Making vacuum-packaged meat appear red

By Christopher R. Raines

A reader posed this question: How can you make vacuum-packaged meat appear red?  It is possible, though it requires a little myoglobin (meat pigment) chemistry management.

To summarize, there are three widely recognized forms of myoglobin: deoxymyoglobin, oxymyoglobin, and metmyoglobin.  There is a fourth form, carboxymyoglobin, that appears bright red (just like oxymyoglobin).  Much more detail about meat color dynamics appears in this blog post.  When in a vacuum package (anaerobic environment), meat will appear a muddy purplish color typical of deoxymyoglobin since there is no oxygen available for ‘blooming.’

How, then, can meat in a vacuum package be made to appear a desirable red color?  There are two ways that I know of for fresh (non-frozen) meat: (1) pre-treatment with carbon monoxide and (2) a nitrite/nitrate-inclusive film.  In both cases, the ligand binds to the heme pocket of myoglobin and a desirable red color is produced.  That red color maintains when oxygen is evacuated from the package.  If meat is to be sold frozen, it is possible to vacuum package bloomed meat and then freeze it immediately – the red color of oxymyoglobin should be retained.  In this case, it may be best to super-staurate the meat with oxygen to obtain a thicker bloomed meat layer before freezing.

Even so, neither treatment as discussed for fresh (non-frozen) meat bloomed color retention is widely used because both carbon monoxide and nitrite (when applied to meat) is not well-received by the general consumer.

Beef ribeye steaks, not 'bloomed' (Deoxymyoglobin)

Beef ribeye steaks, 'bloomed' (Oxymyoglobin)