Safely store meats and poultry, and how to tell if they are spoiled.
I am frequently asked questions on storing meats and poultry, and how to tell if they are spoiled.
Storing meat and poultry safely is important in preventing the growth of harmful bacteria which could lead to food poisoning. However, there may be instances of uncertainty when we reach into the fridge to find the colour has changed or it has an unusual tinge to it.
The colour of meat is associated with a protein stored in the muscle called myoglobin.
Beef, lamb and goat meat have higher levels of myoglobin than pork, veal and poultry, while game has higher levels due to their greater physical activity.
When myoglobin comes into contact with oxygen in the air, it gradually begins to oxidise, and the colour of the meat changes. When meat changes colour from brown to red it is known as blooming. This is what we consider to be the ideal colour for red meat.
However, darker or lighter shades are not necessarily an indication that it is spoiled as variations will occur according to the breed, age, diet, exercise, freshness, packaging and how it is stored. For example, meat from older animals and those which benefit from more exercise, tends to be darker.
Very fresh beef and vacuum packed beef are purplish-red in colour. As meat is exposed to air and light, it gradually turns cherry-red and eventually after a few days it becomes brownish-red.
Darkened beef does not mean it is spoiled and is suitable for consumption as long as it is within its best before dates. This can range anywhere from 3-4 days if stored in the fridge, or 4-12 months in the freezer.
See my Meat & Poultry Cold Food Storage Chart at the bottom of this post for easy reference.
The same goes for packaged ground beef which may be darker on the outside, while red on the inside. It is also quite normal to find steaks, with different best-before dates, in a range of shades from a cherry-red to brownish-red.
Beef sometimes has areas which look iridescent, with a slight greenish tinge. This is due to its high iron content, fat and other compounds, and how light reflects on its surface. It is safe to eat.
Veal has a much lighter colour than beef. The meat of a milk-fed calf is light pink, but once the calf is weaned and starts eating grass, the flesh begins to darken.
To prevent discolouration of red meat, wrap the cuts well in paper and then in plastic wrap to prevent exposure to air and light. Store at a maximum temperature of 4℃/39℉ (this is the maximum temperature your fridge should be set to).
Red meat will maintain its red colour when wrapped only in plastic wrap and stored at 0℃/32℉.
Poultry contains both white and dark meat. Raw breast cuts are light pink and turn white when heated, while thighs and drumsticks are a deeper pink, becoming light brown when cooked.
Younger poultry may have a slightly blueish tinge as it has less fat under the skin, and a corn-fed chicken or one fed on marigolds will have yellow meat and skin.
Young chickens may also have a little darkening around the bones when cooked as the bones have not yet fully calcified, allowing some pigment to escape. This is also natural and the meat is safe to eat.
Ideal Surface Colour Of Fresh Meat, Fish & Poultry
|Fish||pure/grey white to pink|
|Poultry||grey-white to pink|
How to tell if it is spoiled
If meat or poultry has passed its use by/storage date, not been packaged properly or kept at the correct temperature, it may no longer be fit for consumption.
These indications show spoilage and it should be thrown away: there may be fading or darkening, often with an unusual or offensive odour, and the surface may be sticky or slimy to touch.
Meat and poultry stored in the freezer for long periods of time may develop white patches from freezer burn.
This may also happen if the packaging becomes loose allowing the contents to be exposed to air.
As long as there has been no cross-contamination from other stored ingredients, these parts are safe to eat but will be dry and tasteless, so it is best to trim them away.
Use a food thermometer
Colour alone is not an accurate indicator that meats and poultry have been cooked to a safe temperature. Cooked red meat may remain pink when done, while safely cooked poultry can range from white to pink and light brown.
To be safe, always use a food thermometer and cook to the correct temperature to destroy all harmful bacteria.
When selecting a thermometer, choose one that has a large display, is ergonomic and easy to clean. I love the Thermapen (affiliate link) food thermometer for its accuracy and ease of use.
Refer to this post for safe cooking temperatures.
Insert a food thermometer, into the thickest section of meat or innermost part of a roast without touching any bones or the pan for an accurate reading.
Smoked and cured meats
Chemicals, such as nitrites, used for curing may affect the colour of meat. Smoked poultry is pink due to colour added in the smoking process.
Meat & Poultry Cold Storage Chart
|Bacon||1 week||1 month|
|Sausage||Raw sausages Chicken/turkey/pork/beef||1-2 days||1-2 months|
|Cooked sausages Chicken/turkey/pork/beef||1 week||1-2 months|
|Ground meats||Beef/turkey/veal/pork/lamb/goat/any combination||1-2 days||3-4 months|
|Fresh cuts||Fresh beef, veal, lamb, goat, pork||3-4 days||4-12 months|
|Fresh poultry||Whole chicken/turkey||1-2 days||9 months|
|Pieces chicken/turkey||1-2 days||1 year|
|Leftovers||Cooked meats/poultry||3-4 days||2-6 months|