How to Freeze Hamburger Meat or Anything Else

How to Freeze Hamburger Meat or Anything Else

The invention of the freezer was a godsend for thrifty cooks. When our forebears slaughtered a cow or chicken, they had to eat it in short order to prevent spoilage and, therefore, illness. Freezing meat gives us access to safe, quality, high-protein meals on demand. In the United States, ground beef plays a starring role in most kitchens as a versatile and economical staple. Understanding how to buy, store, and freeze it is key to learning best practices in shopping, storing, and cooking all manner of meats and prepared dishes.

1 At the store, look for tears in the packaging and check the expiration date.

The meat should look bright red—browning indicates age or unsafe storage and have uniform fat marbling.

2 At home, remove the meat from its packaging and divide it into recipesize portions (½ pound, 1 pound, 2 pounds, etc.) or form it into burger patties.

Using freezer paper, with the shiny side in, tightly wrap each portion of meat, forcing out as much air as possible, and tape it tightly shut. Do this twice, for an additional protective layer. Patties must be wrapped individually, or they'll freeze in a single block. If you don’t have freezer paper, wrap in plastic wrap or foil, then place them inside gallon-size freezer bags, forcing out the air before sealing. Label and date all frozen parcels. The USDA suggests freezing for no more than 4 months. If you will be using the meat within 2 days, no need to freeze it—stash it immediately in the coldest part of the refrigerator.

3 When you are ready to use the ground beef, you have a few options for thawing.

• To thaw it in the refrigerator, simply place the package on a plate to catch any juices that might leak; allow 24 hours to fully thaw.

• For a quicker thaw, unwrap the ground beef and seal it in a zip-top bag (if it's not already in one). Stopper the sink, fill it with cold water, and fully immerse the meat in the water. Change the water every half hour until the meat is thawed. Do not use hot water because bacteria can form under warm conditions.

• To thaw it in the microwave, remove all wrapping and place the ground beef on a microwave-safe plate. Thaw it on the lowest defrost setting, checking frequently so that it doesn't begin to cook. Once the meat is thawed, cook it immediately and do not refreeze or re-refrigerate it.

How Much Should I Buy?

If ground beef (or any other freezer staple) is on deep sale, buy as much as you can reasonably store. Familiarize yourself with standard prices by reading store circulars, talking with butchers, and reading the cost-per-pound breakdowns at the meat counter. Bulk is usually cheaper than prepackaged.

Four ounces (about ½ cup) of cooked ground beef is considered one serving, and 1 pound of raw beef will equal 2 cups of cooked ground beef.

A Cut Above

Types and grades of ground beef differ depending on which part of the cow they came from and the percentage of fat they contain. Use this basic guide when shopping.

Ground beef (aka hamburger meat). For this classification, there is no assurance about which part of the cow is used. Scraps from other butchered beef cuts are included, but no innards are permitted. USDA standards allow up to 30 percent fat in ground beef, though some labels indicate the amount of fat and say "75 percent lean." It is good for stretching your food dollar by adding flavor to pasta sauces, chili, and soups, and it makes for juicy burgers.

Ground chuck. This comes from the "chuck" or shoulder, of the cow. Generally, these cuts are more expensive because of the popularity of chuck roasts and chuck steak. They feature a lot of connective tissue and benefit from long, slow cooking. When ground, chuck offers drier, leaner meat that is good for meatballs or meat loaves, goulashes that stand up to noodles and gravy, or any recipe that benefits from a firm texture.

Ground sirloin. Sirloin comes from the hip region of the cow. It's also more expensive than hamburger. The fat content of ground sirloin varies between 7 and 10 percent. Tender, with a pronounced beef flavor, it enjoys cult status among health-conscious cooks. Use it in heavily spiced chilis or for burgers piled high with add-ons such as mushrooms, peppers, and onions.

Ground round. The round comes from the rump area of a cow. Leaner than chuck, round's fat content hovers between 10 and 15 percent. The resulting burgers may be more steaklike, so they are tastiest when cooked medium or medium-rare and topped with juicy condiments. Ground round is a good choice for thick, meaty pasta sauces, lasagna, and tacos.

