The Truth About Freezer Burn, and How to Halt its Icy Advance on Your Food

For as long as there have been ice boxes, people have been dealing with the issue of freezer burn -- that, and dying of consumption. But what actually is freezer burn, apart from a seemingly oxymoronic turn of phrase? What causes it? And more importantly, how can you put a stop to it before it starts?

Here are the answers to those questions.

So, what is freezer burn?

It's important to note that the freezer isn't literally burning your food here; that would be ridiculous. Instead, what we refer to as "freezer burn" is actually the result of dehydration caused by temperature fluctuations in your freezer, exposure to air, food being in the freezer too long, or some combination of the three. The moisture that evaporates from your food forms a film of tiny ice crystals on the surface, can also result in discolorations -- which, in the case of meat, means dark, dried-up patches that make it look as though it's been burnt. Hence: freezer burn.

Can you eat freezer-burned food?

Yes, freezer-burned food is absolutely safe for you to eat, although its flavor is markedly different (read: worse). If you're dead-set on eating that frozen meat, you'll want to cut off the darkened bits before heating it up -- just know that while you're bypassing the worst of it, the rest of your icy repast probably won't be in great shape.

freezer burned carrots
Merrimon Crawford/Shutterstock

How do you prevent freezer burn in the first place?

Let's address each of those freezer burn causes in turn:

First of all, stop opening the freezer door so goddamn much: every time you open it, you inadvertently vent cold air, thereby raising the temperature inside. This makes the freezer work harder to regain temperature equilibrium, while also increasing your chances of freezer-burning the hell out of your precious frozen waffles. So please, keep the door-open time to a minimum.

Another way of keeping your freezer temp as stable as possible is to increase the amount of stuff you have in there. Picture those stacks of frozen pizzas like ice packs in a cooler: each one contributes to the overall low temperature, and helps counteract the warm air that leaks in when you open the door. That said, there's such a thing as packing your fridge too much. Make sure there's room for air circulation at the top and bottom, and maybe buy a rack to keep things organized.

Next, minimize the food's contact with air as much as possible. Make sure to use plastic containers whose size matches the amount of food you're putting in them, and double-wrapping your food's not a bad idea either. If you're using plastic bags, use the heavy duty kind meant specifically for use in the freezer. Additionally, you can replicate a vacuum seal by either placing the bag partially into water, or sealing it around an inserted straw and sucking the air out.

Finally, keep track of what you put in the freezer (and when) by making a list and sticking it on the outside of the fridge. If you're using freezer bags, write the date on them in permanent marker. Simple as that!

Gianni Jaccoma is an editor for Thrillist, and he's now 85% freezer burned. Follow his thawing process on Twitter @gjaccoma