If you spend enough time in the food-industry you will hear countless debates about Frozen vs Fresh food. Some chefs and cooks will swear that Fresh beef is a completely different experience than frozen. Some brands have gone as far as to only sell fresh beef forcing their customers to pay over $50 for overnight shipping.
Others have made "Frozen is the new fresh" the new motto and claim that their process of flash-freezing meat keeps meat fresher. I have seen screaming matches on Facebook from 50+ year old meat purveyors that claim their quality is better because its "always fresh" (when often they can’t even control what happens to the beef before it gets to them or don’t even know where they get it from).
FROZEN CAN BE FRESH BUT IT USUALLY ISN'T
Fresh beef "sounds" better. I mean it makes sense; you would rather eat fresh fruit than frozen fruit... so why wouldn't the same apply to meat?
Because it doesn’t.
Some steaks can be better frozen. A Bone-In steak cut fresh and vacuum sealed will have AT BEST a shelf life of two weeks... and that is assuming that the steaks are stored in the right conditions (your home refrigerator a 38-40F does NOT possess the right conditions, get it down to 27F and don’t open the door 10 times a day and then it will). So, it makes sense to buy these cuts frozen and thaw them out before eating.
A boneless steak will last up to 28 days. Larger cuts will last longer.
Fish only has a shelf life of a few days, poultry less than a week.
A dry aged steak should be frozen right away, because that steak has been “rotting” in a controlled environment for quite some time (just like wine).
So the key to quality is not whether the protein is fresh or frozen... the key is WHEN and HOW it was frozen. The details.
The older food gets, the more nutrition it loses. But frozen food can have more nutrition if it's frozen quickly and efficiently, because it decays more slowly. Fresh food that's been kept longer will have less nutrition than frozen. This applies to fruit just like it applies to beef or fish. The texture of most proteins will only change noticeably if the product isn’t frozen properly. If you handle it right, frozen meat should be just as good as fresh.
A steak should be cut, vacuum sealed and then frozen at a very low temperature very fast. But the key for "Frozen is the new fresh" is for steaks to actually be fresh when they are put in a freezer. A Ribeye that was cut 3 weeks ago and is frozen today is NOT a freshly frozen Ribeye.
It is a fairly simple concept, but as a consumer it is hard to know... unless you have a butcher that you trust! (Hi, there... have you heard of Meat N' Bone?)
There is nothing wrong with frozen product, in fact freezing product properly helps tenderize it. We have run dozens of tests with known Chefs comparing Freshly Frozen vs Frozen beef and while some claimed to be able to tell "a small difference" most said they could not. In fact, they could not tell one from the other if you did not point it out to them.
HOW CAN YOU TELL WHATS REALLY FRESH?
First off as a consumer you are right to be distrustful of the industry. The beef industry is cut-through, it works off small margins, big overheads and expensive operations, it is also exposed to swings in the commodity markets... that means that in order to survive some purveyors may be willing to "cut corners".
Take the COVID-19 crisis...Most restaurants source from a few large nationwide meat purveyors, they are quick, ruthless and efficient... they cut meat using precision laser machines, they move MASSIVE amounts of meat. They pack in food-service packs (usually 5 - 10 lbs). They are specially engineered to service chains and cruise ships. So, when the chains and cruise ships shut their doors they were left with months’ worth of meat which was then frozen.
A bunch of companies were born overnight...companies just buying the old frozen inventory from billion dollar wholesalers that sell everything from Meat to Clorox and selling it to you under the guise of “restaurant grade steaks”. There is nothing fresh or freshly frozen about what they’re selling. This is the equivalent of buying off brand surplus from the dollar general store...
A steak that was cut for fresh consumption, transported, sat on shelves for half its life and was then frozen is NOT fresh.
If something seems to be too cheap, that is usually the case. Prices for quality beef are not any cheaper if you buy larger quantities...if the so called "restaurant grade beef" is cheaper than what you find at your local supermarket, it probably is NOT high grade beef... or it is beef that is not fresh.
Nobody is in business to sell at a loss, so if someone is selling below market price… well this may be frozen inventory at-least 60 days old and possibly 3 times that.
WHAT SHOULD CONSUMERS LOOK FOR?
Buy from reputable butchers such as us, ask questions. What meat programs do they work with? What makes them good? When and How do you freeze your beef?
Look for butchers who hand-cut steaks and who will take care and pride in the end result. Not food service companies who are looking to push as many cases of product as they can. It is about quality, not quantity. It is better to eat less of high quality than more meat of poor quality.
If something looks too cheap and it is frozen... it is probably because it has been frozen for a while. But also be wary of beef that is sold as "fresh" that is below market because that means it may have been frozen and thawed out for sale.
Long story short... when it comes to commodities, you cannot cheat price. You will get what you pay for.