Most cooks think freezing their steaks means having to thaw them before cooking. Not only are most cooks wrong, they’re actually cooking drier, less-evenly cooked steaks.
And, really, who can blame them? For years, conventional wisdom has said that you always thaw meat before cooking. Luckily, chefs like Nathan Mhyrvold of Modernist Cuisine and the cooks at America’s Test Kitchen recently decided to put that wisdom to the test, showing us how to cook a frozen steak and why it leads to better beef.
In a feature for the New York Times, Mhyrvold – whose 2000-page, $625 cookbook (we’re not kidding) is the bible of modern cooking science – showed how freezing steaks, searing them with a blowtorch, and then slow-cooking them in an oven produced a better sear and more evenly done steaks.
Luckily for those of us who don’t own blowtorches, Dan Souza at American Test Kitchen did his own video investigation, and found that with or without a blowtorch, keeping your steaks frozen undoubtedly produces better steak.
So why does cooking a frozen steak produce better results than cooking a thawed steak? Simply put, freezing protects the center of your steak from overcooking, eliminating the nasty “Gray Band.”
Why Frozen Steaks Cook Better
The perfect steak is a pretty easy equation. Take a great piece of USDA Prime beef, develop a delicious, brown sear, then cook the center to your desired doneness from edge-to-edge.
As simple as this equation is, it’s frustratingly hard to get right, and you can thank the gray band.
Even if you’ve never heard of the gray band, you’ve definitely tasted it. The gray band is the strip of overcooked meat found underneath a steak’s sear. Simply put, it’s a taste and texture killer. On a perfect steak, you go straight from crispy sear to tender center. With a gray band, you throw a strip of tough, overcooked meat in between those two elements.
Cooking your steak frozen is the latest technique to reducing the gray band. A frozen steak will still get up to temperature on the surface, allowing for a crispy, blistering sear. But underneath the surface, the frozen meat takes longer to heat up, resulting in a thinner (almost non-existent) gray band.
This not only means not having to bite through a layer of tougher, overcooked meat on your way to the good stuff, it also means a bigger, juicer steak. In America’s Test Kitchen’s test, they found that a frozen steak lost 9% less moisture than a thawed steak cooked the same way.
How to Cook a Frozen Steak
Cooking a frozen steak works a lot like cooking any other steak. In fact the really important steps aren’t in how you cook your steak, but in how you freeze it.
When you plan to cook a frozen steak, it’s essential that you freeze your steak in a way that prevents moisture build up. This is important any time your freeze meat, but is extra important when you cook without thawing.
There are two reasons for this. One, water slows down searing. Two, if you’re pan searing your steak, water will cause dangerous flare-ups when you place your steak in smoking-temperature oil.
It is therefore important that you make sure your steak’s surface stays dry when freezing it. Do this by freezing it overnight on an exposed-air pan lined with parchment paper. The following morning, wrap it in airtight plastic wrap before putting it in a zip-locked plastic bag and back in the freezer. This will prevent moisture from collecting in ice crystals on the surface of your steak.
When you actually cook your steak, make sure to have your cooking oil or grill as hot as you can possibly get it. The cooking surface should reach 500 F, minimum. You should also have your oven preheated to a lower cooking temperature. The crew at America’s Test Kitchen suggests 275 F. Meanwhile, Nathan Mhyrvold recommends as low at 135 F, though most kitchen ovens don’t go lower than 200 F. A lower temperature means a more consistent level of doneness.
Sear your steak for 90 seconds on each side, then transfer your steak to a wire-rack set in a rimmed baking sheet. Slide your steak into the oven, and cook it until it reaches your desired temperature for doneness.
Keep in mind that because your steak is frozen, it will take longer to reach your desired level of doneness. Also, the lower the temperature you set your oven at, the longer it will take to cook. We strongly suggest you use a thermometer to measure your steak’s temperature, especially if you’re trying this method for the first time.
While this process requires more effort and a longer cooking time, the results are exceptional: a perfect sear, an evenly done center, and almost no gray band to speak of.