Food is expensive. Whether you're shopping for one or buying provisions for a large family, the price of groceries likely eats up a big portion of your paycheck. This is just one of the many reasons it's disappointing to open up your freezer and find out that chicken you planned to make for dinner is tainted with freezer burn.

But what is freezer burn? Most of us know what it looks like, and a few unfortunate souls may even know what it tastes like. But for the most part, the causes of freezer burn are somewhat of a mystery to the average person. It seemingly appears out of nowhere.

But freezer burn does not happen indiscriminately. There are several circumstances that cause it, and the good news is, those circumstances are easily avoidable.

Read on to learn what causes freezer burn, and better yet, what you can do to avoid it.

What Is Freezer Burn?

A turkey breast with freezer burn.

Freezer burn is the term we use when the surface of frozen food has somehow become overly dehydrated. It's caused by air exposure and it's easy to spot. Food that's been blighted by freezer burn will generally be with covered with white splotches and ice crystals. It may also be discolored or look dried out. In general, food afflicted with freezer will not look appealing or appetizing.

Can You Still Eat It?

Yes. You can freezer burned food. But, why would you want to? As we just learned, freezer burn is caused by dehydration. This means that food with freezer burn will be woody and dry after you cook it. This will lead to changes in flavor and, of course, consistency. In other words, it's going to taste and feel weird in your mouth.

If you feel like you actually must eat freezer burned food because you're super thrifty or maybe there's nothing else to eat in the house, we suggest you cut off the outer, discolored layer of the food before cooking. With any luck, the center will be unaffected and you can still enjoy your meal.

How Can You Avoid Freezer Burn?

There are several steps you can take to avoid the wasted money and disappointment associated with freezer burned food.

1. Inspect your food in the grocery store

Before you purchase frozen food at the grocery store take a good look at it as possible to make sure you don't see telltale splotches and ice crystals. If you can't see the food inside the package, feel it. If all the ice and food feels oddly clumped together, the package has melted and was subsequently refrozen. This is the type of activity that can lead to air exposure and freezer burn. Put that package back and select another.

You should also take pay attention to the use by date and purchase the frozen food with a date that's as far out as possible.

2. Store your food properly

Berries stored properly in plastic bags in a drawer in the freezer.

Be sure you store your food properly before stashing it in the freezer. If you're storing it in a freezer bag, make sure the air is squeezed out and the seal is completely shut. If it's being stored in a plastic storage container, wrap it first in plastic wrap and make sure the container is airtight. You'll generally know this is the case if the packaging of the container says it's recommended for the freezer. And of course, make sure there are no punctures, tears, or holes for air to seep through your bags or containers.

Before you put your food in the freezer, make sure to label it with the date so it will make it easier to track how long its been there when you're planning your meals.

3. Open and close your freezer as quickly as possible

Remember, freezer burn is caused by air exposure. This means it isn't a good idea to leave your freezer door open while you help yourself to bowl of ice cream or toss the frozen berries in the blender for your morning smoothie. Limit the time your freezer door is open for as few seconds as possible.

In that vein, be sure to return your food to the freezer in a timely manner. The longer it remains exposed to the air on your counter, the greater the chance it will develop freezer burn later on.

4. Make sure your freezer is working properly

Is that ice cream already scoopable when you take it out of the freezer? Is that bag of chicken breast feeling soft to the touch? These are clear signs your freezer isn't cold enough. The fix for this problem might be as easy as lowering the temperature on the thermostat, or it may require a more drastic measure, such as calling a repair person. Whatever the reason, it's important to address it right away. Eating food that's been stored in a freezer that isn't set to zero degrees or lower could be a health hazard.

5. Don't defrost your food at room temperature

Ground beef with freezer burn.

Defrosting your food improperly can lead to freezer burn. This means, firstly, food should never be refrozen after it's been thawed or melted. It also means you should defrost your frozen food in the refrigerator whenever possible.

If you're in hurry to defrost that brisket so you can bathe it in a marinade, use the defrost setting in your microwave. You can also place your food in a plastic bag and submerge it in a large bowl filled with cool water. If you choose this method, be sure to change the water out every twenty minutes or so as it creeps it towards room temperature. The water should be cold at all times or you food could risk contamination.

6. Just eat it

If you leave your food in the freezer too long, it will eventually lead to freezer burn, even if you do everything else right. Food, quite simply, isn't meant to be stored forever. This is when those labels and use by dates come in handy. Below is a guideline for the maximum amount of time you should store food in your freezer before you eat it.

  • Bacon and sausage 1 to 2 months
  • Casseroles 2 or 3 months
  • Egg whites or egg substitutes 12 months
  • Frozen dinners and entrees 3 or 4 months
  • Gravy, meat or poultry 2 to 3 months
  • Ham, hot dogs, or lunchmeat 1 to 2 months
  • Meat, uncooked roasts 4 to 12 months
  • Meat, uncooked ground 3 to 4 months
  • Meat, uncooked steaks and chops 4 to 12 months
  • Meat, cooked 2 to 3 months
  • Poultry, uncooked whole 12 months
  • Poultry uncooked parts 9 months
  • Poultry, uncooked giblets 3 to 4 months
  • Poultry, cooked 4 months
  • Soups and stews 2 to 3 months
  • Wild game, uncooked 8 to 12 months
  • Vegetables 12 to 18 months
  • Fruit 8 to 12 months
  • Bread 4 to 6 months

Now that you that freezer burn is avoidable, we hope you'll save yourself a great deal of disappointment and money. Because you deserve to enjoy each and every bite of your next meal...

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