Flash in the Pan

Demystifying mystery meat


At a family gathering last summer, my wife’s mom asked me to cook some meat from a deer my father-in-law had shot. It was his first, and nobody seemed to know exactly what to do with it. The deer’s flesh resided in a cache of unlabeled Ziplocs in a chest freezer in the basement. 

Chances are every meat eater — even those without ties to the hunting community — has encountered a hunk of mystery meat in the back of their freezer. Nobody wants meat to spoil. The resources, carbon emissions and death behind that meat make it precious. But while we may want to use up that meat, we don’t want to invest time and energy into a meal that nobody will care to eat. 

Meat can spoil in the freezer if it isn’t properly processed and sealed, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with long-frozen meat. In fact, the texture of meat can actually improve in the freezer, as tough chunks will soften with time. 

The notion that meat can survive, much less thrive, in the freezer contradicts the popular belief that fresh meat is better. Restaurants like Wendy’s make a big deal about their 100% fresh burger meat. But raw meat is rotting meat. If you want to keep red meat fresh for more than a few days, freeze it. 

When you freeze meat, wrap it tightly in plastic. You don’t want to leave any air pockets next to the meat, or they’ll fill with frost and cause freezer burn. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, plastic wrap works as well. If you then wrap the plastic-wrapped meat in butcher paper, with the shiny side facing inward, the meat should stay in pristine shape for well over a year. 

That bright white butcher paper practically begs to be drawn on with a Sharpie. My son likes to draw pictures of the animal inside before it became meat. The cook, of course, prefers their meat to be labeled with all the relevant information, like what kind of animal it is, which part of the animal it is and when it was packed. 

Luckily, for those times when we’re cooking blind, we have the mystery meat techniques, time-tested ways of assessing and preparing meat of uncertain age and origin. They aren’t that complicated and will give you the confidence you need to solve the mystery of the next piece of random meat you encounter. 

The mystery meat techniques 

The first step is to slowly thaw the wrapped meat to what’s called the “sherbet” stage, where the surface is soft but not thawed, and the inner core is still solid but softening. 

With a long, thin, sharp knife — a filet knife, ideally — trim the outside of the meat. Think of it like skinning an orange with a knife: You want the peel gone, but you don’t want to cut into the flesh beneath it. In the case of mystery meat — as well as poorly sealed meat of known provenance — that “peel” is a grayish layer of oxidized flesh. Keep trimming until the surface of your meat hunk is completely red, with no splotches of brown, gray or green. You may have to dig deeper near freezer-burnt areas. As you slice, make a note of the musculature that’s revealed. Is it smooth, or is it crisscrossed with connective tissue? 

When the surface of the meat is clean, slice off a thin piece — less than half an inch — and do some analysis in the pan. Heat some oil, add salt and pepper and then cook the piece of meat on both sides. While you’re at it, open a bottle of wine for proper enjoyment. 

If your brain and belly scream “WANT MOAR” upon tasting this morsel, you’re good to go. If you have any reservations, then you might need to pay attention. 

It’s possible for a piece of meat to taste good but also have off flavors. And it’s easy to temporarily convince yourself that the good flavors outweigh the bad. You can mask flavor to a certain extent with spices, marinades and sauces, but ultimately, a piece of mystery meat isn’t worth getting sick over. Trust your gut. If it doesn’t taste right in any way, don’t take the risk. 

Truly bad meat is a lot more likely in the case of wild mystery meat. An outdoor hunt presents a whole new set of variables, like temperature, manner of death and how the animal was processed into meat. On the other hand, meat processed in a United States Department of Agriculture-inspected facility doesn’t face those variables and should be fine — unless it spoiled at home before you froze it. 

Assuming you have good meat beneath that oxidized peel, the pan test will also help you determine how chewable it is. If it’s tender, cut it into little cubes — half-frozen meat is easy to cut. Cook the cubes in oil, salt and pepper and let them slowly build a crusty shell of brown armor. 

You’ll likely be tempted to shovel these browned cubes into your mouth right away and wash them down with wine, but you can also make mystery meat tacos or mysterious fried rice. 

If the meat is tough, you’ll have to melt it, either with an oven braise or in the slow cooker. Cover it and cook it at 300 degrees in water and wine until soft, which could take anywhere from six to eight hours. With tough cuts that have been braised into submission, make a stew or pulled meat sandwiches. 


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

Connect with us