As the summer approaches, many of us will be firing up the grill and enjoying some delicious barbecued meats with friends and family. But with warmer temperatures comes the increased risk of bacterial growth and contamination on meat left to sit out.
Whether cooking some juicy steaks or preparing a classic meatloaf, understanding the proper storage and handling of meats is crucial for keeping yourself and your loved ones healthy.
As a home cook, in this post, I’ll share my tips and tricks for keeping your meats fresh and safe to eat. We’ll cover everything from the ideal storage conditions for different types of meat to the signs of spoilage to look out for.
How Long Can Meat Sit Out?
You shouldn’t leave meat at room temperature for longer than two hours. And if the outside temperature is above 90°F (32°C), reduce this time to one hour. This rule applies to all types of meat, including beef, lamb, pork, poultry, fish, and even cooked meat and leftovers.
Bacteria that can make you sick love temperatures between 60°F (15.5°C) and 110°F (43°C). So, to ensure your safety, the USDA recommends keeping your fridge temperature at 40°F (4.5°C) and cooking meat to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F (63°C).
To play it safe, always remember to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. That means you should store raw meat in the fridge before cooking it and then keep it in a warming dish after cooking until served.
Factors That Affect How Long Meat Can Sit Outside
While the two-hour rule is the gold standard for leaving food at room temperature, you should understand how different factors affect bacterial growth on meat to handle meat properly and reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Here’s a brief overview.
Type of Meat
Fish and seafood spoil faster than other types of meat because sea creatures live at lower temperatures than chicken and cattle. As a result, bacteria can quickly break down their flesh at room temperatures.
Chicken is also highly susceptible to bacterial growth because it has a high moisture content. What’s more, chicken is often highly processed, which can increase the risk of bacterial contamination.
Foodborne bacteria affect beef less than other types of meat because it has less moisture and a less porous surface. However, ground beef is an exception because the bacteria on the surface get mixed throughout the ground meat during the grinding process.
Temperature is one of the most critical factors in determining how long meat can sit out before spoiling. The USDA identifies the 40°F (4.5°C) to 140°F (60°C) range as the danger zone for bacterial growth. Harmful bacteria such as S. aureus, Salmonella, E. coli, and Campylobacter double every twenty minutes and can grow to dangerous levels in just two hours in this range.
While temperatures below 40°F (4.5°C) can slow bacterial growth, refrigeration can’t completely stop pathogens from growing. For example, Listeria monocytogenes can continue to grow at 32°F (0°C). What’s more, Salmonella and S. aureus can start multiplying as soon as the temperature exceeds 42°F (5°C).
Bacteria thrive in moist environments. Like all living organisms, they need water to carry out their metabolic processes, such as breaking down food and producing energy. Moisture can also help dissolve nutrients, making them more accessible to the bacteria for growth and reproduction, and it can protect can pathogens from heat and light.
Storing meat in a dry environment, such as an airtight container, can slow down spoilage. However, you should ensure the container is free from contaminants promoting bacterial growth.
Adequate air circulation can remove moisture from the meat’s surface and slow down bacterial growth. It also dissipates heat and keeps the temperature at a safe level.
However, too much airflow can have negative consequences. It provides oxygen for aerobic microorganisms to thrive on the meat and can also dry out the meat, making it tough and unpalatable. Plus, if the airflow isn’t clean, it can introduce harmful bacteria into the meat.
Proper packaging is essential for keeping your meat fresh and safe to eat. Let’s take a look at the most common types of meat packaging and how they affect bacterial growth:
- Vacuum-sealed packaging creates a barrier around your meat to protect it against excessive air and moisture. This type of packaging can also preserve the meat’s texture and flavor by preventing moisture loss.
- Modified atmosphere packaging replaces the air around the meat with a gas mixture that inhibits bacterial growth. The gas is usually a combination of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and sometimes oxygen. Carbon dioxide makes the meat’s surface more acidic and slows bacterial growth, while nitrogen stops aerobic bacteria from growing.
- Airtight containers prevent moisture loss by putting a barrier between the meat and the surrounding air. By limiting the amount of oxygen available, these containers help keep your meat fresher for longer.
- Butcher paper is a heavy-duty, unbleached paper that can help control airflow and prevent contamination. But it’s not airtight, so it doesn’t completely stop bacteria from growing.
