The Freezer Was Left Open, Now What?

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Dear Home-Ec 101,

My youngest decided to get a popsicle from my deep freezer and didn’t bother to make sure the door was closed.

I know not to eat the meat products since I am not sure if they thawed and refroze, but what about the veggies?

Must I throw out the ten tons of french fries and corn on the cob? And yes, I’ve invested in a freezer door lock with a padlock to guard against future freezer related mishaps.

Signed,
Thawing in Thermopylae

Heather says:

Do you know when your kid got that popsicle? A day ago, two days three?

I have good news and bad news, depending on whether or not you’ve already thrown everything out.

All of the food in your freezer is fine to cook or refreeze as long as ice crystals are still present.

If your meat hasn’t reached more than 40°F, it is still safe to cook and eat.

While the same goes for your vegetables, their quality will likely have taken a turn for the worse.

If the frozen vegetables are mushy; toss them, don’t try to save them. It is NOT worth the quality loss.

Why can’t we just refreeze thawed food?

The scenario you are looking to avoid is reaching a point where bacteria have had a chance to multiply quickly and then refreeze, which doesn’t necessarily kill all bacteria. Then, during the next thaw cycle, the bacteria have another chance to multiply, it’s a case of exponential growth where we aren’t starting anywhere close to zero.

It’s not just the bacteria, like E. coli and Salmonella that you want to avoid. Cooking doesn’t destroy the toxins produced by some bacteria, here’s looking at you staph…  /tips hat like Humphrey Bogart

Just as an FYI, vegetables can also harbor bacteria. However, do not freak out.

Contamination is much LESS likely in frozen vegetables, as they have to be blanched before freezing. I’m just noting this because a vegetarian friend of mine was rather smug about not being affected by a beef recall. They weren’t as smug after the recalls for E. coli came rolling down the pike on romaine lettuce. 

Does anyone else remember when Taco Bell used to serve green onions? No, just me? Fine.

If your freezer door was left ajar for a few hours and some foods partially thawed, not fully, these partially thawed foods are almost certainly safe to use. There’s very little chance that your meat is a total loss. It is unlikely that it thawed completely and refroze.

My true concern is for the motor of your freezer. I hope the freezer is the type that shuts off while the door is ajar, so there wasn’t a lot of unnecessary wear on the unit. If your deep freeze was left ajar for several days, you are correct; most of the food is a total loss.

Now, for those dealing with completely thawed freezers, and it is NOT safe to refreeze. What can you do?

The couple of times I have had a freezer die on me (or had children leave the door open to the point of a complete thaw, the vegetables were mush and a loss.) One of those times, I may have sat down and cried. Money was pretty tight at the time. It hurts.

All is not lost.

You can cook the food and then freeze the fully cooked food.

The guideline to not refreeze food only means to refreeze without cooking.

Got it?

keeping the kitchen clean
Click the picture for more tips!
  • If you have a lot of ground beef to use, brown it and store it. We like to season it for tacos. Here is a recipe for taco seasoning. Clearly label your ground beef! 
  • If you have stew beef, go ahead and brown and stew the beef, you can thaw it right in the slow cooker with some root vegetables for a wonderful, easy stew.
  • Toss the poultry into your slow cooker and then separate it from the bones to use in a bunch of different recipes. Don’t forget to use the bones to make chicken stock.
  • If you have boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs, these can be grilled and then frozen for use in any recipe that calls for cooked chicken.
  • Another option is to put the chicken breasts and thighs in your slow cooker or InstantPot with about a cup of salsa and cook until you can shred the chicken with two forks. This makes a great filling for tacos, burritos—toss some scrambled eggs in there, and you have breakfast burritos which freeze great and are perfect for busy mornings—, enchiladas or chimichangas.

Finally, if your freezer is completely thawed as part of a major disaster, such as a hurricane, and you have other damage. The freezer contents may be included as part of your insurance claim. It will depend on your coverage, of course. For some insurance policies, food is considered a separate rider. If you are a renter, your food loss may be covered by your renter’s insurance. You do have renter’s insurance, right? If you don’t, you should work on that right now.

Disclaimer: Heather Solos is not an insurance agent, and this is not financial advice.

Good luck.

I hope this doesn’t prove to be too major of a loss.

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

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23 thoughts on “The Freezer Was Left Open, Now What?”

  1. Thank you so much. My freezer door was left slightly ajar overnight and it was full of good cuts of meat! The meat was still pretty frozen (more than half way) and I was afraid I’d have to dump it all out. This post was so helpful!

    Reply
  2. My upright freezer door was left slightly open for over a week. When I noticed it there was snow /ice about 2-3 inches thick on all the packages as well as the shelves and walls. The food was still frozen under that frost.
    I assume the food is still good? Would that have caused damage to my freezer? Thanks

    Reply
    • The motor of your freezer was likely working very hard and it is possible it shortened the lifespan of your appliance, but it isn’t guaranteed that this happened.

      To remove to the frost from the freezer itself. Turn the unit off and thaw it manually. While it is thawing put the food in a cooler with a generous amount of ice to prevent the food from thawing any further.

      You’ll want to have a lot of towels or a wet vac at the ready to prevent a mess.

