What does it mean when steak smells sour? This is a definite red flag, and one that you shouldn’t ignore. Let’s explore this phenomenon so you’ll be prepared to deal with it should it ever come up.
Steak Smells Sour
When steak has a sour or “off” odor, it means that spoilage bacteria have taken up residence. There are other telltale signs of spoilage, but this is the most prevalent. The only time a sour scent is permissible is when the beef has been dry-aged or sealed in cryovac packaging, and even then, the smell is different from the stench of spoiled meat.
What It Means
Unfortunately, most of the time, when steak smells sour it means that it’s spoiled.
There are a couple of exceptions. When steak is sealed in cryovac packaging, it will sometimes have a tangy odor once it’s opened. The smell can be off-putting, especially if you don’t know what to expect. But as long as the seal worked properly, the steak should be fine.
Dry-aging can give the meat a sour scent as well. This process involves keeping the meat in a humidity-controlled environment, allowing “good” mold to form.
There is a difference, however, between steak that smells a bit funky due to a longer storage period and steak that has spoiled. When it comes to cryovac-sealed steak, any “off” odors should dissipate once you rinse the meat.
To rinse steak (or any cut of meat), fill a bowl with cool water and swirl the meat around in it for several seconds. Be careful not to splash the surrounding countertop. If any juices make it out of the bowl, disinfect the area immediately afterward.
Pat the steak dry using paper towels, then leave it out at room temperature for about 30 minutes. The sour odor should be gone. If it isn’t, then something went wrong with the seal on the cryovac packaging, and the steak has gone bad as a result.
Why Steak Smells Sour When it Spoils
Aged steak develops a strange odor due to chemical changes and the presence of lactic acid. Spoiled meat, on the other hand, smells foul because it’s become a breeding ground for bacteria.
Meat has a relatively short shelf life, which is why it’s common practice to freeze any portions that won’t be consumed for a while. If you keep it around long enough, it will attract spoilage bacteria. These bacteria can make you sick if you eat the spoiled meat.
There are other ways to tell if steak has outlasted its best days, as I’ll discuss in the next section. But I’ve found that your nose is often the best tool when it comes to determining whether steak has spoiled.
How To Tell When Steak is Bad
Steak is Past its Sell-By Date
A sell-by date is a guideline, not a hard and fast rule. They’re tools that retailers use to alert them when a product has been on the shelf for long enough. However, they can provide a similar function to you as the consumer.
Assuming that the steak is still in its original packaging, take a look at the sell-by (or best-by) date. If it’s still a day or two away, you probably have nothing to worry about. But if you’ve gone a few days past it, be on high alert when opening the package.
Steak that’s gone past its sell-by date might still be fine. Then again, it might not. I wouldn’t discard it just because the date had gone by, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if it were exhibiting at least one of the other signs I’ll talk about next.
Steak Smells Sour
Unless it’s sealed in cryovac or dry-aged, as I mentioned earlier, steak shouldn’t smell like much of anything when you unwrap it. If you notice a strong odor, there’s a good chance the meat is spoiled.
The smell might remind you of rotten eggs, or it could be reminiscent of ammonia. Or it could just smell sour in a way you can’t really define. Either way, steak that causes you to wrinkle your nose when you get near it is not worth consuming.
In the past, I’ve been tempted to cook the steak to see if that takes care of the smell. This never works. Once the steak is spoiled, cooking it isn’t going to help. If anything, the smell will get worse. Just throw it out and don’t bother to waste time cooking it.
What if you’re dealing with cooked leftover steak? The same rules apply. The meat shouldn’t smell sour unless you’re pickling it in vinegar for some reason—and even then, the acrid tang of vinegar is different from the stench of sour meat.
Steak is Slimy or Sticky
Even if the steak smells fine, run your finger along the surface. It’s fine if the meat is a little bit damp, but excess moisture indicates spoilage. So does stickiness and sliminess.
A slimy or sticky texture indicates that bacteria have set up camp and are feeding on the meat. When you’ve handled enough raw meat, you should be able to tell the difference between fresh product and meat that’s turned the corner.
The same is true of cooked steak. Discard any leftovers that feel slippery or tacky to the touch.
Steak Feels Mushy
While we’re on the subject of texture, understand that fresh meat should feel firm to the touch, with just a bit of springiness. If you press your finger into the steak and the meat gives way beneath the pressure, it’s no longer fresh.
Steak is Changing Color
When steak is fresh, it’s usually a vibrant cherry red. This varies depending on the cut and the quality of the meat, but some shade of red is the norm. After cooking, the meat will range in color from red to golden brown to grayish, depending on the steak temp.
A few patches of brown on a raw steak might be okay, but if the entire thing is brown or gray, that’s a bad sign. Green, blue, or white spots indicate the presence of mold, meaning you should toss the steak out immediately.
How Long Does Steak Keep in the Fridge?
Raw steak should keep in the fridge for 3 to 5 days after you’ve brought it home. The sell-by date should give you an approximate idea of how long you can expect it to maintain its quality.
Store meat on the lowest shelf of the refrigerator, and push it toward the rear. Place other items in front of it to protect it from any warm blasts of air. The colder the meat stays, the longer it will stay fresh.
You can buy yourself a bit of time by cooking the steak. After it’s cooked, the meat should be good for another 3 to 4 days. This isn’t always the most feasible option—some steaks make better leftovers than others—but it’s something to keep in mind.
Freeze any raw steak or leftovers if you don’t think you’ll get around to eating them in the next few days. When frozen, raw steak should retain its best qualities for up to 6 months. Frozen leftovers should be defrosted and enjoyed within 2 months.
A sour-smelling steak is, more often than not, a steak that needs to hit the garbage can. I know how disappointing this is, but it’s better to start over again with a fresh product than to risk food poisoning. That will be a lot costlier in the long run.
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!