Uncover the Golden Rule: How Long Can A Cooked Steak Sit Out?

Sirwan Ajman

Written by: Sirwan Ajman

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how long can cooked steak sit out

You finally managed to make that juicy, melt-in-your-mouth steak you always wanted. After a delicious feast, you decide to take a quick nap before getting to the dishes. But there’s one thing you forget: the leftovers! 

Now, after a few hours, is the rest of that perfectly cooked steak safe to eat? 

You might be tempted to put it in the fridge and eat it later. It tasted SO good, and you don’t want to waste your culinary achievement. But as I’ll explain in this post, saving steak that was left sitting out might not be the best idea. 

Harmful bacteria can quickly multiply on your food at temperatures above 40°F (4.5°C). 

Although cooking kills most pathogens, some may survive and multiply under favorable conditions. 

Here are the most critical factors that affect the rate of meat spoilage: 

  • Temperature and humidity: Higher temperatures and humidity levels can create an excellent environment for bacteria to grow on food. That’s why cooked steak will spoil more quickly if you leave it out on a hot day than a cool day. 
  • Type of steak: Different cuts have different levels of moisture, fat, and protein, which can affect how quickly they spoil. For example, a leaner cut like sirloin will spoil more slowly than a fattier one like ribeye.
  • Cooking temperature: A steak cooked to a high internal temperature will contain fewer bacteria and spoil more slowly. 

How Does Cooking Affect Bacteria Populations? 

When food is cooked to a high enough temperature, the heat can destroy the cell walls and proteins of the bacteria, killing them in the process. 

Different bacteria have different levels of resistance to heat. For example, E. coli and Salmonella can withstand heat up to 165°F (74°C), whereas Listeria can only survive up to 122°F (50°C).

When it comes to food safety, you should aim for a “log-7” reduction in the bacteria population. That means keeping the food item at a high enough temperature for long enough until 99.99999 percent of the bacteria die. In other words, only one in every one million bacteria should survive after cooking. 

cooking medium rare steaks

You can achieve this goal by either increasing the cooking temperature or cooking time. For example, you’ll get the same reduction in Salmonella count if you keep the internal temperature of a beef cut at 130°F (54.4°C) for 121 minutes or 155°F (68.3°C) for 30 seconds. Once the internal temperature exceeds 160°F (71.1°C), the large majority of the Salmonella population is killed instantly. 

The fat content of your meat also affects the temperature-time combinations. In general, fattier cuts need more exposure to heat. 

The table below shows how long you need to maintain your steak’s internal temperature to achieve log-7 reduction at your preferred level of doneness. 

DonenessInternal TemperatureDuration 
Rare130°F (54.4°C)121 min
Medium Rare140°F (60°C)12 min
Medium145°F (62.8°C)4 min
Medium Well155°F (68.3°C)23 sec
Well-done165°F (54.4°C)0 sec

As you can see, rare and medium rare steaks need to spend a long time on heat to be safe to eat, which doesn’t happen in reality. (After you leave a steak on the heat for 121 minutes, it’s not going to be appetizing anymore!) That’s why the USDA doesn’t recommend eating steaks that are less than well done. 

Note that some bacteria strains are significantly heat-resistant, so you can’t expect cooking to eliminate all your contamination issues. Instead, you should follow food safety practices throughout your preparation and cooking process to minimize your risk of food poisoning. 

Can You Reheat Steak After Keeping It Out?

While reheating a cooked steak can reduce the bacteria population, it won’t remove the toxins that bacteria may have already released into the meat. Consuming those toxins can give you food poisoning. So, if your steak has spent more than two hours on the kitchen table, you shouldn’t risk eating it. The longer it sits past two hours, the less you should hesitate to throw it away.

If you decide to reheat steak left out for any amount of time, follow the guidelines in the previous section of this article. You need to bring reheated steaks up to temperature just like you bring raw steaks up to temperature. Ideally, bring the internal temperature up to 165°F (54.4°C) in the microwave or a skillet. 

How Can You Tell If Cooked Steak Has Gone Bad?

A rancid cooked steak has a few tell-tale signs, including a sour and off-putting smell and a sticky texture. The sticky substance on the surface of meat that’s gone bad is released by bacteria as they decompose the meat’s molecular structure. 

How Can You Tell If Cooked Steak Has Gone Bad

Aside from the two most common signs, you’re also likely to see discolorations on the surface. Spoiled steak may have a gray or brown color instead of the usual pink or red. If you notice any white, gray, green, or bluish spots on your cooked steak, it could be a sign of mold. 

