One cannot survive on pantry pasta and beans forever. Whether you’re stuck indoors because of Mother Nature or just trying to save money by buying in bulk, knowing what kind of meat to freeze and how to store it properly is a lifesaver. Many of us turn to easy staples like boneless skinless chicken breasts or ground beef, but those can get boring, especially if you’re eating them for months in a row. So we decided to ask butchers what kind of cuts of meat—including beef, pork, chicken, lamb, duck, and even fish—they recommend freezing to keep creative in the kitchen.
But before we get to their suggestions and techniques for cooking these different types of meat, let’s go over some basic tips for freezing. First and foremost, if you can buy something already frozen and vacuum sealed, that’s ideal. All the air has been sucked out of the packaging and it was flash-frozen in a much colder commercial freezer than yours at home, so it can keep for at least six months, and even up to a year. If you buy it fresh from the grocery store or butcher counter, take out what you want to cook now and then grab a box of plastic wrap.
Anya Fernald, the CEO and founder of Belcampo Meat Co., suggests patting each piece dry to remove moisture, then wrapping it super tightly in plastic wrap, pressing out any air bubbles as you go. “This is the closest approximation to a vacuum seal,” she explains, but if you have access to a vacuum sealer—even better. “Surfaces exposed to air will get freezer burnt. Make sure every bit is covered, especially the meaty part, which will get freezer burnt before the fat does.”
Elias Cairo, salumist and founder of Olympia Provisions, suggests going a step further and double-wrapping in plastic, then foil or a plastic freezer bag so you can label the package with the date it was frozen. Be extra careful when freezing bone-in chops, adds Katie Flannery, chief operating officer of Flannery Beef, as sharp bone fragments can puncture through the plastic and let in air—the enemy of frozen meat!
When it comes time to thaw, if you have time, overnight in the fridge is best; a few days for larger cuts like roasts and whole chickens. If you forget to thaw it, Flannery suggests putting the wrapped meat in a bowl of cold water in the sink for a few hours, changing the water once an hour. To speed up the process in a pinch, you can let a continuous thin stream of chilled water run into the bowl. “This way you can walk away and it will be constantly replacing the temperature of the water and making sure it doesn’t get too cold,” she adds. But don’t be tempted to use warm or hot water to thaw it, and definitely don’t microwave it—the abrupt temperature change to the “danger zone” temperature makes it a breeding ground for bacteria, and usually would thaw the outside completely while the inside remains rock solid frozen.
Now that you’re ready to safely and efficiently freeze and thaw your meat, let’s meat the new cuts you should be buying.
This is the best bang for your buck, according to Flannery. The full name is actually hanging tenderloin, which indicates how tender it is. It can be a little tough to find as there is only one per cow, but it is worth seeking out. A hanger steak averages about two pounds and should come in two separate pieces. If you see it attached as one “X” shape, ask the butcher to cut out the middle piece or remove it yourself; it’s a center nerve that is tough, chewy, and nearly inedible. Flannery recommends cooking it fat and hot on the grill (outdoor or indoor grill pan) or in cast iron. Start on the stovetop to sear, finish in the oven, and then slice against the grain and serve in tortillas for taco night.
Fattier, tougher cuts that need to be cooked low and slow are ideal for freezing, says Fernald. “The more fat meat has, the better it freezes, because fat molecules are not disrupted by water,” she explains. Short ribs can be seared from frozen and then braised in red wine for hours in the oven or in a pressure cooker. Serve them over a hearty starch like mashed potatoes or polenta.
Ariane Daguin, CEO and founder of D’Artagnan, is also a big fan of short ribs, but suggests freezing them and brisket after they have been braised. “Since they already have had physical temperature reactions from cooking, the meat will keep better than if it was raw,” she explains. It is okay to pack the meat, vegetables, and braising liquid down as long as the liquid has been concentrated down. She suggests freezing in small portions for two or four people so you don’t have to thaw it all at once, and says you can always add more water when reheating in a pot on the stove.
Also known as top sirloin cap, this underrated cut can be served as a whole roast (averaging 2 to 5 pounds) or cut into steaks, called coulottes (no relation to the pants). Flannery calls this a “phenomenal family-style meal that is easy, affordable, and can feed a crowd with endless leftovers.” It has a nice, rich, beefy flavor and is similar in texture to a New York Strip steak; a middle ground of lean versus fatty. Roast at 400 F for 25 to 30 minutes for medium rare and serve with a bright, acidic chimichurri sauce. If you can’t find Picanha, the Chateaubriand is from the same part of the cow and can be cooked in a similar way.
