We’ve all experienced it. We head to the grocery store to pick up a few things, only to see that there’s a sale on our favorite meats. If you’re like many people who love a good sale, you stock your cart with raw chicken, steak, or even breakfast meats in an effort to save yourself both time and money in the long run. And in the midst of grabbing as many packs as you possibly can, you think to yourself: "How long can meat stay safely frozen?" And, "Does frozen meat go bad?"
Whether you ask these questions in-store or at home when shuffling through your freezer and finding a tucked away pack of steaks, the topic of frozen meats is one that may deliver different answers depending on who you ask. But we're here to finally put the question to rest, as the USDA states that as long as all foods are stored at 0 °F or lower in your freezer, they are safe to eat indefinitely.
It's important to note, though, that while food stored constantly at 0 °F will always be safe, the quality of the food once defrosted can still suffer over time. It may not make you sick, but it won't necessarily taste like freshly-cooked meat, either.
So, to help you stay on track and make sure you’re making the most of your freezer space, we’ve broken down what you should keep in mind when it comes to freezing both raw and cooked meat, poultry, seafood, and more.
How to safely store meat in the freezer
If you’ve decided to place your meat in the freezer, ensuring that you’re doing it the right way is the first step to maximizing freshness. As the USDA notes, you want to remember that the quality of your meat at the time of freezing determines its frozen state condition. If you can't use it quickly, freeze items sooner rather than later. Food frozen at peak quality will taste better once thawed than foods "frozen near the end of their useful life," according to USDA food safety guidelines.
While lengthy freezer storage can affect the quality of any food, it's also worth noting that raw meat and poultry maintain their quality longer than cooked meat and poultry do. This is because of the moisture lost during the cooking process. Either way, once it's in the freezer, you want to ensure that all foods are stored at 0 °F or lower to retain the color, vitamin content, texture, and — of course — flavor. Freezing to 0 °F also inactivates any microbes — meaning bacteria, yeasts, and molds — that may be in food.
But what about actually storing meat? Can it be tucked away in its original packaging? The simple answer to that is yes, it is safe to freeze your meat and poultry in the original packaging. If you plan to keep your meat or poultry frozen in its original package for a longer period of time (more than two months) or happen to see a tear in its original packaging, however, the FDA notes that you’ll want to overwrap the packages with airtight plastic wrap, freezer paper, or heavy-duty foil, or simply place the package inside of a plastic bag.
Can meat go bad in the freezer?
Freezing meat is a simple and effective way to stock up on your protein of choice, and meat doesn’t technically "go bad" while in the freezer. As the USDA website states, "Because freezing keeps food safe almost indefinitely, recommended storage times are for quality only." So, here are a few things to keep in mind to help determine the quality of your meat once unfrozen.
How to defrost meat safely
Keep in mind that your thawing process affects the freshness of your meat, too. As the USDA cautions, never thaw foods out on the kitchen counter or in your garage, basement, car, outdoors, or on the porch. Any of these methods can make your food unsafe to eat. There are three safe ways to thaw frozen foods. The first and most recommended is slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator — overnight or over a day or two, depending on the size. A quicker method is to put your meat in a leak-proof plastic bag and let it sit, fully immersed, in cold water. After thawing in cold water, cook immediately. Finally, you can defrost food using the microwave, but again, plan to then cook it immediately. Also, when microwaving to defrost, the food can actually start to cook in some areas.
Is freezer burnt meat safe to eat?
Contrary to popular belief, if your meat (or frozen food in general) develops freezer burn, it’s actually not unsafe to eat. It may not taste great, but just cut the freezer-burned areas off either pre- or post-cooking and enjoy the remainder of your meal. If it is heavily freezer-burned though, the quality will most likely be compromised and you may want to toss it.
How long does meat last in the freezer?
To reiterate, since freezing your food at 0 °F or below keeps it safe pretty much indefinitely, you can defrost and eat any frozen meats or poultry (that has been stored correctly) at any given time. That doesn’t mean, however, that its quality will stay good forever. For the best quality, the FDA recommends that you consume frozen meats, poultry, and seafood within the following timeframes:
Beef, Lamb, Pork, and Veal
If you plan to stock up on fresh meats like beef, lamb, pork, or veal anytime soon, you’ll want to know that — depending on the cut of meat — they can retain their quality in the freezer for months on end. Steak, particularly, is recommended to stay frozen for six to 12 months, while chops have a recommended freezer life of four to six months. Roasts on the other hand, can still offer a quality taste after being frozen from four to 12 months. Other meats like tongue, liver, and chitterlings only retain their quality for three to four months.
Processed pork — such as bacon and sausage (whether pork, chicken, or turkey), hot dogs, and lunch meats — tastes best when kept frozen for one to two months, while raw hamburger, ground, and stew meats can last between three to four months.
Like the above, fresh poultry items have a timeframe for the quality of freshness, too — but it depends on which part of the poultry you’re freezing. If freezing whole chicken or turkey, it can last in your freezer for up to one year. Chicken and turkey parts can last for nine months while giblets are suggested to be stored for a shorter time span of three to four months.
Fish and Shellfish
As fish and shellfish include multiple options, the time span of their quality differs, too. Lean fish can stay in your freezer for six to eight months, while fatty fish is recommended to stay tucked away for two to three months. The FDA recommends consuming frozen cooked fish within four to six months, and smoked fish within two months. And finally, fresh shrimp, scallops, crawfish, and squid can stay in your freezer and retain their quality for three to six months.
Cooked and Leftover Meats
If you’re left with an overflow of cooked meats after a delicious meal, don’t worry; those can be frozen, too. The FDA also says that meat leftovers — including cooked meat, meat dishes, and gravy and meat broth — can all be stored for two to three months in your freezer. Cooked poultry on the other hand, depends on what you’ve cooked. Fried chicken and plain, cooked pieces of chicken can last for four months; cooked poultry dishes for four to six months; meats covered with broth or gravy up to six months; and lastly, cooked chicken nuggets and patties for one to three months.
Ultimately though, no matter what type of meat or poultry you choose to freeze, if it is thawed in the refrigerator, you’re safe to refreeze it without cooking it. As the USDA cautions, though, any foods left outside the refrigerator for longer than a two hour time span (or a single hour in temperatures above 90 °F), should not be refrozen.
Ready to cook up some of that meat and poultry from your freezer while it will still taste its best? Get some inspiration from our lists of light dinner ideas, easy chicken dinner recipes, and ground beef recipes for busy weeknights.
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.