How To Tell If A Steak Is Bad: 3 Crucial Things You Need To Know

As the holiday season approaches, there is no better time to gather with friends and family for a hearty, home-cooked meal.

However, as adults, we know there is much more to holiday cheer than our favorite antics. Among the bright lights, family, and aromatic food, there remains the dreaded refrigerator cleanout. 

We all know the feeling of combing through months and months of leftovers, meats, and frost-bitten desserts; the activity is sure to take up the majority of your Sunday afternoon. 

After tossing countless items that were once ready-to-eat, how do you figure out what is left that you can salvage?  

How do you know if your steak has spoiled? There is nothing worse than pulling your steak out of the fridge or freezer and realizing that you can no longer consume it. 

Here are the telltale signs that your steak has gone bad and what you can do to prevent more money on wasted food from going down the drain. 

How To Recognize Spoiled Steak

how to tell if steak spoiled

Take A Glance At The Coloration

Before you even have to go near it, take a look at the coloration of your steak. Does it have any little patches of white mold? Has it gone a pale brown, yellow, or even a green color? 

Above all else, if you notice that there are significantly dark patches of discoloration, and your steak has turned a shade of brown, yellow, or green, it might be time to toss it.  

Two main proteins give steak its red color: myoglobin and hemoglobin. 

Myoglobin reacts with oxygen when a steak is sliced open, transforming the steak into a deep, purplish-red color: this is normal. 

Approximately half an hour after the sliced steak is exposed to air, it will turn bright red. After being cooked, the steak will turn brown as the myoglobin oxidizes. 

In general, a good steak should have a vibrant, cherry-red color with light pink marbling throughout. Look for marbling in the form of small flecks evenly spread across the steak’s surface.

How To Tell If A Steak Is Spoiled

But why do fresh steaks sometimes still vary in color? In some instances, good steaks in and of themselves can vary in color based on the age, size, diet, and butchering process of the cow that it came from. 

If the cow was grass-fed, the steak’s color will be a darker red. While on the other hand, steak from an animal fed a grain and corn diet will be brighter red – often with more distinct marbling.

Sometimes, even down to the way it is displayed, such as when the steak is kept unwrapped in a windowed case, can cause a change in color.

In that instance, expect to see darker coloring as the steak oxidizes, making it appear browner. There is nothing wrong with that steak. 

Take A Whiff

If you are unsure of a change in coloration, open it up and take a whiff. Smell is one of the easiest and fastest ways to determine whether or not your steak is over the hill. 

(But take caution, some people will find that they simply do not enjoy the smell of raw steak.)  

While the smell of fresh steak can sometimes be off-putting, it shouldn’t smell completely rancid. 

A spoiled piece of steak will have a strong smell of ammonia that will usually pack a strong punch. This smell can also be described as a “sour” or “metallic” smell. 

While fresh steak should have a relatively muted smell, as bacteria begin to break down the steak, it will grow more putrid as this process repeats.

But why does dry-aged steak sometimes smell just as bad as a rotten ribeye or filet? Dry-aged steak may sometimes smell like cheese due to lactic acid released during the aging process. Don’t worry; this is completely normal. 

For dry-aged steaks, utilize other methods of determination to ensure that it hasn’t gone bad. 

All in all, raw steak should smell relatively odorless, with dry-aged steak being the exception. In any case, you will most likely know whether or not steak is spoiled simply by its foul smell. 

The Poke Test 

how to tell if my steak is bad

Consider the feeling and texture of your steak. This can sometimes be visibly seen, but you may need to also give it a good poke. 

A steak that has gone bad will sometimes look or feel slimy. When you poke it, you’ll notice a slimy film on the surface.

If the slime feels slippery and sticky, that is one of the telltale signs of a rancid steak that is days away from molding.

Keep in mind that if the steak is just beginning to go bad, you may not feel slime form on top of the entirety of the steak. 

Therefore, you should always make sure to inspect your steak closely for any smaller slippery patches, as well as utilize other methods of detection. 

In other instances, if a steak is excessively dry, chances are that it has gone bad. A dry, shriveled, or dehydrated steak reveals that it might be over the hill.

A great tip for knowing what your raw steak should feel like is to feel the relaxed palm of your hand just below your thumb. It’s a little soft and fleshy, which is exactly what raw steak should feel like when you touch it. 

The texture of raw steak, along with the sight and smell tests, should give you a good idea if it is or isn’t safe to eat.

How To Prevent Spoiled Steak From The Beginning

how to identify spoiled steak

Control What You Know Before You Buy 

The most overlooked yet obvious way to determine whether a steak may be past its shelf life (or very close to it) is by checking the expiration date

When you’re at the supermarket or the butcher shop, always glance at the expiration date to ensure that it hasn’t passed or that the steak will not expire by the time you plan to cook it. 

Even if you plan to freeze or preserve the steak, make sure that it is at least two weeks before its expiration date to ensure that it will not go bad. 

But how do you tell the difference between sell-by dates and expiration dates? Supermarkets and butchers use a sell-by date to determine when is the last date the steak should be sold to the customer in order to give them ample time to use it before its expiration date. 

On the other hand, an expiration date is the last time that the customer should be cooking the steak. 

In most circumstances, it is okay to cook the steak a day or two after its expiration date. However, as a general rule of thumb, it is best to err on the side of caution and cook a steak before its expiration date occurs. 

Additionally, if a steak is not graded by the USDA as either choice, prime or select, don’t purchase it. Unfortunately, ungraded meat can make up 40% of the meat sold in a supermarket.

Store It Properly 

Refrigeration & Freezing

Most cuts of steak can be safely stored in a refrigerator for 3 to 4 days, at temperatures between 33°F and 40°F. However, they can be stored in a freezer for nearly six to twelve months at a temperature of 0°F or less. 

Refrigerated steaks should be cooked within 1 or 2 days of refrigeration, and can be stored in the freezer for up to 4 months. Leftover cooked steak that is refrigerated should be used within 3 or 4 days and can be frozen for up to 3 months.

But be careful with freezing – ensure that your steak is adequately wrapped to prevent any freezer burn. Freezer burn can cause the steak to become discolored and dehydrated, giving it a brown color. 

When steaks are incorrectly wrapped, any exposure to the cold, dry air of the freezer compartment can cause moisture loss.

Check your steaks once a week to ensure that they are still properly wrapped and haven’t been exposed to freezer temperatures for an extended period of time. 

A generous layer of plastic wrap, followed by a layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil works well as protection against freezer burn. If this isn’t an option, heavy white freezer paper is another effective alternative for protecting the meat.

Which is better? Refrigerating or freezing a steak? The best method depends on when you plan to use it. If you plan to use your steak within a week of the purchase, refrigeration may be the best method for you. If you plan to use it later down the road, it’s better to freeze it adequately.

Vacuum Packaging

If you’re really going for the longevity of a fresh steak, vacuum packaging is another great storage alternative.

Vacuum packaging helps to keep the steak fresher for a longer period of time, as long as it’s properly refrigerated or frozen. 

When vacuum packaging, the steak is sealed, and any oxygen is removed from the package by a vacuum sealer in order to prevent any oxidation of the steak before it is ready to be cooked. 

Steak that is frozen for long-term storage in vacuum packages can be dated so that it can be used within 1 year for raw steak cuts and 3 months for any type of cooked leftovers.

Final Words

With all of these tips and tricks under your belt, you are now a steak expert. Ensure that your hard-earned money on an excellent cut of steak never goes to waste again. 

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