It’s difficult to imagine modern life without access to refrigeration. Not only does it make grocery shopping a lot easier to plan, being able to freeze our food and leftovers allows us to take advantage of bulk discounts and reduce food waste. Plus, having a freezer means you can literally enjoy a burrito whenever you want one, a triumph of human ingenuity if you ask me.
But as wonderful as frozen food is, it has its limits. Certain foods that don’t fare well in the freezer — you can freeze them, but the results won’t be great. And while it’s true that frozen food that has been consistently frozen (meaning it never thawed out and refrozen) will remain safe to eat more or less forever. But “safe” just means the food won’t kill you, and not that you will actually want to eat it.
In the sense of actually being appetizing, every bit of food in your freezer has an expiration date, even if it’s not printed on the packaging. Stored properly, most of it will be perfectly tasty for anywhere from one month to a year — but after that, you should be careful before taking a big old bite, unless you crave that freezer-burnt taste (you do not).
Here are the signs that indicate it’s too late to revisit your leftovers or back those ancient chicken nuggets.
Check the appearance
Your first clues that the food you just extracted from your frost-encrusted freezer will be disappointing (and possibly gross) are its appearance and colour. Follow your gut here: If it’s never thawed out, it’s safe to eat, but if it doesn’t look the way you remember it or how you expect it to look, it’s probably not going to taste very good. Here’s what to look for:
- Meat. Red meats like steaks will slowly lose that rich red colour and turn grey or brown.
- Vegetables. Veggies that have been in the freezer too long will be pale, their vivid greens and reds faded, leaving them with an almost milky look.
- Chicken. Chicken meat usually doesn’t change colour when frozen for too long, but it can turn white in some cases. A more consistent sign you won’t enjoy that thawed chicken is the bones, which can become dark with over-freezing.
- Fruits. Many fruits will get darker or turn brown after being in the freezer for too long. It can also appear shriveled and puckered due to the dehydration caused by freezing.
- Fish. If the edges of your fish have turned white or grey, it’s been in there too long.
Finally, if your frozen food is coated in a layer of ice crystals it’s most likely freezer burned, which means the water in it has been pulled out to the surface. Freezer-burned food is safe to eat, but will be tough and flavourless (except for the taste of freezer burn, which is a bad taste).
Does it pass the smell test?
Even if your frozen food looks ok or you’re willing to ignore its yucky appearance, the next test is how it smells. This one should be pretty instinctual: If it smells bad, you probably don’t want to eat it. But over-frozen foods that are still safe to eat typically don’t smell rotten — they just smell off.
Often there’s a “plastic” smell to the food, indicating freezer burn, or the food simply smells stale when you thaw it out. If your freezer has a smell caused by previous problems like a temporary power loss, your frozen food may absorb that smell over time, making it unappetizing even if it’s ok to eat. And if your frozen food smells like other foods in the freezer, something has gone wrong with the process.
Are there textural issues?
Finally, even if your frozen food looks and smells ok, its texture offers one final clue as to whether it will be enjoyable to eat it:
- Vegetables. Veggies found encased in frost in the back of your freezer might have a slimy coating even if they look ok.
- Meat and chicken. Meats that have a leathery texture are not going to taste great.
- Dairy. Freezing dairy almost never works, but if you tried it there’s a good chance it will have a dry and grainy texture instead of the creamy goodness you’re expecting. For stuff like ice cream that’s meant for the freezer, the sure sign it’s going to taste weird is a layer of ice crystal on top.
- Fish. Fish might have a slimy texture that indicates you’re not going to enjoy it (this might also indicate bacterial growth during the thawing process, so don’t take chances). Fish that’s been frozen too long may also feel light, because too much water has been pulled from it, which will result in tough, dry fish.
- Fruits. Fruit that’s been frozen too long can become mushy once thawed out, collapsing into an unappetizing mess.
- Bread. If your thawed bread breaks into crumbles very easily, it’s been in there too long and probably won’t taste good, even if you can hold it together.
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