Freezing steak is a common way to preserve it for longer storage. However, there are concerns that freezing can negatively affect steak quality. This article examines whether freezing actually ruins steak.
Does Freezing A Steak Change Its Texture?
One of the biggest potential effects of freezing steak is on its texture. Meat texture is important for getting that tender, melt-in-your-mouth sensation when eating a good steak. So do the ice crystals that form during freezing damage the fiber structure and make steak tough?
Several high-quality studies have tested this by examining the texture of steaks before and after freezing. The results show that freezing and thawing generally does not make steak tougher or change its texture:
- A study published in the Journal of Food Science examined tenderness, chewiness and fiber breakdown in steaks aged 14 days then frozen for 2-4 months. Thawed steaks did not differ significantly in tenderness or chewiness compared to fresh steaks.
- An Agriculural Research Service study found no differences in shear force (a measure of meat toughness) between fresh steaks and those frozen for 9 months at -20°C (-4°F).
- A study in the Journal of Animal Science also found no difference in tenderness between fresh steaks and those frozen for 6-12 months.
The results indicate that freezing itself does not damage the muscle structure enough to make steaks tougher. As long as steak is thawed properly, the texture should remain intact.
Does Freezing Degrade Steak Flavor?
Another concern is whether freezing affects the flavor of steak. Some of the main flavor compounds in beef include glutamates for umami flavor, sulfurous compounds for meaty flavor, and lipid oxidation products for buttery, nutty notes. Could freezing and thawing break down these important flavors?
Again, research findings are generally positive when it comes to steak flavor after freezing:
- A study in Meat Science found trained taste panels could not detect any differences in beefy, buttery, bloody or metallic flavors between fresh steaks and those frozen for 12 months.
- An Italian study found frozen storage of vacuum-packed beef for up to 12 months had minimal effects on volatile compounds responsible for aroma and flavor.
- Research in the Journal of Food Science showed flavor compounds like aldehydes and pyrazines were not significantly affected by up to 3 freeze-thaw cycles.
As long as steak is properly vacuum-sealed and frozen at stable temperatures below -20°C, the impact on flavor compounds appears minimal.
Does Freezer Burn Affect Frozen Steak Quality?
Freezer burn occurs when air reaches the surface of meat in the freezer. This causes dehydration and oxidation, creating dried out spots and discoloration. So does freezer burn ruin the quality of frozen steak?
Freezer burn only damages a thin layer on the steak surface. Although it creates unsightly dry patches, these areas can simply be trimmed off before cooking. Studies show the remaining meat retains its quality:
- Research in Meat Science found less than 5% moisture loss and no significant quality changes underneath freezer burned areas.
- An Alberta Agriculture study determined that steaks with slight freezer burn after 11 months were equal in flavor and tenderness to fresh steaks when affected areas were trimmed off.
- A North Dakota State University extension brief states that freezer burned portions can be cut away, leaving unaffected meat that is safe to eat.
While freezer burn can be avoided with proper vacuum sealing and strategic packaging, research confirms that small affected areas do not ruin the quality of the remaining frozen steak.
Can Refreezing Steak After Thawing Affect Quality?
Sometimes steak is thawed but not used right away. This raises the question of whether it is safe to refreeze thawed raw steak, or if this ruins quality.
In general, refreezing steak and other raw meats is not recommended. The USDA advises against doing so for food safety reasons:
- Bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella can start growing on the surface during the time the steak is thawed.
- Refreezing allows these bacteria to remain in a temperature danger zone instead of being destroyed by cooking.
- Repeated freeze-thaw cycles encourage bacterial growth and spoilage.
However, if the thawed steak remains refrigerated for a short time (1-2 days), is not visibly slimy or smelly, and is refrozen at 0°F or below, the quality can remain acceptable:
- One study found sensory quality declined after 2 freeze-thaw cycles but was still satisfactory up to 3 cycles.
- An Auburn University publication indicates refreezing thawed raw steak once should not appreciably affect tenderness, color or flavor.
- Proper cooking should destroy any bacteria that start growing after 1-2 days of refrigerated storage.
While refreezing thawed steak is generally not recommended, limited research shows doing so just once for a short refrigerated period may be acceptable if the steak is cooked thoroughly after refreezing.
What Is the Best Method for Freezing Steak?
To retain optimal texture and flavor in frozen steak, experts recommend:
- Vacuum seal steak in an airtight bag to prevent moisture loss and freezer burn.
- Wrap tightly in two layers of plastic wrap if vacuum sealing is not available.
- Freeze quickly at 0°F or below to minimize ice crystal damage.
- Maintain consistent storage temperature once frozen.
- Minimize refreezing thawed steak; cook within 1-2 days of thawing.
Proper freezing and storage methods help maintain the quality of steak for use months later. Vacuum sealing, in particular, provides the best protection according to meat scientists.
How Long Can Steak Stay Frozen?
Steak can technically be kept frozen indefinitely without spoiling, thanks to the lack of microbial growth below 0°F. However, some quality deterioration can occur over time. General guidelines include:
|Recommended Frozen Storage Life
|Steaks (beef, pork, lamb)
Vacuum-sealed frozen steak stored at 0°F or below retains best quality for 6-12 months. Ground meats and roasts have shorter shelf lives. Exceeding these times may result in diminished flavor and a drier texture.
Does Thawing Method Affect Quality?
The way steak is thawed can also impact its texture and moisture retention. Recommended thawing methods include:
- Refrigerator: Thaw sealed steak gradually over 24-48 hours in the refrigerator. This minimizes moisture loss.
- Cold water: Submerge vacuum sealed steak in cold tap water, changing water every 30 minutes. Takes 2-3 hours.
- Microwave: Use the defrost setting to thaw steak sealed in an airtight bag. Minimizes cooking.
Thawing at room temperature or in hot water can start bacterial growth and should be avoided. Cooking steak while still frozen causes texture damage. Following proper thawing methods reduces unwanted effects.
Does Marinating Work the Same for Fresh and Thawed Steak?
Marinating is a popular way to infuse new flavors into steak before cooking. Does marinating work equally well for fresh versus thawed frozen steak?
Yes, research shows thawed frozen steaks absorb marinade and retain flavors similarly to fresh steak:
- An International Journal of Food Science study found no significant differences in marinade absorption or flavor between fresh and frozen beef after cooking.
- A Meat Science study marinated fresh and frozen steaks for 7 days. Panelists found almost identical flavor and overall acceptability.
- Airing 30-60 minutes before marinating helps thawed steak better absorb flavors.
Both fresh and properly thawed frozen steaks benefit equally from marinating. There is no need to alter marinating time for previously frozen steak.
How Can You Tell if Thawed Steak Has Gone Bad?
Being able to identify spoiled thawed steak can prevent accidental consumption and foodborne illness. Signs of spoiled raw steak include:
- Off-putting, sour aroma
- Slimy, sticky texture
- Grayish or greenish tint
- Visibly hard, dried areas
- Mold or slippery biofilm on surface
Thawed steaks should still smell fresh, retain a natural red color, and not have excessive moisture buildup. When in doubt, remember the old adage: “When in doubt, throw it out.”
Research shows that freezing steak does not inherently ruin it or make it dangerous to eat. Proper freezing and thawing methods allow steak to retain its tender texture, juicy moisture and full flavors surprisingly well. While very long storage or repeated refreezing is not recommended, moderate frozen storage has minimal effects on quality. Frozen steak retains nutritional value and remains delicious when handled with care.