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Chilling Tales From the Freezer

Here's a cold, hard fact: Foods shouldn't stay frozen indefinitely. In fact, some foods -- like bacon -- shouldn't be kept in the freezer for much more than a month.

A food's freezer life depends on its density, processing, and water and fat content.

People tend to forget about things that get shoved to the back of their freezers. But just like refrigerated foods, frozen foods have a limited shelf life. So, what happens when foods linger in a freezer for years at a time?

Fortunately, they remain safe to eat, but they lose vitamins, minerals and nutrients and simply won't taste as good as food that has been frozen for shorter periods.

Long-term freezing can compromise flavor. The key is to package foods properly, freeze them while they're very fresh and don't let them sit too long in the freezer.

Freezing tips

  • The freezer in your refrigerator and a dedicated “deep freezer” are not the same. Most modern refrigerators have frost-free freezers. The temperatures in these cycle to prevent the buildup of ice. Food should not be stored in a refrigerator-freezer for longer than a week, as it is only intended for short-term storage.

  • Food can be refrozen if it is defrosted in the refrigerator and if it still feels hard and contains some ice crystals. But if the item has thawed, cook it first before refreezing -- or expect a decline in taste and texture.

  • To retain flavor and quality longer, place foods in airtight containers before freezing. Although aluminum foil may do the trick, experts prefer freezer bags because they are airtight and have a designated space for you to record purchase and "defrost-by" dates.

  • Store-packaged meats and poultry -- those in thin plastic wrap with Styrofoam bottoms -- are unsuitable for long-term freezing, so place them in freezer bags before putting them in the freezer. Metal and plastic containers are suitable for freezing sauces. Don't fill them completely, because liquids expand during freezing.

  • Freezer burn -- those white, gray or dry spots that occasionally appear on frozen food -- isn't harmful, but it makes food tough and tasteless. Cut off those freezer-burned patches before cooking. Freezer burn is caused by excessive drying because of improper wrapping or fluctuating freezer temperatures.

  • Some foods, including fats, mayonnaise, yogurt, sour cream, milk and eggs, don't freeze well.

  • If possible, keep your freezer fully stocked. If an electrical outage occurs, tightly packed frozen foods keep one another cold. If the freezer door remains shut during a power outage, foods stay frozen for two days in a full freezer, but only one day in a half-full freezer.

  • To avoid bacterial contamination, defrost food in your refrigerator or microwave -- not on the counter.

  • When freezing homemade foods, remember that strong seasonings like garlic, peppers, cloves or onions tend to become stronger during freezing.

  • Foods require a temperature of zero degrees F or below to retain their flavor, texture and nutrients. If your freezer doesn't keep the ice cream hard, its temperature is probably above zero. But for foolproof results, take its temperature with an outdoor or a freezer thermometer.

How long should it stay?

Here's how many months these foods can stay in the freezer according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration:

Bacon, 1

Beef (roast), 4-12

Chicken or turkey, 9-12

Cooked meats, 2-3

Ham, 1-2

Hamburger, 3-4

Lean fish, 6

Pork chops, 3-4

TV dinners, frozen casseroles, 3-4