In all these cases, err on the side of caution and discard the steak even if the signs aren’t obvious. Also, never try to determine whether a steak is rancid by tasting it. Even a small bite can lead to food poisoning. 

Storing Leftover Steak

If you plan on eating the leftover steak in less than two days, keep it in the fridge in a tight container to prevent drying. Otherwise, divide it into portions and freeze it in tightly wrapped plastic bags or airtight containers. This way, you’ll avoid freezer burn, and you won’t have to defrost more steak than you need. 

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Cooked steak can stay in the freezer for up to three months, but you shouldn’t refreeze it once it’s thawed. That’s because when meat is frozen, ice crystals form that damage the cell walls, making it more susceptible to bacterial growth. Refreezing the meat causes more damage to the cell walls, making it more likely to spoil and increasing the risk of foodborne illness.

If you’ve thawed the leftover steak but don’t want to eat it immediately, store it in the fridge for up to two days. And don’t forget to reheat it to an internal temperature of at least 165°F (74°C) before consuming it. 

What Happens If You Eat a Steak That Has Gone Bad?

Symptoms of foodborne illness include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. The first two usually occur within a few hours after eating a spoiled steak, while diarrhea and fever take longer to present. 

Sometimes, the symptoms are mild and resolve within a few days. However, in more severe cases, food poisoning can cause dehydration, kidney failure, and even death. If you experience intense symptoms after eating leftover steak, seek medical attention to prevent complications.

Tips for Handling Cooked Steak Safely

Dealing with cooked steak isn’t hard if you follow proper practices. Here are a few more tips to help you maximize your food safety:  

  • Aside from a pan sauce, your steak should be the last component you cook for your meal. Cooking it too early will increase the risk of contamination as it sits out. 
  • Use separate utensils and cutting boards to prevent cross-contamination when handling raw and cooked meat or vegetables.
  • If you’re defrosting frozen steak, don’t leave it at room temperature. Instead, thaw it in the refrigerator or use the defrost function on your microwave.
  • Use a clean plate to prevent cross-contamination when transferring cooked steak from the grill or pan to a plate.
  • Even if the leftover steak has been in the fridge, you should get rid of it if uneaten after four days.
Tips for Handling Cooked Steak Safely

Don’t Let Leftover Steak Go to Waste

Leftover steak isn’t the most appetizing meal since it’s often chewy and lacks moisture, especially if you reheat it to 160°F. That’s why many people leave it in the fridge or freezer until it’s no longer edible. 

But with some creativity, you can turn the rest of your steak into another delicious meal that won’t sit in the back of your fridge for long. 

My favorite trick is to make steak fajitas. I chop up some bell peppers and onions and fry them over high heat before adding the chopped steak. My fajita seasoning consists of garlic powder, smoked paprika, chilly flakes, ground cumin, dried oregano, and salt. Some people add sugar too, but I like my fajitas hot ‘n’ spicy. 

The best thing about a steak fajita is that the steam from the vegetables adds moisture back to your meat. 

Here are a few other ideas to try at home if you want something more exciting that old steak: 

  • Steak salad: Cut the leftover steak into thin slices and turn it into a salad with some lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers. I sometimes make a quick vinaigrette with olive oil, fresh cilantro, and vinegar if I feel like it, but you can also use mayo or ranch. 
  • Steak sandwich: Use the steak as a filling for a sandwich with your favorite condiments and bread. One of my favorite options is a Bearnaise sauce with some sauteed zucchini and carrots. 
  • Steak tacos: This one is a great choice for weeknight dinner. Just chop up the leftover steak as a filling for tacos and serve it with salsa, avocado, and lime juice. It’s nutritious and fulfilling. 
  • Steak stir-fry: Cut the leftover steak into thin pieces and stir-fry it with bell peppers, onions, and broccoli, and serve it over rice or noodles.

Final Thoughts 

You shouldn’t leave cooked steak at room temperature for more than two hours on regular days and one hour if the temperature exceeds 90°F (32°C). To ensure that the steak is safe to eat, cook it to the appropriate temperature and for the right duration based on your desired level of doneness. 

You can keep leftover steak in the fridge for four days and in the freezer for two months. And you can use it to create other delicious meals such as steak salad, steak fajitas, or steak stir-fry. 

If you have any questions about handling and cooking steak safely, feel free to leave a comment below.

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Sirwan Ajman
About The Author
Sirwan is a food writer and a proud owner of a health-conscious café. He enjoys experimenting with new flavors. Mexican and Mediterranean cuisines hold a special place in his heart.

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