Age of Meat
Fresh meat contains lysozyme, an active enzyme that attacks the bacteria’s cell walls and kills them. However, as the meat ages, the enzyme becomes less active, making it easier for the bacteria to multiply.
Fresh meat is also slightly acidic, with a pH of 5.5 to 6.2. But older meat has a higher pH, creating a more welcoming bacterial growth environment.
Finally, older meat may also have physical changes that make it more vulnerable to bacterial growth. For example, the meat’s surface may become drier and more porous, creating more opportunities for bacteria to penetrate and grow.
Cross-contamination happens when bacteria from one food item get transferred to another. For example, if you handle raw chicken and beef on the same cutting board, you risk contaminating the beef with harmful bacteria from the chicken. This is especially dangerous if the chicken has Salmonella or Campylobacter, common in poultry.
Similarly, ground beef is more susceptible to bacterial contamination than whole cuts. So, if you handle raw pork and ground beef at the same time using the same utensils, you risk contaminating the ground beef with harmful bacteria from the pork. Doing so is especially dangerous if the pork is contaminated with E. coli or Listeria, which can cause serious illness.
If your meat has been exposed to bacteria through cross-contamination, you need to throw it out to be safe, even if it hasn’t been sitting out for very long.
How Long Can Meat Stay in the Refrigerator?
The factors from the previous section also determine how much time a piece of meat can spend in your fridge.
Generally, beef and pork can last a few days in the fridge because they have lower moisture content and higher fat content. On the other hand, fish is the most delicate type of meat due to its higher moisture content and bacterial populations that are used to growing in lower temperatures. Depending on the type of fish, it may only be safe to store in the fridge for a day or two.
Check out the table below for the maximum recommended refrigeration times for different types of fresh meat:
|Type of Meat||Maximum Refrigerator Time|
|Beef||3 to 5 days|
|Ground beef||1 to 2 days|
|Chicken||1 to 3 days|
|Turkey||1 to 3 days|
|Pork||2 to 3 days|
|Fish||1 to 2 days|
Tips for Safely Storing Meat in the Refrigerator
Aside from duration, cross-contamination is the biggest threat to look out for when refrigerating meat. Make sure the meat is properly wrapped to avoid leaks. As an extra precaution, it’s a good idea to put the wrapped meat in a container or on a sheet pan to catch any drips.
Secondly, keep track of the date you purchase a meat cut so you know how long you have to use it. When storing meat in the fridge, use the “first in, first out” rule. Put the oldest items at the front of the fridge and the newest items at the back. This way, you’ll use the oldest meat before it goes bad.
Finally, if you have any leftovers, you can keep them in your refrigerator for up to four days, but I recommend freezing them if you don’t plan on eating the meat in two days. Doing so lets you maintain freshness and avoid foodborne illnesses.
How Long Can Meat Stay in the Freezer?
The same rules apply here with a tiny exception: Whole meat can last longer in the freezer than smaller cuts. For example, you can keep a whole chicken in your freezer for up to a year, whereas chicken thighs or breasts should be thrown out after nine months.
Here’s how long you can keep different types of meat in the freezer:
|Type of Meat||Max Freezer Time|
|Ground beef||4 months|
Tips Safely Storing Meat in the Freezer
When it comes to safely storing and thawing meat, you need to consider two factors: time and air.
If meat is frozen slowly, large ice crystals can form, which can damage the texture and quality of the meat. Plus, slow freezing allows harmful bacteria to grow during the time its freezing and spoil your meat.
To freeze meat quickly, divide it into smaller portions and make sure the surface is as flat as possible. Flat pieces of meat freeze and defrost twice as fast.
When you’re ready to defrost your meat, you should do it quickly to preserve its texture and prevent contamination. One smart way to do this is by using an aluminum sheet tray. Aluminum is an excellent conductor of energy. It lets you defrost your meat up to twice as fast.
Finally, use a freezer bag instead of a regular Ziploc bag because freezer bags are thicker and keep more air from entering the bag. Use a vacuum sealer or squeeze as much air out the bag as you can before freezing. As we discussed earlier, too much air can promote bacterial growth and cause freezer burn, which can ruin your meat.
How to Tell if Meat Has Gone Bad
As a home cook, you need to know the signs of spoiled meat to make sure you and your family don’t get food poisoning. Here are a few things to look out for:
Check the Expiration Date
Most meat products have an expiration date printed on the packaging. If the date has passed, you should toss the product. Even if the meat looks fine, it may be contaminated with Listeria, which can multiply even in the refrigerator.
