Preventing Freezer Burn

Preventing Freezer Burn

It’s that time of year when the best-organized freezers get a bit disheveled. That’s what’s happening at our house at least.

Way back in August, while dying of the heat and praying for rain, we started some Beach Boys music on the CD player, turned it up loud and did the big clean up and organization. We start with the upstairs, laundry room freezer. Everything inside gets piled outside, the hair dryer melts the frost and we dry the walls.  It’s the every-year routine, pre-any-hunting-season prep.

We have an army of aptly labelled paper grocery bags gathered at our feet: roasts, burger, steaks, upland birds, turkey legs, turkey breasts, my homemade sausage and leftover sausage fixings. Every package in the freezer is dated, with the oldest in each category (steak, roast, whatever) added to the grocery bags first, then adding the rest in backward chronological order, all with the newest harvested meat on top. That way, when we return the little white packages, the oldest meat is on top where it will be used first.

As we wait for the inside walls to completely air-dry in that frequently used freezer, we head downstairs and do the same thing with our less-frequently-used basement freezers.

Totally organized, you see. But 8 months later, not so much.

We’re into that laundry room freezer at least once a day, adding fudgsicles from Bob’s Really Good Grocery Store, my darned good preliminary test recipes for Rifle Loony News’ Cookie Corner, raspberries and strawberries from our garden, etc, etc, etc.

Hold on. We’re supposed to be talking about freezer burn, not the pre-season organizing. But good organization might just keep the packages from getting tossed, rolled around and rumpled in a search for another piece of that really good whitetail buck you ate last week, or avoiding the elk that was a bit livery. And maybe causing damage to the package.

Wrapping is the beginning, whether you’re double wrapping, or even triple wrapping.

And since you’re already rebelling about triple wrapping, I’ll hit that first.

Three factors effect wrapping:

  1. Fat turns rancid faster and gets degrades faster than lean meat
  2. The higher percentage of surface area per pound, the faster it degrades. Smaller chunks of meat freezer burn faster than larger ones.
  3. The faster it freezes, the safer it stays.
  4. Constant temperature is good; constant up and down is bad. In other words, chest freezers are good, uprights are bad.
freezer burn prevention

Man-handling frozen game meat in the freezer? Knowing where to find those steaks–or roasts–without digging around preserves the wrapping and keeps the meat fresher. There’s a chalkboard in the laundry room above the freezer, and we draw a map there. But no system is perfect. We once found an 8-year old package of steaks when organizing in August. The package had been double wrapped and was still in perfect shape. We had to slice less than 2 ounces off from freezer burn before cooking it, but the rest was just fine.

So. What do you hunt?  One wild pig I shot years ago had very little fat, but most wild pigs have quite a bit and, unlike venison fat, it’s often tasty and you might want to keep it.  In fact wild pigs have the most fat of any of our wild game, even bear, so careful wrapping is essential in preventing storage damage.

That’s just one example where triple wrapping is not a waste of time.

Then there’s waterfowl. The year I was writing the Sausage Season cookbook, I ‘borrowed’ a goose from a friend because I was still testing recipes and was running low on wild birds. The goose had been in the freezer a couple of years, but he’d triple wrapped it. First in plastic wrap, pressing the air out as he smoothed it tightly against the bird; then aluminum foil, for another layer of tight-fit plus some insulation; then freezer paper. There was no sign of freezer burn anywhere, nor did I smell any rancidity in the fat when I unwrapped the thawed bird. It could have been wrapped that day. These days, a tight vacuum wrap would have been even better, but they weren’t in wide use then. (And some of us don’t toss the first bag and re do the vacuum seal when the first attempt doesn’t quite vacuum as advertised.)

Holding constant temperature–no matter how often or long you open your freezer–is a big factor in frozen meat quality. (Given that grinding produces a higher percentage of surface area per pound, ground meat whether venison, bear or turkey gets shows signs faster than larger cuts of meat.)

I once bored a Labrador retriever absolutely to distraction waiting for the temperature to drop on our chest freezer. As we all know, Labradors thrive on boredom (throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball, eat, eat, eat, eat, throw the ball, throw the ball, etc.) but she wandered off long before the thermometer started to rise.

