How To Tell If Your Steak Has Gone Bad

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There are few meats that can be cooked for a romantic dinner or on a nice summer evening as easily as steak. We all love a great steak. So the last thing you want is to serve perfectly cooked steak that leads to food poisoning. So you need to know how to tell if steak…

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How to know when steak is bad.
Yup, this steak is bad. Abby can’t stand the smell.

There are few meats that can be cooked for a romantic dinner or on a nice summer evening as easily as steak. We all love a great steak. So the last thing you want is to serve perfectly cooked steak that leads to food poisoning. So you need to know how to tell if steak is bad. You’ll need to use your sense of smell, sight, and even touch to double-check your steaks before you cook.

When it comes to what to look for, you need to check your steak’s sell-by and use-by dates on the packaging as well as look for a slimy exterior. Speaking of sliminess, if your steak feels slimy instead of just moist, that could be a sign of a bad steak. When you sniff your steak, if it smells like rotten eggs or bleach, it’s gone bad.

The unfortunate reality is that if your steak has gone bad in your fridge, you can’t make it safe to eat no matter how good your ribeye steak-grilling skills are. So let’s make sure you know what to look for before you throw those spoiled steaks on your grill.

How To Tell If Steak Is Bad

As I noted before, some of your basic senses are your best bet for telling if your steak has gone bad, namely your senses of sight, smell, and touch. Unfortunately, there are no alarm bells ringing audibly, and you certainly don’t want to taste your steak to see if it’s going bad. 

Now there are differences between telling if your raw steak has gone bad versus cooked steak that’s gone bad sitting in your fridge. We’ve covered how long steak lasts in the fridge, so you should know how long that cooked steak can last. (Hint: it’s only three to four days.) We’re going to cover mostly raw steak here, but we’ll touch on cooked steak a bit, too.

Check The Dates

Food Expiration Date

The first thing to do when you pull your steak out of the fridge is to check the dates printed on the packaging. There’s the sell-by date which determines when the grocery store has to sell the package. Now you don’t have to necessarily cook the steak by the day on the package. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that the sell-by date is not a safety issue, so it’s not a hard-and-fast rule for your steak going bad.

If the sell-by date has passed on your steak package, you’ll want to carefully pay attention to how it looks, smells, and feels once you open the wrap. You should have a couple of days according to the USDA, especially if the steak is vacuum-sealed, but you want to get it into the freezer or cooked as soon as possible.

Now if your steak has a “Use By” date printed on it, you really don’t want to mess around with that. That’s the date by which you need to cook your steak. If you freeze your steak on that day, you’ll need to thaw your steak quickly instead of letting it sit in your fridge for a couple of days. Your best bet is always to give yourself a couple of days leeway, so if you know you’re not going to cook your steak, get it in the freezer at least two days before that use-by date.

What Does The Steak Look Like?

Your eyes may be drawn to any signs of discoloring as an indicator of a spoiled steak, and you might find yourself asking “is brown steak bad?” However, the look isn’t necessarily the best way to tell if a steak is bad. While the package of steak is usually a vibrant red color when you purchase it, some browning or graying isn’t necessarily a sign that it’s a bad steak.

Steak turns color simply from oxygen exposure, so color changes like that by themselves aren’t a perfect sign that something’s gone wrong. However, if parts of your steak (or your whole steak) have turned any shades of green or yellow, that’s a major red flag. Another tell-tale sign of your steak going bad is if you can see a slimy film. That comes from bacteria growing on the surface of the steak which is causing the steak to spoil. Then obviously, if you see any mold growing on your steak whether raw or cooked, that steak is a goner.

The Smell Of Spoilage

Smelly steak.

If you’ve been smoking or cooking meat for enough time, you’ve encountered the odor of spoiled meat. If you open a package of steak and smell sour notes, spoiled eggs, or ammonia, you know that you’ve got bad steak. 

Reach Out And Touch The Steak

You’ve handled good steak and you’re familiar with how it feels. It’s got moisture without being slimy. One of the ways you can tell it’s spoiled steak is if it’s slimy or dry. The slimy steak, as discussed before, is a sign of bacteria growth that will make the steak unsafe.

A dry steak (not dry-aged) doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a spoiled steak, however. It is almost guaranteed that your end result of a steak won’t be the texture or flavor that you want, though.

You are more likely to encounter dry steaks with frozen steaks that were improperly packaged rather than fresh steaks. Moisture can leak out during the freezing process if your steaks aren’t wrapped tightly and are directly exposed to the cold air of the freezer.

For more on how to properly package your steaks for freezing, check out the link above about how long steaks last in the fridge. The main point is to prevent your steak from being exposed to air. That’s how you get freezer burn and can dry the steak out. Neither means your steak has spoiled, but both are a surefire way to make your steak experience much less enjoyable.

Is Dry-Aged Steak Actually Bad?

