When I buy a rack of ribs for the smoker, I try to cook them off as soon as I can. Either that, or I put them in the freezer to enjoy at a later date.
Sometimes, though, life interferes with our plans. If you’ve had some ribs hanging around in the fridge for a few days, here’s how to tell whether they’re still fresh.
How to Tell if Ribs are Bad
When testing meat for freshness, the first thing I do is take a good whiff. If the meat smells sour or fishy, or if it gives off a scent reminiscent of rotten eggs, it’s time to throw it out. Ribs might also be discolored, mushy, or slimy to the touch. The bones themselves should be white or ivory in color.
How Long Do Ribs Last in the Fridge?
When stored under the proper conditions, raw ribs should keep in the fridge for 3 to 5 days. Should you need to wait longer to cook them, store them in the freezer instead.
Once you’ve cooked the ribs, the leftovers should be good for another 3 to 4 days. That means cooking the meat will buy you time. However, I prefer to enjoy ribs as soon as they’re ready to eat, so I try to cook off only as many as I need.
When you store raw ribs in the freezer, they should be fine for about 6 months before they start to lose their texture. Don’t attempt to store cooked leftover ribs in the freezer for longer than 3 months, or they’ll be dry and tough when you get around to eating them.
How to Tell if Ribs are Bad: The Ultimate Test
There are a few steps you can take to determine whether the ribs have outlasted their best days or not. Remember that if they fail just one of the following tests, you’ll have to discard them.
A Foul Odor
If you’ve ever taken a whiff of spoiled ribs, you’ll know that the smell is unmistakable. Fresh pork doesn’t give off much of a scent, so if you notice an odor, you should go on high alert.
Spoiled ribs might smell like rotten eggs or sulfur, or they might just have a sweet or sour odor. They can also give off a fishy scent. In general, anytime you smell the pork and take an immediate step back, you can assume that the meat has gone bad.
One caveat: Vacuum-sealed ribs might give off a bit of a funky odor when you first take them out of the packaging. Once you rinse them off, though, the smell should disappear. If it doesn’t, the meat might have spoiled during the storage period.
When you buy fresh pork ribs, they should be reddish pink and capped with white fat. The bones should be ivory or white in color.
If the ribs have been sitting in the fridge for too long, the meat may darken and turn brown or gray. Any green, blue, or white fuzzy patches indicate the presence of mold, which is a sure sign that it’s time to discard the meat.
A Soggy Texture
Fresh meat feels firm and slightly springy to the touch. In the case of pork ribs, they’re even firmer than most because they have a foundation of bone still attached.
However, if the meat itself feels mushy when you press against it, it’s not a good idea to cook the ribs. A soft, squishy texture indicates the presence of spoilage bacteria. Even if that weren’t the case, the ribs wouldn’t be all that appetizing anyway.
Run your finger along the length of the rib rack. The meat should feel slightly damp, but not overly wet or slimy. Any excess moisture, stickiness, or sliminess can mean that bacteria have been feeding on the meat.
What if the Ribs are Past the Expiration Date?
There’s a reason I haven’t included anything about expiration dates in the original list. It’s because you should use those dates as a guideline, not an indicator of freshness.
Let me explain. When retailers mark products with expiration or “sell-by” dates, they’re reminding the employees how long that product has been available for sale. Once that date has passed, they’re supposed to remove the product from circulation.
It’s true that meat products will spoil faster than dry or canned goods, which is why it’s a good idea to check the sell-by dates before making a purchase. But the meat doesn’t automatically go bad as soon as the “expiration” date has passed.
My advice would be to check the date, then test the quality of the meat based on the tests I’ve listed above. If the ribs still look and smell fine, go ahead and prepare them as planned.
What About Cooked Ribs?
The guidelines above apply mainly to raw ribs, but you can use some of them for cooked ribs as well. Here’s how to tell if ribs are bad after they’re cooked.
The texture should be your first clue in this case. The meat will acquire a slimy finish once the spoilage bacteria have taken up residence.
If the ribs pass this test, sniff them to determine whether they smell the way they did when you first cooked them. They’ll smell overly sweet or sour if they’ve gone bad.
Does everything still seem okay? Take a tiny bite of the meat just to make sure. If you notice anything peculiar about the taste, spit out the meat and discard the rest of the leftovers.
I should reiterate that there’s no reason to taste the ribs if you already suspect that the meat has spoiled. As soon as you detect something “off” about the texture or the smell, the ribs have already failed the test.
Does Cooking Ribs Destroy the Bacteria?
While we’re on the subject of cooked ribs and spoilage, let’s get something straight: If the raw ribs are spoiled, cooking them won’t do any good.
It’s true that cooking meat destroys certain types of bacteria, and that’s why it’s important to heat it to a safe temperature before serving. The types of bacteria that cause spoilage, however, release toxins that will remain behind even when you cook or reheat the ribs.
This is another reason why it’s so important to keep raw meat and cooked leftovers refrigerated. When you leave the meat out at room temperature for longer than a couple of hours, it becomes a breeding ground for spoilage bacteria that might not even be detectable by normal means.
How To Keep Ribs Fresh Longer
Want to ensure that your ribs will remain fresh for as long as possible? Here’s how you can increase their shelf life.
- Look for ribs that appear to be at the peak of freshness. Plan on cooking them the same day you buy them.
- If you can’t cook them the same day, store them in the freezer. You can store vacuum-sealed ribs in their original packaging—they’ll keep longer that way.
- Don’t freeze the ribs if you suspect that they’re already spoiled.
- Store the ribs in the coldest part of the refrigerator, and always make sure that your refrigerator is set to a temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Whether the ribs are raw or cooked, don’t leave them out at room temperature for any longer than 2 hours, or 1 hour in hot weather.
- Discard the ribs if the packaging is broken, torn, or dirty.
- When defrosting ribs, use the refrigerator. You can also put the package in a cold-water bath, but you’ll need to cook them off immediately afterward if you use this technique.
The criteria for spoilage don’t vary much when it comes to meat products. As time goes by, you’ll learn to spot the danger signs on your own. Essentially, if you think the meat looks or smells funny, there’s a good chance that it’s no longer fresh.
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!