How Long Can You Keep Food Frozen?
Food is best eaten fresh, but here’s a food storage fact that doesn’t get talked about as much: while freezers are designed to store frozen goods like raw proteins and desserts, it ends up being used as a long-term dump. In busy kitchens, commercial freezers have become a treasure trove of all sorts of frozen goods that sometimes get forgotten, or take a little longer to move along the cook line.
But while commercial freezers are built for long-term storage, it doesn’t mean they can store food items forever. Even if freezing technically extends the lifespan of various food items, that doesn’t mean they should — and can — stay frozen forever. The best way to ensure this is to know how long you can keep food frozen.
Look Out for Freezer Burn
Frost build-up occurs in commercial freezers, especially in older units that don’t self-regulate interior temperatures or prolonged exposure to below zero temperatures. Frost will accumulate and seep into even the most well-packaged items and suck out their moisture. While these foods can still be cooked, you will notice that they will appear limp and desiccated upon thawing — far from fresh and appealing.
Preventing freezer burn is all about proper packaging. Vacuum sealing, or any packaging that removes air out of the container, eliminates any risk of frost build-up and freezer burn because it’s airtight. Just remember, though — vacuum sealing doesn’t mean foods will keep in commercial freezers forever.
To preserve optimal flavour and texture, limit the storage of raw and cooked meats and prepared foods to three months. Remember to consider the other factors of shelf life, such as their sell-by date, foodservice and restaurant industry standards, and specific food safety measures.
How Long to Keep Foods Frozen
For busy commercial kitchens and food service operations, it’s essential to balance inventory and ensure that ingredients move along the cook line or store aisles quickly to reduce waste. These foods need to be appropriately stored in commercial freezers to ensure that they’re served at their freshest and most flavourful.
Here’s how long you can store the most common types of frozen foods before losing their taste:
Vegetables are best served fresh, but a surplus may push you to keep some greens frozen. Before storing them in a commercial freezer, make sure to blanch vegetables first to preserve their natural crunch and moisture.
For best results, add vegetables like spinach, broccoli, green beans, and sweet potatoes to boiling water to prevent them from decaying. When blanched and stored correctly, these vegetables can stay frozen for up to 18 months.
Other types of produce — such as onions and peppers — can be frozen directly without blanching. It’s essential to store them clean, so make sure to dry them thoroughly after washing before freezing. This prevents freezer burn while in storage, for up to about a year. Other fruits like bananas and kiwis need to be peeled and placed in airtight containers.
2. Meat and cheese
Meat and cheese are some of the popular ingredients in any dish or prepared food, so it’s typical for restaurants and commercial kitchens to maintain a large inventory. Airtight storage in commercial freezers prevents freezer burn and preserves their taste and texture.
Start by wrapping these foods tightly in plastic wrap, and ensure full coverage of exposed surfaces. For extra protection, wrap them tightly in aluminum foil, a sealable plastic bag, or vacuum seal, and press down on them to remove any air.
If frozen raw, they can stay in the freezer for up to a year, although certain foods like ground beef will last for about four months. When freezing cooked meat, make sure these move along the cook line within three months.
Optimal freezing for dairy products like cheese varies depending on their kind. While hard cheeses will generally keep in commercial freezers, softer cheeses may not fare as well. Keep in mind that previously frozen cheese may not have the same consistency once thawed, so be strategic when it comes to storage and think of when and how these cheeses will be used.
Liquids can be kept frozen too. Dairy products like milk, as well as nut-milks and bone broths, can be frozen for future use. This can cut down on prep time, as certain ingredients like broths don’t need to be made continuously from scratch for every dish. Keep in mind that liquids have a much shorter shelf life than solid foods: they can generally stay frozen for two to three months.
How to Freeze Foods Properly
Commercial freezers are built for optimal, high-volume storage of various food items and key ingredients, but ultimately, preserving their freshness and taste comes down to how they’re stored.
While it matters what type and brand of commercial freezers you invest in for your foodservice operation, knowing how to use it properly to pack food for frozen storage will make all the difference in maintaining quality and customer satisfaction.
Know What Not to Freeze
Most foods can be kept frozen in commercial freezers, but not all. Even then, some foods will fare better and maintain their taste and consistency more than others, as they are at a lower risk of spoilage and freezer burn. Once thawed, re-freezing can affect taste due to loss of moisture.
Major no-no’s include eggs in shells, canned goods — although taking them out of the can is fine, with some exceptions — and pressurized liquids that may expand and burst. Here’s what can happen to foods kept frozen for too long:
- Canned ham will become soft and watery
- Dairy products like cottage cheese, sour cream, cooked eggs, yogurt, mayonnaise, and whipped cream will lose the right texture or separate
- Fried foods will become rancid
- Crumb toppings will become soggy
- Lettuce, cabbage, radishes, green onions, and celery will become too mushy
- Fat-heavy foods will separate or curdle.
Proper Storage in Commercial Freezers
The key to maintaining freshness and taste is packing foods accordingly for freezing. Follow manufacturer specifications — typically at 0°F (-18°C) — to retain colour, flavour, texture, and even vitamin content.
Maintain an inventory system and label foods clearly to ensure that these are thawed and cooked in the right quantities, within their shelf life. For better organization and reduced risk of cross-contamination, store similar food in clearly marked spaces.