5 Telltale Signs Your Steak Has Gone Bad

how to tell if steak is bad

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Your grill is set up and the guests are on their way. You take your steaks out of the refrigerator, but notice they don’t look as good as when you bought them.

Is it just paranoia, or have they really gone bad? Are you about to give your mother-in-law food poisoning?

In this guide, we explain the top five telltale signs that your steak has gone bad – so you can grill with confidence and keep your mother-in-law safe (that is what you wanted right?). 

How to tell if your steak has gone off

If you’ve kept your steak in the refrigerator for a few days, it’s important to check that it hasn’t spoiled before cooking. 

Even meat kept in the freezer can go off over time, so knowing how to tell if your steak is bad is crucial to avoid unhappy guests and an unhappy stomach. 

From slimy surfaces to stinky meat – the following troublesome characteristics are a must-know for any grillmaster. 

1. It’s out of date

It may sound blindingly obvious, but the truth is that many people still get confused about the difference between “use-by” and “sell-by” dates – especially if they have stored their steak in the freezer for some time after purchasing. 

  • The “use-by” date lets you know how much time you have to either cook, or freeze the steak before it is expected to turn. So, if the use-by date is 22nd March, you’ll need to either throw it on the grill, or chuck it in the freezer by that date to keep it from spoiling.
  • On the other hand, the “sell-by” date tells the butcher or store how long they can keep the steak on the shelf and available for sale. This allows the customer a reasonable amount of time to cook or freeze their steak after they bring it home, before it begins to go bad.

It’s important to note that if you choose to freeze your steak, you should try to do so a day or two before the use-by date. This is because you need to give it enough time to freeze and thaw thoroughly without crossing the use-by time window. 

For example, if your steak has a use-by date of 22nd March, it’s good practice to put it in the freezer by the 20th March. This way, once you take the steak out to thaw, you’ll have a good 48 hours to thaw it before it could begin to turn. 

If the store packaging or your butcher doesn’t give you a use-by date, as a general rule, it should be OK to keep your steak refrigerated for 3-5 days before use. If you decide to freeze it, be sure to write the date of purchase and date of freezing on the bag.

According to the FDA, steak can be frozen for between 6 and 12 months before the quality begins to deteriorate. 

2. It’s slimy

Slime is pretty grim in any situation, but it’s a particularly bad sign if it’s on your steak. 

If your steak is bad, it will often look and feel slimy and slippery to the touch. The surface of the meat will have a sheen to it, and the slime may have a yellowish hue when it catches the light.  

This slimy film is caused by a buildup of bacteria (eww), and is a sure sign that your steak has gone rancid and is destined for the trash, not your grill. If you were to leave a slimy steak out, mold would start to form on the surface within a couple of days. 

Keep in mind that, if the meat is just beginning to turn, slime may not form all over your steak at once. Therefore, you should always make sure to inspect your steak for any slippery patches before cooking. 

3. It’s discolored

Discolored meat can be off-putting, but it doesn’t always mean that your steak has passed its best. 

The color of meat is the result of two different proteins: hemoglobin and myoglobin. Myoglobin is present in muscle and gives fresh meat its red color, while hemoglobin is found in the blood. 

Once an animal is slaughtered and the meat is exposed to the air, chemical reactions occur between these proteins and oxygen. During this process, the color of your steak will go through three stages, until a state of chemical equilibrium is reached. 

  • The first stage occurs immediately after your steak is sliced. This stage has a purplish red color, and is the result of myoglobin beginning to react with oxygen. 
  • The second stage is a cherry red hue. This will begin to show after about 30 minutes of exposure to the air. 
  • The third and final stage will be reached about three days later. At this stage, the myoglobin has completely oxidized and become “metmyoglobin”. This makes the meat appear brown, and less attractive than a steak with a bright red color. However, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the quality or safety of the meat at this stage. 

This is a general timeline, but the process can occur faster or slower depending on a number of factors – such as the age of the animal, the species, what it was fed and how well exercised the muscles were. Exposure to light or freezing can also accelerate the darkening process. 

So, color changes alone do not indicate a spoiled steak. It is a normal and natural process caused by exposure to oxygen. 

However, if your steak has significantly darkened and is also displaying any of the other signs described in this guide – it’s probably time to throw it away.  

4. It’s dry

Another indicator that your steak has passed its prime is dryness. Does your steak feel dry to the touch or look a little shriveled and dehydrated?

If your steak is dry and juiceless, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get an upset stomach if you eat it. However, unless there’s a good amount of fat or marbling through the meat, it will definitely have a negative impact on the texture and overall flavor of your steak once cooked. 

If you store your steaks in the freezer, a great way to prevent them from drying out is to pack them in a vacuum-sealed bag first. This will keep the juices contained for natural moisture and eliminate exposure to the air and any bacteria that may be present. 

If you’re not freezing your steak but will be keeping it refrigerated for a couple of days, you should store it well wrapped in clingfilm or in a sealed container to preserve moisture. 

5. It smells bad

For most normal people, the smell of fresh raw beef isn’t exactly appealing – but it shouldn’t smell offensive. 

Fresh red meat has a light bloody, or metallic smell. This scent isn’t overpowering and you will usually have to place your nose very close to smell it. 

On the other hand, if your steak has gone bad, it will have a definitive odor that smells sour, or a little like eggs or ammonia. This smell will be unpleasant enough to make you recoil and may make you feel a bit sick! 

That said, some dry-aged steaks will naturally have a cheese-like smell due to lactic acid that is released during the aging process. 

Therefore, if you have a dry-aged steak, odor isn’t the most effective way to tell if it has spoiled. Instead, check for other signs we have listed to determine whether it is safe to eat. 

Wrapping it up

Now that you know what to look out for, you should feel confident that you can distinguish a safe-to-eat steak from a spoiled one. 

If your steak is passed its use-by date, slimy, dry or has an offensive odor – the sad truth is that it’s destined for the trash, not your grill. 

Discolored steak may look unappetizing, but it isn’t necessarily an issue on its own. If the meat is very dark and combined with any of the other signs of spoilage, though, then it’s likely past its best. 

To keep your steak fresh for as long as possible, be sure to store it correctly. If you decide to freeze it, pack it in a vacuum wrapper and put it in the freezer a couple of days before the use-by date. Don’t forget to write the date on the wrapper for future reference. 

What do you think? Have you had the misfortune to discover a spoiled steak? Be sure to let us know in the comments below – we’d love to hear from you!

Joe Clements

Joe Clements

As the son of a vegeterian, I grew up dreaming about meat. Now as the founder and editor in chief of Smoked Barbecue Source I get to grill, barbecue and write about meat for a living! I'm sharing everything I learn along the way on my journey from amateur to pitmaster.

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