There’s nothing like a perfectly grilled steak. The combination of taste, texture, and aroma are enough to entice any self-respecting carnivore. That’s why the last thing you want is to open your fridge to take out that prized slab of red meat—only to find that the meat has spoiled. If you’re not sure how to tell if steak is bad, take a look at these helpful tips.
Why It’s Important
What exactly happens when steak goes bad? In short, the meat invites a host of bacteria to join the party. Some examples may include staphylococcus, salmonella, bacillus, and Escherichia coli (also known as E. coli). While a great deal of this bacteria is eliminated during the cooking process, some toxins may still be present, rendering the meat unfit for consumption.
Eating steak that’s gone bad is an unpleasant experience, but it can also have dangerous consequences. When you consume the type of bacteria that takes up residence in spoiled meat, you may develop food poisoning. Symptoms can include fever, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, and a host of other gastrointestinal problems.
Most of these issues will resolve themselves within a few days, but certain strains might cause distress for weeks on end, especially if you don’t receive adequate medical care. Since the last thing you want is to get sick from something you were meant to enjoy, it’s essential to know how to recognize spoiled meat when you see it.
What Causes Meat To Spoil?
Steak can go bad for any number of reasons. Sometimes it happens because the meat wasn’t refrigerated or frozen correctly. Improper thawing—for example, using warm water instead of cold water for a quick thaw—can also result in spoilage. Another key error lies in allowing the meat to be exposed to air for a long period of time.
Rarely, the meat can even become infected with microorganisms when there is no known cause. That’s why you should learn how to separate the good from the bad before you fire up the grill.
How To Tell If Steak Is Bad
There are several ways to tell whether your steak is edible or not. Let’s start by taking a look at the easiest methods.
1. It’s been sitting in the fridge for too long.
According to the USDA, steaks should be consumed within three to five days of the initial purchase. If you need to store them any longer than that, we would recommend putting them in the freezer as soon as possible. For best results, don’t leave them in there for any longer than 12 months, as this might cause the beef to lose a great deal of moisture.
We like to buy our steaks the day before we plan to grill them. This gives us enough time to prepare the seasonings (or marinade, depending on the cut) while ensuring that the meat will stay fresh.
2. The use-by date has passed.
Even if you just purchased the steak today, you should take a look at the use-by date. While meat vendors do their best to rotate their product and remove older stock, accidents do happen. It’s possible that the steak has been sitting on the shelf for several days past its sell-by date, which would render it unusable.
What’s the difference between the sell-by date and the use-by date? The sell-by date is put in place by the butcher or meat manager at the supermarket. It lets them know that they should pull the product from the shelves if it fails to sell by that cutoff point. Typically, it’s safe to consume a steak for up to three days past the sell-by date. If this is the only date stamped on the package, use this formula as a rule of thumb.
When the steak is stamped with a use-by date, however, make sure it’s either cooked off or frozen by that time. In fact, if you plan to freeze it, you should do so at least two days prior to the use-by date. That way, it will still be within the acceptable window of freshness by the time it’s thawed.
By way of example, let’s say your steaks are marked with a use-by date of July 10. To help them retain optimum freshness and texture, they should go in the freezer by no later than July 8.
Finally, we should point out that some steaks don’t come stamped with a use-by or sell-by date at all. If this is the case, you should label the package yourself, using the date that you purchased the steak. Otherwise, you might forget how long you’ve had it.
3. The smell is off.
Before grilling, give the steak a good sniff. Do you know what fresh raw beef smells like? Nothing. That’s right—the odor is barely discernible, at least to humans.
When the meat begins to spoil, however, that’s another story. If the steak has a sweet, cloying odor, that could signify the presence of dangerous bacteria. The scent is reminiscent of ammonia, which you might not be able to pinpoint at first, but you should still find it off-putting. Any steak that smells foul should be discarded immediately.
One caveat: Because our senses can sometimes deceive us, we wouldn’t rely on the smell test alone. This is true especially if you’ve purchased dry-aged beef, which can sometimes smell suspicious due to the presence of lactic acid. As always, we would recommend combining a few of these methods to test for freshness instead of choosing just one.
4. It has a strange texture.
One telltale sign of spoiled meat is a slimy or sticky sheen on the surface. The film might be clear or slightly yellow, giving the surface a shiny appearance. Even if you can’t see it, however, you’ll be able to feel it. Run your fingers over the surface of the meat. It should feel smooth and fleshy, with no sliminess or gummy patches.
