How to Salvage Freezer Burned Meat

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Packages of freezer burn meat
Photo by Hank Shaw

A single duck breast. A packet of quail hearts. A deer tongue. A bag of stems of… something? Fish fillets from the Bush Administration. An elk roast older than your dog. Sigh. This is what freezer debris looks like, a sad tale of freezer burn meat.

The detritus lurking in the dark, desolate corners of your kitchen freezer, or even more remote, your chest freezer, covered in ice crystals, is beginning to emerge the way mammoth tusks do as the Siberian permafrost goes the way of, well, mammoths.

Freezer burn meat happens to everyone. A vacuum sealed bag breaks its seal. A hunk of fish or beef outlasts the protection that plastic wrap and butcher paper once offered. Or, a previously careless moment is revealed: You meant to use that piece of chicken loose in a plastic bag on the weekend, but forgot. Now which weekend was that?

But even beyond freezer burn, most of you reading this, hunters and anglers especially, will find yourself in possession of antediluvian meat from time to time. Here are some ideas to make decent use of meat, fish and vegetables well past their prime.

Let’s start with the obvious question some of you will have: Yes, the meat or fish or whatever will be perfectly safe to eat. There is no food safety risk eating cryo-frozen food. Hell, scientists have been known to dine on Ice Age mammoth meat and live to tell the tale.

That said, ancient frozen meat can range from, “Huh, pretty much tastes like fresh,” to “Um… let’s never do this again.”

A general rule on if you can predict whether your years’ old meat will be OK for a normal recipe is 1) if it has been vacuum sealed, and 2) that the seal has not broken. If both are true, then it’ll be perfectly fine, no special handling needed. I once cooked a five-year-old antelope roast that was indistinguishable from a roast frozen a week before.

So OK. You actually have freezer burned meat. Now what?

Easiest is to slice off the freezer burned portion and feed it to the dog or cat. They are typically less picky than you are.

cappelletti in broth
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Another option is to use the freezer burned portions in stock or broth. I once made an outstanding batch of venison stock using only freezer burned portions, plus a random leg bone. The same thing works for old shrimp or crab shells. Both will lend what goodness they still possess to a seafood stock.

Oh, and those random leek tops or mushroom stems? They go into the stock, too.

I can hear you thinking. “Hey Hank, well, OK, so I sliced off the freezer burned bits. That leaves me with all kinds of cut up hunks of things. What now?

I’ll tell you what now. While there are all sorts of possibilities — make it into stew meat, add it to the stockpot along with the freezer burn meat, kebabs, fish pate, rillettes, even stir-fry — the two I gravitate towards most involve the grinder.

First and foremost, you can simply grind up what’s left and eat it as hamburger meat, meatballs, meatloaf, etc. But if the meat you are grinding is super lean, I’d suggest making ground venison jerky, or ground [whatever] jerky.

If it’s fish, you have the makings for German fish balls. If it happens to be tuna, try making Sicilian tuna meatballs.

Another great option for freezer debris is a game terrine. Or its country cousin, pâté. These are not overly difficult to make, and will make you and everyone around you feel fancy. And we all need a little fancy these days.

Cajun dirty rice recipe in a bowl
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Most of these options also work very well for accumulated giblets. I for one seem to accumulate bags of them every duck season, and for those of you who hunt larger animals, the hearts and livers and tongues and kidneys can pile up. (Admittedly, this is not a problem non-hunters tend to have.)

Two great things that will burn through lots of giblets of any bird, or rabbit, for that matter, are Cajun dirty rice, and boudin. Both can be made with the gnarly bits from larger animals, too.

Finally, there is the issue of ancient fruit and vegetables.

I once found myself in need of freezer space, and to make that space I hauled out two large bags of wild plums. I am not certain what my original intention was for them, but in their withered, icy state I decided the only right thing to do would be to ferment them. And I did, making a lovely dry plum wine.

Not a drinker? Make it anyway, then add either a splash of live vinegar (like Braggs) or a vinegar mother, or hell, let a few fruit flies wander all over it. You’ll get vinegar eventually.

More or less any fruit can go through this process. If they are not too awful, you can puree the fruit for fruit leather, or make some sort of jam, jelly or preserve; I do not eat such things, so I am no help to you here.

As for vegetables, I always either toss them into the stockpot, or, if they aren’t the sort of vegetable you’d want cavorting with a proper broth, ferment them, too. Cabbages, I am looking at you.

At some point you will find your own equilibrium with freezer debris and actually look forward to the spring cleaning of your freezers. It can mean one last round of game stock, a week’s worth of chopped meat, a batch of boudin or dirty rice for weekday lunches.

wild game terrine on a plate
Photo by holly A. Heyser

Or maybe, just maybe, your freezer burn meat can transform itself into the most wonderful thing of all, that fancy terrine. Easter or Mother’s Day lunch never had it so good.

Too daunting? That’s OK. It was for me, too, at first. You’ll get there.

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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43 Comments

  1. I reclaimed a freezer burned chicken breast from going into the waste bucket. After slowly thawing it in the refrigerator, I first removed the fatty skin and then I brined it in the refrigerator. The brine changed color after a day; so I drained and replaced the brine with new (of the same kind of brine). Each time the liquid changed color, I replaced it (4 times in this case). After 4 days, the chicken no longer smelled of freezer burn. I then boiled it in just plain water to reduce the amount of salty/sugary flavor, draining off water when it finished cooking. This made it edible with almost no freezer burn flavor.

    1. Chanel: That’s a hard one. Maybe trim as much of the freezer burn off and see what you have left, then fajitas? Use the burned trim to make a beef broth.

      1. I found some freezer burnt meat in the freezer and looked up what to do and found out spices worked well. I use to throw it out, but food is just to expensive.
        Becky McDougald

  2. If you have freezer burnt red meat, birria is wonderful. I soak about 10 oz of assorted dried chiles and cook the bajezzus out of freezer burnt roasts with only the very whitest gnarliest bits of freezer burn removed. You’d never know.
    The long braise saves the texture and if there is too much stock after taco night and leftovers, I use the leftover liquid and some chopped veggies to make Very tasty rice.

  3. Hello Hank. I raise cattle and hogs, and therefore I always have a lot of heart, liver, kidneys and tongues in the freezer that my customers don’t want. (I always neglect to remind them of the ox tails and hanger steaks, haha). But what to do with all this good stuff? One way is to eat a lot of anticuchos. This is a Peruvian street treat that involves taking heart or kidneys, cutting them into 1-inch cubes, marinating them overnight in vinegar, bay leaf, and oregano, then basting them with olive oil and a little aji amarillo, and broiling or charcoal-grilling them. Ideally then end up a little crispy on the outside and tender and juicy in the centers. Air frying them also works beautifully. I serve with French fries or rice, and a salad. I hope this is helpful.

    1. At camp our counselors on a cookout made a marvelous campfire dish with some mac&cheese box, cream cheese, tomato paste, and pepperoni, some vegs maybe, onions, possibly peppers. Can’t remember if butter and milk, I remember those ingredients.

    2. Chop finely or better yet grind it up and add it to roasted potatoes near the end of cooking. Sprinkle with chives or scallions at the end.