Upright freezers are not nearly that good at being constant, because hot air rises and cold air falls, the second you open the door.  One year a friend decided to upgrade the family’s antique chest freezer, transferring all their game into their bright, clean upright. Within a year she sent me a note: “I always wondered what you were talking about when you mentioned freezer burn. We’d never seen it. But now I know. We’re saving up for another chest freezer ASAP.”

Plus, most uprights don’t operate at zero to -1 Fahrenheit, optimum freezer storage temp, while chest freezers do. (When set properly. Buy a freezer thermometer and check yours once in a while.)

The first sign you need to rethink your wraps?

If you wrap loosely, there will also be a tell-tale snow drift inside the package where the moisture condensed and was trapped, against the inside of the freezer paper.

The other freezer factor is total area vs. poundage:

To avoid ice crystals forming and getting a really good start on a dandy freezer burn, keep these numbers in mind: at zero to 5 below Fahrenheit. Optimum freezing time is up to 24 hours. Optimum amount of room temperature meat at 0-5F below to get that done? No more than 1½ pounds of meat per 1 cubic foot of freezer capacity.

I’ll do the math: for the popular 15-foot freezer, that’s 22 ½ pounds of meat.

organizing freezer to help prevent freezer burn.

Keep it organized: Here’s a view of those boxes. We’ve collected them for years, adding and subtracting shapes to make them fit snugly like a jigsaw puzzle and switching them out depending on what we luck into year to year.

Aside from the fact that we both hunt, this is the main reason we have two 15 cu. ft. chest freezers. Even a whitetail doe will produce more than 22 ½ pounds of boned meat, and with two freezers we can spread it around for efficient—and fast—freezing. If we need more initial freezer space we’ll spread out to the upright, with its metal shelving. But only for that initial freezing.

One layer of paper between your trophy doe and ruin isn’t enough.

Double wrapping in good freezer paper is basic and easy: cut one piece long enough to make two wraps, then center the meat on one end of it, roll it once then twice, pressing the air out to the sides, fold the sides up, then fold the flap (it looks like a do-it-yourself envelope), and tape it down.  Masking or freezer tape will hold it; clear plastic tape tends to get brittle in the freezer and work loose.

Once wrapped, strew the packages across the frozen ones already in the freezer—or in a single layer on cookie sheets. Better yet, use already-frozen packages as spacers: one at each at each of a stack of cookie racks to space them. The cold air circulates 360 degrees more easily that way.

Check the packages in 12-18 hours, and if some packages are slow to freeze, move them around. 24 hours is your target.

And to protect those packages from getting tossed around, use some sort of ‘spacers.’ Over the years we’ve ended up with a collection of taller boxes that stand inside the freezer without preventing the door from closing tight, but aren’t as big around as they are tall. It’s like putting spacers in the freezer to keep steaks from roasts, or ground meat from upland birds. They also help in August to empty the freezer quickly as we await hunting season and the equinoctial rains.

I made a short video about double wrapping. Here’s the link:

PS: That link also reveals the menu for upland bird care, big game quartering and other videos we’ve done.

If you’d rather have a book you can hold in your hand:  Slice of the Wild:100 Venison Recipes has 60 pages of illustrated big game care and butchering, while Upland Game Bird Cookery has 43 fully illustrated pages as well as 97 upland recipes.

No matter how much thought I’ve put into these posts, there’s always ONE MORE THING. So here it is:

It may seem like the totally wrong time of year to talk about freezer wrapping, but it’s about now that you’ll be seeing some of those lovely elk and deer steaks you tossed in the freezer last fall showing the signs. Plus, bears are starting to come out of their dens, and they have fat. Not as much as wild pigs perhaps, but fat that aficionados know is delicate enough for pie crusts. (Always excluding spring bears that have been feeding on winter kill.)

As you pull meat out of the freezer the next few days, take a minute to look at how the packages are holding up, if there are bits of frost inside the packages, or those dry, chafed-looking areas developing on the thinner edges—that’s freezer burn.  Trim it, and next fall, up your game!

Eileen Clarke

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