What Temperature Should a Freezer Be?
As long as it keeps your food frozen, your freezer must be set to the correct temperature, right? Maybe not. Since foods freeze at different temperatures, it’s a bit more complicated than just making sure the most accessible items stay frozen. And even if everything in your freezer stays frozen solid, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is set to the optimal temperature. Choosing the right temperature ensures that all of your foods and desserts will remain properly frozen until you’re ready to use them. And, in addition to maintaining food safety, the correct temperature can prevent spillage from freezer storage containers.
Setting your freezer at the right temperature might seem like an odd concept, but it’s an important part of food safety and ensures that all of your frozen favorites will remain safe for as long as possible. So, what temperature should a freezer be? Let’s unpack and explain the settings on your freezer to make sure it is set to the right temperature.
A Few Words on Freezing and Food Safety
Before we dive into temperature settings, we would like to take a few moments to discuss freezing and food safety. Everyone knows that, generally speaking, food lasts longer when stored in the freezer rather than in the refrigerator or at room temperature. There are, of course, a few exceptions but, overall, freezing is usually the best way to ensure the longevity of foods you don’t plan to prepare and eat right away. According to the USDA, you can freeze nearly any food other than eggs in shells and canned foods. And with airtight food storage containers, you can safely freeze unshelled eggs as well as many canned products once they have been removed from their cans.
Just because you can freeze just about everything doesn’t necessarily mean you should, though. While things like mayonnaise and cream-based sauces are perfectly safe to eat after being frozen (as long as they were stored properly), the quality may not be up to your standards once you defrost it. Some things just don’t freeze well, even when freezing is an acceptable preservation method.
Freezing is a safe and highly effective food storage method for a few reasons. Keeping food chilled at the appropriate temperature prevents or slows the growth of harmful bacteria, including Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and C. botulinum that cause foodborne illnesses. Freezing can even inactivate microbes, like molds, bacteria and yeast, that are already present in food. It’s important to note, however, that these microbes can reactivate upon thawing and multiply to levels that can cause foodborne illnesses. Thawed frozen items must be handled the same way you’d handle other perishable foods.
Freshness and Quality of Frozen Foods
When properly stored, frozen foods are visually appealing once thawed and taste fresh. For best results, freeze foods when they are at peak quality rather than waiting until they are nearing the end of their shelf life. Perishable food frozen at its peak maintains the best flavor, texture and appearance.
Unlike some food preservation methods, the freezing process has little to no impact on nutrients. Meat and poultry maintain their nutrient value while in storage, so frozen products are just as healthy as fresh. In some cases, you may need to prep foods prior to freezing. Animals, fruits and vegetables all have enzymes that lead to food deterioration and spoilage. Freezing slows enzyme activity but does not eliminate it altogether.
Enzymes do not harm fish, meat and poultry when frozen. And acids counteract the enzymes in frozen fruits. However, freezing does not prevent damage from enzyme activity in many vegetables. Low-acid vegetables need to go through a quick process called “blanching,” in which they are partially cooked in boiling water or the microwave and then quickly chilled before they can be frozen. Different vegetables require different blanching times, so be sure to check out a guide before starting.
The Best Temperature for Frozen Food Storage
With all of that information out of the way, let’s talk about the exact temperature setting you should use in your freezer. You might think that the correct answer is 32°F since that’s the freezing point for water. You may have even tried setting your freezer to this temperature only to discover that it isn’t even an option. So, what temperature should a freezer be, then? 0° Fahrenheit.
According to the FDA, the safest temperature for storing frozen food is just zero degrees, but why? As mentioned above, freezing inactivates various microbes and slows down enzyme activity. The lower the temperature, the longer your food will last. Food kept frozen at or below 0° Fahrenheit is usually safe to eat forever, but the quality of the food will get worse the longer it’s stored. While it may be perfectly safe to consume, it probably won’t be very palatable if you leave it in the freezer longer than you should.
The best way to keep food’s nutritional value and make it last as long as possible is to keep it at temperatures below zero. Unfortunately, energy consumption goes up when temperature settings go down. Setting your freezer to 0°F is the best compromise for ensuring food safety and quality while maintaining a manageable electric bill.
