Freezing & Thawing Meat – Best Practices

by Top Geek  

Last Updated: April 5, 2022


A fresh steak is unquestionably better than a piece of beef that has been frozen. If you can avoid freezing, that is always a good goal. However, being able to throw meat in the freezer for another occasion is an absolute necessity at times. As a result, you really want to know how to freeze and thaw the meat just right, or else you will find yourself disappointed, or worse, ill. These are some practices at both ends of this process that are worth exploring to help you get optimal results.

While we are specifically mentioning steaks, understand that particular meats have differing shelf lives once in the freezer. This is more of an issue of flavor and texture versus safety and wholesomeness. Beef can last twice as long as most meats, comfortably holding for six to eight months in the freezer. Everything else will be better if used within three to four months.


Storage Wrap And Covering; Best Choices

Meat bag in vacuum sealer

The goal is to protect the meat as much as possible from freezer burn and contact with air. Freezer burn is essentially evaporation under very cold conditions. Yes, water can still evaporate at below freezing. So those discolored spots on food that has freezer burn is from uneven evaporation caused by contact with the air and spending too much time being frozen. Air contact will also bring that funk flavor, a generic freeze-flavor and smell endemic to most freezers.

Ideally a vacuum sealer is your best choice. Drawing any air out of contact with the food is easily accomplished. The plastic used in the specific sealing bags is much heavier, offering more protection while the food is frozen.

Second choice is a freezer weight zipper style bag with as much air removed as possible. You can do this with a straw in the last unsealed portion of the bag’s zipper, literally suck the air out and quickly seal the last bit. If inhaling raw meat air offends your sensibilities and seems unsafe, you can use water displacement. Place the bag in a vessel of water submerged to just below the zipper which will force out much of the air, seal and dry the bag off.

Last choice is wrapped tightly in plastic film then a snug layer of foil over that. You can even throw in a layer of parchment or wax paper between the two for a little more protection.

The Purge

The Purge in bag

There is a problem with freezing meat. When the meat freezes, ice crystals form and these sharp crystals tear protein fibers apart. When you thaw the meat out, these torn cells release the juice in meat, resulting in what is known as The Purge.

So, the fibers have opened up and can no longer hold in all that tasty juice. Obviously that is bad, and does not bode well for a juicy tasty meal later. And sadly, once it’s out, you can’t get it back in, so your meat ends up dry.

How To Avoid The Purge

Meat package in cold water

You can help counteract that affect by flash freezing the meat. In this process the meat freezes quickly enough that the crystals stay smaller and have a less disruptive effect on the tissues. The easiest way to perform a flash freeze at home is with an ice bath you can make that will actually get below 32 degrees. Use a combination of ice with salt and just enough water to float the cubes slightly. This will create an especially cold environment that will quickly freeze your meat.

ice bucket illustration
flash freezing meat with saltfreezing meat step 3
Stick the sealed meat packages into the icy water for two – three hours (depending on the thickness of the cut), this will allow the meat to chill quickly, and then you can place it in the freezer. Try to place the chilled meat near the back of the freezer or wherever it will receive the most air flow. Doing this process will not completely avoid growing those cursed ice crystals which pierce the meat, but it will minimize the size of the ice crystals that form; the faster the freeze, the smaller the crystals.

Freeze First

Man wraping meat in parchment paper

When we wrap the meat in layers, it can slow down the freezing process. If you don’t have a sealer or zipper bags, film and foil will obviously not keep salt water off the meat. Another alternative is to freeze the meat first, naked.

That’s right, line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Place the meat, well separated if more than one piece to allow air flow, and place on an open shelf in your freezer. Depending on the thickness of the cut, this could take as long as overnight to fully freeze, or just an hour or two for thinner cuts. Then you can quickly wrap it in the best fashion available to you, and store in the freezer.


Ideal Thawing Method

Thawing meat in refrigerator

The best way to thaw frozen meat is allowing it to thaw gradually in the refrigerator. For thin cuts 24 hours is all you need, larger cuts may be a couple of days. Never thaw it completely on the counter. Frozen meat left out for more than two hours is asking for trouble. As you can imagine, the outer layers will begin to thaw and get warm before the interior has thawed. This allows bacteria to take hold and multiply on the outer layers while the inside has yet to reach temperature. This is flirting with what the food industry calls the danger zone, and can potentially put you or your family in the hospital.

Once the meat has thawed you have a couple of days before you have to cook it. If you decide not to cook it you can refreeze, although this is generally discouraged. Not as a particular safety issue, but a taste and texture problem, so try to avoid it.

Quicker Safe Thawing Methods

Thawing meat with water

Your health department will tell local restaurants that the proper thawing method is to submerge the packaged meat in a cold water bath that has a continuous stream of water run into it. You can accomplish the same thing while saving some water for your community. Place the wrapped meat in a bowl of cold water. Turn on the tap every 30 minutes or so and let it run over the bowl refreshing the supply for a couple minutes.

Small cuts should take about an hour to thaw, larger cuts take closer to 4 hours. Once it’s thawed, though, cook it right away because bacteria can start to produce rapidly.  If you are in a situation where you do not need the meat right then, cook it right away any way. Refreezing raw food has issues as we mentioned. Your best bet is to proceed with cooking the food, then freeze it to enjoy at a later time.

Last Resorts, Mostly

Thawing meat with microwave

If you are really pressed for time and you have low standards, you can thaw meat in the microwave. If you do, make sure to cook it right away and don’t refreeze it unless it’s cooked. Also, wash your microwave to kill any bacteria that make have sprouted there.

Finally, you can cook meat from its frozen state. Expect cook time to increase by as much as 50% depending on how you are cooking it. But it’s not all downside. When it comes to steak you can get a nice sear on the outside without overcooking the inside, which can often be tricky to do with a thawed steak. Cooking frozen steaks is common practice in the restaurant industry. Below is a quick video showing the science of cooking a frozen steak.

About the author Top Geek

I have always been a believer: “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”. I’ve been lucky enough to use my professional experience in the meat industry over the past 20 years to create a business where I love to go to work.

Smoking Meat Geeks is all about bringing people together that enjoy food as much as I do. We provide a place for everyone to share thoughts, ideas, and recipes; to be a go-to spot for cooking inspiration. Feel free to leave a comment, say hello, or provide any tips. There is no right or wrong input, as long as you’re engaging, you’re a Meat Geek!

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