This Is the Secret to Storing Meat So It Lasts Longer
It's never a great time to waste food, but it's more important than ever right now. These easy, expert-approved tricks will keep you from a costly (or dangerous) meat storage mishap.
Food storage mistakes can have major consequences. At worst, you or a loved one could end up with a bacterial infection or case of food poisoning. At best, you’re wasting precious ingredients—and big bucks spent at the grocery store—unnecessarily.
The good news is that we have more control than we give ourselves credit for when it comes to preventing these issues. While we all have good intentions when it comes to properly storing pricey, perishable ingredients like raw meat, there’s a lot of confusion over the best way to do so. Where should meat be kept in the fridge, and when is the right time to freeze it? Should we keep meat in its packaging or transfer it to another bag, wrap, or container to extend its longevity? And what’s the best, safest way to thaw meat when it’s frozen?
We spoke with Heather Marold Thomason, the founder and head butcher of Primal Supply Meats, to answer all your pressing meat storage and safety questions.
Should you store meat in anything other than the butcher paper it usually comes in?
You want to store your meat tightly wrapped to minimize exposure to air.
“Butcher paper is great for the refrigerator, as it's intended to store meat in for several days," Thomason says. "If you want to freeze in butcher paper, drop the tightly wrapped paper package into a Ziploc bag to minimize the exposure to air and/or moisture."
Styrofoam grocery store packaging is fine to store in the refrigerator, but if you're going to freeze, we recommend opening and wrapping it more tightly in plastic wrap or freezer paper, then sealing it in a Ziploc bag.
If you've already opened the meat and only used half, what's the best way to re-wrap the rest for storage?
Always with a tight seal. Plastic wrap is a great option for resealing fresh meat, or for wrapping to freeze.
"But never re-freeze meat!" Thomason says. The quality of the meat in both texture and flavor will suffer from moisture loss in repeated freezing and thawing.
Freezing and Thawing
When is the best time to freeze meat?
“I always recommend putting meat in the freezer while it’s still fresh and you still have a few ‘use by’ days left. You never know when you're going to pull it out, and it would be a nice to have a day or two on the other end to thaw and cook the meat before it spoils,” Thomason says. If you do want to freeze meat at the last moment to avoid wasting it, put a label on it to remind yourself to cook it as soon as it's thawed.
Use meat in the freezer within a few months—the less time it's frozen, the better it will retain its quality and integrity. But generally speaking, you can store meat in the freezer for up to a year.
What's the best way to thaw meat?
Thaw the meat gently. Rapid freezing and gentle thawing are the best way to avoid compromising the quality of the meat. “The most ideal is to plan one day ahead and move the meat from your freezer to your refrigerator,” she says. However, note that large pieces of meat like a frozen turkey, pork shoulder, etc. may take several days to thaw in the fridge.
“If you don't remember to plan ahead, you can rapid thaw the meat in a bowl of cold water. For small packages of meat (around a pound or so), this doesn't take very long, approximately an hour. Larger packages may take up to two hours. I wouldn't recommend rapid thawing anything over 3 to 4 pounds.”
If you're in a pinch, is thawing in the microwave okay?
“I strongly discourage this. Cold, gentle thawing is the only way to protect the texture and quality of the meat from being altered,” says Thomason.
In any circumstance, can you stick a partly frozen piece of meat in the oven?
“Definitely not. It won't cook evenly and will most likely destroy the texture of the meat in the process.”
Food Safety Smarts
How can you tell if meat is safe to eat?
First and foremost, trust your senses. Fresh meat should be stored in a refrigerator at 40 degrees or below. Pay attention to 'packed on' or 'use by' dates to make sure you are using meat while it is fresh. Meat should have a good, bright color (not gray), should be moist and fresh to the touch (not sticky or tacky), and most of all, trust your nose—often meat that is spoiling will have a strong odor.
Your package should tell you a 'packed on' or 'use by' date. “We recommend using fresh, paper-wrapped meats within three to four days of purchase. If meats are vacuum sealed, you want to use or freeze them within two weeks of the 'packed on' date.”
“The sooner you cook meat, the fresher and more delicious it will be. But life happens, so if you're not going to get to cooking something in time, wrap it up tight and freeze it for later. And then gently thaw!” Thomason says.