You’ve most likely experienced finding a package of meat, vegetables, or ice cream at the bottom of your freezer that didn’t look quite right.
If foods from the freezer appear tough, shriveled, discolored in spots, or covered in ice crystals, they are probably freezer burnt.
Here’s what you should know about freezer burn, including whether affected foods are safe to eat and how to protect your food from this phenomenon.
Freezer burn is the result of moisture loss. It can happen to any food that’s been frozen for a long time.
All foods contain water, which forms thousands of ice crystals when frozen. These crystals migrate to the surface of food and eventually to the coldest part of your freezer through a process called sublimation (1).
Sublimation is similar to evaporation, but it doesn’t involve liquid. Instead, a substance changes directly from a solid into a gas. It’s the reason why ice cubes become smaller if you don’t use them for a long time (
This loss of water molecules causes dehydration, making the frozen food shriveled, dry, and tough. Additionally, water loss allows oxygen to cause changes in flavor and color, especially in meats, poultry, and fish that was not wrapped well (
The longer foods are stored in the freezer, the higher the chance they’ll develop freezer burn and suffer in quality (
Freezer burn occurs when frozen food loses moisture and oxygen moves in to take its place. This results in drier, tougher, and often discolored food.
Freezer-burnt foods may look unappetizing and have an unpleasant texture and off-flavor, but they’re still safe to eat.
Still, like other methods of food preservation, including pickling, canning, and dehydrating, freezing food also affects its quality.
If you want to eat food that has been affected by freezer burn, you can trim off the affected areas and use the rest. Nonetheless, its overall quality won’t be equal to its non-freezer-burnt or fresh counterpart (3).
Tests on frozen chicken breast fillets found that moisture loss was most significant between 2–6 months and that after 8 months, the meat was 31% tougher than when fresh. The color also changed, with breasts becoming darker and redder the longer they were frozen (
Foods affected by freezer burn suffer in quality, particularly in terms of texture, color, and flavor. However, as long as they have been frozen properly, they will still be safe to eat.
Any food stored in a freezer is subject to freezer burn. Yet, because it’s caused by dehydration, foods with a higher water content like produce, meats, poultry, fish, or ice cream tend to be more affected than foods with a low water content, such as nuts, seeds, or flour (
You can easily recognize freezer burn on fruits and vegetables, as they become dry and shriveled. They might also be covered in ice crystals because of their high water content, and if you cook them, they’ll likely have a woody texture (5).
Starchy foods like cooked grains, rice, or pasta, as well as baked goods like bread or cake, will develop a rougher texture. Meanwhile, grains may be coated with ice crystals, and baked goods will be dry and less voluminous (5).
When ice cream gets freezer burnt, it loses its creaminess and gains ice crystals instead.
While any food kept frozen for long enough can get freezer burnt, products with a higher water content fare worse. Signs of freezer burn include dark or white dry areas on meats, shriveled produce, or ice crystals on your ice cream.
You can minimize freezer burn by keeping your freezer at 0°F (-18°C) or lower. Food freezes faster at this temperature, allowing smaller ice crystals to form. These are less likely than larger crystals to significantly change the quality of your food (3, 5,
It’s also important to package your food properly to minimize oxygen exposure. For example, wrap meat, poultry, or seafood in freezer paper or plastic wrap, then in foil, and then in a freezer bag (3).
Remove as much air as possible from the packaging of frozen fruits and vegetables, and use small containers to minimize any empty space when freezing leftovers. You can also cover the top of ice cream with freezer paper or plastic wrap before replacing the lid.
Opening your freezer frequently causes the temperature inside to fluctuate, and more ice crystals form when foods start to thaw. Thus, only open it when necessary.
Finally, the best way to avoid freezer burn is to use your frozen food faster. Only buy what you expect to use within the next 2–4 months, and when packaging food for the freezer, mark it with the date so that you can use the oldest products first.
To prevent freezer burn, wrap or package foods properly before freezing them and make sure your freezer stays cold enough. The best way to prevent reduced quality is to use your frozen foods in a timely manner so that nothing gets stored for too long.
Freezer burn is the result of moisture loss from storage in the freezer. It leads to changes in the quality of your food and may result in ice crystals, shriveled produce, and tough, leathery, and discolored meats.
Despite the quality changes, freezer burnt food is safe to eat.
To prevent it, wrap your food properly before it goes into the freezer, and remember to check what’s hiding at the bottom so nothing is stored for too long.