Ground beef is as popular as it is perishable. The extra processing means that it tends to go bad quicker than other kinds and cuts of meat. This can wreck the taste and smell and make you very sick.
Fortunately, the bacteria that wreak all this havoc tend to leave behind clues that can be detected by sharp eyes and noses. These clues can include changes in smell, texture, and color. Let’s look at a few simple ways you can tell if your ground beef has gone bad.
How Long Does Ground Beef Last in the Fridge?
Not all beef is created equal. Ground beef, whether raw or cooked, comes with a ticking clock that ticks just a bit faster than most other cuts of beef.
You can expect your ground beef to last in the fridge about:
- 1 – 2 days if raw
- 3 – 4 days if cooked
Whether raw or cooked, it should also stay good around:
- 2 hours at room temperature
- 3 – 4 months in the freezer
When you grind up beef into a pulp, you remove the boundary between the surface and the inside. All the meat turns into surface area and gets exposed to the outside world at one point or another.
This reduces the ground beef sell-by date and gives bacteria and other spoilage organisms more chances to put boots on the ground.
Grinding also gives the meat a good mixing, making every part touch basically every other part. If there are any small colonies of pathogens present, it distributes them evenly throughout the pulp. This helps them divide and conquer a lot faster.
At room temperature, these thoroughly stirred bacteria can claim your ground beef in less than two hours.
The fridge provides you with reinforcements in the form of higher temperatures, but these only slow down the advancing army of doom. If you’ve left raw ground beef in the fridge for 3 days, the darkness will already have begun to swallow it.
Cooking your ground beef can buy you a little more time, but not much. If you cook the batch and then store it properly in the fridge, you should get around four days’ grace.
If you need more time, you can freeze it. Freezing stops pathogen armies in their tracks. As long as you keep it at a solid zero degrees Fahrenheit or below, your ground beef should stay at peak quality for around three or four months.
What Does Bad Ground Beef Smell Like?
Good ground beef should only have the faintest whiff of iron or no smell at all. Spoiled ground beef starts to develop a sour, rancid smell that gets worse with time as bacterial colonies consume the nutrients and excrete them in the form of toxic, smelly waste material.
Suppose you’re not familiar with the smell of bad beef, lucky you. Spoiled ground beef can smell like fish or sulfur, or ammonia, depending on what’s eating it.
Bacteria like Pseudomonas spp. and Lactobacillus spp. are two common invaders that love to get into your beef and smell it up as they spoil it.
In general, if your ground beef smells a little sour, tangy or putrid, it’s probably not safe to eat.
There are also various strains of pathogenic bacteria that can completely take over a lump of ground beef with no smell at all. Fortunately, you’ll still be able to detect their presence in other ways, like changes in color and texture.
What Does Bad Ground Beef Look Like?
When it’s raw, good ground beef has a bright red outer layer where it’s been exposed to oxygen. Underneath that layer, the meat with less oxygen exposure should still be mottled red or purplish mixed with flecks of brown or gray.
These colors by themselves don’t necessarily point to spoilage. There are a lot of possible factors that can cause your ground beef to change colors.
These can include:
While color changes due to light, temperature, and oxygen aren’t necessarily signs of bad beef, color changes caused by microbes are. A good rule is that if the surface of your ground beef turned gray, the microbe party has started, and you should toss it out.
Color changes due to mold also merit a swift arc toward the garbage can. These usually show up in blue, green, and gray spots that can be either flat or fuzzy.
Why Does Ground Beef Turn Brown?
Myoglobin, one of the proteins in meat, is sensitive to oxygen. After a few minutes of oxygen exposure, myoglobin turns bright red, which you can see in the outer layer of your ground beef.
Extended oxygen exposure, though, will turn that bright red to brown. This happens once the myoglobin is thoroughly oxidized, which usually takes around five days at fridge temperatures.
Brown ground beef doesn’t always point to spoilage, but you should check for the other clues of bacterial partying that we talked about above.
How To Tell if Frozen Ground Beef Is Bad
Technically, ground beef can sit forever below zero degrees Fahrenheit, but things like moisture loss and freezer burn can reduce its quality over time.
Before you thaw it, look for dry spots with a colorless gray tone. These can indicate freezer burn.
If you see a mantle of ice crystals sheathing your ball of beef, this can indicate moisture loss. You can still eat it if there aren’t any weird colors or bad smells, but it might not taste as beefy.
Ground beef has a short shelf life due to processing that encourages bacterial growth. Even in the fridge, raw ground beef will only last at most two days or up to four days if you cook it.
Spoiled ground beef can reveal itself via strange smells and colors. Throw away the whole batch if:
- Your ground beef smells a little sour
- Your ground beef turned gray
- You left raw ground beef in the fridge for 3 days
- Your ground beef sell-by date has passed
Can Ground Beef Make You Sick?
Ground beef can go bad due to spoilage bacteria that rot the beef as well as pathogenic bacteria that spoil you.
Spoilage bacteria will give your beef its bad colors and smells but may not harm you. Pathogenic bacteria may not cause any color or smell changes but can make you deathly ill from food poisoning. Symptoms can include stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever.
Although they come from different families, both kinds of bacteria tend to show up at the same time. Signs of one usually indicate the presence of the other, which is why you should always throw out ground beef that looks or smells weird.
How To Store Ground Beef
Make sure you either cook or refrigerate ground beef within two hours of buying it.
You can refrigerate it in its original packaging with an extra plastic bag covering it to make sure no juices leak out. We recommend keeping it on the bottom shelf of your fridge to avoid any contaminating drips.
You can also freeze it in the original package. Wrap the outside in foil, plastic wrap, or a freezer bag to minimize freezer burn and help keep the moisture intact.
We recommend writing the date on the outside just in case life gets hectic, and you forget about it.