Make It Last

Here's a quick guide to storing common grocery items:

Meat. Ground meat and fresh poultry will store safely in the refrigerator for one to three days, and chops, roasts, and steaks for three to four days. If sealed properly and stored in the freezer, uncooked meat can last for four to twelve months. Buy meat in bulk for economy, and once home, divide it immediately among zip-top bags, forcing out as much air as possible when you seal the bag. If you're planning to freeze meat for several months, it's worth it to buy heavy-duty freezer bags.

Fruit. In general, fruit stays fresh longer left unpeeled and uncut. Seal whole fruit such as apples, peaches, and pears in plastic bags and keep them in the crisper drawer. Don't put any fruits on the top shelf because many refrigerators freeze food at this level. Berries and grapes are better left in the vented plastic store packaging; before refrigerating, slide the whole package into a brown paper bag to protect them from light and humidity. Bananas keep longer in the fridge, but the peel will brown. Pineapples and mangoes should be peeled, sliced, and stored in an airtight, lidded bowl. To discourage browning, toss cut fruit with a few teaspoons of lemon juice.

Nuts. Shelled nuts, if not used quickly, get rancid and soggy faster than you'd think. Store them in a zip-top bag with the air pushed out, inside of a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to three months or stashed in the freezer for up to a year. Always do a taste test with older nuts before using them in brownies or on salad.

Cheese. The first thing to know is that cheese is a living, breathing thing. The most common mistake is wrapping it in plastic, suffocating the flavor. For cheese that comes in plastic, unwrap it immediately at home, and then repackage it by wrapping it tightly in parchment, waxed paper, or paper towels. Then put it in a partially sealed zip-top bag. Rub the outer layer of firm cheeses (not blue or Stilton!) with olive oil. If mold begins to form, you can then wipe and rinse it away, or cut off the outermost layer, preserving the bulk of it.

Bread. Moist breads last longer in the fridge or freezer (where they will keep for three to six months), but I abhor cold bread. When I'm forced to prolong the shelf life of bread by chilling it, I designate those loaves for toast, bread pudding, or stuffing. Storing home-baked or artisanal breads made without preservatives can be tricky; don't use plastic wrap nor plastic bags. The bread will turn gummy and quickly grow mold. My grandmother had the right idea with her ceramic bread box—it kept out air (and critters!) but allowed for breathing. No room for a bread box? Wrap your bread in a clean dishtowel and put it in a paper bag.

Vegetables. Onions and potatoes can be stored at room temperature, preferably in a cool, dry place. But most veggies—including carrots, cabbage, and cauliflower—do better in the fridge. In fact, you can also store onions in the refrigerator to reduce tears when chopping. If you have a "vegetable" setting on your fridge drawers, use it—the purpose is to reduce humidity, which most veggies prefer.

WHAT IS FREEZER BURN?

Those leathery, brownish patches and wrinkled, crystallized spots on frozen foods are caused by a combination of dehydration and oxidization. Freezer burn isn't harmful; it just doesn't taste good. Airtight packaging helps stave it off, and some experts recommend freezing water in open, plastic containers in your freezer to maintain humidity.

RECIPE: PERFECT MEAT LOAF

Meat loaf is a favorite everywhere, loved for its economy, ease, and flexibility. Go basic with mashed potatoes and gravy, fancy with grilled vegetables and capellini (angel hair pasta), or enjoy it cold on a next-day sandwich! This is the way my mother made it, but once you master this recipe, improvise and customize to your heart's content. Wrap it in bacon, glaze it with sweet and sour sauce, top it with ketchup and hot sauce, or spice it with garam masala and serve it with basmati rice.

Serves 8

1 large yellow onion, diced

2 pounds ground beef (I prefer ground chuck)

½ cup ketchup

½ cup Dijon mustard

2 eggs, beaten

1¼ cups bread crumbs

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with foil.

2. In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients and mix with slightly wet hands until evenly combined.

3. Scoop the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet and form it into 1 large loaf or 2 small loaves. Bake a large loaf for 1 hour or smaller loaves for 45 minutes.

4. Let the meat loaf stand for 15 minutes before slicing so it doesn't fall apart.

TIP: Bread crumbs can be store-bought or you can whir chunks of bread in a blender or food processor. In a pinch, slice bread thinly with a bread knife and then chop.

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