Is it safe to refreeze thawed meat? Can you do it again and again? These are the questions I often ask myself as I continue on my journey as a questionable home cook.
This week I’m looking into whether my practice of shuttling portions of meat back and forth between the freezer and the counter is safe. Also in this issue: the worst home products we tested last year, and do you really need to fill your humidifiers with distilled water?
THE BIG STORY:
‘Meat of the Matter’
To be clear, it’s never my intention to thaw and refreeze meat again and again, like I’m stuck in some Food Network version of “Groundhog Day.”
But it’s what often ends up happening anyway. Most of the time it’s because I’ve forgotten to separate the ground pork I bought into smaller portions, and I have to refreeze the remnants I didn’t cook.
I’m certainly not a stranger to yoyo-ing meat in and out of the freezer, though it’s only recently that I’ve begun to wonder if this is all safe.
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Well, is it?
It’s safe to defrost and refreeze meat again and again, provided you do it properly. However, what will begin to happen with repeated freezing and thawing is that the meat will become dryer and less tasty, says Donald W. Schaffner, PhD, an extension specialist in food science and a distinguished professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
But before we jump into that, let’s talk about what we mean by thawing the meat properly. It’s important that food be kept at a safe temperature while thawing. If the food becomes warmer than 40° F, bacteria may begin to proliferate, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
So don’t do what I’ve done before, which is thaw your food on your counter. You’d be surprised how quickly bacteria like E.coli and salmonella can multiply at room temperature, says Taylor C. Wallace, PhD, an adjunct professor of the department of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University in Virginia.
The safest, most ideal way to thaw food, including meat, is in the fridge, says Amy Keating, a registered dietitian and CR food tester. Check to see if your fridge is set to a temperature of 40° F or lower. As a general guideline, CR recommends setting it to 37° F.
After thawing food in the fridge, you can keep items such as ground meat, stew meat, poultry, and seafood there for a day or two before cooking, according to the USDA. Red meat cuts, such as beef, pork, or lamb roasts, chops, and steaks can be refrigerated for three to five days.
You can also thaw meat using cold water. Put it in a leakproof package or plastic bag and submerge it in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes, the USDA suggests.
Or you can thaw it using the microwave, but if you do so, cook the meat immediately afterward because it may become warmer than 40° F in the process. And that can cause bacteria already present in the meat before freezing to multiply, says the USDA.
A big difference between the methods mentioned above is that food thawed in the fridge can be refrozen without cooking. Food thawed using cold water or the microwave has to be cooked before refreezing to be safe.
Once you’ve made sure you’ve abided by all these safety guidelines, then you should consider the loss of quality. Every time you freeze meat, water turns into ice crystals in the cells, which damages the molecular structures in the product. When the meat is thawed, water is released, and with each cycle, more moisture is lost, says Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension associate of Penn State’s department of food science.
The loss of moisture could lead to meat that is less juicy and has poorer texture, says Jacob R. Tuell, PhD, an assistant professor in the school of agricultural science at Northwest Missouri State University. Other potential quality changes include lipid and protein oxidation, which are chemical processes that can cause the meat to smell and taste rancid.
So should people refreeze their meat again and again?
Here’s the thing: As I’ve said, if you’re able to thaw and refreeze your meat properly, the main thing you need to worry about is its potential loss of quality over time.
But if we’re being realistic, it’s hard enough to get people to thaw their meat safely one time. So to do it improperly many times just increases the risk of a foodborne pathogen making people sick, says James E. Rogers, PhD, the director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports.
His advice? Follow safety guidelines and be aware that every time you thaw food, you’re taking the chance of allowing any bacteria present to multiply and maybe cross-contaminate your kitchen surfaces, James says.
What are some best practices for freezing food?
Freezing your food as rapidly as possible prevents large ice crystals from forming and will help you retain the food’s quality better. The best way to do that is to break up large amounts of meat into smaller packs, Martin says.
And if you freeze in smaller portions, you only need to defrost just the amount you need the next time you cook, says Trisha Calvo, CR’s health and food deputy editor, who has been covering food, nutrition, and food safety for over 25 years.
In case you’ve fallen into the habit of defrosting more than you need for a meal, you can try to cook all of it and then freeze the remaining meat. Or you can use the leftovers in other dishes that week, Trisha suggests.
Bonus link: How to tell whether expired foods are safe to eat.
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THE GOOD STUFF
Apologies in advance for all these products we’re calling out, but here are the worst ones we tested last year.
@consumerreports In order to make our worst of 2022 list, a product has to be one of the lowest or THE lowest rated in its category. Full disclosure: some of these are carryovers from previous years but are still on the market. Tap the link in our bio to learn more. #appliances #hometok #kitchentok ♬ original sound - Consumer Reports
TIP OF THE WEEK
For people who have issues falling asleep, these suggestions might help, according to a nationally representative Consumer Reports survey.
Sleep cooler. I know we’re still in the throes of winter, but it’s good to keep in mind that the best temperature for sleeping is around 65° F, which is lower than you might think.
Ninety-five percent of the people we surveyed who purchased a cooling device, such as an A/C or a fan, said it helped them sleep.
(And if you tend to run hot while you sleep, cooling mattress toppers are an option to consider. These are the best we’ve tested.)
Blackout shades and curtains are worth it. Eighty-eight percent of Americans who purchased them to help improve their sleep rated them as “very” or “somewhat effective.”
And if you don’t want to install window coverings, eye masks are a good alternative. Here are the best sleep masks evaluated by us (available to CR members). Our top choice, the Mzoo, costs less than $20 (available on Amazon and Walmart).
A new mattress can help improve sleep. Mattress pads, however, seem to be less effective, according to our survey. If you want to find a mattress that works for your needs and budget, check out our mattress selector tool (available to CR members).
What about trendy items such as a sleep-tracking app or weighted blankets? Are they effective at all? Here’s what people had to say.
MUST-READS OF THE WEEK
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ASK AN EXPERT
Do humidifiers need distilled water?
It’s not a must, but it helps. The mist of ultrasonic cool-mist humidifiers can leave a white dust, tiny particles of mineral precipitate, on surfaces. So to prevent that dust from occurring, you can use distilled or filtered water instead of tap water.
Additionally, if there are fewer minerals in your water, there may be less buildup in the humidifier for you to clean, says Misha Kollontai, an engineer who leads the testing of humidifiers at CR.
For tips on how to clean your humidifier and prevent mold from growing, check out our advice here.
"Love a meat-cute."
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I'm a newsletter writer who likes looking into the different ways we can live smarter. The topics I cover typically explore unanswered questions we have about the products we use every day and bridge the gaps between what owners' manuals advise and what we actually do. In my spare time, I like to take photos, critique movies out loud while I watch (at home!), and take care of my ever-increasing plant "children."