What Happens to Meat When it Freezes?

A key ingredient of West Side Beef is your freezer. Freezing your share will allow you to enjoy it at a pace that works for you and your family. 

So often, however, meat is frozen improperly, which makes it become mushy and tasteless once thawed. So how do you avoid this pitfall? Buy high-quality beef, dry age it, and package it properly.

To understand what happens to meat when it freezes, you only need to consider what happens to water when it freezes. As water turns from liquid to solid state at sub-zero temperatures, it expands and crystallizes. This is true for the water that is bound up in meat protein as well. When meat is frozen, the constituent water expands and crystallizes.

If you’ve ever eaten meat that was thawed after having been frozen you will remember (or try to forget) the mushy texture that is often the result: grilled striploins that can feel like mashed peas in your mouth.

Also common of thawed meat is the voluminous pool of pink water that is left on the plate as the steaks are thawing. The liquid left there seems less like a pool of blood and more like a sink of water used to rinse out a fresh cut.

Why is thawed meat so often mushy? Why is the pool of thawed blood so diluted?

If you could see with a microscope what is happening to meat when it is frozen, you would notice long sharp edges of ice piercing the molecular structure of the protein, breaking the cellular walls and causing irreparable harm to the final texture of the meat. When the cell walls are broken, their own available water supply is now free to escape the cell, like prisoners in a jail that all of a sudden find the front door open.

With the meat still in the freezer, these changes are largely unnoticed. But once the meat has thawed in a dish in your fridge, what would have been a pool of blood is now a pool of mostly water on a jailbreak from its cellular confine.

Yet the most disappointing part is yet to come. Once you’ve cooked that meat, the texture you confront is soft and mushy as though it’s been partially chewed.  In a very real way, it almost has been. Those sharp crystals of ice created by expanding and freezing water have masticated the protein of your steak.

So how do you avoid these issues? Certainly, if you’re buying WSB, we encourage you to freeze the meat you buy. In fact, it’s the entire point of our program: you are buying a share of meat that is destined for your freezer.

At WSB we do three things to help eliminate the problems discussed above:

The first is that we buy meat that is raised slowly without any additional water in its diet. All animals need water to live and in good husbandry, the livestock has access to water at all times.  But in conventional agriculture, livestock is often fed too much water, and much of their food and medicine is administered through a liquid delivery system, making the animals bloated and overweight. This makes for poor quality meat from unhealthy animals: but they are certainly heavier, which for conventional growers means extra profits since the product is sold by weight. Slowly raised meat that is pastured outdoors and allowed to gain market weight over a longer life span will always yield meat that is tasty, healthy, and not laden with additional water.

The second thing we do at WSB is dry age all our beef. Whole carcasses are hung for at least three weeks in an ageing room not far from the local farms where we source your meat. As the meat ages, the natural lactic acid left in the muscles acts to tenderize the tough connective tissue in the meat. But the best part is the loss of 30% of the water available in the carcass. This makes the meat weigh less, not something conventional agriculture likes, but something that home cooks, chefs and our customers at WSB find essential. Essential because the flavour is better, the meat is more tender; but also because the meat will freeze and thaw without having excess water around to denature the cell structure of the protein.

The third thing we do at WSB is vacuum seal all our meat. Vacuum sealing removes a large part of the oxygen and creates a perfect seal so that the remaining water cannot expand when it is freezing. What you end up with is a densely frozen protein that will stay firm, thaw with integrity, and taste as delicious as if it were cooked fresh.

When you get your WSB share home to your house, you should keep a few items fresh that you would like to eat in the coming days. The remainder of your bin should be frozen immediately: and rest assured we’ve taken steps to make sure that when you thaw what meat it will be just as good as when you froze it.