“Hey, honey, what was the expiration date of the ham?” When in doubt, these rules of thumb will help.
Seriously, what’s not to love about deli meat?
Whether we’re talking bologna (or baloney, as a true New Yorker would call it), corned beef, ham, pastrami, pepperoni, roast beef, or salami, there’s something about the smell and taste of deli meat that no other meat can offer.
While the best deli meats can be found… well, at the deli, your local grocery store probably has a good selection for you to stock up on, too. But before you stock up, it’s a good idea for you to know exactly how long the deli meat will keep and how to store it.
How Long Does Deli Meat Last?
|Storage Method||Shelf Life|
|Left out||1 to 2 hours|
|In the fridge, packaged and unopened||Up to 2 weeks|
|In the fridge, opened or from the deli counter||3 to 5 days|
At Room Temperature
At room temperature, deli meat will keep for 1 to 2 hours. Refrigerated deli meat will keep for 2 weeks unopened and 3 to 5 days when opened. Frozen deli meat has an almost indefinite shelf life, although it tastes its best within the first 3 to 4 months after freezing.
Don’t leave deli meat to sit out on the kitchen countertop or dining room table for more than 2 hours, or harmful bacteria that can cause food poisoning may grow to dangerous levels inside it.
In the summer, when the outside temperature is 90°F (32°C) and above, the shelf life of deli meat at room temperature is reduced to only 1 hour.
In the Refrigerator
On AskUSDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s collection of consumer questions and expert answers, it states that deli meats should be stored in the refrigerator—where they can be kept for up to 2 weeks unopened and 3 to 5 days after opening.
A very important note here: If you bought fresh deli meat at the counter and not prepackaged deli meat from the cooler, keep it in the deli sheets it was wrapped in and eat it within 3 to 5 days of purchase.
Keep all of your deli meats in the lower compartments of the fridge, where it’s coldest. (Remember physics in school? I sure don’t. Turns out that cold air sinks to the bottom and warm air rises to the top.)
In the Freezer
In an article titled, “Are You Storing Food Safely?”, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration says that food frozen at 0°F (-18°C) stays safe to eat almost indefinitely. In other words, you can keep deli meat in the freezer for as long as you like, provided you froze it before it went bad.
That said, freezing does take its toll on deli meat—the deli meat tends to dry out and lose its aroma and flavor during storage. For the best quality, mark the freezing date on a label and use up the frozen deli meat within 3 to 4 months.
How to Tell If Deli Meat Has Gone Bad
Storage time is the first and most underappreciated indicator of deli meat gone bad.
If you left deli meat out for more than 1 to 2 hours at room temperature or kept it for more than 3 to 5 days in the fridge, don’t eat it. Since we can’t see, smell, or taste the bacteria that make us sick, deli meat can seem perfectly fine and just as well cause food poisoning.
Don’t eat deli meats that show any of the obvious signs of spoilage. These signs include an off, sour odor; a sticky, slimy texture; yellowish, rancid fat; and a green to blue, lightly metallic hue.
Although spoilage bacteria are generally harmless, the pathogenic bacteria that grow alongside them are not.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million Americans contract food poisoning every year, 128,000 get hospitalized, and 3,000 die. Keep yourself and your family safer by storing your deli meats properly and discarding them if they’re too old.
Can Deli Meat Go Bad Faster Than This?
“I bought deli meat off the counter that I ordinarily buy it from,” one reader emailed us to ask, “and stored it properly. But after a couple of days, it started to smell sour! Can you help me understand what was different this time?”
If the slicer at the deli counter hasn’t been properly sanitized when cutting the meat, bacteria can enter the meat through the blade—and cause it to spoil more quickly. Inform the deli or grocery store manager so they can take appropriate steps to prevent this from happening again in the future.