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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Yellow Pea Soup

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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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  1. I discovered Cajun Dirty Rice a couple of months ago. What a delicious way to eat those odd bits! It’s in my regular rotation.

  2. I have donated a ton of freeze burned past prime old proteins to our local zoo. It’s a win-win feel good all parties concerned.

  3. This was very timely. While stocking up on food this past two months our freezer was at capacity. I know I have tuna, elk and quail in there, gravitating to the bottom and mocking me for not eating them timely. The elk and tuna will be the ultimate challenge as both are very senior citizens (in food years). I will accept my 40 lashes with a wet noodle for grinding tuna in to fish patties gladly to escape the guilt.

  4. Some really great ideas here to use up those “projects” in the freezer! Do you happen to have a recipe for fruit wine?

    1. Chris: Nope. Fruit, water and sugar. You want the sugar level to be about 22 to 25 Brix, which will get you close to where store-bought wine is in alcohol.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with Hank on this. Just last week I found a leg of lamb from 2015 in my freezer. It was from a whole lamb I bought from a farmer who used to raise them. She retired, and I haven’t found another source as good. I really didn’t want to toss that leg. But it had freezer burn all over. I did what Hank says. I carefully cut away the burned parts, cooked them and fed them to my hens. They love a little extra protein. I cut the meat from the bone and made a delicious stew with vadouvan. I threw the bone into a pot of beans and flavored the beans. The bone even had marrow that was plenty tasty! Truth be told: The lamb was not quite as delicious as it would have been when fresh. Still it was wonderful, much better than lamb I buy at the store, a happy reminder of delicious lambs from the past. And who doesn’t need more happy these days?

  6. Well, okay I would clean up YOUR freezer anytime. But my husband went crazy stocking up on canned salmon. So NOW what? Any ideas to make canned salmon good to eat?

    1. LH: Southern salmon croquettes would be one idea. Your local food pantry would be another. 😉

      1. Yup…salmon cakes or loaf will be delish, memories from my childhood, and they freeze well! Another is simply a can or two of salmon, fried potatoes and steamed-or back then, canned spinach…pass the vinegar!

    2. Whenever I have leftover canned salmon I mix it with a bit of mayo, liquid smoke and maybe some garlic (or garlic butter) to make a smoked salmon salad. Then I serve this with cold farfalle pasta as a cold pasta salad or serve it over hot penne pasta.
      Both of these get rave reviews from family and customers alike.

  7. A few years ago I started a Bonus Point Meal Game to encourage myself, family, and friends to use up the oldest food in our homes. We’ve had some very enjoyable meals and a lot of laughs. Points accumulate for multiple bonus point ingredients which can include:
    – past best by dates (points multiply as the years increase),
    – freezer items beyond normal storage periods considering packaging type and content,
    – any odd jars clogging up fridge space (like the jar of harissa , N African chile paste I bought to make Hank’s Merguez sausage).
    – and Tom Sawyer Points (you get someone else to prepare or consume your old food!).
    My sister, who moved in to care for our 90 year old father, also inherited my food storage when I transitioned out of the house. She recently told me our meal points game really has encouraged her to cook and eat tasty things outside of her normal comfort zone :).

  8. I had to look up antediluvian. It wasn’t in my desktop dictionary. I had to go online to find the answer. Now I have a new word to use with my freezer bits solutions. And yes, I have some of this in my box freezer. I love your advice.

  9. I trim off the edges of roasts from deer, elk, beef and make jerky out of them. Just cut away until u reach red colored meat. Tastes great.

  10. We have definitely been creative in the last two months. Having various game animals has made for some interesting dishes. Sausage making with various critters gets an A+. A terrine with deer wobbly bits and tongue was very well received. I think the hunters will be harvesting more organs in the future, instead of leaving them on the forest floor. It just makes you think that this is why sausage making started.. We have elevated it but in reality we the recent pandemic has us doing just what our ancestors did.

  11. This, Hank, was a funny, entertaining read, that yes, hit these COVID times square on useful. At last, an answer to the archeological findings in our freezers that renders goodness.

  12. Thank you for this. I keep quail and usually have a bag of giblets with no idea why I saved them, dirty rice sounds great.
    Also, I’ve used your duck gumbo recipe to make a spectacular meal using odd scraps of quail, duck and goose I’ve raised. Everyone loved it.

    1. Can you point me to said “duck gumbo” recipe?? didn’t see it in a search on main site. I have a much of duck and goose parts and gumbo seems the perfect match!

  13. Hey Hank, thanks for yet another very useful post. What about fattier meat like wild boar? Any concerns regarding it going rancid? What’s your experience? I have a 3 year old 3 kilo leg in the freezer and I am not sure what to do with it. It’s well wrapped in cling film and should thus be fairly well protected from freezer burn.
    All the best from Austria, Fred

    1. Friedrich: Honestly? I’ve never had fat go so rancid I wouldn’t eat it in the freezer… unless it had become freezer burned. Vacuum sealed or otherwise closely wrapped meats seem fine. Not pristine, but OK.

  14. Great!
    I needed this. Try as I might – things hide in my freezer. Expensive dog food!
    Going to try the fruit wine and fish ideas.

  15. Hank,

    Your Shelter-in-Place reflections have all been spot-on. Your practical advice and insightful observations on what we as people are all going through combine to make for pleasurable and uplifting reading. I had to laugh at your description of what I did in my own freezer not too long ago — pull out an armload of mysterious and unlabelled stuff, let it all thaw, and then hope inspiration takes over. The good news is that it all got eaten and was delicious!

    Keep up the good work.



  16. My wife thanks you. Weekend honey-do project (from three weekends ago): clean out the freezer so she can put even 1 ice cream in there. It was too daunting for me up to now. So much stock making, saving of random bit-ends of primal cuts & giblets, etc past 6 weeks… I didn’t even need to hunt to fill it up.

    Terrine: awesome. Starting that today. Why didn’t I think of sauerkraut or kimchee? Cabbages out of the crisper today. Entire freezer compartment of vacsealed dried fruits: fermenting today.

    Question: I have about every mother and inoculant on hand *except* brewer’s/champagne yeasts. You think it’s likely just “hope the right wild guys settle on my jars” works (sounds like it worked for plums?)

    I was briefly researching using sourdough starter gone so far in the fridge that it was mostly hooch, which they claimed should select for alcohol-tolerant-and-producing strains. Know anyone that has tried this or any suggestions for how to create a more high-alcohol-friendly ferment buddy?

    1. Jeff: For fruit wines yes, you can often rely on airborne yeasts or those that are hanging out on the skins. Or you can get brewer’s yeast online…

    2. Hey Jeff, ex-professional brewer and brewery lab guy here. Do you have access to baker’s yeast? While it isn’t as alcohol tolerant as a wine or champagne yeast, many of them can reach surprisingly high alcohol percentages (10-13%.
      If you have baker’s yeast, I would make a starter with ~1/2 gallon of whatever juice you wanted to start with and a few packets of yeast. Shake it like crazy to get as much oxygen as possible. Do that for a couple of days and then pitch that big healthy yeast starter into your wine.

      1. Thanks very much Doug – absolutely do have baker’s yeast since we bake much of our own bread here, though like 95% of that is “sourdough” (not that I usually run it sour, but the wild yeasts here tolerant of lactobacillus sanfran.) I had read in some old research that dry activated baking yeast was quite different from my regular and of course to keep them well apart when living outside my fridge… so absolutely! Thanks so much, I am going to try your idea with dry active and run a similar test with hoochy wild yeast and see which big ball-o live starter is tasting better by Sunday.