You’ve been eagerly waiting to cook that juicy ribeye in your freezer the whole week. On Saturday morning, you take it out of the freezer and leave it on the counter to thaw as you get on with your day.
Three hours later, you remember the steak that’s now sitting in a pool of red liquid. Is that steak safe to eat?
I recently found myself in that exact situation and went on a hunt to find the answer. In this post, I’ll share what I discovered.
How Long Can Steak Sit Out?
You shouldn’t leave your raw steak out of the fridge for longer than two hours. On warmer days, when the outside temperature is around 90°F (32°C), cut this time to an hour. The same numbers apply to frozen and packaged steak or any other type of meat.
Harmful bacteria rapidly multiply at temperatures between 40°F (4.5°C) and 140°F (60°C), also known as the “danger zone.” These bacteria are already present in meat, but lower temperatures inhibit their growth and prevent multiplication to a point that could cause food poisoning.
If you happen to leave your steak at room temperature for longer than two hours, throw it away. It may not have any obvious signs of spoiling, but harmful bacteria may have already multiplied to dangerous levels. The toxins they leave behind can make you sick even after the bacteria themselves die in high heat. So, eating your steak can give you food poisoning even if you cook it thoroughly.
The Danger of Leaving Steak at Room Temperature
The ideal environment for bacterial growth is warm and moist, with a protein-rich food source. That’s why a piece of meat outside the fridge is the perfect candidate for contamination.
Harmful bacteria grow so quickly that their numbers double every 20 minutes and can reach dangerous levels in less than two hours.
The most common types of bacteria in raw meat and poultry are Salmonella, E. coli, and Staphylococcus aureus. They usually cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. However, rare strains of E. coli, such as E. coli O157:H7, can lead to serious complications, including bloody diarrhea and kidney failure.
Many home cooks think cooking a potentially contaminated steak to a higher degree can make it safe to eat. But this is a completely false assumption.
While most Salmonella strains die after one minute of exposure to 135°F (57°C) heat, the S. senftenberg 775W strain is 30 times more heat-resistant. Under the right conditions, even E. coli can withstand 158°F (70°C) heat –around the recommended internal temperature for a well-done steak– for at least five minutes.
Signs of a Rancid Steak
Spoiled meat has a strong, off-putting smell different from raw meat. If your steak has a sour or ammonia-like smell, it has probably been at room temperature long enough for the proteins to break down due to bacterial growth. Depending on the strain of bacteria infecting your steak, you may also detect an egg-like or musty smell.
Spoiled packaged meat will have a strong sour smell because anaerobic bacteria thrive in environments with limited oxygen, and the meat will rot from within.
Bacteria and fungi can leave a sticky, slimy residue as they decompose your steak. During this process, the bacteria produce enzymes that trap moisture and protect them against unfavorable conditions. These enzymes also accelerate the decomposition process and turn the meat dark brown.
Discoloration is often a sign of fungal contamination, especially green or bluish spots. Bacteria can also leave dark spots on your steak.
You may be tempted to cut out the discolored parts and cook the rest of the steak, but that’s a terrible idea. Microorganisms have already penetrated the entire steak; they’re only more concentrated in the darker area.
How to Safely Handle Your Steak Without Leaving it Out of the Fridge
You may want to leave your steak out of the fridge for three reasons:
- Defrost it.
- Brine or marinate it.
- Ensure even cooking and searing.
In all three cases, there’s a better way to accomplish your goal without risking your health. Let’s see how.
The best and safest way to thaw your steak is to leave it in the fridge for a few hours. Put the steak in a plastic bag and place it in a blow to prevent any drips or leaks. This slow and steady method lets your steak stay at a safe and consistent temperature.
Alternatively, you can use the defrost function on your microwave. Depending on your freezer temperature and the steak’s thickness, I recommend 30 to 60 seconds on each side. You should never blast your meat for too long since the thinner edges will cook before the center gets defrosted.
And if you don’t have a microwave, put your steak in a leak-proof back and submerge it in lukewarm water for half an hour. You can also add a tablespoon of vinegar to the water because most foodborne bacteria don’t grow in acidic environments.
But don’t pour boiling water on your meat since you’ll slightly cook the outside, which will prevent a perfect sear. Once the steak is defrosted, pat it dry with a paper towel and cook it immediately.
