Freezer Week

How to Freeze and Defrost Every Type of Meat

updated Aug 14, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

Stocking your freezer with ground beef, chicken breast, and other quick-cooking proteins makes home cooking easier and less expensive. You can grab your favorite in bulk (or on sale!) and then portion and freeze them at home rather than paying a premium for the already-frozen stuff. Then you can meal plan around your freezer stash or just be better prepared for quick meals at home.

Wondering where to start when it comes to freezing and thawing meat in your kitchen? This handy guide will teach you everything you need to know (or brush you up on the basics) and help you freeze your meat better and thaw it more efficiently. Here’s everything you need to know about freezing and thawing every kind of meat.

Good General Guidelines for Freezing Meat

There are a couple of general guidelines for freezing meat that are true whether you’re freezing a whole chicken or hot dogs, and should be kept in mind whether you’re freezing a pound of meat or 20 pounds.

1. How you store it matters.

If there’s one thing to know when preparing meat for the freezer, it’s that you shouldn’t freeze meat in its grocery store tray and plastic wrap. When done that way, it won’t be protected from the freezer’s harsh temps and will get freezer burned in weeks instead of months. Instead, move meat to better long-term storage. For most meat, this can be freezer-grade zip-top bags (their thicker plastic helps insulate and protect, and makes for easy storage and thawing). Or you can double wrap meat portions in a layer of plastic wrap followed by a layer of heavy aluminum foil or freezer paper.

It is best to freeze your meat quickly, and portioning meat into meal-sized increments will help. For example, freeze ground meat in one-pound portions, freeze chicken breasts individually, or freeze bacon into single rolls. This not only makes it easier to just grab what you need, but it also helps everything freeze faster.

2. Set yourself up for freezer success.

Make sure your freezer is operating at the correct temperature before stashing stuff in there, and get in the habit of labeling everything with a date and description. The USDA recommends a freezer shelf life of about one year for raw meat (slightly less if it’s cut into pieces), two months for prepared meats (hot dogs, bacon, cold cuts), and two to four months for cooked meats, so labeling will help you keep better track of this.

Everything You Need to Know About Freezing Whole Cuts

Despite what you might think, freezing chicken or beef isn’t limited to breasts or ground meat. Whole chickens, steaks, and roasts can absolutely be frozen. As mentioned above, be sure to remove the whole chicken or steak from its plastic packaging and either move it to a freezer bag or tightly wrap it in a double layer of plastic wrap and follow that up with a layer of foil or freezer paper.

If space allows, freeze your large cuts of meat on a baking sheet or freezer shelf with plenty of space around it. Good circulation will help it freeze faster, preventing large ice crystals and keeping its taste and texture intact through freezing and thawing. After it’s frozen solid, go ahead and nestle it in alongside your other frozen foods for longer-term storage.

When you’re ready to cook and eat larger cuts of meat, make sure you allow plenty of time for thawing. Our best advice is to plan for 24 hours of slow thawing in the fridge for things like pork tenderloin and steaks. For larger roasts, whole chickens, and turkeys, allow four hours for every pound of meat. For example, a five-pound broiler-fryer chicken will take at least 20 hours to thaw in the fridge.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Everything You Need to Know About Freezing Ground Meat

Nothing is better for freezing and thawing than ground beef, thanks to its malleability. Portion your ground meat into half- or one-pound increments and then freeze it flat in zip-top bags. Flattening ground meat makes it freeze and thaw much faster (keeping it tasting fresher); our favorite tool for the job is a rolling pin to get it really flat. The flat shape makes for easier storage, too — just like soups and stocks.

You can quick-thaw these packages of flattened ground meat with a cool water bath: Fill a bowl with cool water and submerge the package, changing the water every 30 minutes to help speed the process along. Most one-pound packages take 90 minutes to thaw with this technique.

Everything You Need to Know About Freezing Prepared Meats (Like Bacon, Hot Dogs, and Deli Meat)

Since prepared meats like bacon, sausage, and sliced cooked meat have a short shelf life, make sure you portion thoughtfully before freezing (think: four to six sausages, or sandwich-sized portions of sliced turkey between sheets of paper). This way, you’ll be able to defrost just what you know you’ll be able to eat in one go. You can freeze most of these in zip-top bags or freezer-friendly containers.

In terms of defrosting, when you have time you should thaw these meats for at least 12 hours in the fridge. You can also quickly thaw them in a bowl of cool water — just be sure change the water out every 30 minutes.