One other tip: Make sure you also inspect your steaks when they’re fresh, so you’ll have a solid point of reference. Once you know what you’re looking for, it should be easy to detect any signs that the meat has gone past the point of no return.
5. There’s visible mold on the surface.
This one should go without saying: If you see any furry white or green patches on the steak, toss it immediately. The meat would have to be in the refrigerator for a long time for this type of reaction to occur, but it’s a definite sign of spoilage. Usually, the mold will begin to form about two days after the sticky film has appeared, meaning you’ll probably be able to smell the change before the mold begins to grow.
6. The steak is overly dry.
Raw beef should never be dry like paper—it has natural juices that are essential to the texture and flavor of the finished product. If the steak looks listless and the flesh feels leathery when you poke it, this could have a negative effect on your meal. That’s not to say that the steak is bad, necessarily, but it won’t taste good, either.
Steaks that have been frozen and thawed are especially prone to this fate. As the meat thaws, the juices flow out, which can be disastrous. To help retain this moisture, make sure to vacuum-seal steaks before freezing them. In addition to sealing in the juices, the lack of air exposure will inhibit bacteria growth once the meat begins to thaw.
Additionally, try to find steaks that have plenty of marbling. The high fat content will help to keep the meat moist, even if some of the juices have been lost. Beef that’s earned the USDA Prime label is a good bet.
One “Warning Sign” That’s Safe To Ignore
Some people believe that red meat has spoiled when the surface turns a grayish-brown color. While it’s certainly a possibility, this isn’t necessarily true.
When beef is exposed to oxygen, the naturally occurring myoglobin (which is what gives the steak its red color) undergoes a chemical reaction known as metmyoglobin. This process can make the color appear darker, particularly on the surface. Often, the same reaction occurs when the meat is frozen, which is one of the reasons why steak can look unappetizing if it’s kept in the freezer for too long. For a visual demonstration of this fascinating phenomenon, take a look at this informational video.
If the meat is grayish or brown in places, don’t toss it right away. Instead, check for one of the other signs of spoilage we’ve detailed above. As long as the steak isn’t sticky, slimy, or smelly, then it should be safe to consume.
On the other hand, if you see several brown patches dotting the surface, or if the patches are green or yellow, the beef might be spoiled. As always, if there’s any lingering doubt in your mind, then you should discard the steak and look for an alternative dinner option.
Will Thawing and Refreezing Steak Cause It To Go Bad?
You’ve probably heard that it’s not a good idea to refreeze meat after it’s been thawed—at least not without cooking it first. This is true, but it’s actually not for the reasons you might think.
The truth is, steak that’s been thawed and refrozen and then thawed a second time is perfectly safe to consume. That is, it’s safe as long as the steak was thawed in the refrigerator, and not at room temperature or in the microwave. Unfortunately, while the meat won’t make you sick, it won’t be particularly appealing either.
The freezing process always causes meat to lose a certain amount of moisture (see #6 in our list below), but it’s especially disastrous if the process is repeated. If you compare the taste and texture of steak that’s cooked fresh versus one that’s been frozen and thawed, you’re sure to find that the fresh one is juicier and more flavorful. Taste tests have shown that the difference is even more pronounced when the meat has been subjected to the freezing and thawing process a second time.
This phenomenon occurs because the protein cells in the meat contain a great deal of water. When this water freezes, it changes the shape of the cells. The more often this happens, the more drastic the changes will be. This is why most experts recommend that you cook the meat before putting it back in the freezer, even if it alters your dinner plans.
Tips To Ensure Freshness
Now that you know how to tell if steak is bad, what can you do to keep it from suffering this fate in the first place? Here are a few pointers.
- Keep steaks frozen as long as possible, thawing them only a day or so before you plan to eat them.
- Thaw the meat in the refrigerator and keep it vacuum-sealed until you’re ready to start the marinating or cooking process.
- Inspect fresh steak to familiarize yourself with its qualities. This will make it easier to tell when the meat is past its prime.
- Keep meat properly refrigerated at temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Store steak in a sealed container in the refrigerator, or seal it tightly with plastic wrap to minimize air exposure.
- Cook the steak until it reaches an internal temperature of at least 120 degrees Fahrenheit. This will kill off any naturally occurring bacteria that are present in the raw product.
Knowing how to grill a good steak is only half the battle. In order to protect your own health and that of your family and friends, you should also know how to tell if steak is bad before you start cooking.
If you’ve followed the guidelines listed above and you’re still not sure whether the meat is safe to consume, give the USDA hotline a call. The agents there will be happy to answer any questions you might have.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!