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Cooking Basics

A Better Way to Freeze Chicken

Freezer burn isn't good for chicken. There's an easy way to avoid that.
By Published Mar. 22, 2021

Maybe it’s the voice of my coupon-clipping mom in my head, but I love a grocery deal.

"Oh, these chicken breasts? On sale for $2 per pound," I say, reveling in the impressed nods as my friends take another bite of herb-and-feta-stuffed chicken.

The best way to score such deals, of course, is to buy chicken in bulk packages. Then, I freeze what I’m not immediately using. Raw poultry keeps in the refrigerator for only two days, and leftover cooked poultry for only three days. So the freezer is where I store the majority of a value-pack of chicken until I’m ready to cook with it. But this raises the icy specter of freezer burn.

Freezer burn occurs when thousands of water molecules within a piece of meat—or ice cream, or vegetable—form small ice crystals. According to the Science Reference Section of the Library of Congress, these crystals seek out the most hospitable (read: coldest) part of their environment, which is usually the side of a piece of food nearest to the freezer wall. As these ice crystals migrate out of the food, they draw moisture with them. The result is a piece of food that’s dry and unappetizing—but still safe to eat.

"Freezer burn is not a safety issue, just a quality one," says Paul Adams, ATK’s senior science research editor. "Moisture leaves the surface of the food, drying out the surface and often leaving it with weird off-flavors and texture."

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When I pack chicken for the freezer, I want to minimize this risk. That means preparing the chicken in a way that reduces contact between the chicken’s surface and the air. 

Here’s the ATK-approved method I follow:

  1. Ditch the supermarket packaging. There are air gaps between the meat and the side of its foam tray that roll out the red carpet for freezer burn.
  2. Wrap each chicken part (or whole bird, if you bought it whole) in plastic wrap, as tightly as possible.
  3. Place those wrapped parts in a zipper-lock freezer bag in a single layer. Better yet, vacuum-seal them in a plastic bag, if you have a vacuum sealer. (Our favorite is this one from NESCO.)
  4. Store frozen chicken in the back of the freezer. Adams notes that every time the freezer door opens, some cold air escapes and the temperature fluctuates, increasing the risk for freezer burn. This is more likely to affect foods in the door or front area of the freezer.
  5. Use it within two months. There’s no safety risk to freezing it longer, but after two months, chicken’s texture and flavor will begin to suffer, no matter how well you’ve wrapped it.

Freezing chicken does mean I need to plan ahead when I want to cook with it. Defrosting meat in the refrigerator is much safer than defrosting it on a counter, but it takes longer. ATK’s rule of thumb is to count on 24 hours of defrosting in the refrigerator for every 4 pounds of bird. The way I remember it? “A whole day for a whole chicken.”

Photo: Fertnig | Getty Images

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