Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Slow Cooking and Marinade: Recovering Foods from Freezer Burn

Last week I mentioned that one of the concerns with freezing foods, particularly meat, is the risk of freezer burn. When foods are not properly sealed, being frozen renders them dry, tough, and with questionable flavors and textures. While they're still safe and nutritious to eat, they're far from pleasant.

Thankfully, there are a couple simple ways to salvage freezer burned meats. The goal is to add moisture, tenderize the meat, and impart flavor. Both slow cooking and acid-based marinades accomplish these goals. (Be forewarned, trying both at the same time leads to disappointing results.*)

Slow Cooking
Using a slow cooker is incredibly convenient, working well with folks on a busy schedule: you simply add your ingredients, turn the cooker on, and come back later. On the low setting, meals are cooked in the duration of the average American workday.

Slow cookers work best with good quantities of liquid, be it broth, sauce, or just water. Because of the long cooking duration, they allow seasonings and spices to impart good flavor to proteins. The low, slow heat serves to tenderize damaged meats, and is also useful to make tougher, cheaper cuts much more palatable. Briskets and butts are far cheaper than filet, but can taste every bit as good.

Vegetables can also be added towards the end of cooking, to make a complete meal in one pot. Potatoes, carrots, celery, and onions all work very well for this, and beans can be cooked in this way. Let your main protein cook until it is fork-tender throughout, and check that it has attained an appropriate internal temperature.

Acid-based marinades, be they citrus juices, soft drinks, or certain vinegars, can also serve well to tenderize tough meats. Be careful with vinegars, as it is very easy to go too far and impart a bitter flavor to your food, a lesson I've learned the hard way.*
  • Put your meat in a dish that can be covered and sealed, and add your liquid, as well as any seasonings you want. 
  • Try to cover the meat as much as possible with the liquid. If you cannot cover the meat, you'll need to turn it once or twice as it marinates.
  • Let it sit at least a few hours in the refrigerator, turning as needed to make sure that it marinates thoroughly. 
  • If possible, let marinate overnight.
  • Pan fry or grill your meat, or roast thicker cuts. Again, internal temperature is the key to doneness.

*And Now the Embarrassment
I tried both methods at once, using a pretty heavily freezer burned pork roast. I used apple cider vinegar, hoping to add a nice apple flavor, and ran it on low in my slow cooker all day. The end result was disappointing: too much vinegar flavor and a fairly "dead" texture. I learned a few lessons from this experiment:
  1. I overcooked the meat. I blame this primarily on my wife and I having work schedules that are temporarily at a level that is nuts. The meat spent roughly 11 hours in the cooker, which is too much. Some the cookers are programmable, and would have solved this problem.
  2. Dilute your vinegar. I ran mine full strength, which added both the apple flavor I wanted and a vinegar bite that I did not. Cutting the vinegar with water will correct this.
  3. Don't combine both methods. While either method works wonderfully on its own, combining them ends up being too much of a good thing.
  4. Ingenuity saves the day. I still wasn't about to let this roast go to waste. Thankfully, barbecue sauce and a pair of forks can cure many sins. The difference between pulled pork and a slow cooker roast is a bit of sauce and some shredding. You can recover from a multitude of stumbles if you are willing to punt. 

Stored foods really are as easy to use as they are to store. Happy eating!


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