Picture this: You're doing your weekly grocery shop and there's a great deal on a family pack of chicken thighs. And now that you're looking in the meat section, you were thinking maybe you'd have a cookout this weekend and the ground beef is on sale. And you might as well stock up on buns because, well, it's summer and you always need buns.
Somehow you walk out of the store with more than enough to feed you, your family, and then some. You're still feeling pretty good though — until you get home and you are hit with that sinking feeling that comes from knowing that you can't possibly eat everything before it goes bad. No worries, though, right? That's what the freezer is for.
But what if those thighs come out covered in ice and freezer burn? Are they still safe to eat? We investigated.
What Is Freezer Burn and Is it Safe to Eat?
Freezer burn is what happens when food loses moisture in the freezer. Let's take those chicken thighs, for example. As they hang out in your freezer, over time, some water will escape from them. This will happen more slowly if they're packaged properly, but leave them in there long enough and some water will get out. As that water turns into ice crystals, the thighs become dehydrated and you'll notice discolored or toughened patches.
Chicken might take on a whiter pink tone, or the bones may become darker. For beef, you might notice that the bright-red color turns dark or pale brown if it's been stored for a long time.
But while it might not be super appealing — and the texture or taste might not be up to your standards — freezer burn is 100 percent safe to eat. According to the USDA, eating freezer burn does not put you at risk for any food-borne illness or issues.
An Important Caveat on Defrosting
There is, however, a caveat: While freezer burn alone cannot make foods unsafe to eat, the way you defrost them can. The only USDA-approved way to thaw frozen foods is in the refrigerator, where it can be kept at a safe temperature, or in the microwave, if you are cooking it immediately afterwards.
To thaw something even faster, you can place it in a plastic bag in cold water, and change water every 30 minutes as it warms up, but the USDA does not recommend just leaving something frozen to defrost on the kitchen counter. You may have seen your mom do it for years, but this is how dangerous bacteria can get involved, and make something unsafe to eat.
Read more: Food Safety 101: How to Defrost Frozen Meat