Which Food Has the Longest Freezer Life?
You probably think of March as a month for enjoying green beer and warmer weather, but you might not realize it’s also a month dedicated to celebrating frozen food. Although President Ronald Reagan designated March 6 Frozen Food Day in 1984, the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association has extended the time frozen food gets in the spotlight by anointing March as National Frozen Food Month. Since this observance coincides with America’s favorite college basketball tournament, we pitted your favorite foods against each other to see which one emerged with the longest freezer life.
Freezers Don’t Stop the Clock
Before we break down the bracket, I want to bust a few myths about how freezing food actually works. While your freezer isn’t a magical capsule where time stops and food emerges unchanged, it is meant to safely hold food for extended periods of time without allowing bacteria to grow and contaminate it. Rather than being used to determine food safety, ‘freezer life’ is used to provide something like a ‘Best By’ date, and you can use a food’s estimated freezer life to answer the question, “Will [insert item that you put in the freezer months ago and forgot about] still be good to eat?”
As long as you store food properly and your freezer consistently maintains an ideal freezer temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit, your food should stay safe to eat, in theory, forever. However, if items remain in the freezer for too long, the quality of the food will deteriorate, resulting in changes to the texture and taste.
Breaking Down the Bracket
This bracket was made by compiling the recommended freezer life from several sources, and, unless stated otherwise, the freezer time is for uncooked food stored in an upright freezer.
The Meat Bracket
Bacon and sausage are popular components of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a popularity that still doesn’t change their relatively short recommended freezer lives of one to two months. Poultry, on the other hand, is reported to last an impressive nine months to a year. Pork and ham both come from pigs, but pork has the longer recommended freezer life of four to six months; ham, depending on what type it is, can be kept one to four months. Pork’s half-a-year recommendation wasn’t enough for it to beat out poultry and advance in the bracket.
Hot dogs are an American favorite, especially during the summer, but they have a short recommended freezer life of one to two months, while hamburgers, America’s other favorite food, last slightly longer at about four months. Fish and shellfish are recommended for three to eight months, which is a wide range for an admittedly varied category that includes fatty and lean fish, shrimp, and other seafood, but that freezer life didn’t help it advance against steak. Steak also defeated hamburgers and faced poultry in the final round of the meat bracket.
The recommended freezer life for steak varied from source to source, although some put it at four months and others gave it as long as a year, most times fell closer to six months. Because of that, we gave the meat bracket to poultry, which had the longest minimum recommendation.
The Dairy Bracket
Stocking up on dairy products when you find them on sale is a great idea, but you run the risk of not being able to use all of it before it expires. The good news is that the majority of dairy products can be frozen; the bad news is that most will suffer changes in texture that make them best used as components in a dish. Eggs are neither dairy nor meat, but they do have a habit of hanging out with real dairy products in the grocery store and are so commonly used alongside those ingredients in baking that we decided to put them here.
Eggs didn’t make it very far in the bracket because they don’t do well when frozen in the shell, although the whites and yolks can be frozen. Freezing egg yolks requires some extra work, but egg whites can be frozen as-is for up to a year. The recommended freezer life for butter varies from four months to a year, but it advanced over eggs because it doesn’t need any alterations to survive the frozen tundra. Whether cheese should be frozen is the subject of an ongoing debate, but harder cheeses can be frozen for as long as six months, provided you plan to grate it or melt it, rather than slice it up to serve with crackers. Milk can also be frozen, but should only be stored for three months or less and will experience a change in texture that some feel makes it unpleasant to drink. Cheese advanced over milk, but couldn’t make it past butter’s versatility and longer freezer life.
Eggnog and ice cream are both popular desserts, but ice cream should only stay in your freezer for a couple of months; to enjoy the best possible taste and texture, eating it within a few weeks of opening is recommended. Eggnog, on the other hand, can be frozen for six months, which helped the holiday dessert advance over its more popular cousin.
Sour cream’s recommended freezer life is six months, compared to yogurt’s four to six months, but the unappetizing textural changes it undergoes after thawing made sour cream a weak competitor. Yogurt’s popularity as a component in smoothies helped it advance past sour cream and eggnog, despite their similar life spans. Ultimately, butter’s year-long freezer life couldn’t be beaten, and it took a spot in the final four.
The Dessert Bracket
Whether you’re planning a homemade holiday indulgence or enjoying a weeknight treat, you can use your freezer to store components prepared ahead of time or keep leftover desserts stored until a later date. Quick breads like banana and zucchini have a recommended freezer life of about three months and don’t keep quite as long as traditional yeast breads, which are recommended for as long as six months. Cookie dough is best if used in three months, which is a shorter freezer life than baked cookies; although many sources suggested eating them within three months, the USDA gives baked cookies a generous freezer life of eight months. Because its recommended freezer life stayed consistently at six months, yeast bread advanced over baked cookies.
Holidays and special events usually involve baking at least one pie or cake, and making some components ahead of time can make the baker’s life easier. If you find yourself with too much cake batter, it can keep for one to three months, while baked cake can be stored for at least three months. Freezing unbaked pies works best with fruit pies, rather than custard or cream pies, but you can prepare pies in advance and bake them two to three months later. Pie crusts can also be prepared ahead of time and will keep in the freezer for three to six months, a span that put the component ahead of the finished product in the bracket. Pie crusts also knocked baked cakes out of contention, but couldn’t advance past yeast bread, which grabbed a spot in the final four.
The Miscellaneous Bracket
Much like that dinner you made last week to clean out the pantry, this bracket is where we put all of the leftover competitors that didn’t quite fit anywhere else. In the produce round, we stacked fruit up against greens like lettuce, celery, and cabbage. While fruit has a recommended freezer life of six months to a year, those lettuce greens won’t hold up in the freezer at all. Potatoes are also not recommended for the freezer – at least, not without major prep and alteration – and fell to tofu, which can be frozen for six months.
TV dinners, the original freezer warrior, easily defeated homemade baby food, which should be used within one to three months. Leftover pizza can be kept in the freezer for two months, but soup, recommended for a slightly longer two to four months, squeaked ahead. TV dinners have a suggested freezer life of three to four months, but their ease and popularity put them ahead of soup. Despite that, fruit’s six-months-or-longer freezer life helped make it the champion of the miscellaneous bracket.
The Final Four
Yeast bread, butter, fruit and poultry made up the Freezer Bracketology final four. Each item boasted a competitive freezer life of at least six months, but yeast bread couldn’t defeat butter’s usefulness or extended freezer life. Though fruit can keep in the freezer for as long as a year, poultry’s floor of nine months once again helped it outperform the competition, defeating fruit and butter to emerge victorious. The next time you see chicken on sale at the grocery store, don’t worry about stocking up – just remember to date your bird before it gets relegated to the icy depths.
Tips for Post-Freezer Use
If you have a self-defrosting freezer, your freezer temperature will fluctuate, which can increase the chance that your food will develop freezer burn. Freezing food that has been tightly sealed will help prevent freezer burn and extend the quality of the food. Although the internet is full of hungry strangers who’ve pulled frozen pizzas from the backs of their freezers after several years, cooked them, and confirmed that they were still edible, it’s recommended that you use frozen food sooner rather than later. Consider dating your packages to ensure you’re using them before they reach the end of their freezer life. To better ensure food safety, thaw and cook food properly to avoid any contamination after removing it from the freezer.