Freezing Meat, Poultry and Game

HYG-5334
Family and Consumer Sciences
Date: 
05/28/2015
Revised by: Linnette Goard, Field Specialist, Food Safety, Selection and Management, Family and Consumer Sciences

Meat, poultry and wild game provide a healthy and nourishing food source, but in order to preserve quality, it is important that these products be handled and preserved carefully, especially wild game and poultry. The flavor and texture of the final product depends upon the manner in which the meat is handled during slaughter. The purpose of this fact sheet is to provide suggestions for safely preserving wild game, meat and poultry.

Freezing meat and fish is the most acceptable way to maintain quality. The meat should be chilled without delay to 40°F or lower to prevent spoilage. Then, freeze meat using proper freezer wrapping materials (be sure freezer wrap is designed for freezing). Wrap meat tightly, pushing out as much air as possible. Freeze and store at 0°F or lower. Most frozen wild game will keep up to one year without loss of quality.

When you are butchering or slicing any type of fresh meat, it is essential to have a clean and sanitized work area. Regular cleaning and sanitizing of the equipment, utensils and work surfaces reduce the possibility of food contamination and the transmission of disease organisms. Although cleaning removes the visible soil, sanitizing reduces the unseen microorganisms that might be present on cutting boards, countertops, knives, pans and other equipment used for processing raw meats. Pay particular attention to cutting boards and knives. They must be sanitized before use and allowed to air dry. Both wood and plastic cutting boards can be used. Nonporous surfaces are easier to clean and sanitize. Wash them in hot, soapy water, scrubbing vigorously. Rinse with clear water, sanitize and let air dry. When a cutting board becomes excessively scarred and difficult to clean, it should be discarded.

Chlorine bleach can be used to make a sanitizing solution for food-contact surfaces. Use standard chlorine bleach for this purpose rather than the scented varieties. For cleaning and sanitizing:

  • Add 1 tablespoon of chlorine bleach to 1 gallon of water.
  • Add 1 teaspoon of chlorine bleach to 1 quart of water.

When sanitizing equipment and utensils:

  • Add 1 tablespoon of chlorine bleach to 1 gallon of water. Change the bleach water solution often. Food particles will dilute the bleach.

Washing your hands is also important. Dirty hands are an easy way to contaminate the food items you are working on. Hand washing should be done with warm, running water and soap. Hands should be washed for at least 20 seconds and dried with a single-use paper towel. Be sure to clean cuticles and fingernails, as these are places that are more difficult to clean. Jewelry should not be worn while butchering.

Cloths used for wiping down equipment and other surfaces should be wrung out frequently in a sanitizing solution and stored in the solution when not in use. Launder cleaning cloths daily or more, if necessary. Keep cloths used for food-contact surfaces separate from other cloths.

Large Game

Deer, antelope, moose, and other large game can be handled for freezing like any other meats. Trim and discard bloodshot meat before freezing. Package meat, seal, and freeze.

Small Game

Rabbit, squirrel and other game should be skinned, dressed and then chilled. Refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours until meat is no longer rigid. Cut meat into serving size pieces or leave whole. Package, seal and freeze.

Game Birds

Dove, duck, pheasant, quail and other game birds should be dressed and gutted immediately after shooting. Cool and clean the bird properly. Remove any excess fat on wild ducks and geese; it can quickly become rancid. Freeze the same as directed for poultry. Do not stuff game birds before freezing them. Bacteria grow quickly in game birds during the process of freezing and thawing. Commercially stuffed frozen birds are processed by special procedures to ensure safety.

Poultry

High-quality fresh poultry is best for freezing. Young tender birds are best for roasting, frying and broiling. Older birds have more flavor and are best for stewing and braising. Broilers, young hens and roasters might turn dark around the bone when frozen. This is normal and harmless. Poultry should be eviscerated, cleaned and cooled before packaging. Remove organs and membranes, and clean inside of the cavity. Make certain to wash all the pieces and pat dry. Freshly killed and dressed poultry should be cooled to 40°F or lower for 24 hours before freezing.

Whole Birds

Fryers or broilers are the best whole birds to freeze. For storage of a month or less, whole birds can be packaged in a plastic freezer bag and sealed tightly. For longer storage, wrap the bird in a freezer plastic film, pressing out all the air, and over-wrap with freezer paper or foil for an airtight seal. Make the body as compacted as possible, locking the wings against the body or tying them together. Ends or protruding bones might puncture packaging, so consider padding them with freezer paper or foil. After packaging, seal, label and freeze immediately.

Halves, Quarters and Pieces

Split or cut up birds into desired pieces. Place a double layer of freezer wrap or waxed paper between each piece. Package the same as whole birds. After packaging, seal, label and freeze poultry. Arrange pieces into as compact and square a shape as possible so they will stack better in the freezer. Pack as for whole birds in freezer packaging. Seal, label and freeze immediately.

Cooked Poultry

After cooking poultry, remove as much of the fat as possible. Place in plastic, freezer-safe containers or on aluminum foil trays covered tightly with foil and then packed in plastic freezer bags. Seal airtight. Label and freeze immediately. Vacuum packaging can also be used for freezing poultry.

Store-Bought Poultry

Store-bought packaging for poultry is not sufficient for moisture-vapor-proof freezing.

Poultry might suffer from reduced texture, color and increased potential for freezer burn and change of flavor over time. All store-bought poultry should be repackaged.

Storage

Maintain freezer at 0°F or less. Frozen, ground poultry should be used within 3 months. Meat such as beef, lamb, veal and venison can last 6 to 9 months. Poultry, game birds and rarities can last up to 12 months.

References

Andress, E., and J. Harrison. So Easy to Preserve. 6th ed. Athens: University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, 2014.

USDA. "Cutting Boards and Food Safety." Last modified August 2, 2013. www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/cutting-boards-and-food-safety/ct_index


Original content compiled by: Shari Gallup, Extension Educator, Family and Consumer Sciences; Jennifer Hartzler, former Extension Educator, Family and Consumer Sciences; and Doris Herringshaw, Extension Educator, Family and Consumer Sciences, retired.

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