If you're wondering why your homemade meat dishes never match up with what you eat at top restaurants, the reason has nothing to do with your cooking skills. It's because the meat you're buying at the grocery store probably isn't nearly as fresh as you think it is.
Close to a billion pounds of beef make their way into the U.S. each year, and that means not all of it is ready to be distributed and consumed immediately, forcing most mainstream retailers to freeze their meat for months at a time. Aside from being frozen for long periods of time—as long as nine months in some cases—meat that's advertised as "fresh beef" often gets carbon monoxide added to it to give it a ruddy, just-butchered color that's wholly unnatural. In reality, that meat is just "freshly thawed."
"A typical grocery store keeps a two to four week inventory of product on hand because they never want to miss a sale," explains Travis Scarpace, founder and CEO of Plaid Cow Society. "The buyers [on staff at supermarkets] try to predict demand, but can never fully account for changes in consumer behavior. The side effect of this is that meat can go bad (10 percent of all meat and produce is thrown out prior to it getting to customer), or companies have to freeze product before it spoils. Also grocery chains can import beef from overseas that's frozen, or they can buy large bulk quantities when market conditions are lowest, to take advantage of the price. Meat can be frozen from days to months, and I have seen 270-day frozen product."
But what's the big deal about freezing, anyway? Most of us are guilty of buying a few of our favorite cuts on sale and throwing them in our home freezers until it's time for a dinner party, slow-cooker night, or steak celebration. It comes down to the way meat is frozen, and since the vast majority of consumers will never get the chance to know the way their meat was pre-frozen, they'll never really know just what quality meat they're buying until it's cooked and on the table—regardless of price. Even fast food restaurants like Wendy's are hopping on the fresh meat bandwagon, citing positive customer feedback on flavor and texture.
"Freezing meat causes ice crystals to form, which damages the cellular structure of the meat. Slow freezing and time in storage also causes loss in quality, flavor, and texture. Many times frozen steaks are frozen slowly in distribution centers which can cause a lowering of quality."
Changes in temperature can cause the ice crystals that form in the meat to grow. Then the thawing and refreezing process continues to expand the ice crystals and destroy the texture of the proteins. Who wants mealy meat? Nobody. But there's good news: If meat is indeed frozen properly, briefly, and only thawed once, the outcome can be as good as any top restaurant's.
"When meat is frozen, water inside the cells of the muscle tissue expands, which can tear the walls of those cells," says Anna Hanau of Grow and Behold Foods, a direct-to-consumer luxury Glatt kosher meat supplier. "When the meat defrosts, more juices can leak out, resulting in drier meat. Being if it's frozen only once at very low temperatures, and then thawed slowly in the fridge, you have very little of this effect."
The key, says Hanau, is treating meat with the love and care you'd give any fine food. "The notion that frozen meat has a bad flavor is related more to a function of when it is frozen. It is common for meat to sit out, fresh, in a case, for a week or two, and then be frozen if it has not sold. You're essentially buying meat that is at the end of its shelf life. Once thawed, it needs to be used quickly because it has already 'sat out' for several weeks."
Moral of the story? Opt for fresh or shop from a verifable once-frozen retailer. It pays to ask.
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