It’s time for dinner and you’re in a rush without a plan. Maybe you’re hungry and got home late from work. Maybe there are a bunch of kids in front of you clamoring to be fed. You open the fridge and stare. Nothing jumps out at you that would be quick enough. Or maybe it’s practically empty. Before you go order a pizza, hang on. Put. Your. Phone. Down. Open your freezer. There’s plenty there. It’s strange how many of us never consider cooking frozen meat. We all seem to share a feeling that meat must be defrosted before cooking. Or else.
But it’s just not true.
We happen to sell fresh not frozen meat. But we know a lot of customers freeze our meat. And we also cut fresh meat for our freezer, for people who prefer to shop infrequently and stock up on frozen meat, or have a long way to travel with a purchase, or like to take advantage of the fact that the cuts in our retail freezer are always 20% off.
HOW TO COOK FROZEN MEAT
Cooking frozen meat is not rocket science. If you don’t have time to defrost a steak or even a roast, all you need to do is add some cooking time to your recipe. Go ahead and cook it how you were going to cook it. Truly. Josh Applestone does it all the time, he even prefers it because it gives him more time to make the rest of his meal. This is not some maverick butcher move. A Cook’s Illustrated editor did an experiment for America’s Test Kitchen and decided frozen steaks cook better straight from the freezer vs. thawed. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) says meat is safe to cook without thawing and that it will “take approximately 50% longer than the recommended time for fully thawed or fresh meat and poultry.”
Certain cuts are easier than others to cook frozen – pork chops, lamb chops, and steaks are all pretty simple. Ground beef takes patience, but it’s possible for a meat sauce. Something like stir-fry beef is tricky. And use any tools you have available. Pressure cookers, for example, will speed up cooking time for a frozen roast.
HOW LONG DOES FROZEN MEAT LAST
Our main concern with frozen meat is taste and texture, but we know a lot of people are concerned about safety. We vacuum-seal our meat (fresh and frozen) because it extends the life of the meat up to five times by removing the oxygen in the package, thereby limiting the growth of bacteria that causes meat to decompose.
How long frozen meat keeps depends on your freezer (what type it is and how often you open it) and on whether the meat was vacuum-sealed, or if not, on the skill of the person who wrapped it. If left too long in a freezer, meat can dry out and pick up odors from its neighbors. There usually isn’t a safety issue unless there is a change in temperature, as when you defrost, freeze, and defrost again, which gives bacteria a chance to grow. Generally speaking, vacuum-sealed meat lasts for a year, paper-wrapped for six to eight months. Larger cuts of meat like roasts will last longer frozen, while grinds can dry out or get freezer burn after a few months. Supermarket packaging, though safe to freeze in, does not offer a tight seal and leaves the meat exposed to the air already inside the package. If you do freeze your meat this way it will retail its quality for a mere one to two months.
HOW TO DEFROST MEAT
If you do defrost your frozen meat before you cook, follow some basic rules of thumb for best taste and texture. And keep in mind that if you defrost the wrong way or for too long, you risk your meat going bad. We describe the best way to defrost meat in our book, The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat: plan ahead.
Take the meat out of the freezer and let it thaw on a plate in the lowest part of the fridge so it doesn’t drip on anything. A turkey or a roast might need two or three days. A steak, depending on its thickness, might only require twenty-four hours. If the meat is wrapped in plastic, leave it in the plastic. If it’s wrapped in paper, take the paper off if possible. If you haven’t planned ahead, you can also defrost small portions of meat in a bowl of cold water. The water must remain cold. Do not, whatever you do, defrost with warm or hot water; that’s begging for food poisoning.
If you have defrosted something correctly (i.e. not on the counter or in hot water and you haven’t left it at room temperature for more than two hours) but don’t get around to cooking it, you can refreeze it. It will be safe but it might not taste or handle the same the next time you thaw it. Want to learn more? Here are the USDA FSIS’s guidelines on thawing.
Or, next time, just cook your meat frozen.