What to Know About Freezer Burn and Meat

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on February 25, 2024
4 min read

‌As an appliance for storing food, your freezer is an essential partner in helping keep you fed. Your fridge keeps food cool, but your freezer goes one step further. It freezes your food to preserve it.

Sometimes the meat and other food you put in the freezer look different when you take them out. Freezer burn has changed it. Is it safe? What’s happened? Here’s what you need to know.

Freezer burn is a term for the moisture lost from frozen food. It’s what happens when meat left in your freezer for a long time loses moisture and begins to look discolored or shriveled. The surface may be covered in ice crystals. When you thaw foods that look like this, you'll notice that their texture appears tough. They may also taste bland.

All food contains some water. It’s part of the reason that food freezes so well. When you put things like meat in your freezer, it sits in a closed space with a constant dry temperature. This is useful for freezing food fast. But it puts a lot of pressure on the food’s molecules.

Chemical changes turn the water in meat from a liquid to a solid. The more water it has, the faster your food will freeze.

When meat gets freezer burn, it loses moisture from its surface and takes on a gray, brown, or gray-brown color. Meat and other foods with freezer burn might get a grainy texture or look dry and tough. You might find that freezer burn creates weird flavors, as well. This is because oxygen in the nearby air has pulled flavors and colors from your meat’s tissue.

Water molecules are in a solid state on the surface of your food. During their natural transition, they transform into a gas or vapor state in the air. This is called sublimation. It’s different from evaporation. In that process, water moves from a liquid to a vapor or gas.

There are two main reasons why your meat and frozen foods get freezer burn.

  • The food stayed in a frozen space so long that a lot of the water molecules moved off of it.
  • The meat wasn’t wrapped securely before it went into the freezer.

When air is in constant contact with the meat, its water molecules escape at a faster rate. This rapid drying out becomes freezer burn.

Here's a look at how freezer burn changes the foods you eat.

Freezer burn and meat. When meat gets freezer burn, its tissues change color and become leathery. Red meats like beef can turn dull red-brown or even grayish brown. And it doesn’t matter about the cut of meat. Different cuts from steaks to ground meat can all get freezer burn.

Poultry like goose, turkey, or chicken might turn pale beige or grayish beige. Even more so than red meats, poultry cuts like de-skinned breast meat are likely to get discolored blotches along the edges. These blotches may appear white and resemble fat. The meat can also show freezer burn through a honeycomb-like structure.

Freezer burn and fruits or vegetables.Fruits and vegetables have a higher water content than meats. Cucumbers and celery, for example, are 95% water, while strawberries are 91%, and cauliflower is 92%.

All this water makes them great for flash freezing but not for long-term freezer storage. Water will continue to move out of frozen fruits and vegetables. This leaves you with dried out and flattened pieces. The more the ice moves around, the more damage it can cause.

Freezer burn and ice cream.Ice cream and frozen desserts can get freezer burn as well. Unlike meats or fruit and vegetables, ice cream and frozen treats don’t get discolored or blotchy. They get a thick ice crystal covering and lose some of their flavors. They also lose their creamy texture and can have ice crystals throughout.

Meat and other foods with freezer burn are still safe to eat. Freezer burn draws out moisture and flavor. This affects the quality. but not the safety of food.

But don’t eat meat if it has a bad smell or other signs pointing to spoilage. Food that has spoiled is no longer safe to eat.

You can help lessen the chances of freezer burn, but you can’t avoid it. To lower the odds of freezer burn affecting your meat and other foods:

  • Set your freezer to 0 F. You can use a thermometer to check it.
  • Don’t overfill your freezer.
  • Use freezer-safe containers and skip the plastic bags.
  • Wrap your food in plastic wrap or aluminum foil before placing it in containers.
  • Squeeze out any air before sealing containers.
  • Use frozen food within 2 to 4 months.