Fresh vs frozen meat — it’s a debate that’s been used in advertising, and drives meat enthusiasts to tears. Fresh meat is often tied closely with being a better quality and having much better flavor than when it’s frozen. However, there are those that claim freezing your proteins has little effect on the quality. We’ve even seen it argued that freezing meat can tenderize it, making it better. So, who’s right? You may be surprised to find that the answer isn’t so clear cut.

Is There a Difference?

The debate between whether frozen proteins are as good as fresh has actually been solved, for the most part, and the answer is a resounding “it depends.” Sorry, but there really isn’t a straight answer because the quality of a protein really depends on how it was frozen. As long as the ingredient (and this goes for produce, too) is frozen, stored, and thawed correctly, you shouldn’t notice a difference. This is true for both quality of the ingredient and the nutritional value. Don’t take our word for it, that’s according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. In fact, many forms of seafood, specifically fish, must be flash frozen upon catching to kill any parasites and keep the fish “fresh” on the trip to your grocery store. If you’ve ever tasted your “fresh” wild caught fish, and didn’t notice any difference from frozen, you’ve tasted how little a difference properly handled frozen foods can make.

As long as the ingredient (and this goes for produce, too) is frozen, stored, and thawed correctly, you shouldn’t notice a difference.

Now, the big question goes from one being better than the other, to when should you use fresh and when should you use frozen.

When Should You Use Fresh?

If there’s no real difference between fresh and frozen (and some “fresh” foods come into the store frozen anyway), why would you ever go with fresh? It’s important to remember that there’s a critical qualifier when comparing the two. It needs to be frozen, stored, and thawed properly. If any of those steps aren’t done correctly, it can harm the quality and nutritional value of the protein. Unfrozen proteins can also be easier to cook properly because you don’t have to worry about the ingredient appearing thawed on the outside, but still being frozen on the inside, which can cause it to cook unevenly.

If you’re cooking it soon, you might as well go fresh.

Finally, getting fresh ingredients right from the store means you don’t have to wait for them to thaw, adding a timeliness factor that may not be present for frozen ingredients. For example, if you wanted to preseason a steak the night before you cook it or marinade a porkchop, it’ll be easier and quicker to go with unfrozen. Same goes for grabbing something at the store to cook that evening. If you’re cooking it soon, you might as well go fresh.

Why Would You Freeze?

So, if fresh meats and fish are easier and quicker to make, why would you ever freeze them? This mostly comes down to when you’ll be using the protein. Most pieces of uncooked meat will last between three to five days in the fridge before going bad, though poultry and fish should only be kept one to two days before being cooked. Even if the protein is OK to be in your fridge for a few days, it’ll begin to lose some nutritional value and flavor quality as it nears the end of its fridge lifespan. If you’re not going to be using an ingredient within the next day or two, it’s a good idea to freeze it properly at peak freshness to maintain that quality until it’s time to use it. In fact, there are some cuts of meat that can become more tender when they’re frozen.

Buying and freezing your meat can make it the economical and practical solution, since it lasts longer and cuts down on food waste.

Availability can also be an issue. For many people, especially if you have a busy schedule or a lack of grocery stores in your area, getting fresh meat or fish every couple of days isn’t an option. Buying fresh may also be more expensive depending on your options. Taken together, this can make buying and freezing your meat the economical and practical solution, since it lasts longer and cuts down on food waste.

How to Properly Freeze and Thaw Something

If the big decider between frozen and fresh is properly freezing and thawing the ingredient, then what does this entail? There’s actually a really easy rule of thumb to follow. You want to freeze quickly, and thaw slowly. When freezing, you’ll want the freezer to be about 0°F, since this can prevent ice crystals from forming and degrading the quality and nutrition of the protein. At the very least, you’ll want to get your freezer as close to 0°F as possible. For thawing, we previously shared the best method for thawing — in the fridge overnight. Not only can this prevent you from potentially getting sick, it helps the meat thaw without damaging the texture of it.

The answer to the great freezer debate is that both options are possible as long as you’re doing it correctly.

There’s another trick you can use beyond the speed with which you freeze or thaw the protein. You can help preserve the quality of the meat or fish by wrapping it in an airtight container prior to freezing. Either vacuum-sealing it or wrapping it in plastic wrap and pressing out all the air both work. This ensures there’s not enough surface space on the protein for ice crystals to form, which causes freezer burn.

The answer to the great freezer debate is that both options are possible as long as you’re doing it correctly. Just be sure to cook fresh or frozen meats and fish within the right timeframe (there’s a limit to how long even frozen things are good) and you should be fine.

● ● ●

Bottom line, if you’re going to use the ingredient within the next day or two, fresh is a great option. If it’s going to be longer than that, frozen (when done properly) is a good option too.