      To get the frost off of the food, assuming it is wrapped in plastic and not freezer paper, a QUICK rinse will remove most of the frost, without thawing the food.

      Replace the lightbulb.

      Reply
  3. What about things like ice cream …the ice cream sandwiches are all soft, do I throw them away? Mine was only left partially open for almost a day…lots of ice crystals in freezer.

    Reply
  4. I have a similar issue. I have a refrigerator in the garage. For some reason, when the outside temperature is very low, the freezer does not operate properly (it refrigerates fine, though) and veggies and frozen potatoes get soft. Is it safe to cook and eat these? If not, what is the specific risk?

    Reply
  5. So food that has already been cooked , like popcorn shrimp,or sauage biscuits,that are already cook and you just heat up should be ok to refreeze ? They were still cool to the touch . Thanks

    Reply
    • @Karkel *Technically* you want to cook things before refreezing. You’re also losing a lot of quality the more times the food is heated and frozen, too.1

      Reply
  6. If your freezer food thaws out and then secretly refreezes, you can't easily tell if that's happened. Here is my low-tech hint: put a handful of ice-cubes in a ziplock bag and keep that in your freezer.

    If the door is left ajar and the freezer thaws, the ice in the bag will melt. Then when it refreezes you won't have cubes in that bag any more, you will have a flat lump of ice if it all got seriously thawed out. Then you can decide what to do with the food in there as a result.
    My recent post HomeRoutines 183 Released

    Reply
    • I recently had an issue where my fridge/freezer stopped working and I did not realize it. What actually clued me in was when I took an ice cream bar out and it was soft, but by the repairman came it was working again and everything had refrozen. The repairman recommended this ice trick to tell in the future if the freezer has gone off and then back on again.

      Reply
  7. I lost a freezer full of food last year when somehow the cord got disconnected. I'm guessing the cat managed to get behind it and tried to jump to the top from back there and knocked the plug loose; nothing else makes the least bit of sense. The seal on the lid (chest-style) was good, and since all the food was in plastic containers, nothing leaked out to signal trouble, just the barest whiff of odor every now and again. I kept taking the trash out, thinking the trash was smelly…by the time I realized it was the freezer, I had a major disaster on my hands! The freezer was less than a year old, so scrapping it wasn't an attractive option. It took six months to get the smell out (many alternating changes of vinegar and baking soda) and fit to use again.

    I recently put the freezer back into use and it's working fine. The plug is screwed to the wall. But since the over-temperature alarm won't sound if the power is out, I realized I need an alarm that can't be defeated by, say, a tripped breaker (not an unusual event in my house…but that's another story). I have an old uninterruptible power supply (UPS) sitting around that just needs a new battery, and this weekend's project will be to buy that battery and mount the UPS behind the freezer and give it a small load to keep it active (it won't care if the power is off unless it has a load on it). I'm thinking about plugging the coffee pot into it, since the coffee pot has a clock that is always on. I think I'll put my LED cabinet lights on it, too, for an easy source of light in the kitchen if the power goes out at night (these aren't on all the time, so can't serve as a reliable load).

    The UPS will be on the same circuit as the freezer, and while it's nowhere near big enough to run the freezer, it will scream bloody murder if the power goes out and keep screaming until the power is back on or I turn the alarm off. In any case, there's no way that freezer is going to thaw again without my knowing it!

    Reply
  8. My mom always felt like our deep freeze was like a savings account full of treasure. In other words, worth taking care of, not neglecting.
    Since we had an older, hand-me-down freezer she felt the need to "keep an eye on it" in case the motor quit. She instituted the rule that it must be checked every day. She made sure to tell someone each day to check it or she checked it herself. We averted several disasters that way.
    The once or twice my kids left our freezer door ajar, I found that most of the foods at the back of the freezer hadn't thawed all that much so I just refroze them and never could tell the difference. The stuff that was toward the front and on the door, we just cooked up and refroze. Even for the veggies, we blanched them again and refroze. (except for potato products – those we made a big pot of potato chowder and scalloped potatoes. The baked scalloped potatoes freeze well but the chowder was just eaten up).
    Another thing I learned over the years, arrange your freezer so the foods are less vulnerable. For instance, our freezer is upright and the stuff on the door thaws first. That being the case, we only store "wet" things on the door like broths, spaghetti sauce, beans, nopales, soups. That way, should they thaw by accident, we just need to heat to boiling for a few minutes and then we can refreeze.

    Reply
    • Great advice, Jenny.
      The main reason I dread hurricane season around here is the potential to lose everything I store in the deep freeze. Everything else, I can deal with all the food in that freezer represents money and hard work.

      Reply
      • Make sure you keep a list – your flood insurance should cover most of the financial cost – you do have flood insurance right?

        Reply
        • although of course the time spent cooking & preparing the foods (if that's what you have in there) can't be replaced.

          Reply
  9. It's true, this site is a wealth of knowledge for those of us who find keeping house a daily struggle. Every day I read this blog I feel encouraged and wiser!

    Reply
  10. My parents had a similiar issue recently, unfortunately it was a week later that they discovered the door open so pretty much everything was a total loss.

    Reply

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