Flash-freezing is an integral part of maintaining the quality and nutrients that make grass-fed & finished meat better than the conventional stuff. If you haven’t read Part 1, it might be beneficial to check it out so you can have a deeper understanding of some of the topics we are going to cover.
Author’s note: before we go any further, let’s get it on record that ‘defrosting’ is a thing, ‘dethawing’ is not. Think about it.
There are two things to consider when safely and effectively thawing flash-frozen meat. One is how gently you are transitioning the ice crystals from solid to liquid, and the other is how to safely bring the meat out of it's frozen state.
The Food Danger Zone: 40ºF-140ºF: The FDZ
Above all else, safety should be the top priority when thawing meat. When meat is flash-frozen, it creates an inhospitably cold environment for harmful inhabitants like bacteria, yeast, molds and enzymes. While it does slow their function down to almost a complete stop, it does not kill them. As the temperature of the meat starts to rise, the bacteria & friends will begin to wake up and start multiplying… fast.
The temperature range where they start to propagate and function is between 40ºF-140ºF and is appropriately referred to as the Food Danger Zone (FDZ). Foods that are susceptible to bacteria and spoilage should not be left out at room temperature for longer than 2 hrs, or longer than one hour if the ambient temperature is 90ºF or greater (like some small commercial kitchens). Doing so will leave an opportunity to spend too much time in the FDZ and will start to spoil and most importantly, start to generate bacteria that can make you sick.
Ice —> Intracellular Moisture
Thawing is the transition of the extra- & intra-cellular moisture within meat from a solid state, back into a liquid state. To do this, heat energy must be transferred from an energy source to the frozen meat, agitating the molecular bonds that formed during freezing, causing them to break apart. If the heat energy is transferred using a poor conductor, it will take a long time to draw in enough energy to raise the temperature of the meat out of it’s frozen state. If heat energy to transferred using an efficient conductor, say…. fire, then it will come out of it's frozen state rapidly. In most cases though, this will be too rapid.
A gentle thaw is the key to preserving the texture and succulence of the previously frozen meat. As we discussed in Part 1, when intracellular moisture freezes, it forms ice crystals that pierce the cell membranes then act as a plug while it's coming out of it's frozen state. By gently transferring heat to the meat, the ice crystals melt slowly, easing out of the punctured membranes rather than ripping themselves free. This does less damage to the cell walls — maintaining texture — and limits the amount of moisture that escapes as Drip Loss — preserving juiciness.
You know that red moisture that is always left in the bag or on the plate after thawing that you think is blood? It’s not. That’s the Drip Loss that has escaped from the damaged cell membranes. It’s red, blood-like color is from myoglobin that was present in the intracellular moisture and unfortunately, is also full of minerals, proteins and other nutrients that won’t make it into your bite of steak. In some applications, particularly ones that will cook the meat in sauce or broth, go ahead and throw that drip loss right into the pot. Just be sure to add it after the meat has browned a little but well before you are finished cooking (to give the drip loss time to safely cook through). Good save.
One drawback of a gentle thaw is the amount of time required. As the heat energy is transferred from the energy source to the meat, the surface of the meat thaws first, then acts as an insulator for the interior portion that remains frozen. Gentle is always better for the best final product but it takes time. If you want the best, go ahead and come to terms with this.
A Proper Thaw
Meat is best brought out of it's frozen state in a controlled environment. This requires finding the right heat conductor for the right ambient temperatures and allowing them to work together in minimizing the amount of damage to the cell membranes while safeguarding against too much time in the FDZ.
If you’re a part of the “I used to drink straight from the garden hose” camp like I am, you are probably familiar with the sight of an icy block of meat, slowly losing it's frosty white coat in exchange for an absurdly large puddle of condensation on the counter. This is from and under-informed ideology similar to what makes me not drink out of the hose anymore.
Air is a poor conductor of heat energy. Even though a slow, gentle thaw is best, a piece of frozen meat left out on the counter at room temperature will not be able to steal enough heat from the air to thaw in a length of time that will stop it from spending significant time in the FDZ. Sure, the interior portion of the meat might only sit between 40ºF-140ºF for a few minutes, but the surface of the meat will have been harboring bacteria mummies for hours.
