Like eggs and raw chicken, ground beef — and ground meat in general — is a food that knowledgeable cooks treat with extra caution. While freezing ground beef is a good way to keep it fresh, it can easily become contaminated with bacteria, either at the processing facility or after you bring it home.
Cooks are often uneasy about refreezing ground beef after it's been thawed, fearing its potential for foodborne illness. It is possible to do this safely, as long as you understand and follow food safety guidelines.
Depending on your method of thawing and the amount of time your food has been out of the fridge, it can be safe to refreeze thawed meat.
Follow Food Safety Tips
Paying close attention to food safety is crucial when you're handling any raw meat, but it's especially important with ground beef or other ground meats. Bacteria collect on the exposed surfaces of meats, and ground meat is almost all surface area.
Even more important, any bacteria that might have been present on the original cut are circulated throughout the meat once it's ground. This can give potentially harmful bacteria a substantial head start, but it doesn't mean you can't thaw and refreeze the beef.
Defrost Ground Beef Safely
The USDA recognizes three safe methods of thawing for frozen foods. If you plan to cook it immediately, you can defrost ground beef in your microwave or in watertight packaging under cold running water.
However, if you want the option of refreezing your beef, the only safe method is to thaw it in your refrigerator. A refrigerator's whole purpose is to keep your ingredients at a food-safe temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, which slows bacterial growth.
If you thaw your beef overnight in the fridge, it never reaches a dangerous temperature, and can be refrozen at need.
Refreeze with Caution
If your meal plans change and you plan on freezing ground beef again — or if you've gotten a great price on previously-frozen beef at the supermarket — it's important to freeze it as quickly as possible. The refrigerator slows bacterial growth but doesn't stop it, and the longer your beef is out of the freezer the higher its population of bacteria will be.
Label the beef when you refreeze it, indicating how long it was thawed. According to the USDA, thawed ground beef should be consumed within 1 to 2 days. If you bought the beef previously frozen at your supermarket, count from the packaging date.
Always cook ground beef to a safe temperature. For example, hamburger internal temperature should reach a minimum of 160 degrees F, according to the USDA.
Don't Compromise Quality
Aside from food safety, the other factor to think about is quality. When you freeze your ground beef, the juices that fill the meat's cells will react like any other liquid. They'll freeze and expand, rupturing cell walls in the process. When you thaw the beef much of that liquid will run off, leaving the meat drier than it began.
Thawing it a second time accentuates the problem, and can cause a noticeable deterioration in the quality of the beef, as explained by the USDA. It's best to use twice-thawed beef in dishes such as meatloaf, where other ingredients can make up for the lost moisture, or in meat-based soups and sauces.