You should also note that expiration dates are merely guidelines. If a package of meat has been improperly refrigerated, it may be full of bacteria before its expiration date. In contrast, properly stored meat may be safe to eat a day or two past its expiration date.
Here’s a detailed YouTube video explaining which product dates you should stick to and which ones are safe to ignore:
Look for Discoloration
When meat starts to spoil, it undergoes a series of chemical changes that can cause its color to change.
The most common change in color is when the meat loses its vibrant red pigment and turns brown or gray. This change is due to the breakdown of the protein myoglobin, which gives meat its characteristic color. When myoglobin is exposed to air for too long, or the meat isn’t stored at the proper temperature, it can oxidize, creating a brown or gray exterior.
Green or bluish hues are also typical in spoiled meat, and they’re often due to bacterial activity. As bacteria consume the nutrients in meat, they decompose the proteins into peptides and amino acids through a process known as proteolysis. Depending on the bacteria colonizing the meat, this process creates different colored stains.
Smell the Meat
If you’re not sure whether your meat has gone bad, give it a sniff. A foul or unusual odor is a sure sign that the meat is spoiled, and a sour or ammonia-like smell usually indicates bacterial activity.
The bacteria that spoil meat produce ammonia, sulfur compounds, and organic acids when they break down the meat’s amino acids and other organic compounds. As they grow and multiply, the concentrations of these compounds increase, leading to this characteristic odor.
Check for a Slimy Texture
If your meat feels slimy to the touch, it’s a clear sign that bacteria or other microorganisms have taken up residence on its surface. These tiny creatures produce a film on the meat that traps moisture and enhances the conditions for their growth.
The slimy film, which is often sticky to the touch, consists of proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates. However, the composition varies depending on the bacteria type and the environment.
Look for Mold
Mold often presents as a fuzzy or powdery clump or spot and can range in color from white to green, blue, and black. And while it may be tempting to cut off the moldy part and save the rest, don’t do it. The mold has likely spread throughout the entire cut of meat, even if you can’t see it.
Never Taste Suspicious Meat
You don’t want to waste food, but taking a small bite of suspicious meat to see if it’s gone bad is never a good idea. Sometimes, harmful bacteria aren’t detectable by taste or smell, so even if the meat looks and smells okay, it could still make you sick. So, when in doubt, just throw it out.
Dangers of Consuming Spoiled Meat
Symptoms of foodborne illness usually appear within six hours to two days of eating contaminated food. They can vary depending on the bacteria and the individual’s age, health status, and immune system strength.
Common symptoms of food poisoning include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In many cases, the symptoms are mild and resolve on their own, but if they intensify with time or persist for more than two days, see a doctor.
The bacteria that spoil meat produce various harmful toxins, including the following:
- Histamine: Histamine is a colorless and odorless compound produced by bacteria that grow on fish and other seafood. The symptoms of histamine poisoning can appear within minutes or hours of consuming contaminated fish and include itching, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
- Clostridium botulinum toxin: This potent toxin is produced by Clostridium botulinum. When consumed, it can cause botulism, a rare but serious illness that leads to muscle weakness, paralysis, and even death. Studies have found the toxin in vacuum-sealed raw meats and fish.
- Staphylococcal enterotoxins: These toxins are produced by multiple strains of the S. aureus bacteria, and they cause sudden nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Staphylococcal enterotoxins are extremely heat-resistant, which is why you should cook meat properly.
- Salmonella enterotoxins: These Salmonella toxins cause fevers, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Fortunately, salmonella isn’t heat-resistant and doesn’t leave behind dangerous toxins once it’s killed.
- E. coli toxins: Certain strains of the E. coli bacteria can produce Shiga toxin, which causes abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and in some cases, kidney failure.
Final Thoughts: When in Doubt, Throw it Out
So, whether it’s beef, pork, poultry, seafood, or leftovers, the two-hour rule is your best bet to ensure maximum freshness and safety. You shouldn’t keep meat outside for longer than an hour in hotter temperatures.
And if you’re ever unsure about the freshness of your meat, be sure to check for signs of rancidity, such as a foul odor, slimy texture, or a change in color. When in doubt, it’s always better to be safe than sorry and throw it out!
If you have any questions or concerns about the safety of your meat, please don’t hesitate to ask.
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