ham, hot dogs, and lunch meats last shorter at 1 to 2 months. Anything past these limits won’t be so tasty.
How Can You Tell If Frozen Meat Is Bad?
As mentioned earlier, for meat to retain its quality and nutrients, it must be stored at a consistent temperature of 0°F (-18°C) or lower (check with a good thermometer), and must not exceed its recommended storage time. So, meat can go bad if these freezing conditions are not met. Here’s how to tell whether that piece of meat you’re planning for dinner is better off tossed into the garbage.
Change in Color
If the meat that was once fresh and crisp-looking, is now looking shriveled or discolored, it may have been exposed to air and lost some of its moisture. For example, red-colored steak can turn grey or brown. This condition is known as freezer burn and does not mean the meat is unsafe to eat, but it will turn out dry and won’t taste great after cooking. This applies to vegetables as well.
Sign of Spills from Meat
If you find a pool of meat juice at the bottom of your freezer, then the meat is probably not worth cooking. A pool of meat juice could indicate there was a temperature fluctuation or the freezer warmed up. It could also be that the juice dripped out of the meat before it froze. The best thing to do is to throw away the meat and properly clean up the mess.
Rancid or Strange Smell
Your nose is perhaps the quickest way to know if a piece of meat is bad. The smell of raw meat isn’t necessarily great, to be honest. But if you remove a piece of meat from the freezer and it gives off a potent or rancid smell, then it’s best to just dispose of it.
Slimy or Sticky Texture
If the meat has a slimy or sticky surface, it’s a sign that it is bad and should not be eaten. This kind of meat will have a shiny surface and feel slippery if you run your fingers over it. At this stage, it will only take a few days before mold starts forming on it. If you find your frozen meat in this state, just wrap in a plastic bag and throw it away.
Deep Freezer Or Regular Freezer: Which is Better?
The difference between a deep freezer and a regular freezer is the amount of time they take to get to 0°F (-18°C) temperature. Regular freezers usually decrease food temperature at a slower rate, usually up to 24 hours to get to -18°C. In deep freezers, food is exposed to temperatures -30°C (-22°F) to -50°C (-58°F), rapidly cooling until it reaches -18°C.
Deep freezers use more energy than regular freezers but are considered to preserve food better. That said, both freezers will do a good job of keeping your food fresh, and choosing one will depend on your household requirements.
More Meat Freezing Tips
Sometimes, figuring out if a piece of meat has gone bad in the freezer can be deceptively hard. You may find smell, texture, or even taste to be inaccurate. Here are some tips you can use to further ensure food safety:
- Label every frozen food in your freezer and write down their expiration dates.
- Arrange the items in your freezer by category for quick and easy identification.
- Don’t interrupt power in the freezer and avoid unnecessary opening of the freezer door.
- Wrap meat in airtight packaging such as a plastic wrap or plastic wrap if you plan to freeze it for more than two months.
Freezers can store meat for several years as long as they are frozen at a consistent temperature of 0°F (-18°C) or lower. Make sure you use a good thermometer to check from time to time. However, this doesn’t mean that the quality of the meat can’t be affected. When a piece of meat is stored for too long or more than its recommended storage time, it loses its quality and becomes unappealing.
To ensure food quality and safety, remember to:
- Store meat only within the storage times recommended by the FDA
- Look for signs of bad and rotten meat
- Label the meat and other items in your freezer
- Keep the freezing temperature consistent at -18°C or lower
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Anne James has a wealth of expertise in a wide array of interests, including quilting, cooking, gardening, camping, and making jelly.
She has a professional canning business and has been featured in the local newspaper, and has been her family canner for decades. Anyone growing up in the South knows that there is always a person in the family who has knowledge of the “old ways,” and this is exactly what Anne is.
With over 55 years of experience in these endeavors, she brings a level of hands-on knowledge that is hard to surpass.
Lovingly known as “Jelly Grandma” by her grandkids, Anne hopes your visit here has been a sweet one.