Whatever the meat — beef, chicken, pork, or fish — there’s no question about it: You can safely store your food the longest in the freezer. That’s because you can safely freeze meats indefinitely.
According to USDA guidelines on freezing and food safety, freezing these foods to 0°F (-18°C) inactivates microbes like bacteria, yeasts, and mold as well as slows enzyme activity — all of the stuff that can cause your food to go bad.
The good news is no fancy vacuum sealer is required to safely freeze meat. However, sealing out moisture certainly does help keep these foods tasting fresh for longer when you eventually defrost and cook them.
So while you can safely store these foods in their original packaging, the USDA recommends that you add another layer of plastic wrap or foil before plunging your meats into the frozen abyss. That extra layer will help keep out moisture and keep those foods tasting fresh. Freezing meats when they’re as fresh as possible also helps preserve taste and nutrients.
You can even safely refreeze thawed meats that you don’t end up cooking. This assumes you thawed them properly to begin with (more on that later).
According to USDA guidelines, however, don’t refreeze foods left outside the refrigerator for longer than two hours or one hour in temperatures above 90°F (32°C).
Despite your freezer’s capacity to store meats and fish for a millennium, you probably shouldn’t keep these foods in your freezer for quite that long (unless you enjoy eating meat that tastes of shoe leather). Freezing your uncooked meats and fish is a safe practice, but at some point, it’s no longer a tasty one. It’s important to consider the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA recommended time limits for freezing cuts of meat and seafood.
Whether you follow those time limits or keep these foods frozen for much longer, the freezer will always be your safest bet. Raw meats and fish will always last longer in the freezer than they do in the fridge.
In addition to food storage guidelines, it’s just as important that you take care in defrosting these foods once you take them out of the freezer. USDA guidelines on safe defrosting say you should only thaw frozen meats in the fridge or in a leakproof plastic bag submerged in cold water. That’s because defrosting those foods at room temperature allows bacteria to grow too rapidly.
And as you defrost those frosty meats in the fridge, you also want to make sure they don’t drip on anything else as they thaw out. The same goes for marinating raw meat in the fridge. Place the meat in a covered dish to avoid spilling.
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Beyond the freezer, canned meats and fish also offer you a very long storage life: between two and five years. This assumes you store these foods in proper conditions.
Your options for canned meats and fish are more limited than what you can store in your freezer or fridge, however. This is because canned meats and fish tend to come in a very specific format, like Spam, a tin of anchovies, or canned tuna fish.
Canning involves a different process to keep your food safe and unspoiled. The food is heated to kill bacteria then vacuum sealed to create a sterile environment and prohibit new bacteria growth.
There are very few examples where the fridge is your best storage option over your freezer or canned foods in your cupboard, but these examples do exist. The FDA recommends you skip freezing prepared meats that have been stuffed, for instance, and only refrigerate those before cooking.
Also, the USDA says mayonnaise, cream sauces, and lettuces don’t freeze well. Don’t freeze these foods or any meats that have been prepared with them.
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