There is a difference between dry aging steak and letting it sit in the fridge for 3 weeks. The dry aging process requires a specific environment that maintains a specific temperature and humidity. A standard kitchen refrigerator does not create this environment. When dry aging steak in the proper device with the correct temps and humidity, you can control the protein breakdown in the meat. You need to know what you are doing and you need the correct gear.

The photo below is of dry-aged bison by Mike’s friend Dr. Jeremy Reed. Jeremy dry-aged the bison for over 3 weeks in a controlled temperature and humidity state. The exterior is essentially mold, but when you cut in and remove the rot, you are left with extremely tender meat. Unlike keeping your raw steak in the fridge for three weeks or more, there are no harmful bacteria in a properly dry-aged piece of beef. 

Dry Aged Bison

How Can I Keep My Steak From Spoiling?

There are two major ways to prevent spoiled steak. The first is by cooking it within a couple of days of purchase. You can keep your steak in the fridge for three to five days in most cases without leading to any issues. However, if you’re purchasing it on the sell-by or expiration date (or around the use-by date if your steak has that printed,) you’ll want to make sure you take care of it quickly.

You can also prolong the life of your steak by properly freezing it for long-term storage. Properly freezing any type of meat, steak included, will prevent problems like freezer burn and extend how long the meat is good for. If your steak is properly stored in an air-tight option like a vacuum-sealed bag, that will help prevent freezer burn.

Vacuum Sealed Steak

If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, one of the next best ways to prepare it is by wrapping the package tightly with aluminum foil so there aren’t any air gaps between the foil and the package. Then put the wrapped package in a gallon freezer bag if it will fit. If not, wrap the package with another layer of foil or with plastic wrap. This will prevent most instances of freezer burn.

Quick Refresher: What Is Freezer Burn?

Freezer burn is when meat (or any frozen food for that matter) is damaged in some way by rapid evaporation of moisture due to problems with how the food was packaged and stored in the freezer. This can be discolorations, texture problems, or you might see ice crystals in the package. 

Freezer Burn Meat
This is what freezer-burnt meat looks like. Lots of frost over a long period of time.

While this doesn’t technically spoil the food as bacteria would, freezer-burned food typically has texture issues and even taste issues. 

When freezing steaks, take care to freeze them before they start to go bad and package them up properly. A properly frozen steak will save you and your steak issues down the road.

What Happens If You Cook Bad Steak?

Unfortunately, cooking steak that’s spoiled is not going to fix the situation. Sure, high heat kills bacteria. The problem is that the damage has already been done to the steak and no amount of cooking will reverse the spoilage. So what happens if you cook bad steak and someone eats it?

While it is possible that someone might get away with an upset stomach or somehow no symptoms at all, in likelihood everyone who eats that spoiled cooked steak could be dealing with food poisoning. If you’ve never experienced food poisoning before, that’s a good thing and you want to try and avoid it as much as possible.

So what are the symptoms of food poisoning? At the milder end, you might experience stomach cramps or pain. You can also experience nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and even fever. The foodborne illness that causes what we refer to as food poisoning can be a bit different due to a difference in bacteria or whatever contaminated the food, but the symptoms across the board are extremely unpleasant and can ruin a few days. 

Spoiled Steak FAQs:

Q: Is brown steak bad?

A: Just because your steak is turning a bit brown or gray doesn’t mean you’ve got a bad steak. If your steak isn’t vacuum-sealed and has been sitting in your fridge for a few days, it’s oxidizing. As long as there isn’t a slimy coating or a bad smell, you should be good to go.

Q: What’s the best way to tell if your steak is bad?

A: The most surefire ways to tell if you have a bad steak are the texture of the surface and the smell. A slimy steak is a bad steak. A sour-smelling steak is a spoiled steak. And as always, when it comes to keeping you and your family safe, it’s always better to err on the side of caution. If you’re not sure if it’s a spoiled steak, throw it away and get some new steak. 

Q: Shouldn’t cooking steaks kill all the harmful bacteria?

A: While we know that high heat kills foodborne bacteria, that doesn’t mean it will magically fix an already spoiled steak. The USDA says that while the bacteria will be killed, some of the toxins produced by the bacteria can be heat-resistant and survive the cooking process, leading to food poisoning. So if you think your steak may or may not be spoiled, don’t leave your health or anyone else’s health to chance. Just toss it and get a new steak.

Final Thoughts

We’ve covered the main ways how to tell if a steak is bad, but here’s a quick rundown of the major indicators:

  • Your steak looks slimy
  • Your steak feels slimy
  • Your steak smells like ammonia or rotten eggs
  • A gray or dried steak is not necessarily an indicator of spoilage, but definitely pay attention for any other indicators

If you’re looking for some tips or thoughts on how to cook steak, here at Angry BBQ we can show you how to grill the perfect steak

What’s your favorite steak and how do you prepare it? Let us know in the comments!

Jeremy Pike

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