Whatever your thawing method, make sure to cook the steak immediately after thawing, especially if using water, the microwave, or techniques that warm the meat to room temperature.
Brining and Marinating
Brining means adding salt to your steak to increase its juiciness after it’s cooked. Marinating, in contrast, aims to increase flavor by adding herbs, aromatics, and usually an acid, such as lemon juice.
In both cases, you need to give your steak time to absorb the salt and flavorful compounds. And you can’t do that while the meat is frozen.
So, first, thaw your steak as I explained above. Then apply your brine or marinate and put the meat in the fridge to let the flavors infuse. Cover your container with a lid or plastic wrap to avoid cross-contamination.
Pro tip: Use a plastic or glass container to marinate your steak. The acid in the mixture reacts with metal containers and alters the steak’s taste.
Searing and Even Cooking
There’s debate on whether leaving your steak at room temperature for 30 minutes ensures even cooking. Chef Kenji Lopez-Alt’s the Food Lab, advises against this step for two reasons:
- It increases the risk of spoilage.
- It has a negligible effect since the steak’s internal temperature won’t rise in 30 minutes.
Instead, dry the surface of your steak with a paper towel to remove excess moisture from the surface. This moisture is a larger barrier to a crispy crust than the steak’s internal temperature. That’s because it takes almost five times as much energy to evaporate the surface water than it does to increase the internal temperature from 0 to 100 degrees. So, removing the excess moisture will be much more effective—and less risky—than leaving the steak at room temperature.
How To Properly Store Steak
Ideally, you should freeze your steak as soon as you buy it if you don’t plan on cooking it in two days.
According to the USDA, fresh beef can be refrigerated for up to five days. But, in my experience, it’ll get stale and lose most of its moisture by the third day. In contrast, you can keep it in the freezer for three months – as long as it’s packaged properly – before it starts to lose its quality.
When freezing your steak, divide it into portions you’ll eat in one sitting and store each in a tightly wrapped plastic bag.
This way, you’ll avoid freezer burn and won’t have to thaw more meat than you need. While it’s not unsafe to refreeze a piece of meat once you defrost it in the fridge, I’ve found that the quality will never be the same. You’ll never get a juicy steak if you refreeze it.
What About Cooked Steak?
You should treat cooked meat the same way as raw steak: don’t leave it on the counter for longer than two hours—or one hour on hot days.
As we’ve said, cooking your steak won’t kill all the harmful bacteria. So, at room temperature, the bacteria population gets a second chance to grow and multiply.
If you have any leftover steak, put it in the fridge as soon as you’re done eating. It can stay there for three to four days, and you can freeze it for up to two months.
But never refrigerate a piping hot steak! Wrapping and chilling a hot steak will negatively affect the texture and may increase the temperature in your fridge to dangerous levels. Instead, let the cooked steak rest for twenty to thirty minutes before moving it to the coolest part of your fridge—the lowest available shelf.
If you’re in a hurry, place the hot steak in a sealed container and put it in a bowl filled with ice. It should cool down in about five to ten minutes. That said, I’d make something easier if I didn’t have enough time to enjoy cooking and eating a juicy steak!
Frequently Asked Questions
Can You Let Steak Sit Out Overnight?
No. Never leave steak outside for longer than two hours, as it can lead to harmful bacterial growth. If you want to thaw your steak overnight, put it in the refrigerator inside a bowl to catch any drippings.
How Long Can You Store Raw Steak in the Fridge?
The USDA recommends keeping beef or lamb steaks in the fridge for no longer than five days. However, if you won’t cook your steak within two days, freeze it. Otherwise, you risk food contamination and a less delicious steak.
What Is the Ideal Temperature for Storing Raw Steak?
The best temperature to store raw steak is below 40°F (4.5°C). The harmful bacteria in the meat won’t have the conditions to multiply at this temperature. You should store your raw steak in the coldest part of your refrigerator, such as the back or bottom shelf. Never keep the meat in the door since the temperature there can fluctuate.
Leaving raw or cooked steak out for longer than two hours can put you at risk of food poisoning. To enjoy a steak that’s both safe and perfectly done, let it thaw in the fridge and only take it out a few minutes before cooking.
And don’t leave the leftovers on the kitchen table. The fridge is, again, the safest place to store cooked steak.
If you have any questions or comments, drop them below.