From our Freezer to Yours, Part 1: Maintaining Quality through Flash-Freezing

by Kyle Cooper
Posted on

Buy Ranch Direct provides the highest-quality, best tasting & most nutritious meat to our customers across the country.  From the native grasses, hand-selected for their nutritional density, to the natural spring water, our animals only get the best.  All the thought and effort put into raising the animals would be wasted if the same amount of focus wasn’t applied to our distribution.

Our Ranch is a little under 600 miles from our distribution center, and while we would love for you to experience the wonder that is our meat when it is absolutely fresh, we simply cannot get it to you in time.  Instead, we do the next best thing, flash-freezing.  By flash-freezing our meats immediately after being processed, we are able to deliver you a product that retains virtually all of the quality and nutrition of fresh meat, while giving you the flexibility of enjoying our products when you want to, not when you have to.

 

Freezing as Preservation

Freezing has been a preservation method for meat for as long as humans have coveted the nutrient dense food.  Once restricted to cold climates (the rest of the world used salt and/or smoke), freezing is now the most popular method for preserving food.  If kept cold enough and under the proper conditions, frozen meat can last virtually forever.

Forever? Really?… A wooly mammoth was found frozen on Maily Lyakhovsky Island in Siberia in 2013.  The animal is said to have died 39,000 years prior and when researchers initially studied the specimen, they found that the muscle tissue (read: Meat) was still bright red “like a steak” until it was thawed and exposed to oxygen.  Okay, so maybe not forever, but long enough for meat.

When you start to understand how and why meat freezes, just think of water.  Most meats contain 66-73% water, so when meat is freezing, you are really just changing the water inside the meat from a liquid state to a solid state.  Water in it's solid state, as most people know, becomes ice.  The ice crystals that are formed inside the meat are what actually preserves the meat.  The icy environment halts microbial growth of the bacteria, yeast and molds that naturally occur in meat, which need liquid water to propagate.  Likewise, enzymes that function to mature and decay meat are also slowed by the cold conditions.  

Simply put, it's too cold for any harmful inhabitants to operate.  Though ice crystals are crucial to the preservation of meat, if they are not formed properly, they can destroy the quality and nutrient density of frozen meat.  

 

Freeze Fast for Quality

There are two types of water found in meat: Extracellular and Intercellular Moisture.  Extracellular moisture is the water that is found around the outside of the cells that make up muscle fibers.  This cushioning moisture contains little more than water and begins to freeze around 30ºF.  Intracellular moisture is the water than is found inside the cell membranes.  This moisture contains significant amounts of proteins and nutrients, which get in the way of the water molecules as they try to form the bonds needed to form ice crystals. The density that results from the presence of proteins and nutrients causes the freezing point of intracellular moisture to be much lower than extracellular moisture, dropping to around 14ºF.

These temperature difference are the main reason why almost all residential and most commercial freezers are not capable of effectively preserving the quality and nutrient density of meat.  Most residential freezers are set at 0ºF and this means that it will take the better part of 24 hours to reach the 14ºF needed to freeze all the intracellular moisture on even a thin cut of meat.  That’s too long. 

Due to the amount of time it takes to freeze, the water slowly crystalizes, forming large, sharp crystals.  These large ice crystals literally puncture the cell membrane and subsequently plug up the hole.  As the meat is thawed, those crystals melt and allow the now liquid intracellular moisture to leech out, an action referred to as Drip Loss. All the natural, nutrient dense “juiciness” is lost, escaping out of the gaping holes left in cell membranes.  The more damage the ice crystals do to the cells, the grainier and mushier the final, cooked product will be.  

In order to maintain the freshness and quality of meat when freezing, it needs to be done fast.  Really fast.  The faster that the intracellular moisture is transformed from liquid to solid, the smaller the ice crystals will be.  Instead of having large, jagged crystals that puncture the cell membranes, the tiny crystals that form will not do nearly as much damage.  Upon thawing, less Drip Loss occurs.  To achieve tiny crystals, the temperature of the cellular moisture needs to drop quickly and well below the 14ºF mark and there are really only two ways to do it.

For the home or small-scale chef, using liquid nitrogen is the most efficient.  Though the safety equipment and storage-containers called “dewars” can be a slightly pricey, the liquid nitrogen itself is not and the process is very effective.  Dropping temperatures to around -320ºF, meat can be flash frozen in minutes, preserving the integrity of the cell membranes.  On a large scale production though, the most common method is referred to as Commercial Flash-Freezing.  

Commercial flash-freezing of foods was pioneered by Clarence Birdseye, founder of the now ubiquitous Birdseye Foods, sometime in the first decades of the 20th century and jumpstarted the frozen food industry.   Using freezers set around -30ºF to -40ºF, giant air circulators are used to rapidly move cold air across the surface of the meat causing it to freeze quickly.  Not as rapidly as using liquid nitrogen, but the circulation of air allows the surface of the meat to immediately drop below the 14ºF freezing point and start to pull heat away from the interior cells.  This speeds up the freezing process immensely, and achieves the development of tiny ice crystals.    

Our goal is to provide you with the highest quality meat we can.  Proper packaging — vacuum sealing — and flash freezing allows us to preserve our meat at the peak of it's freshness.  If kept frozen and well sealed, our products will last up to two years before they being to lose their quality and nutritional benefits.

Next week, we will move on to Part 2: Properly Thawing Flash Frozen Meat.    

 

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