Temperature Control: Freezing

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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The most drastic form of temperature control is freezing, which stops cold the overall metabolism of fruits, vegetables, and spoilage microbes. It causes most of the water in the cells to crystallize, thus immobilizing other molecules and suspending most chemical activity. The microbes are hardy, and most of them revive on warming. But freezing kills plant tissues, which suffer two kinds of damage. One is chemical: as the water crystallizes, enzymes and other reactive molecules become unusually concentrated and react abnormally. The other damage is physical disruption caused by the water crystals, whose edges puncture cell walls and membranes. When the food is thawed, the cell fluids leak out of the cells, and the food loses crispness and becomes limp and wet. Producers of frozen foods minimize the size of the ice crystals, and so the amount of damage done, by freezing the food as quickly as possible to as low a temperature as possible, often –40°F/–40°C. Under these conditions, many small ice crystals form; at higher temperatures fewer and larger crystals form, and do more damage. Home and restaurant freezers are warmer than commercial freezers and their temperatures fluctuate, so during storage some water melts and refreezes into larger crystals, and the food’s texture suffers.