The ins and outs of food safety and storage is knowledge essential for any meat-lover. All meats pose significant risks when not handled properly. Most people have suffered, or know someone who’s suffered, a major bout of food poisoning – it’s far from fun, and it can have awful consequences.
To avoid spoiled meats, its best to abide by the following practices and guidelines. Using the tips below, your meats will last longer, taste better, and spoil less often.
What You Need to Know About Bacteria and Food Storage
Different types of bacteria are what cause food to spoil and lead to food poisoning. Here are a few helpful facts about meat-based bacteria from the USDA:
- Most bacteria thrive in temperatures between 40°and 140°F.
- Most bacteria require oxygen to grow.
- There are two types of bacteria in most meats: spoilage bacteria and pathogenic bacteria.
- Spoilage bacteria cause meats to change odor, color, and taste, but usually do not affect the safety of your food.
- Pathogenic bacteria are dangerous to eat, but do not cause a change of odor, appearance, or taste – your meat still smells, looks, and tastes okay, despite the presence of toxic bacteria.
Pathogenic bacteria can grow rapidly between temperatures of 40° and 140°F, poisoning meat in as little as 2 hours. As such, any meat that has been left unrefrigerated for 2 or more hours should be thrown out immediately.
Refrigerating meat is an excellent way to make sure it stays fresh for 24 hours or more. When refrigerated, poultry, seafood, variety meats, and ground beef usually stay fresh for 1-2 days, while steaks and chops of pork, veal, lamb, and venison will keep for 3-5 days. (You can use a reference chart like this one from Colorado State University for a full list of best-by refrigerator and freezer dates).
Make sure to practice smart food safety when refrigerating meats:
- Make sure your refrigerator is between 34° and 40°F.
- Store raw meat on the lowermost shelf or in its own drawer.
- Store meat with a plate underneath – especially when thawing – to collect run-off juices.
- Clean your fridge regularly.
Storing Meat in The Freezer
When you want to keep meat for longer than 2 or 3 days, freezing is the best way to ensure long-term quality. Freezing meats below 0°F severely slows the growth of almost all mold and bacteria, and can preserve the quality of meat – depending on the source – for up to 12 months.
Here are some helpful tips to freezing your meats:
- Make sure to remove meats from grocery store packaging. Trays and plastic wraps are not moisture vapor resistant, meaning your meat will dry out and develop freezer burn faster. Re-wrap them using butcher’s paper, freezer bags, or a vacuum sealer.
- If freezing your meats without the aid of a vacuum sealer (more on these in a second), make sure to eliminate as much air as possible. Wrap your meat tightly in butcher’s paper, then seal the paper off with tape.
- The faster you freeze your meat, the less chance ice crystals have to build up. Ice crystals cause membranes to burst, letting the juice out of your meat when you thaw it. Use a quick-freezing shelf if you have one, or place icepacks/already frozen items directly against your wrapped meat to freeze it more quickly.
- Meat should only ever be thawed in the fridge or in cold water. Thawing at room temperature can be extremely dangerous and invite bacteria growth.
A good vacuum sealer is by far your best tool for preserving quality longer when it comes to meat. Vacuum sealers work by removing all of the oxygen from the packaging you use to store your meats, meaning most bacteria have almost no chance at further growth. This can mean freezer storage times 3 to 5 times as long with comparable freshness.
Here are a couple important points about vacuum sealers:
- Vacuum packing increases shelf-life by reducing freezer burn since no air is present to absorb the meat’s moisture.
- When vacuum sealing meat, it is important to use safe meat handling practices. While most bacteria are aerobic (require oxygen), some dangerous bacteria are anaerobic (do not require oxygen) and can thrive in a vacuum sealed environment. It is important that you do not contaminate your meat and vacuum seal harmful bacteria in with your food.
- Vacuum sealing can extend the fridge life of meats as well, but because anaerobic bacteria can grow at temperatures above 3°F, all vacuum-packed refrigerated meats should be unsealed and cooked within 10 days.
- It is important to note that, in the interest of consumer safety, vacuum sealing does not impact the USDA’s recommended storage times for chilled and frozen meats.
Steak Storage Pointers
Steaks are some of the best cuts of meat for refrigeration and freezing, lasting longer chilled and frozen than most other cuts of meat. This makes them particularly suited to vacuum-packing for long distance transportation. Check out this episode of Steak U TV with Chicago Steak Company’s Chef Phillipe to see how well vacuum-packing preserves dry-aged steak.