How will we be able to thaw slowly without entering the FDZ? All you need is a plate, a functioning refrigerator and time. Placing frozen meat, still sealed in it's package, on a plate in the fridge not only allows you to have it in a cooler environment, — creating an even more gentle of a thaw — it will prevent the meat from spending anytime in the FDZ. Yes, it will take a while, but you will end up with less Drip Loss, resulting in a well-textured, juicy piece of meat that is also safe to eat. Placing it on a plate will help collect any condensation that occurs.
In the fridge:
- Thin steaks and some boneless cuts of meat — thinner than 1”— will thaw out in 8-12 hours.
- Thicker cuts and some bone-in cuts — thicker than 1” — will take 24 hours.
- Large cuts, like whole roasts and birds will take around 5 hrs per pound.
Most people lack either the time or foresight to work in advance and that’s okay. There is another way that is equally as safe and almost as gentle, but is less efficient. Water is a more effective conductor of energy than air, so submerging frozen meat in water will speed up the transitioning process and results in less Drip Loss.
You will need to find a container that is roughly 4x the volume of the cut you are thawing. Just guess at this. You’ll need adequate room on all sides of the cut for this to work effectively, so if the cut is touching the sides of the container, go bigger. For most items, I use the smaller side of my divided sink.
Place the cut, still sealed, in the container and cover with a weight, such as a large plate. Then add as much ice as you can spare. The goal is to keep the water below 40º as best you can. If you have an ice maker, just thrown a couple glasses full of ice in each time you notice the ice melting. If you don’t have an ice maker, sprinkle a tablespoon or two of salt onto the ice. Salt lowers the freezing point of ice, allowing it to stay colder, longer.
If you are using a bowl or other free-standing container, place the container in the sink and fill with water until is starts to overflow. At this point, turn the water down to a trickle and let run until the meat is thawed. Having still water in the container will eventually cause the water surrounding the frozen meat to match it's temperature. This will insulate the frozen meat, lowering the ability of the water to transfer energy into the meat. If the sound of trickling water makes you feel like you're taking crazy pills, you can submerge a retractable faucet into the water to prevent lunacy. If you don’t, I’m very sorry.
This cold water thawing will allow small & thin cuts, like steaks and ground meat packages to thaw in about 30 mins. Large roasts and whole birds will take a few hours.
Do you need your meat to be thawed, like, now? There is a method that allows you to preserve most of the intended quality in a safe manner but much faster. Desperate acts do however, require equipment. You’ll need an immersion circulator and a large container.
An immersion circulator, or Sous Vide machine as it is more commonly known, is used to heat water to a specific temperature and maintain that temperature over time. They are relatively cheap for the results and we will be using them in future recipes, so if you have the means, invest in one. P.S. they go on sale all the time.
Set your circulator to 140ºF and allow it to come to temperature. Notice that temperature; it's the highest degree of the FDZ. It is hot enough to start to kill off bacteria and spoiling agents but not begin to fully cook the surface meat. This method will thaw thin cuts from frozen in 8-12 mins.
There’s a catch though. This method will not work with large roasts or whole birds as they will take longer than 2 hours to fully thaw which allows too much bacterial growth and will start to cook the surface meat well before the interior is thawed. Also, when using this method for chicken, it will turn the meat from pink to opaque, but you will not notice this change once the meat is fully cooked. The amount of drip loss left in the package will be noticeably more.
We have spent all this time talking about how to get your meat from frozen to not, but what if you don’t need all the meat right now? Can you refreeze it? Yes. Yes, you can, but you shouldn’t.
Like we talked about in Part 1, residential freezers work slowly to freeze meat which results in large ice crystals that shred the muscle fibers. Because the meat has already gone through a freeze-thaw process, resulting in slight moisture and quality loss, refreezing it will start this process again under much worse conditions.
If you have to refreeze meat, cook it first. The cooking process removes a lot of the moisture in the meat which results in less moisture to form into ice crystals. If you are able to vacuum seal at home, do so. A cooked and vacuum sealed steak will be good for a few months once frozen. Also, when thinking about storage life, always consider the fat content of the cut. Fat oxidizes and goes rancid, so a fattier steak like a a ribeye, will not store as long as a lean filet.
You should now be prepared to thaw out meat in almost any situation... the right way. Now stop drinking out of the hose. That's gross.