Setting the thermostat to the correct temperature is only half of the equation. You also need to check your freezer’s internal temperature regularly using an accurate appliance thermometer to ensure that it’s really staying at zero degrees. Sometimes, the thermometers built into appliances aren’t accurate, so it’s always wise to verify the temperature using a different one. Appliance thermometers are inexpensive and provide the best solution for monitoring the temperature inside your freezer.
There are also a few things you can check to gauge whether your freezer is set at the proper temperature and functioning as it should. Internal surfaces should be mostly free of frost, and your frozen food shouldn’t have freezer burn. If you have ice cream, it should be frozen solid — not soft enough to easily scoop (even though that would be more convenient).
Tips for Freezing Food
Setting the right temperature is one of the most important steps in safely freezing food. There are some other things you should consider too. In addition to ensuring safety, these tips will help you maintain the quality of your food, so you can enjoy fresh-tasting food straight out of the freezer.
1. Keep Your Freezer Mostly Full
Keep your freezer around 75% full. It should be relatively full but not so jam-packed that there isn’t a single inch to spare. Keeping your freezer mostly full helps it retain cold air. However, in an overly full freezer, the internal air vents may become blocked, preventing cold air from circulating evenly throughout the appliance.
2. Freeze Foods Quickly
The longer it takes for food to freeze, the more likely it is to develop freezer burn. While freezer burn isn’t unsafe, it does impact quality and can make foods unpalatable. Rapid freezing lowers the risk of this all-too-common problem. If your freezer has a “quick freeze” setting or shelf, use it when putting in new items. Also, avoid putting hot food directly into the freezer. Give it some time to cool down first. Don’t stack unfrozen items. Spread them throughout the freezer until they’re frozen solid, and then stack them to conserve space. As a general rule, food that is two inches thick should freeze in roughly two hours.
3. Package Food Properly Before Freezing
Properly packaging your food before tossing it in the freezer prevents freezer burn and helps maintain quality. We recommend repackaging meat and poultry in freezer storage containers for the best possible results. Reusable silicone bags are a good choice, too, especially for things like fruits and vegetables.
Want to store your food in individual portions? Try freezer cubes. Each freezer cube holds one cup and is perfect for sauces, broths, soups and even leftovers. They stack neatly, too, so they’re great for making the most of your limited freezer space. Repackaging takes time, but doing so is the best way to preserve your food’s quality while in storage. And with the right airtight food storage containers, packing up everything from meat, poultry and fish to fruits, veggies and sauces is a breeze!
4. Know What to Do in a Power Outage
Keep your freezer and refrigerator doors closed as much as possible during power outages. These well-insulated appliances will keep your food cold for a considerable amount of time, but only if you leave the doors shut. As long as you don’t open the door, a fully stocked freezer should maintain a safe temperature for up to 48 hours.
When the power comes back on, determine whether your food is still safe to consume. Check the temperature inside your freezer. If the thermometer reads 40° or less, you can safely put the food back in the freezer without taking any other steps. If you don’t have an appliance thermometer, check every item individually. Foods that still contain ice crystals or are at least partially frozen are safe. We recommend throwing away food that feels warm or has completely melted unless you have a way of verifying that it hasn’t reached a temperature of more than 40°. We know it’s frustrating, but it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to preventing foodborne illness.
5. Store Riskier Foods Away from the Door
Some foods carry a higher risk of causing foodborne illnesses than others. For this reason, you should keep those riskier foods as far from the freezer door as possible. The back of your freezer maintains the most consistent temperature, so it’s the best place for chicken, pork, etc.
Since the front of your freezer is subject to temperature changes every time you open and close the door, it’s best to save this area for things that don’t have to remain frozen solid at all times. The most suitable items for this area include ice packs and alcohol. You can keep your ice trays near the front too. Just keep in mind that they may take longer to freeze solid and could start to melt if you open the door frequently.
Putting food in the freezer helps it last as long as possible and lets you eat healthy, fresh-tasting meals even months after you buy it. As long as you keep your freezer at 0° Fahrenheit and take steps to properly package your food, it should last quite a while without any safety concerns or quality issues.
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