The close of duck season on Jan. 22 is a hallmark for me. Sure, I have to shift gears for the months of winter remaining. But I time another important event for the day after.

I clean our freezer.

How exciting is that?

It’s actually pretty handy to have a specific date for doing it, just as the fire department recommends changing batteries in your smoke detectors when you adjust your clocks for each time change. I’m not as likely to forget important jobs when they’re associated with a specific date.

Why is Jan. 22 a significant date for freezer cleaning?

Because we’re about halfway through winter, and all that fish and game is going to have to last another four months or more.

This is the time to discover developing problems, reorganize to make retrieval easier, and begin planning for changes you will need to make starting next summer.

The biggest problem I expect to discover is package failure. Sure, we use a vacuum sealer as much as possible, but not all machines or packaging are created equal.

If you find lots of broken seals, it could be a sign that you’re battering the packages too much while digging in the freezer, or that your machine or bags are faulty.

Likely it could be a combination of the three.

Battering and seal breaks happen because your freezer is disorganized and you have to shuffle through a lot of packages to find what you want. We now use a system that largely eliminates handling and limits seal breaks.

We collected cardboard boxes just the right size for two to fit side by side on each freezer shelf. Most had to be trimmed to the right height, but wow, have they improved both our package survival and complete use of our fish and game!

We label the front of each box in large letters.

Need halibut? Pull out the halibut box.

Need venison steaks? There’s a box for them, too, right beside the box for venison roasts and stew meat.

It’s rare that we find surprises in our freezer now, simply because there’s no tendency for packages to migrate to the back of a shelf or bottom of a stack.

There’s also no tendency for a plastic avalanche each time we open the freezer door or look for a specific variety of fish or game.

If you install boxes in your freezer for organization but still experience seal breaks, maybe it’s time to upgrade your bags and even your sealer. We once used the most popular brand of sealer, but quit five years ago. That’s because we spent a little more money for a better one, and haven’t had to buy another since. Though it cost almost twice as much as the name brand, we haven’t had to replace it every year or two.

And I can recall very few seals that have broken since we switched. The cardboard boxes are a great way to improve your seal life. But if you’re still experiencing lots of leaks, it may be time to spend a little more for a better sealer.

But what do you do with broken packages?

I can tell you for sure that you have lots more options if you find them now rather than in June.

Unless the seal broke right after you put it in the freezer, in all likelihood the contents are not freezer-burned yet, or only slightly so. If it’s a recent break you are likely to find frost on the meat, but no obvious yellowing and drying.

If that’s the case, shuffle those packages to the front of your collection and use them right away. But if there’s obvious freezer burn, drastic measures may be in order.

The first step is to thaw the meat, trim off the dried and yellow portions, then rinse thoroughly to remove as much off flavor as you can. You’ll be surprised how much that can improve flavor and smell, but you will probably still be able to taste a background flavor that’s not so good.

Is there help? You bet.

Pour on the spice!

We use the problem fish in spicy dishes like spaghetti and even chili. But our favorite is certainly fish tacos.

In their simplest form we cut the meat into cubes a little smaller than sugar cubes, then stir-fry it with commercial taco seasonings. Put in a shell with all your favorite taco condiments, this is a winning combo.

We tend to blend our own herbs and spices for taco seasoning unless we’re in a hurry. In my experience garlic and oregano do the best job of concealing off flavors. And chili? It doesn’t necessarily cover any off flavors, but I sure like it on fish.

Of course, tacos are even better when made with fish that hasn’t suffered in the freezer.

Some folks prefer to smoke fish that has suffered, but not me. My mouth seems especially attuned to off flavors in fish, and especially in smoked fish. If you aren’t particularly bothered by it and really love smoked fish, give it a try.

Game meat doesn’t tend to turn yellow until it is so badly freezer burned that your dog won’t eat it. But the off flavors can develop anyway.

You might miss the drying on edges when you first inspect the package, but they’re likely to show up the minute you thaw the meat. Just trim them off and proceed.

Chili is one obvious use for meat from packages with broken seals. And I have to say that you’re not likely to notice any off flavors in a good batch of chili.

But if your tastes don’t run for chili, consider spaghetti. Trim and grind the meat for your own burger, then use it in a spaghetti sauce for great results.

Do you have enough broken seals that the results go beyond your capacity for spaghetti?

As long as you’re able to grind meat, how about making a batch of sausage?

Now we’re onto something with lots of room for creativity.

While you can buy commercial seasoning blends, there are literally hundreds of recipes for alternative blends. You can find them online or in most game cookbooks.

I need to pass along one word of caution about seasoning sausage. Don’t base your decisions about quantity and blends on samples you cook right away.

I made that mistake the first time I tried sausage. I kept adding seasoning until a sample cooked up and tasted right. Then I seasoned the whole batch with the same proportions and froze it.

Holy cow!

Thawed a couple of weeks later, the sausage was so over-spiced it was barely edible.

Sausage seasoning needs to soak in and age before it achieves full flavor. Enthusiasts refer to the process as “blooming” or “blossoming,” but it’s one to remember. The sausage is going to taste pretty bland when you first make it, but after a little time in the freezer the spices will really come on strong.

For that reason, it’s a good idea to follow recipes or use commercial blends for your first batch. You can always make adjustments and even develop your own blends in the future, but I’d play it safe the first time around.

What else do I learn with my January freezer cleaning? This year I learned that we’re long on halibut and king salmon, but short on red salmon and rockfish. It’s time to dig out some more king salmon and halibut recipes.

But more important, I know that next summer I need to focus a little harder on catching red salmon and rockfish.

At last! A New Year’s resolution!

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