How to Tell if Pork is Bad Before It Hits the Grill

Many of us rely on sell-by and use-by dates when it comes to freshness. However, if you’re serious about grilling as a hobby and not just a means to an end, you should learn to trust your own instincts. Here’s a primer on how to tell if pork is bad without relying on labels.

How To Tell if Pork is Bad

When pork has gone bad, it usually has a rancid, ammonia-like smell. Other telltale signs include a slimy or overly dry texture, patches of brownish gray, or fat that has turned yellow. The sell-by date can be a useful tool, but we would suggest relying on your nose in this case.

Popular Cuts of Pork

Before we go over the different steps for discerning pork’s freshness, let’s take a look at some of the most popular cuts of pork for the grill.

Pork chops, which are cut from the loin section, are a common sight at barbecues. These are lean and tender, with a mild flavor that pairs well with various sauces. They can also be seasoned with just a sprinkling of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

It’s also possible to prepare a whole pork loin on the grill. However, because of the low fat content, this large cut is better suited for oven roasts.

Pork tenderloin is another option. This is the most tender cut of pork you’ll find, and the meat can be marinated to give it an extra boost of flavor. You can grill the tenderloin whole, but it cooks more quickly when it’s sliced into medallions.

If you’ve ever prepared smoked pulled pork, you already know that pork shoulder is the best choice for the dish. Also known as pork butt and Boston butt, this cut contains plenty of fat and connective tissue. These qualities make it ideal for the smoker, as the fat will render and flavor the meat over time.

There are several different types of pork ribs as well. The back ribs (which are called “baby back ribs” if they come from a smaller animal) are taken from the loin area.

Meanwhile, spare ribs come from the lower rib section. As such, the meat is much fattier. That’s not a bad thing, however, as it provides the ribs with rich pork flavor.

St. Louis-style ribs are simply spare ribs that have been trimmed to remove the cartilage and skirt meat. These are ubiquitous on the competition circuit because they’re both flavorful and presentable.

Pork belly is also a fatty cut, perhaps the fattiest of them all. The meat is used to make bacon and pancetta, but it can also be cubed and seared on the grill. It’s important to cook pork belly until it gets nice and crisp. Otherwise, the fat will have a rubbery texture.

No matter which cut of pork you choose, it should pass all the tests that we’ve outlined in the section below. The one exception to this rule is pork fatback, which should be a creamy white color.

How To Tell If Pork is Bad: The Ultimate Guide

Color

First of all, take a look at the color of the meat. It should be pink all over, though the shade could be light or dark, depending on the cut. For example, pork loin roasts and chops are usually pale pink, whereas pork butt has a more robust hue. If the meat has any gray or brown patches, steer clear of it.

As we pointed out, any fat should be white in color. When the fat begins to yellow, it indicates that the meat may be losing its integrity. This is especially important when you’re dealing with cuts like pork butt or spare ribs, because the fat content plays an integral role in the cooking process.

Also note that when raw pork has been frozen, the color might shift to a paler shade. This typically occurs as a result of oxygen deprivation. Nonetheless, it’s something to keep in mind if you’re buying in bulk. Over time, you should be able to gauge the color differences between fresh and frozen pork at a glance.

Packaging

Don’t be afraid to inspect the packaging. Although we don’t think it’s a good idea to rely on the dates alone, they could give you a good idea of how long the pork might have been on the shelf. Whenever possible, try to buy meat products with the latest use-by date.

Smell

After unwrapping the pork, give it a good sniff. A sour smell indicates that the meat has outlived its freshness. Pork that has gone bad might also give off hints of ammonia or sulfur. In these cases, you’ll need to discard the pork and start again with a new batch.

We’ve found that the smell test is the most reliable indicator of freshness. The other guidelines we’ve listed are important, but if the pork passes all of them except this one, follow your instincts and go back to the store.

One caveat: Sometimes vacuum-sealed pork will have a faint smell of ammonia because of the liquid it was packaged in. Try rinsing the pork under cold running water to see if the smell dissipates. If it doesn’t, then you can’t blame it on the packaging.

