Q&A: Is it better to cook a steak frozen or thawed?

There’s an article on Gizmodo that was brought to my attention by a reader. In it, they cite an America’s Test Kitchen video that did a side by side comparison of a steak that was divided in half and frozen, then cooked, half still frozen and half that was thawed.

I was asked what my opinion was on the subject.

As a “scientific” experiment, the methodology leaves much to be desired. They sear the steak for 90 seconds per side. That’s nice. In a large puddle of oil? Not so nice.

How thick is the steak? One inch thick is a beautiful piece of meat, but that’s usually a little luxurious for home cooking. If it’s too thick, or not cooked long enough, you’re going to bite into a shockingly cold piece of uncooked steak.

How hot is the pan? Well, with all that oil in it, it almost doesn’t matter. What about grilling the steaks, which may be the more common way of eating them? My guess (okay, it’s not my guess; I’ve really done it. Please don’t ask me why) is that if you grilled a frozen steak and a thawed steak side by side, one person’s dinner would be a charred wreck.

Was the steak frozen in such a way that it was completely flat? They actually cop out and say they use the oil to “get in all the crevices.” Not everyone has that much space in their freezer. And I do not agree with their freezing method. Freezers have a nasty habit of blending flavors in an unpleasant way.
I individually wrap the steaks in plastic wrap, press the air out, and store them. Not for longer than six months, by the way.

Did they season the steaks? It didn’t look like it, and anyway you can’t season a frozen steak. Salt does more than heighten the flavor; it draws liquid to the surface. Is this a bad thing? No; think “dry aged” beef, and that incredible crust you get on a pan-fried steak, courtesy of Monsieur Maillard. That’s not muscle fiber burning; that’s the juices crusting up.

The cut the steaks in half. The wrong way. They should have gotten 2-inch steaks and cut them into two one-inch steaks. Steaks are not bilaterally symmetrical, and that may very well have affected the results as well, in terms of intramuscular fat marbling, connective tissue and so on.

Did they test different thicknesses? How long did it take for the steak to thaw? How did they let the steak thaw? Was it a blind tasting? There are too many unanswered questions to make the claim that this is real science.

Here’s some real science. Freezing anything turns the water contained within it into ice, which as we know, expands (ice floats because it is less dense). As it expands, the water contained in plant or animal cells ‘pops’ the cell walls. When the ice melts, the intracellular fluid weeps out of the item. Cabbage leaves get wilted, chicken gets rubbery, and so on. Which is why the texture of a fresh cut of beef is so much better. But we live in an age of frozen food, and especially in Israel, this is the food that’s easily and affordable. See previous posts for locavore rants.

Why is this important? Well, beef jerky. Think about it. That’s the driest piece of meat you can get, right? And think about the the intensity of flavor. It’s pure beefiness. Now think about chewing on that piece of meat. It’s impossibly tough. Of course it is, there’s no moisture in it. Now think about wedding rib roast. Now that’s a gorgeous piece of meat, right? Do you recall the flavor as clearly as the beef jerky? Probably not, but you know you had a nice hunk of meat. But that was all about the texture. Preparing and cooking a steak correctly is about balancing flavor and texture.

Deep fried anything tasted good. Steak, fries, onion rings, fish, Oreos… you name it. This was an experiment in deep-frying frozen meat. Yes, they stuck it in the oven to finish cooking, but the frying was the crucial element of the experiment.

If it were up to me, I would thaw the steaks, preferably in an oil-based marinade, and grill them.



Posted in Q&A

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