Have you ever been at the grocery store and found a really great deal on a thick steak that's been marked down because it has hit or passed the use by date? It's natural to wonder if that discount steak is even still edible or if it will make you sick. Knowing how to avoid buying a steak that has started to spoil is just as valuable as knowing how to buy the most fresh steak that will cook perfectly. Today, we'll break down what to look for when you are concerned about the freshness of a steak, how to identify the common signs of a steak that is going bad, and how to avoid cooking spoiled meat.
What Causes Meat To Spoil?
Steak is bad when it begins to decompose. Decomposition is driven by the growth of bacteria, mold, and other microorganisms. In almost all cases, microbial growth is driven by improper food handling safety that includes cross-contamination with blood or improper storage temperature. Temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees tend to be ideal conditions for many types of bacteria and mold spores to grow in meat. With warm temperatures and an abundance of food, bacteria and mold can grow quickly, causing the decomposition process to begin. Consuming decomposing meat is a near-certain way to get food poisoning.
Can Meat Spoil in the Freezer?
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, raw, uncooked beef, pork, and poultry will remain safe to eat indefinitely when kept frozen at zero degrees or lower. However, that doesn't mean that your five-year old steak is going to taste good. You should try to consume uncooked meat stored in the freezer within one year. Cooked meat has a shorter storage time in the freezer than uncooked meat. USDA recommends eating cooked, frozen meat within three months, and less time for products like bacon, hot dogs, and ham. Steak is bad when it gets freezer burn.
What Happens If You Eat Bad Steak?
The most common problems people encounter after consuming spoiled meat are gastrointestinal problems like nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps. In rare cases, food-borne illnesses can be lethal depending on the type of bacteria or mold that you consume. Johns Hopkins University explains that many people who get food poisoning mistake the symptoms for a stomach flu. They say that millions of Americans are sickened each year by consuming spoiled meat, under-cooked meat, and contaminated fruits and vegetables.
How to Tell If Steak Is Bad
The good news is that the bacteria and mold that causes meat to spoil are typically easy to spot when you know what to look for. Following proper food handling safety is essential to prevent illness, so you should have a good understanding of what to look for when trying to determine if a steak is bad. We tend to follow the philosophy of "when in doubt, throw it out."
You've Had it in Your Fridge for…You Can't Remember How Long
When you buy a package of meat, the store will typically put a "best by" date or "use by" date on the package. Understanding what this date actually means is important. At some point, everyone has bought a package of meat, put it in the refrigerator, and promptly forgotten about it for a while. You can use the packaging date to help determine if the steak is bad.
Sell By Dating
Packagers use a sell by date to establish when to remove a product from the shelves. In the case of meat, this is usually a date within a few days of packaging. You'll want to use or freeze it within a few days of the sell by date.
Use or Freeze By Dating
More common on meat packaging is a date labeled as the use or freeze by date. This is typically the last day that the packager will ensure the meat is still high quality and safe. You'll want to follow this date pretty closely. It's generally a good idea to use these cuts the day you buy them, but you can also get really good deals purchasing steak that is near or on the use or freeze by date.
What to Look For to Tell If Steak Is Unsafe to Eat
Dating on the packaging is a great way to get a fair idea of when meat will be safe, but it isn't a perfect system and it isn't foolproof. Meat that isn't kept below 40 degrees continuously will begin to decompose. When this starts to happen, you'll want to use your senses to determine if the steak you buy is safe to cook and eat.
Fresh steak should be dark red.
It's Slimy in Appearance or to the Touch
A slimy appearance or feeling on the surface of meat is a sign that something disgusting is happening. A slimy film is typically caused by mold that grows on the surface of the spoiled steak. In advanced stages, you'll see white or green spots on the surface of the meat. You can't wash the mold off, either. Just throw it out. Slimy steak is as nasty as it sounds.
It Has an Off-Putting Smell
Several types of harmful bacteria create an offensive odor when they start to colonize on meat. The smell of spoiled steak is typically likened to a sulfuric smell, a lot like the smell of rotten eggs. Raw beef should have very little to no smell at all. If the steak smells sour, it's likely to give you an upset stomach.
It's Dry and Juice-Less
Over time, meat loses its moisture. Old meat isn't fresh, and the result is steak that is dry and has no juice. You might notice that the package of meat has pooled up "blood" in the package. That liquid isn't blood, it's actually called purge and it sure sign that your steak is going bad. You should always avoid buying packages of meat that have red liquid in the package. Keep in mind that during the slaughtering process, virtually all of the blood is removed from the meat before packaging. Fresh meat should not have blood leaking out.
Old meat tends to have a grayish brown color.
Tips To Ensure Freshness
The best tip that we can give you is to know your butcher. Butchers and meat counters should always try to provide the freshest, cleanest meat possible. When you are shopping for meat, use your eyes and nose. If you smell bloody, rancid odors or if the steak in the counter is grey, skip it – that's a sign the steak has gone bad.
A vacuum sealed package is the right way to store steaks in the freezer. These inexpensive tools prevent air from being in contact with the steaks, helping to ensure there isn't bacterial growth. You can also use sealing bags and tightly wrapped aluminum foil to help prevent freezer burn and spoilage.
Preventing Spoilage While Dry Aging
The dry aging process allows moisture to naturally evaporate from the meat, enhancing flavor and texture. The secret to preventing spoilage while dry aging is to ensure that the meat has plenty of air circulation and is kept below 40 degrees at all times. This process can be a challenge in a residential refrigerator because opening and closing the door will change the temperature, potentially allowing bacteria to begin growing. There are some products available for home use but we can't recommend them specifically because we haven't tried them. We've only done it in our commercial dry age room.
Our Main Tips
Buying the freshest meat possible is the first step to ensuring you don't cook and eat rancid meat. You should make sure that you also store your steaks correctly. Use vacuum sealing bags and proper food handling techniques to ensure that your meat is the highest quality possible. Always be vigilant for the signs of spoiled meat and discard that stuff. It isn't worth getting sick just to consume something that should never have been cooked in the first place.