Before you rifle through your freezer to throw away anything that has a layer of crystals over it or discolored dry spots, there are a few things you should know about those crystals: They're called freezer burn. But are the ice-infested foods dangerous to eat?
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What Is Freezer Burn, Anyway?
When foods are stored improperly or kept frozen for long periods of time — months or even years — water molecules in the food start to evaporate. Because these molecules are in the freezer, the evaporation crystallizes, forming that thin layer of ice over your food. Sometimes, air molecules can escape the packaging, causing freezer burn on the outside of the food, too.
Not all foods burn equally, New York-based dietitian Megan Stoutz, RD, tells LIVESTRONG.com. The nutrient content of foods can make them more susceptible to freezer burn than others. For example, low-fat ice cream is more likely to have freezer burn because it's more airy and less dense, Stoutz says. It has more water molecules that are not bound to fat, making them more prone to freezing when exposed to air, Stoutz tells us. That explains why your pint of low-cal ice cream is never truly full!
"The high-quality, very high-fat, traditional ice cream has less opportunity to become freezer burned because less air has been introduced into the ice cream," she says. Plus, the fat and water molecules in creamy and dense ice cream have been emulsified, helping it maintain its thick, cohesive texture.
Is Freezer Burn Safe to Eat?
Freezer burned food is perfectly safe to eat, Stoutz says. "Freezer burn just impacts the quality of the food," she says.
The quality of a food includes flavor, texture and color. The flavor might be more dull, for example. Or there may be pale, discolored spots on meats or fish.
Chocolate ice cream will still taste like chocolate, Stoutz says, but warns that it may not be the most delicious ice cream you've had.
Ways to Prepare Freezer-Burned Foods
If you don't mind eating freezer-burned food that might look, taste or feel slightly off, there are ways to prepare them that will help mask the effects of the burn. If it's a small area of the burn, Stoutz says, scrape the crystals off or cut away the burned portion.
For foods that have freezer burn all over, trying making a stew or soup, or covering them in a sauce, Stoutz says.
How to Avoid Freezer Burn
Because freezer burn is caused by air getting into the food, the best way to avoid it is to wrap foods really tightly and store in air-tight packaging. Use air-tight containers or freezer zip-top bags, which are designed to keep air and moisture out.
"When it comes to ice cream, leave that thin plastic layer on top of the ice cream to help keep air out," Stoutz says.
And it's probably best not to eat your frozen treat right out of the container, which exposes the entirety of the food to air. Instead, scoop your serving into a bowl and put the container back in the freezer. This will also help you stick to just one serving of ice cream rather than spooning the entire pint!
"But even wrapped foods get freezer burn eventually," Stoutz says. "Wrapping them properly and using them sooner will prevent the freezer burn from forming as quickly."
Before you freeze hot foods like soups or casseroles, let them cool to at least room temperature. While frozen foods won't go bad, use them within six months to ensure their best quality.
It's also important to make sure your freezer is set to 0° Fahrenheit because freezer burn can start to occur when temperatures fluctuate above that magic number, according to the Library of Congress.
Read more: Why You Should Throw Away Old Ice Cream
And for people who like to linger in the freezer during hot summer months, note that keeping that door open can make your food more prone to freezer burn. Be quick: Open the door, get what you need and close the door tightly.