Budget-conscious cooks know the value of buying meat on sale and freezing it for later use. Stretch your time and money even farther by cooking the meat and refreezing it. Frozen, cooked ground beef can save 20 to 30 minutes of prep time when you're making dinner. On busy nights, this advantage can mean a home- cooked meal instead of fast food.
Use extra care when handling ground beef, frozen or fresh. When whole cuts of beef are ground into hamburger, more portions of the meat are exposed to air. This means that hamburger is more likely to harbor bacteria than whole cuts of meat. Thaw ground beef in the refrigerator overnight or in a bowl filled with cold water. Never leave the hamburger sitting at room temperature to thaw. Once the meat has thawed, cook it promptly and refreeze it within two days. Hold it at room temperature for no more than two hours. If you don't refreeze it right away, store it in a refrigerator set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler. Refreeze it at 0 degrees, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Thawing, cooking and refreezing meat causes some of the moisture in the meat to evaporate, which can decrease the quality slightly. To maintain quality, always start with beef that was very fresh when it was frozen. Freeze it quickly in a freezer set at 0 F or colder. Spread the packages of beef out on the freezer rack, rather than stacking them, to help them freeze more quickly. When foods freeze slowly, large icicles develop in the food. When thawed, the food loses moisture more rapidly. Package hamburger in plastic freezer boxes, plastic freezer bags or vacuum seal bags. Use raw, frozen hamburger within three to four months. Once the ground beef has been cooked, use it within two to three months. A freezer set at 0 F will keep food safe indefinitely, but quality begins to decline quickly, especially after the meat has been cooked.
Add a few ingredients to cooked ground beef before you freeze it and you have the building blocks for quick, delicious dinners. Saute ground beef with chopped onions and garlic. Stir in canned tomatoes, salt and pepper. Add herbs and seasonings and use this mix for chili, spaghetti, sloppy joes, tacos or enchiladas. The seasonings and canned tomatoes also add moisture and flavor, which helps compensate for any changes in quality. Another option is to cook and freeze meatballs for spaghetti or meatball subs. Pack the ground beef mixture or meatballs into plastic freezer bags. Spread the meat in the bags so the bags lay flat in the freezer. Frozen this way, you can stack numerous bags in the freezer and the ground beef thaws quickly for later use because it's frozen in a thin layer.
Frozen, cooked hamburger makes short work of dinner. When you cook the meat the first time, be sure to cook it to 165 F, according to the USDA, which kills any bacteria present in the meat. Thaw the cooked meat in the refrigerator or in a bowl of cold water in the sink. When you reheat the meat, cook it again to 165 F.
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Julie Christensen is a food writer, caterer, and mom-chef. She's the creator of MarmaladeMom.org, dedicated to family fun and delicious food, and released a book titled "More Than Pot Roast: Fast, Fresh Slow Cooker Recipes."