Poultry and Fish
Moulard Duck Breasts
Unlike chicken breasts, duck breasts are fatty, meaty, and eat more like a steak than poultry. D’Artagnan specializes in duck, and Daguin suggests buying Moulard duck breasts since they are much bigger than heritage breeds like Rohan; a single breast can weigh around a pound and serve two people. It is an affordable indulgence, so a nice way to celebrate an anniversary or birthday at home. Cook it skin side down at a pretty low temperature with no fat in the pan, allowing the natural fat to render out until the skin is caramelized, about 7 to 8 minutes. Pour that fat into a container to roast vegetables or make French fries, turn the heat to high and flip so it will sear the flesh side and keep it juicy. It should only take 3 to 4 minutes more of cooking to medium rare, so 10 to 12 minutes total, and the hardest part is letting it rest when the kitchen smells so good. Serve it with green vegetables and your favorite starch.
Steelhead Trout Fillets
Even though this fish is called trout, it’s a salmonoid raised in the ocean that tastes a lot like salmon. “If you really love salmon, you will die for steelhead trout,” says Matt Mixter, founder of Wixter Seafood and Wixter Market. This is a way to venture out in the seafood world but be comfortable that you’ll like. Steelhead has a buttery texture and subtle flavor, and its skin can get extra crispy due to a layer of fat below the skin. It is foolproof to cook and is always juicy and tender. Mixter recommends cooking it skin side down on tin foil or a cedar plank in a 375 F oven for 10 minutes. Rub with olive or grapeseed oil and spices of your choice; salt and dill is always a sure bet. Mixter sells steelhead and his other frozen Wixter Seafood locally in Chicago and the Midwest, but it is easy to find at club stores, and even in subscription boxes like HelloFresh and HomeChef.
Having a bag of shrimp—especially if it’s already peeled and deveined for you—is the quickest dinner you can make. Shrimp thaws quickly because it is so small; defrost in a bowl of cold water while you prep your mise en place for scampi, tacos, or steak if you want to treat yourself to surf and turf. Mixter suggests using a Cajun blackening spice or any spice rub with smoked Spanish paprika to pack it with flavor, and seek out sweet, wild-caught Florida Gulf shrimp or red Argentinian shrimp if you can, as they have the most high quality taste and texture. Red shrimp, in particular, eat more like plump little pieces of lobster. Cook shrimp quickly, just until it turns from translucent to opaque white in color, so it doesn’t turn out rubbery.
Pork and Game
Fresh, Cooked, and Smoked Sausages (One of Each!)
Cairo specializes in sausage at Olympia Provisions, and his ideal freezer has four different types at all times. First, a classic unsmoked sausage like bratwurst (that can be cooked one-pot style with sauerkraut, boiled potatoes, and white wine) or Italian sausage (served in rolls or cooked with beans and baked into a sausage and bean gratin). Then a smoked sausage like kielbasa cooked on a sheet tray with bitter spring greens and served with mustard. Next, something spicy like chorizo, cooked with chickpeas and lots of sherry vinegar, garlic, and olive oil. Lastly, some type of Asian sausage, like Chinese sweet lap cheong or Thai sai oua to chop up for fried rice.
Charcuterie and Deli Meats
If you want to have spontaneous snacky dinners, keep various types of charcuterie and deli meats around. Cairo says mortadella, ham, roast beef, pastrami, and salami cotto can be frozen in whole chunks and sliced later for boards, sandwiches, and salads. Portion into sizes you’d defrost and consume completely, as re-freezing isn’t good. If you have prosciutto or hard salami, those don’t need to be frozen—they are shelf stable and can be kept in the fridge for a long time.
Boneless Pork Loin
Flannery wants you to remember that boneless cuts are less likely to pierce the plastic you used to carefully wrap your meat and a pork loin can be roasted whole or cut into chops to pound into cutlets for Italian Milanese or Japanese katsu. When buying, embrace the fat, since lean pork will dry out quickly. Her rule of thumb for roasting anything is to not focus on the weight as much as the thickness or diameter of the cut. A three-pound and five-pound loin are the same width; the “bigger” one is just longer. The heavier piece won’t take longer to cook, since it is just about how long it takes for the heat to get to the center of the protein. She recommends cooking a whole roast at 350 F for an hour and a half and serving with cherry gastrique or another fruit-based sauce for sweet and savory vibes.
Rack of Lamb and Lamb Chops
One exception to the boneless rule is lamb chops, since they are so small and can overcook quickly when boneless. Daguin suggests buying a whole rack and portioning chops out so you can pull a few out at time for a quick dinner. If you have sausage on hand—particularly North African merguez, made of lamb and warm spices—sear lamb chops, then take the sausage out of its casing and brown it in the same pan pan. Add demi-glacé or broth, scrape the browned bits, reduce, and pour onto lamb chops. Serve with mashed potatoes, rice, or even noodles to soak up all that sauce, and be happy that you had lamb in your freezer to make even a random Wednesday feel special.