Texture

Has the pork passed the smell test? That’s a good sign. Next, you’ll want to prod it with your finger to make sure the meat doesn’t have a slimy film on the surface. It’s fine if the pork is slightly damp to the touch, but the moisture should be clean and not gummy. Similarly, if the surface of the meat is overly dry, that’s a major red flag.

Transportation and Storage

After you’ve purchased your chosen cut of pork, try to keep it as cold as possible on the trip home. It’s a good idea to keep a cooler and an ice pack in your vehicle for these purposes, especially in hot weather. If the pork is kept at temperatures measuring over 40 degrees Fahrenheit for any length of time, it could invite dangerous bacteria.

Try to cook fresh pork on the same day you buy it. If this isn’t possible, it can keep in the fridge for three to five days. We would recommend freezing the pork if you don’t think you’ll be able to cook it off within a three-day window. Also, check the refrigerator temperature to make sure it’s set below 40 degrees.

What Happens if You Cook the Pork Anyway?

Some people think that if the pork smells or looks “off,” they’ll just cook it until the meat is well done. While heat does kill off certain food-borne parasites, it won’t be enough to save the pork if it’s already gone bad.

On the contrary, cooking the pork will only intensify its unpleasant qualities. It won’t taste good, either, which defeats the entire purpose of making it in the first place. What’s worse, it could make you sick. Never cook food if you suspect it might have gone bad.

If you develop any cramps, nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting after consuming suspicious meat products, seek medical help at once. There’s a chance that you’ve contracted a food-borne illness, which can be serious if left untreated.

What About Cooked Pork?

You can follow similar guidelines for pork that’s already been cooked off. As a rule of thumb, cooked pork should last for up to five days with proper refrigeration. However, if it smells bad, or if the meat is slimy, or if mold has begun to build up on the surface, toss it out.

A Word about “The White Stuff”

When pork is cooking, it will sometimes secrete a white substance that resembles cooked egg whites. This can be disconcerting for new chefs who don’t know what to expect. Fortunately, it’s not a serious problem.

The white discharge is a combination of water and protein molecules. During cooking, this mixture separates from the meat and begins to coagulate. It doesn’t look very pretty, but it also doesn’t mean the meat has gone bad. It won’t have any effect on the flavor of the pork, either, so there’s no need to worry.

Some people believe that this substance is more prevalent when they cook the pork too quickly, especially at high temperatures. If you use lower temperatures to begin with, you might not see as much of the white stuff. Reverse searing is another good option, especially if your grill is equipped with a searing burner.

How To Tell When Cooked Pork is Done

For a long time, the USDA lectured chefs to cook pork until the internal temperature hit 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Today, however, with the risk of trichinosis being minimal, it’s considered safe to remove pork from the heat when it reaches the 145-degree mark.

At this temperature, the pork might still be pink in the center. This is a natural phenomenon, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the meat is underdone. If it bothers you, feel free to cook the pork until it achieves an internal temperature of 155 degrees.

If you’re making pulled pork, you’ll want the pork shoulder to reach at least 195 degrees Fahrenheit before taking it off the fire. Otherwise, the meat won’t be soft enough to shred.

Tip: When you’re testing the temperature of the pork, remember that the thermometer’s probe shouldn’t come into contact with any fat or bone. If it does, the readout may be inaccurate.

How to Freeze Pork

If you aren’t cooking the pork right away, place it in the freezer. You can opt to keep it in its original packaging, or transfer it to an airtight container or zip-top bag.

Either way, it should keep for up to 12 months if the freezer is set to 0 degrees or below. For optimum results, try to thaw and cook the pork within two to three months.

Once the pork is cooked off, any leftovers can be frozen for up to three months.

Final Thoughts

The fresher the ingredients, the more successful the dish. These are words to live by no matter what you’re cooking.

However, if you love good barbecue as much as I do, you’ll agree that this philosophy is even more important when it comes to fresh meat. Knowing how to tell if pork is bad is a vital skill that should serve you well throughout the years.

Happy grilling!

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