Deli meats — also known as lunch meats or cold cuts — include a wide variety of cooked, cured, smoked, and dried meats that are often sliced and served in sandwiches or on a platter.
They may be bought whole, pre-sliced and packaged, or sliced to order.
While deli meats are often eaten soon after purchasing, freezing is a safe way to preserve them for a longer period of time.
However, it is important to handle, package, store, and thaw the meat correctly to ensure maximum quality.
This article explains all you need to know about how to safely freeze, store, and thaw deli meat.
From a safety perspective, deli meat frozen at a minimum of 0°F (-18°C) will keep indefinitely (1).
At this temperature, microbes and other pathogens that can cause food poisoning are kept dormant, which means they don’t multiply (1, 2).
Therefore, as long as it is handled, stored, and thawed correctly, deli meat can be safe to eat even after very long periods of frozen storage (1).
However, the meat will start to deteriorate in quality over time.
The quality of frozen deli meats can be affected by internal chemical reactions, exposure to oxygen, or drying out due to incorrect storage or incorrect thawing (3).
Changes in quality may include (2, 3, 4):
- development of rancid odors and flavors
- changes in color
- moisture loss
- freezer burn (meat dries out and turns gray and spongy)
In general, deli meats can be stored in the freezer at 0°F (-18°C) for 1–2 months. If you store it longer than this, the product will still be safe to eat, but there may be some deterioration in quality (1, 3, 5).
If you intend to freeze deli meat, it’s best done as soon as possible after purchasing. The longer the deli meat is left unfrozen, the more likely it will start to go “bad” or be contaminated.
From a food safety perspective, deli meat can be stored at 0°F (-18°C) indefinitely. However, for best quality, use within 1–2 months.
Deli meats can be safely frozen both sliced and unsliced.
Slicing deli meats before storage means you can package and store them in smaller, more usable portions that are then quicker to thaw.
However, with sliced meats, it is important to be extra careful with packaging as more of the meat surface could be exposed to oxygen and drying air, which can result in loss of quality.
Additionally, sliced and pre-packaged meats are at a higher risk of contamination by bacteria and other pathogens. Therefore, it is essential to keep them stored in the refrigerator or freezer as soon as possible after purchasing (6).
Deli meats can be safely frozen sliced or whole. Pre-slicing the meat means it can be stored in smaller portions and will thaw faster. However, sliced meats are at higher risk of contamination by bacteria if not stored properly.
Different types of deli meats may need to be frozen in different ways to preserve best quality. All of the meats are best eaten within 1–2 months of freezing, but if stored at the proper temperature, they will stay safe past that timeframe.
Cooked sausages are any mixtures of ground meat, spices, and seasonings that have been cooked. They are sold ready to eat. Examples include bologna, bratwurst, chorizo, frankfurters or hot dogs, and mortadella (6, 7).
Freeze these whole or sliced (larger sausages may be best sliced).
These are sausages that have been fermented and dried. They may be cooked or smoked. Examples include salami, summer sausage, saucisson, Cervelat, pepperoni, and spreadable sausage (6, 8, 9).
Freeze these whole or sliced (larger sausages may be best sliced).
These meats, including roast beef, lamb, or pork, are roasted and then kept cold in thin slices. You can freeze them sliced or unsliced.
Meat can be cured by a combination of salting, brining, drying, adding nitrites or sugar, or smoking. They may also be cooked after curing (6).
Cured meats include pancetta, ham, bresaola, Prosciutto, Parma, Serrano ham, corned beef, and pastrami. You can freeze them sliced or unsliced for 1–2 months (5,
These are made from ground turkey or chicken mixed with binders and water and shaped to form sliceable loaves.
They can be frozen sliced or whole. Unsliced meats should be stored in individual portions.
Canned cooked meats, like Spam, are often sliced or used as spreads.
Remove from the can and slice into individual portions before freezing. Do not freeze inside of the can.
To maximize the quality of the thawed product, food — including deli meats — must be handled, stored and thawed correctly.
Here are some tips for ensuring the best quality of frozen deli meats:
- Purchasing: Purchase deli meats from a reputable supplier. For maximum quality, buy whole meats and slice them yourself or ask a butcher to slice it for you at the time of purchase.
- Timing: If you intend to freeze deli meat, it’s best done as soon as possible after purchasing. The longer the deli meat is kept unfrozen, the more likely it will start to go off or be contaminated, which can decrease the safety and quality of the thawed product (1).
- Hygiene: When handling deli meats, ensure that your hands, utensils, surfaces, and storage items are clean.
- Portioning: Deli meats can be frozen sliced or whole. However, slices can be more easily portioned and are quicker to thaw.
- Packaging: Deli meat should be wrapped or bagged, ensuring as much air as possible is removed. Wax paper can be used between layers to reduce sticking. If purchased pre-packaged, it’s best to wrap over the packaging or re-wrap (1).
- Freezing: Freeze at 0°F (-18°C) or colder in a single layer initially. When frozen, the meat can be stacked for storage. The quicker the meat freezes, the better the quality will be (1, 4).
- Labeling: Make sure you label and date the portioned packages of deli meat so you know how long it has been in the freezer. You could also include a use-by date of 1–2 months to remind you when you should eat it for best quality.
- Thawing: For best results, thaw frozen deli meats in the refrigerator. Avoid defrosting in the microwave if possible, as the meat may defrost unevenly or start to cook, affecting the quality. Don’t defrost at room temperature — that poses food safety risks (2).
- Eating and storage: Eat thawed deli meats as soon as possible and keep any uneaten portion in the refrigerator. If the meat was frozen right after purchase it should keep in the refrigerator for 3–5 days, or 2 weeks for pre-packaged, unopened products (5).
- Safety: If thawed meat smells off, is greenish in color, or is slimy, it’s best to throw it away.
It is important to handle, freeze, and thaw deli meats hygienically to ensure food safety and maximize the quality of the final product.
Deli meats, whether whole or sliced, can be stored safely at 0°F (-18°C) indefinitely in terms of safety. However, for best eating quality, most should be eaten within 1–2 months of freezing.
Additionally, it is important to prepare, store, and thaw deli meats correctly to ensure food safety and quality.
By following some simple food safety guidelines, deli meat can be frozen and enjoyed over longer periods of time.
Just one thing
Try this today: To save money on deli meats, look for sales or good deals and buy enough so that you can store some extra in the freezer to enjoy later.