On a cold, wet weekend when going to the grocery store seems like the worst idea in the history of humanity, nothing is quite as amazing as having a fully stocked freezer. As you check out your food-sicle options, you might find yourself wondering, “How long can I freeze meat before it goes bad?” I’ve got the answers right here, my friends.
But first! A short primer on how to freeze meat properly: You can freeze virtually any type of meat and it should hold up just fine, as long as you package and freeze it correctly. Step one: If you’re going to freeze a piece of meat, do it early, when it is still fresh. Don’t wait until the meat is just about to go off and then put it in the freezer — that piece of meat isn’t going to taste any fresher after three months on ice. Second, when you’re packaging your meat, wrap it tightly in plastic, followed by aluminum foil or a sealable plastic bag. Your goal here is to minimize your meat’s exposure to air because air will dry it out and cause freezer burn. When your meat is well wrapped, be sure to write the date on it.
To keep your frozen food well frozen, you should maintain a freezer temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Some freezers will have thermometers built-in, so that you can check the temperature. If your freezer doesn’t have a thermometer, the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska suggests this easy hack: If you have ice cream in your freezer, pull it out and take a look at its texture. If your freezer is at the right temperature, it should be rock-hard. If your ice cream is soft and easily scooped, your freezer isn’t cold enough.
Meat that is frozen at a consistent temperature of 0 degrees or lower will stay safe to eat indefinitely, according to FoodSafety.gov. However, there’s a major difference between “safe to eat” and “good to eat.” Some types of meat will stay good — that is, tasty and moist — for longer than others. Here’s the breakdown:
Meat (Beef, Pork, Lamb, etc.)
According to FoodSafety.gov, raw steaks are good to freeze for between 4 months and a year; chops are good for 4 to 6 months; and roasts are good for 4 to 12 months. You can freeze bacon for 1 month, and raw sausage for 1 to 2 months.
Whole chickens and turkeys can stay in the freezer for up to a year, while chicken and turkey pieces should be consumed within 9 months.
When freezing fish, freezer longevity depends on whether it’s a lean or fatty fish. Lean fish include cod, flounder, bass, catfish, tuna, and tilapia, and they can be frozen for up to 6 months, according to the FDA. Fatty fish include anchovies, mackerel, salmon, and sardines; these fish shouldn’t be frozen for more than 2 to 3 months for best quality. (You can check out a more comprehensive list of lean and fatty fish over at Berkeley Wellness.)
Ground meat (of any type).
Ground beef, pork, turkey, lamb, veal, or mixtures thereof will stay good in the freezer for three to four months.
Cooked meat or poultry.
Cooked meat and poultry don’t maintain their quality in the freezer for as long as raw meat does. The USDA recommends that you defrost and eat your cooked meat within 2 to 3 months, and poultry within 4 months.
A quick note on how to thaw your meat: The best way to thaw meat is to put it in the refrigerator to warm up slowly. Fairly small cuts of meat will defrost in 24 hours, while larger pieces, like whole chickens or turkeys, will take longer. (The USDA estimates a day of defrosting for every 5 pounds of meat.) For a faster thaw, the USDA says you can put your meat in a waterproof plastic bag and dunk it in a bowl of cold water. Pour out the old water and add new every half hour until your meat is thawed. Never thaw frozen meat by simply leaving it out on a counter; the outside of the meat will warm up while the inside is still frozen, and you’ll risk bacteria growth.
Finally, practice common sense. If you defrost a piece of meat and it doesn’t look right or it smells “off,” don’t eat it!