I love the stories my dad tells about my grandmother’s cooking. There was the time she forgot to fully defrost a turkey before roasting it for Thanksgiving dinner. She served the bird beautifully browned in a pool of rich juices, still raw at the center. Then there was the chicken Kiev she proudly presented at a dinner party, each guest biting into the frozen chicken at the same moment.
Maybe you’ve mastered boeuf bourguignon and roast chicken during quarantine — my wonderful grandma has not — but if you haven’t gotten the hang of freezing and defrosting meat yet, now is a great time to learn. That way, you can space out trips to the grocery store just a little bit further. To alleviate my own meat-freezing anxieties, formed over years of listening to these stories, I called two people who really know their way around meat: George Turkette, the owner and lead butcher of Turchetti’s Salumeria in Indianapolis, and Aaron Rocchino, co-owner of the Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley, California.
To freeze or not to freeze
I’ve always felt some amount of guilt about freezing pricier cuts of meat. I forget about them for months, until I’m rummaging in the freezer for an ice cube or a bag of frozen peas. By the time I find the rib-eye or the inch-thick pork chop, it’s covered in a dusting of freezer snow.
But both butchers assured me that it doesn’t matter much what meat you freeze. While Turkette says that stewing and braising meats are his go-tos because of their low price point and general durability, a couple months in the freezer shouldn’t negatively affect your nicer cuts of steak or pork either. It’s when you forget all about them (guilty) or package them lazily (guilty once again) that nice cuts of meat will take a blow in the freezer. “You can hold a lot of meat over really well by freezing, without losing very much in terms of quality or integrity or flavor, as long as it’s stored properly,” Rocchino adds.
So go ahead and freeze whatever meat — pork, chicken, beef — you like. Just don’t underestimate the importance of preparing it for freezing, and defrost it patiently when the time comes.
Preparing meat for the freezer
For those who eat meat, now is a good time to support your local butcher shop. As COVID-19 brings the conditions at many farms and slaughterhouses into sharp focus and threatens a possible meat shortage, smaller stores often have the advantage of dealing with less crowded slaughterhouses, are less likely to see major supply fluctuations, and are often willing to butcher specific cuts at your request. Unfortunately, they can also be cost prohibitive, and the following freezing techniques will work equally well with meats bought from a supermarket.
If you’re cooking for a family of four, it might make sense to freeze an entire pork shoulder as is. I’m only cooking for myself — and in quarantine, my grandma — so when I end up at a butcher shop instead of the supermarket, I’ll ask that roasts be sliced into one- or two-pound portions and wrapped separately. Once it comes time to freeze a chunk of meat, it’s much easier to do so if it’s already a quantity I’ll be able to defrost and eat in one or two sittings. Plus, cooked meat doesn’t last as long in the freezer, so it’s better to portion out the meat still raw than to cook and refreeze it as a stew or braise.
When you get meat from a butcher shop, it’s usually in its most freezer-friendly packaging already. “Most butcher paper is going to have a wax lining on the inside of it, and that’s going to be one of those barriers that helps [prevent] ice crystals from forming on meat that’s in your freezer,” Turkette says. “The best way [to freeze it] is to leave it in that packaging.” Some butcher shops have both regular and wax-coated wrapping paper, and will use the wax paper if you specify that you plan to freeze the meat.
If you’re transferring meat from Styrofoam trays, make sure you’re using zipper-lock bags specifically labeled for freezer use. Thinner plastic bags don’t hold up well to freezer burn. The goal when storing meat is to leave as little surface area as possible for water crystals to form in the freezer. If you have a vacuum sealer and the accompanying bags, this is the best option. For the rest of us, the cooking website Serious Eats recommends leaving just a corner of your zipper-lock bag unzipped, and immersing the bag slowly into water, which will push out all of the air. Zip the bag shut while it’s still nearly immersed, and you’re good to go.
Before freezing any meat — even if you’re positive you’ll use it next week — use a permanent marker to put a date on it. This is particularly important for meat that you don’t freeze the same day that you buy it. If ground beef sits in the refrigerator for a week before it’s frozen, it may only have one or two good days left after it’s been defrosted. The freezer does not, as I’ve learned through experience, reset the rate of expiration. If the meat wasn’t tagged with a date at the store, label it with both the buying and the freezing date before you slide it into the freezer. As your steak or chicken thighs or ground beef get buried under a pile of frozen bananas, knowing when you put the meat in to freeze will help you keep track of what needs to be cooked next.
Freezing isn’t forever
It’s all too easy to treat the freezer as some sort of time machine. Sadly, even meat left in the freezer will start to lose its oomph after a few months. While the USDA recommends keeping uncooked roasts, steaks, and chops in the freezer for anywhere from four to 12 months, Rocchino says pulling meat from the freezer around the six-month mark and no later than after nine months will ensure it still tastes the way it should. Chicken will last a little longer than steak and pork (around a year), and you’ll want to use ground meat sooner (think three to four months), since the large amount of surface area leaves it particularly vulnerable to freezer burn.
“I think a lot of times people think once they put something into the freezer, they can kind of forget about it until whenever,” Rocchino says. “But really freezing something just slows down the process of it going bad — There’s still an expiration date on it.”
Don’t rush the defrost
Most of the injustices against meat aren’t actually perpetrated during the freezing process. It’s defrosting that can go horribly wrong. Maybe you realize you forgot about a Zoom dinner party and rush to defrost your whole chicken in the microwave. Or in the interest of joining an impromptu virtual barbecue (a real thing), you run a frozen slab of brisket under warm water.
I’ve risked my health far too many times trying to defrost rock-hard meat this way. But rushing the defrosting process is a bad idea for many reasons. Technically, you can safely defrost meat in the fridge, in a cold water bath, or — shudder — in a microwave. But as Rocchino explains, defrosting isn’t just a matter of health safety. “What becomes really important is when you’re ready to eat whatever you have in the freezer, you kind of have to get into the mentality of thinking a little bit ahead, so it’s not still in the freezer when you want it for dinner tonight,” he says. Defrosting slowly in the fridge is the only technique he recommends.
As water freezes, it expands, and this affects the texture of an animal’s muscles. “There’s a ton of moisture in muscle meat, so when that expands, all the muscle fibers go along with it,” Rocchino says. “But then if you’re trying to [defrost] it super quickly, it doesn’t really have a way of shrinking slowly and going back to the way it was.” This process of quickly expanding and contracting the muscle is not good for texture. That said, larger, more sinewy pieces of meat that demand low and slow cooking are more forgiving, and you’re less likely to notice a difference in texture, regardless of how you defrost them.
By the time you’ve moved meat from freezer to refrigerator and waited patiently for it to defrost, you can feel confident that you’ve avoided all crises and virtual dinner party embarrassments, and an excellent piece of meat is in your future. All that’s left to do is cook it.