It’s a question that goes round and round on homesteading, backyard farm, and garden forums: When the power goes out, can you refreeze your food? Are all those homegrown meats a total loss?
Note: though this article focuses most specifically on salvaging homegrown meats, most of what is discussed here applies to homegrown vegetables, fruits, and prepared products, too — because at the end of the day, what dictates what you can and cannot do with thawed or thawing meats is safety, and safe food handling is safe food handling, not matter what type of food you’re talking.
The loss of a freezer full of food is a financial blow to anyone, but the force of that blow is multiplied when it’s your own homegrown meat (or produce). The investment for homesteaders and backyard farmers isn’t just in money, it’s time, too—endless, countless hours of time that often starts, quite literally, with birth all the way through respectful death and processing.
As homesteaders we choose to grow our own meat for a variety of reasons, and for many of us the reason is as simple as being able to trust our meat source. When we grow our own, we know where the animal came from (often, right here on the farm!) and every detail about what it ate, health or illness, and how it was treated every day of its life. A loss due to an extended power outage, or even just a freezer malfunction, is a loss of that highest level of food security as well as a year or years of time, money, and product. And that, you just cannot get back.
Salvaging Formerly Frozen Homegrown Meat
To get down to brass tacks, the answer to whether or not you can refreeze thawed or thawing meats is simple: Yes, but!
Yes, meat can be refrozen.
Yes, we’ve all been told for years that you cannot refreeze meat after it has been thawed. No, that is not longer considered accurate. Yes, it is not entirely straightforward, and you have to evaluate two critical factors.
Time and Temperature Dictate Refreezing Meat
ServSafe (a nationally accredited food safety and handling certification program developed by the National Restaurant Association) and the USDA (via the FSIS, Food Safety and Inspection Service) are two of the most respected authorities in food safety. And both agree that refreezing meat is entirely safe as long as the two most critical components of food safety are adhered to. Those components are time and temperature.
When your freezer loses power and you need to determine whether you can safely refreeze your meats or not, there is one you need to focus on: temperature.
Time will be a secondary factor because if you cannot meet the criteria of temperature, it matters very little how long the food was above the safe refreezing temperature zone.
You can refreeze your homegrown meat (and even locally purchased or store-bought meats) as long as:
- The package/meat still contains ice crystals, or
- The meat is completely thawed but you know for sure that the temperature in the unit was always below 40°F (4.4°C)
In terms of time, any time food reaches a temperature above 40°, and more specifically in the “danger zone” of highest bacterial growth (between 41° and 135°F), the clock starts ticking. To be absolutely safe when refreezing meat in question, do not refreeze any meat that has warmed above the cutoff of 40°F (which is normal refrigeration temperature). Some other time-related safety guidelines from the USDA (link) include:
- Do not refreeze foods that have been left unrefrigerated for more than two hours
- If temperatures are above 90°F, do not refreeze foods that have been unrefrigerated for more than one hour
- Thawed food should be refrozen within three to four days but still must meet the above criteria for time and temperature
- Full freezers will usually hold safely for about two days if unopened
- A half-full freezer will hold about one day (grouping the food into one close unit can help)
- Refrigerator freezers often do not hold as long
- An open door on an operating freezer is not usually a safety issue
Some Final Factors When Refreezing Meat
Following are a few more factors the USDA wants you to consider when deciding whether to keep and refreeze meat that has experienced a power and/or freezer failure:
- Evaluate each piece of meat or packaged food separately, looking for the tell-tale safe signs of temperature or remaining ice crystals.
- Use a sterile food-safe/meat thermometer to determine the interior temperature of meat, and reseal compromised packages as needed.
- Do not count on appearance or odor as your guide to food safety. Unsafe, warmed foods where bacteria are multiplying can still smell and look fine.
- DO NOT taste meat, even cooked meat, to determine its safety.
- Discard food items that have come in contact with raw meat juices.
- Even purchased and/or previously frozen meat, poultry, fish, prepared foods, frozen leftovers, and casseroles are okay to refreeze as long as the time and temperature safety protocols have remained in place.
Assuming It’s Safe, Refreezing Meat is a Quality Call
The myth that we cannot refreeze thawed meats and foods comes from decades ago and is probably most tied to early marketing when frozen foods became part of the mainstream. Commercial producers like Clarence Birdseye feared that if homemakers froze their products after they’d already been frozen and thawed, their reputation would be at stake when the foods turned out to be of diminished quality. They stamped their packages with things like, “Not to Be Refrozen.” This is probably the start of the now mainstream idea that you can never refreeze a previously frozen meat, even one that you grew.
ServSafe and the USDA, along with many other reputable bodies, take pains to point out that in the matter of whether you can refreeze meat or not, the deciding factor is always food safety (temperature). Quality is a secondary factor, but it is a subjective one. It is not unsafe for you to refreeze your homegrown meat, but every time we refreeze meat there is a loss of moisture and an effect on its quality. Most view that effect as a loss of quality, but for some meats, red meats in particular, they may actually benefit and become more tender with limited refreezing (think something similar to dry aging—it’s not the same, but it’s along those lines).
It’s generally held that refrozen meats become tougher and suffer texture loss, but it’s also known that the greatest moisture losses occur after the first freezing, so losses after multiple refreezing are less. With this in mind, if you are faced with only having to save a small quantity of meat, you might decide to cook it before refreezing.
Often on the homestead we are talking more to the order of an entire upright or chest freezer full of meat and precooking to refreeze isn’t practical. You might, however, consider a quick “code” to mark and indicate the meat has been refrozen, and so then you know that that meat might be a better candidate for a slow-cooked dish, soup, stew, casserole, or any type of preparation that might mask or replace the loss of moisture, texture, or quality.
Consider This: Because You Know Your Homegrown Meat’s History
Something else to keep in mind is this: When we buy and freeze meat from a grocery store, or any meat that we do not know the history of, we really have no way of knowing how many times that meat may already have been thawed, partially or completely, and re-thawed. We must assume it has been well and safely handled and held within necessary temperature ranges, but there isn’t as strict a protocol for transparency regarding freezing and thawing.
To go back to the beginning of the discussion, the benefit of growing our own homegrown meats is that we do know the history of the meat—when and who processed it, when it was frozen, and how many other times it might have been thawed or partially thawed and refrozen. Therefore, we can more confidently decide, with the benefit of the knowledge of the meat’s history and handling behind us, how well we think the meat will maintain its quality when refrozen. Armed with this knowledge and the safety advice of ServSafe and the USDA, you can make a confident, safe decision as regards saving your meat and food stores when your freezer fails you.
For more help and questions, Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline.
Mary Ellen Wardis a how-to author, New England homesteader, and family dairy farmer. Connect with her atThe Homemade Homestead,Elderberry Tea Co.onher author website, herAmazon author page,Instagram,Twitter, andFacebook. Read all of Mary Ellen’s MOTHER EARTH NEWSposts here.
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