Packaged frozen meat

Conventional wisdom — and the world around us — suggests that fresh food is better than frozen food. Think about it: signs labeled “fresh produce” or “fresh dairy” at the grocery store, “fresh, never frozen” meat from fast-food restaurants, a young Will Smith starring in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” OK, that last one might not totally apply here, but you get the idea: fresh food is positioned as a higher-quality product, while frozen food is widely regarded as inferior. The truth, however, is often the reverse!

Simply put, meat that’s flash-frozen at the peak of freshness will be of a higher quality and sometimes even fresher than meat that’s packaged and sold as fresh. This is a result of the science behind flash-freezing and how food degrades over time, the key factors in this equation. We’ll cover both topics below, but the main idea is that “fresh” is a relative term. Meat that’s 7 days fresh eats differently than meat that’s 12 days fresh, 12 days fresh eats differently than 15 days fresh, and so on. It’s all about how freshness and quality are preserved, which is one of several advantages of flash-frozen meat.

What Is Flash-Freezing?

The process of flash-freezing involves rapidly freezing food at extremely low temperatures below 0°F, usually with blasts of cold, circulating air. Don’t confuse a flash-freezer for your home freezer — these appliances are industrial-grade, designed to completely freeze food items in just a few minutes to an hour at most, depending on size. Compare that extreme efficiency with how long it takes even small ice cubes to freeze in your home unit. Think of it this way: flash-freezers are optimized to freeze items as quickly as possible, whereas home freezers are geared more toward keeping frozen items frozen.

Why Does Flash-Freezing Matter to Meat?

We freeze meat for long-term storage because it creates a state of suspension, essentially stopping time for the natural enzymes that break down food while also causing harmful bacteria to lie dormant. (Our guide to freezing meat properly has more info on how it all works.) This means there’s no decline in quality while frozen; the state in which meat freezes is the state it will remain in, assuming the meat was properly frozen. It makes sense, then, for meat at the peak of quality and tenderness to be frozen ASAP. Sounds like a job for a flash-freezer, wouldn’t you say?

frozen meat vacuum sealed in plastic

There’s a catch to freezing meat, though. Ice crystals arise on the meat’s surface while it freezes, which can negatively affect quality in a couple ways. The first issue is that ice crystals are formed by moisture drawn from within the meat, resulting in a drier cut. And if the crystals get big enough, they can actually puncture the meat’s muscle fibers and cell walls, creating even more moisture loss.

So, how do you stop the ice from robbing meat of its precious juices? You freeze it faster! That’s where flash-freezers once again make a huge difference — by freezing food in minutes instead of hours, exterior ice crystals are kept to a minimum to better preserve the integrity of the meat. Again, this simply can’t be achieved in a home freezer; the next time you freeze meat at home, pay attention to how much ice forms on its surface and how much moisture is present after thawing the meat. We bet you’ll notice more than you’d like.

Benefits of Flash-Frozen Meat

From what we’ve covered so far, you know flash-freezing is an excellent preserver of quality because it quickly suspends meat in its current state and minimizes damaging ice crystals. But there’s more to love about flash-frozen meat, starting with the fact that it’s usually vacuum-sealed before entering a commercial flash-freezer. Vacuum-sealing removes oxygen from the packaging, preventing discoloration from oxidation and freezer burn, while also tightly locking juices into the meat. Additionally, flash-frozen meat retains its nutritional content and needs no artificial preservatives for long-term storage.

The biggest benefit of flash-frozen meat, though, is that it’s often actually fresher than “fresh” meat. If that sounds impossible, remember the main purpose of flash-freezing meat: to preserve its quality at the moment it’s frozen. Contrast this with “fresh” meat displayed in grocery stores, which slowly degrades over time as its enzymes break down connective tissue. Of course, this comparison depends on when the food is flash-frozen — preserving the quality of a dry, heavily oxidized cut of meat through flash-freezing doesn’t do anybody any good. But when meat is handled correctly and flash-frozen at the ideal moment of freshness, it’ll exit the freezer in better shape than fresh, store-bought meat.

Benefits of Fresh Meat

Fresh Top USDA Choice Boneless Ribeye Steak

It’s worth noting that fresh meat can still be of extremely high quality and tenderness, depending on how it’s handled. Beyond the simple fact that it’s what we as consumers expect, grocery stores and retail chains sell fresh meat because it’s cost-effective and requires fewer resources to preserve. On the consumer side, fresh meat is generally cheaper, can be bought sooner, and doesn’t need to be defrosted before cooking. The big downside is uncertain quality, but that’s never a question if you purchase flash-frozen meat from a trusted distributor or local butcher shop that sells fresh meat in peak condition.