Have you ever pulled a steak out of the freezer only to find that it became discolored during the storage period? You’re not alone. Fortunately, this isn’t a serious problem—at least, not on its own. Here’s what it means when steak turns brown in the freezer.
Steak Turned Brown in Freezer
When steak loses its vibrant red color and trades it in for a brownish hue, it means that the myoglobin in the meat has oxidized. This is often brought about by prolonged exposure to subzero temperatures, which is why it turned brown in the freezer. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the meat is unsafe to consume.
Why is Raw Steak Usually Red?
Before we explore the reasoning behind the “steak turned brown in freezer” phenomenon, let’s talk about why the raw meat is red in the first place.
Raw steak gets its red color from a protein called myoglobin. This protein is responsible for carrying oxygen to the muscles. The more myoglobin there is in the meat, the deeper the red color will be.
Before it’s exposed to light, myoglobin is a deep purplish-red. But when steak is packaged for sale, the myoglobin forms a pigment known as oxymyglobin, giving it a cherry-red hue.
If the meat is exposed to the light for long enough, these pigments will turn a brownish shade. This is because the iron in the oxymyglobin is losing electrons through the exposure, a process that’s called oxidation.
You may have noticed a similar principle at work if you’ve ever cut up an apple and saved the slices for later. If you don’t eat them right away, the slices will turn brown.
Steak Turned Brown in Freezer
When steak is kept in subzero temperatures, all bacterial growth slows to a halt. That’s why you can safely eat steak that’s been frozen and thawed properly.
Unfortunately, this exposure to extreme cold can also dry out the meat. When this happens, it results in the oxidation that darkens the meat’s color from bright red to dull brown.
While it doesn’t look particularly appetizing, brown steak is nothing to worry about on its own. After all, it will turn brown anyway when you cook it—albeit under slightly different circumstances.
Other Reasons Your Steak Turned Brown
Freezing isn’t the only phenomenon that can result in brown steak. There are several other circumstances that can cause oxidation. The following are the most common ones.
Sometimes, the meat’s packaging can prevent the oxygen from reacting with the proteins. These low oxygen levels cause the steak to turn brown, even if it’s still safe to eat (see Does the Brown Color Mean the Steak is Bad?, below).
Salting and Marinating
Since salt can cause oxidization, adding it to the steak in advance can cause the meat to darken. If you’ve used a marinade—especially one with ingredients that are brown in color themselves, such as soy or Worcestershire sauce—then the steak is even more likely to turn brown.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should skip the marinade. In fact, there are plenty of tougher or leaner cuts that benefit from this extra step. Just understand that it might alter the appearance of the meat before you start to cook it.
We’ve listed this one last because it’s not as likely as the others, but sometimes rotten steak will turn brown or gray. Throw it out if it’s showing any other signs of spoilage. You can read about these warning signs in the section below.
Does the Brown Color Mean the Steak is Bad?
Not necessarily. As we’ve established, steak can turn brown even when it’s been stored in optimal conditions. That means a brown color alone doesn’t necessarily indicate spoilage.
So, how can you tell if steak actually has gone bad? There are a few telltale signs to watch out for. If the steak has one or more of the following characteristics, it’s best to discard it.
This should be your first line of defense against spoiled meat products. Give the product a hearty sniff as soon as you open the package. If you detect a whiff of rotten eggs or ammonia, then the meat has outlasted its freshness and needs to be tossed in the trash.
When it’s fresh, raw meat is slightly damp yet springy to the touch. Any sliminess indicates that the product has been around too long. Likewise, a sticky texture could denote the presence of hazardous spoilage bacteria. It shouldn’t be overly dry, either.
Let’s say the steak smells fine and the texture is still good, but the meat is brown all over. Is it still okay to cook it off?
We would say yes—but take a closer look before firing up the grill. Are there any blue, green, white, or pink patches? Are there places where the meat appears more gray than brown? If so, it’s probably best not to cook the meat.
When To Freeze Steak
It’s natural to wonder if the steak turned brown because you waited too long before putting it in the freezer. While this might be the case, it won’t necessarily spoil your dinner plans.
Steak should keep in the fridge for 3 to 5 days before it starts to deteriorate. As long as you’ve put it in the freezer within this time frame, it should still be safe to eat after defrosting, even if it’s turned brown in the meantime.
Be aware that if you kept the steak in the fridge for 4 to 5 days before you froze it, you’ll want to cook it off as soon as it’s thawed. On the other hand, if you put it in the freezer right away, you’ll have a window of a few days before the meat goes downhill.
How Long Can You Keep Steak in the Freezer?
When steak turns brown in the freezer, it may be because it was left in there too long. Although the meat doesn’t spoil as long as the temperature is kept at a temperature below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, a long stint in the freezer can cause it to dry out.
Try to thaw and cook off frozen steak within 4 to 6 months. As we mentioned, it will keep in the freezer indefinitely, but the texture will be vastly improved if you defrost it within this time frame.
Note that cooked leftovers dry out even faster than raw meat. That’s because they’ve already lost moisture due to the cooking process. If you’ve frozen the steak after it’s cooked, plan on thawing it out after just a couple of months.
When defrosting raw steak, use the refrigerator to ensure that the meat remains at a temperature below 40 degrees at all times. If you want to speed things up, you can use a cold water bath or the microwave, but you’ll have to cook the steak right away.
The Bottom Line
Steak that’s turned brown in the freezer—or because it was exposed to low oxygen levels, marinade, or salt—isn’t necessarily spoiled. But if it smells funny or shows patches of mold, then it either went bad before you froze it or it’s been in the fridge too long after defrosting.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!