Got ground beef? If you’re not sure if it’s safe, we have something for you. It turns out that there’s a smell test for everything.
Ground beef is at its best the moment you take it out of the grocery bag or the paper the butcher wrapped it in. From that moment on, it slowly but surely loses quality till you cook and eat it.
Put the ground beef in the fridge as soon as you get home, and don’t wait too long to use it up. If you suspect a package of ground beef has been in the fridge a few days too many, refer to our tips on how to tell if it’s still edible.
Telling If Raw Ground Beef Is Bad
Ground beef is bad if it looks dull and gray, smells sour and putrid, and has a sticky and slimy consistency. Throw away ground beef if it shows any of these signs; cooking and eating it can give you potentially life-threatening food poisoning.
In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that every year, 48 million Americans contract food poisoning, 128,000 get hospitalized, and 3,000 die. Most at risk for food poisoning are pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems.
When in doubt, apply the three checks below.
1. Take a Good Look at It
Fresh ground beef should be wholesome and red, with varying degrees of white marbling depending on the cut and its leanness. Ground beef gone bad looks dull and gray, like dead meat.
2. Give It an Inquisitive Sniff
When ground beef is fresh, it smells fatty, meaty, and yummy. If this isn’t the case, there’s a good chance that the package of meat in your refrigerator may have spoiled, and is no longer edible.
When ground beef has gone bad, it smells putrid, like rotting flesh, and sour, like cheap vinegar. If this is the case with the meat in your fridge, don’t cook and eat it. It’s also not okay if the beef smells musty or medicinal—a sign that the fats have gone rancid and/or mold has formed on the surface of the meat.
Remember to wash your hands with soapy water for at least 20 seconds after touching ground beef, no matter if it’s spoiled or not.
3. Do the Touch Test
Time to conduct the touch test.
Fresh ground beef feels firm. Leaner meats have a tender texture, almost like the inside of your palm. Fattier meats feel a little creamy, with a certain pastiness to them from the beef tallow.
Spoiled ground beef is slimy and mushy. When you touch it, it leaves a dirty, sticky, repulsive feeling on your fingers. This feeling makes you raise your eyebrows and you get a strong, almost compulsive need to wash your hands.
Telling If Cooked Ground Beef Is Bad
If cooked ground beef has an off odor and/or a sticky and slimy consistency, throw it away and don’t eat it. Heating it won’t make it any safer to eat, nor will cooking up a new meal with it.
Per the USDA, leftovers should be cooled quickly, sealed in ziplock bags or food storage containers with the lids closed, and then stored in the fridge, where they will keep for 3 to 4 days.
Why Ground Beef Goes Bad (And What to Do About It)
Ground beef is rich in protein and has a lot of moisture (according to the USDA, ground beef contains between 55% and 65% water depending on the leanness), which makes it a formidable breeding ground for bacteria.
There are two types of bacteria that grow on ground beef: spoilage bacteria and pathogenic bacteria. Spoilage bacteria alter the smell, taste, and mouthfeel of the meat in a way that makes it disgusting, but they’re generally harmless. Pathogenic bacteria aren’t perceptible to our senses, but they can cause food poisoning.
Both types of bacteria multiply rapidly at room temperature and more slowly in the fridge. This is why ground beef can only be left out for 1-2 hours at room temperature and why it won’t keep in the refrigerator raw for more than 1-2 days.
Play it safe when it comes to the food you put on the family table:
Discard ground beef, whether raw or cooked, if it has been sitting too long on the kitchen counter or in the fridge.
If the ground beef shows signs of spoilage, don’t eat it. By the time the spoilage bacteria have made it disgusting, you can no longer rule out the possibility that it’s not overgrown with disease-causing pathogens, too.
Contrary to what many of us think, these bacteria survive temperatures below freezing and don’t die in the freezer. But when they freeze, they go into hibernation. If you’ve ever wondered why food safety experts say that frozen ground beef stays safe to eat forever, this is the answer.
But freezing is an unforgiving method of food storage, especially when it comes to ground beef. In the home freezer, meat freezes slowly. As a result, ice crystals form and tear up the muscle tissue, causing the meat to dry out and lose flavor over time.
With prolonged storage, these ice crystals escape from the meat, migrate to the coldest part of the freezer, and get replaced by air. The air oxidizes the parts of the meat that lost moisture, turning them white and flavorless. This is called freezer burn.
Freezer-burnt ground beef is still safe to eat, but the parts of the meat that have suffered from freezer burn are no longer appetizing. The best thing to do is discard them, so you can safely use up the rest of the meat.
The key to keeping frozen meat safe is to thaw it properly. If you leave it on the kitchen counter overnight, the meat will be overrun with pathogens in the morning. (Don’t do this at home.)
Instead, thaw your meat in the fridge for 24-48 hours. The fastest methods are throwing in ice water and defrosting in the microwave, but you must cook the meat immediately after it’s thawed out and not leave it raw.
After cooking, don’t leave the meat at room temperature for more than 1-2 hours. Keep it hot, at 140°F (60°C) and above, or cool it and store it safely in the refrigerator at a temperature below 40°F (4.4°C), where it will stay good for 3-4 days.
Will Cooking Spoiled Ground Beef Make It Safe to Eat Again?
No, reheating or cooking spoiled ground beef doesn’t make it safe to eat again. Heat exposure kills most bacteria, but it doesn’t inactivate the heat-resistant toxins that they leave in the meat. These toxins are just as likely to cause food poisoning.
If you have kept ground beef longer than the safe storage periods described in this article, or for one reason or another you suspect that it has spoiled, you should err on the side of caution and throw it away.
It would be so easy to say, “If your ground beef smells weird or looks funny, don’t eat it,” and move on. But as those of you who’ve read this article know already, the answer is a little more nuanced than that.
The most important thing is to apply common sense and trust your senses:
Don’t leave ground beef, raw or cooked, on the kitchen counter or dining room table for more than 1-2 hours. Don’t store raw ground beef in the refrigerator for more than 1-2 days and cooked ground beef in the refrigerator for more than 3-4 days.
Gray, smelly and slimy meat should be thrown away. To avoid food waste, buy only as much beef as you and your family can cook and eat. Or store your excess ground beef in the freezer, rotating it every few months for the best quality.