Ground beef is so versatile and easy to whip up into a variety of fast and flavorful weeknight meals that it makes sense to stock up when it's on sale. But, it never seems to fail — you head to the freezer to store your score and find a forgotten pack or two of ground beef hanging out in the back in a Ziploc bag with no date on it, leaving you to wonder How long has this been in here? And more importantly: How long can you freeze ground beef before it goes bad?
Not knowing how long meat can stay safely frozen has led many of us down the better-safe-than-sorry path, which heads straight from the freezer to the trash can. Whether the rising prices of groceries — especially meats — or concern for how food waste impacts the environment has inspired you to finally find out, we've got you covered.
With help from agencies like the United States Department of Agriculture this guide to ground beef will teach you how to keep fresh meat on the table and your money in your pocket. You'll even learn how to properly store and defrost ground beef. Adhere to these rules and you'll never have to worry about spoiled meat again.
How long will ground beef stay good in the freezer?
You may be surprised to find that frozen meat can technically last forever in a properly cooled freezer (one that remains at 0°F) — but it does have a "best by" shelf life after which taste declines. According to the USDA's freezing and food safety guide, loss of moisture is a big reason why frozen ground beef loses flavor over long periods of time. Raw beef is best used within three to four months of freezing, per the USDA. Due to the loss of moisture in the cooking process, cooked ground beef can last two to three months in the freezer.
How to properly store ground beef in the freezer
Frozen meat can be frozen in its original store packaging for up to two months, according to U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines. If you plan to keep it longer than that, you can wrap the original packaging in heavy-duty foil or place it in a freezer bag to stop air from getting in. Be sure to label the meat with the date it was frozen so there's no guessing how long it's been in there.
The USDA also notes that the faster you freeze raw beef, the better. Placing it in the freezer as soon as you get home from the grocery store will produce fresher meat when defrosted than if it is frozen closer to its expiration date or has been already cooked.
Cooked beef, on the other hand, can be refrozen within three to four days — as long as it has never been left out of the fridge for longer than two hours — the USDA advises.
Raw meat that was frozen and thawed in the fridge can be refrozen one to two days after it's been removed from the freezer. But only raw meat that has stayed in the fridge or cooked meat that has only been left out for a few hours can safely be refrozen.
How to properly defrost ground beef
You should never defrost beef out on the kitchen counter. Doing so exposes the meat to harmful bacteria over a long period of time. Instead, put the frozen beef in the fridge overnight to gradually thaw (on the bottom shelf to prevent juices from leaking onto other foods). It'll be safe to keep it in the fridge for two days after you pulled it from the freezer.
When you need to thaw your frozen meat a bit quicker, placing it in a zippered plastic bag and submerging it in cold water for one to three hours — or until thawed — is the way to go. If you're in a jam and really need to speed up the process, the USDA gives the thumbs up to defrosting in the microwave. Beef defrosted in water or in the microwave needs to be cooked immediately after thawing.
Ni'Kesia Pannell is an entrepreneur, multi-hyphenate freelance writer, and self-proclaimed Slurpee connoisseur that covers news and culture for The Kitchn. She's the former Weekend Editor for Delish who also writes about faith, health and wellness, travel, beauty, lifestyle, and music for a range of additional outlets.