Ground Beef Smells Sour: Does This Mean It’s Gone Bad?

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When ground beef smells sour, what should you do? Is this ever normal, or is it a definitive sign of spoilage? This guide will tell you all you need to know about how ground beef is supposed to smell, and what to do when it smells off.

Ground Beef Smells Sour

If your ground beef has a sour smell, that’s a strong indication that spoilage microbes have taken up residence within the meat. The smells come from the meat as it decomposes, as well as the bacteria themselves. Discard any ground beef that smells off, whether it’s raw or cooked. 

Ground Beef: The Basics

When cuts of beef are fed through the meat grinder, they’re minced into small pieces. This gives the meat a soft, malleable texture that can be easily formed into patties or meatballs. 

Though some butchers will make ground beef using scraps, the results are more impressive when you start with a whole muscle cut. Chuck, round, and sirloin make the best ground beef, but brisket is another possibility

Lean cuts, such as tenderloin, are not ideal for ground beef because they don’t contain enough fat. Ground beef should have a fat content of at least 10 percent, and in this case, it would be considered very lean. A protein-to-fat ratio of 80 to 20 is preferable. 

Ground beef is a highly versatile ingredient. You can brown it in its loose form and use it as a filling for casseroles, tacos, lasagna, or samosas. It also makes a hearty base for meat sauces, especially for pasta. 

When the beef is formed into patties, it’s often used for burgers. While this is a delicious option, you can form ground beef into various shapes, using different flavor combinations to turn out recipes that range from the comforting to the exotic. 

What Does Ground Beef Smell Like?

Raw ground beef doesn’t have much of a scent. You might be able to detect a faint, imperceptible odor, but it shouldn’t be all that noticeable, much less unpleasant. 

The next time you purchase ground beef that’s undoubtedly fresh, give it a whiff. That’s what the meat should smell like all the time. Strong odors are generally indicative of spoilage (as you’ll come to learn). 

What if Ground Beef Smells Sour? 

Ground beef should never smell sour, whether it’s raw or cooked. Unless you’ve smothered the cooked meat in vinegar (and we can’t imagine why you would), there’s no reason why it should have a sour odor. 

We’ve noticed that the ground beef tends to exhibit a sour stench more when it’s cooked than when it’s still raw. When raw ground beef is spoiled, it smells more like sulfur or rotten eggs. 

What causes these foul odors? When meat hangs around too long, it begins to harbor spoilage microbes, such as bacteria, yeast, and mold. That’s when the decomposition process begins. 

As the microbes decompose the meat, the meat will release chemicals which can result in unpleasant smells. The microbes themselves may also smell funky, depending on their nature. 

Either way, ground beef that smells sour is no longer fresh. While consuming spoiled meat won’t necessarily make you sick, there is definitely a risk involved. What’s more, spoiled ground beef won’t taste good anyway, so it’s a lose-lose situation. 

Signs of Spoilage 

As we’ve mentioned, the way the meat smells should go a long way towards telling you whether or not it’s still fresh. If you don’t notice much of a scent, then it should be good to go. If you notice a sour, sweet, or otherwise unpleasant odor, throw it out. 

What if the meat passes the smell test, but it’s been around for a few days? There are a few other ways to check for spoilage. 

First of all, check the sell-by date. This isn’t always a reliable indicator of freshness, but if the date was a week or so ago, there’s a good chance that the meat has outlasted its best qualities.

Is the meat discolored? Some slight darkening might be acceptable, but if the meat is brown all over, or if it’s green or gray in places, then you should discard it. 

The texture of the beef provides another good measuring stick. The meat should be smooth and slightly sticky to the touch. If it feels slimy or overly tacky when you grab a handful, then it’s no longer fresh. 

Will it Help to Cook The Beef? 

Some people believe that since heating the ground beef will kill off bacteria, you can still cook it off once it’s started to turn the corner. That’s a false assumption. 

It’s true that raw meat might harbor pathogens that can cause food poisoning, and that these bacteria can be destroyed through exposure to heat. But once spoilage bacteria show up, no amount of heat will save it. 

Cooking Ground Beef From a Frozen State 

Another common misconception is that you can’t start to cook meat when it’s still frozen. This guideline makes sense in a way, because it’s important for meat to cook to a safe temperature within a specific time frame. But you can still work around it. 

Here’s what you need to remember: Meat should never stay in the temperature range between 40 and 140 degrees for longer than 4 hours. Since it takes longer for meat to cook beyond 140 degrees when it starts out frozen, it’s best to let large cuts thaw out first. 

But unless you’re cooking an industrial-sized portion of ground beef—say, 10 pounds or more—this shouldn’t pose an issue. The meat should cook to a safe temperature in well under 4 hours. It will just take a little bit more time than if you’d defrosted it. 

Plan on cooking the frozen beef for about 25 percent longer than you would if it had been thawed to begin with. It usually takes 6 to 10 minutes to brown a pound of ground beef, depending on the fat content. So you can expect it to take 8 to 13 minutes instead. 

We would recommend using a lower heat setting at first, since the meat will essentially be thawing as it cooks. We usually go for medium-high when browning ground beef or grilling burgers, but for frozen beef, aim for medium heat. 

Proper Storage 

On a related note, keep the ground beef stored in the fridge until you’re ready to cook it. To ensure maximum freshness, cook it the day you bring it home. It’s permissible to wait one or two days, but for longer storage, put the meat in the freezer. 

Your refrigerator temperature should be set to 34-36 degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s colder than 32 degrees, the meat may start to freeze in patches. But if it’s warmer than 40, the beef will be in the “danger zone” we mentioned earlier. 

The best place to store meat is on the bottom shelf of the fridge, toward the back. That way, it won’t be exposed to warm air rushing in when the door is opened. 

Final Thoughts

There are several ways to tell if ground beef is still fresh. Fortunately, the smell test is the most reliable. Don’t attempt to eat any ground beef that smells sour or carries any other off-putting odors. 

Happy grilling!

Darren Wayland Avatar


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