When you're parsing through all the tips, tricks, and instruction for what to do with your steaks, burgers, and other cuts of meat, the last thing you're probably thinking of is how just to properly save it (especially when all you want to do is eat it).
But, it matters: Storing your beef correctly in the fridge or freezer will save you mis-labeling headaches, cuts that go bad before using them, and multiple trips to the meat counter. So we asked butcher Cara Nicoletti to fill us in on everything she knows about storing beef—and thankfully, she debunks a few myths along the way.
Food52: What are a few initial things to keep in mind when considering how to store various cuts of beef in the fridge so that they last the longest and the quality stays great?
Cara Nicoletti: If you buy beef from the retail shelf at the supermarket, it generally comes packed with an overwrap of oxygen permeable film, or what is called “modified atmosphere packaging.” The package contains a high level of CO2, which is pumped in during the packing process to help slow microbial growth. If you break the meat out of this container, you lose this extra level of protection, so it’s best to leave it in there until you are ready to cook it. Supermarket meat will have a packing and expiration date on it, which gives you a guideline of how long you can keep it before cooking or freezing, but these only apply if your meat has been refrigerated correctly.
F52: How long should meat last once you've stashed it in the fridge?
CN: The general rule for raw beef cuts—roasts, chops, and steaks—is that they will last, well-wrapped in your refrigerator, for between 3 and 5 days. The shelf-life on ground beef is slightly shorter because the grinding process raises the risk for cross-contamination. There is also more surface area on each strand of meat, which means more room for harboring harmful bacteria, so it’s best to cook it within 1 to 2 days. Cooked meat will generally last in your fridge for 3 to 4 days before you need to toss or freeze it.
F52: How might you wrap meat, what temperature is best, and what part of the fridge should you store it in?
If you bought your meat from a butcher (go you!), it probably came wrapped in paper, which doesn’t have that extra level of CO2 protection that supermarket meat has. In this case, just make sure the meat is wrapped tightly, and re-wrap it if necessary. Many butcher shops have cryovac machines, which extend the shelf-life of your meat by removing air from around your meat, thus slowing microbial growth. Ask your butcher if he has one and if he would be willing or able to pack your meat in it.
Bacteria thrive and multiply most quickly between 40°F and 140°F, so it’s important to make sure your fridge stays at 40°F or below. The bottom shelf is generally the coolest part of the fridge, which makes it the best spot in to store meat—and you avoid any juice dripping onto other items.
F52: What are the signs that refrigerated meat is still okay to cook, or that it has gone past the point of no return? Are the best indicators look, smell, or feel?
CN: First thing’s first—check the expiration date on the packaging. This should give you a general idea of where your beef is at. Meat that you buy from a butcher might not have an expiration date on it, so it’s important to ask them how long the beef was in the case before they packed it up for you—if it’s already on it’s 4th day, it would be best to cook it that night.
If your beef has "gone off," you will know pretty much as soon as you open the packaging and smell it. Fresh beef has a subtle clean, irony smell. If your beef has gone bad, you might smell a slight fishiness, ammonia, or sulfur. Any strong smells in general are not good!
This rule of thumb doesn’t apply, however, if you have a dry-aged steak. A dry-aged steak will have a much stronger smell than non-dry aged beef and can sometimes give off the scent of overripe fruit, or even blue cheese. The fridge at your butcher has certain humidity levels and a build-up of good bacteria that your home fridge doesn’t have, so it’s best to cook a dry-aged steak the night you get it from your butcher.
The next way you can tell if your beef has gone off is by feeling it—beef that has gone off will feel sticky and slimy. This stickiness means that bacteria has started to multiply on the surface of the meat, so it’s best to throw it away if it has gotten to this point.
When meat is exposed to air, or deprived of air, it can turn brownish grey. Don’t worry, this does not mean that the meat has spoiled—it is a natural thing that happens. However, if your beef has any green or black spots on it, that’s a no-go.
F52: What are the best ways to store beef in the freezer?
CN: Wrapping beef properly, temperature, and the location you store it in the freezer, plus freezer strategies, are all helpful, especially if you buy a lot and want to pack it up in handy amounts.
The key to making your meat last the longest in the freezer is minimizing the air in your packaging. Ask your butcher if s/he can freezer-pack or cryovac your meats for you. This removes air from the packaging and will help prevent your meat from getting freezer-burned.
If you are piling multiple steaks or burgers into one package, be sure to place pieces of parchment or wax paper in between each one. This makes it easier to separate the meats from each other without tearing their surface once they are partially thawed.
F52: How long can you freeze meat—and do you have any labeling tips?
CN: If your freezer is at 0°F or below, your meat will technically last indefinitely; however, the quality of the meat will degrade over time, making the flavor and texture less desirable. For maximum enjoyment, store ground beef for 3 to 4 months in your freezer, and fresh cuts up to 8 to 12 months.
Labeling tape can lose its stickiness in the freezer and leave you with a bunch of unlabeled mystery containers after a couple of months so it’s best to write your label directly on the packaging with a permanent marker before putting your meat in the freezer. Coming in contact with high or low temperatures while writing can make your sharpie’s ink less permanent, so write the label before you fill the package with hot or cold meat.
F52: How would you defrost meat safely?
CN: The best way to defrost your meat is by putting it in the refrigerator overnight. Keep your meat in its plastic packaging, or put it in a ziplock bag, and place it in a bowl or on a plate to prevent meat juices from leaking on other foods in your fridge. If you defrost this way, you can wait up to 2 days before cooking your meat. It is safe to re-freeze your meat if you defrost it this way.
If you don’t have time to defrost overnight, the second best way to do it is by running the meat under cool water. Put your frozen meat in a well-sealed plastic bag, and place it in a bowl of cool water. Thinner, smaller cuts will defrost within an hour, but larger cuts can take 2 to 3 hours. Make sure you replace the water every 30 minutes to make sure it stays cool. If you defrost your meat this way, you should cook it as soon as it’s thawed, and not re-freeze it.
F52: Can you re-freeze your meat after defrosting?
CN: It is a common misconception that you should never, ever re-freeze your meat after it’s thawed. It is actually perfectly safe to re-freeze your meat if you have thawed it overnight in the refrigerator—but be forewarned that your meat might not be quite as tasty if you do this, due to moisture loss during the thawing process. And you should never re-freeze raw meat that you have thawed under cool water.
F52: And can you defrost, cook, and then freeze cooked meat (e.g. leftover steak, chili, etc.)?
CN: Once you cook your defrosted meat, you can safely freeze your cooked food after 3 to 4 days of refrigeration.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Any tips you swear by for storing beef in the fridge or freezer? Share it with us below!
We teamed up with the Beef Checkoff to share recipes, tips, and videos all season long, showing you how to prep and cook beef at home like you've been doing it forever.