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How to Tell if a Steak is Bad (7 Crucial Signs)

Meat departments often have dozens of choices, and typically put the oldest meat at the front. So what are the ways to tell if a steak is fresh in the grocery store?

To determine steak freshness in a grocery store, consider the following criteria: 

  1. Observe a vibrant, cherry-red color (darker if vacuum-packed).
  2. Feel for firmness upon touch.
  3. Ensure the absence of off-odors.
  4. Check the packaging for minimal liquid and no punctures.
  5. Confirm the use-by date is within the consumption period.

In this blog post, we’ll provide you with the knowledge and tools to select the freshest, tastiest steaks for your next culinary adventure.

Short Summary

  • Bright red hues indicate fresh steak, while brown and grey tones should be approached with caution.
  • Firmness of a steak can determine its freshness. It should bounce back when pressed.
  • Proper packaging, expiration dates and smell are all indicators of the quality of a steak.

How Steak Color Can Determine Freshness

A steak’s color can be a telling indicator of its freshness. In fact, it’s the best way to tell. Bright red hues signify a fresh, ready-to-cook steak, while a brown steak or gray tones suggest that caution should be exercised.

It’s important to note that while color can be a helpful guide, it’s essential to consider other factors as well to ensure you’re choosing the best steak for your meal.

Bright Red Hues: Fresh and Ready to Cook

Fresh red meat, like steaks, typically exhibit a vivid red hue, signaling that they are suitable for cooking. This bright red color is a sure sign of freshness, so when shopping for steaks, keep an eye out for this vibrant hue to ensure you’re buying a quality cut of meat.

It’s important to remember that the color of the steak is not the only indicator of freshness.

Brown or Gray Tones: Proceed with Caution

Steaks with brown or gray tones may not necessarily be spoiled, but it’s wise to proceed with caution before consuming them. Factors such as the animal’s age, muscle usage, and diet can affect the color of raw steak, leading to these less appealing hues.

Too much lactic acid can also cause meat to turn brown.

Lactic acid in beef though has nothing to do with freshness since that can’t increase after slaughter.

An increase in lactic acid in beef is primarily caused by glycogen breakdown in muscle post-slaughter. Stressful conditions for the animal prior to slaughter, like exhaustive exercise or fear, can deplete muscle glycogen, reducing the potential for lactic acid production, affecting meat pH, and leading to darker, drier beef.

So darker beef can sometimes just be from lower-quality meat and poorer conditions for the cows before slaughter.

If you encounter gray or brown meat, it’s crucial to check for other signs of spoilage, such as odor, texture, and packaging, before deciding whether it’s safe to eat. While color alone may not definitively indicate spoilage, it’s always better to err on the side of caution to minimize the risk of food poisoning.

Are Dry-Aged Steaks Darker in Color Than Non-Aged Meat?

Dry-aged steak does exhibit a darker hue compared to its non-aged counterparts.

Here’s why: as beef ages, moisture evaporates and the meat naturally oxidizes, leading to a richer, almost mahogany appearance. This isn’t a sign of spoilage; it’s a mark of a meticulous aging process, which concentrates flavors and tenderizes the meat.

The exterior might even form a hard crust, which butchers trim off before selling.

Inside that crust, the steak’s color, texture, and flavor have transformed. The dry-aging process, often lasting anywhere from 21 to 120 days, allows enzymes to break down tough muscle fibers and amplifies the beefy flavor. So, when you spot a darker steak at the butcher’s, it could well be a sign of that deep, nuanced taste dry-aged fans rave about.

Remember, it’s not just about color; it’s about the rich, intensified flavor that many steak aficionados swear by.

How Steak Firmness Can Determine Freshness

Another key factor in determining steak freshness is its firmness.

Fresh steak should bounce back when pressed gently, while a spoiled steak may remain indented. By evaluating the firmness of a steak, you can better ensure that you’re selecting a fresh, delicious cut of meat for your meal.

Fresh Steak: Bounces Back

When shopping for steak, gently press the meat with your finger. Fresh steak should be resilient and bounce back, indicating that it’s ready for cooking. This simple test can help you avoid selecting a spoiled steak and ensure that you’re purchasing a quality cut of meat for your meal.

Spoiled Steak: Remains Indented

In contrast, spoiled steak may remain indented after being pressed, suggesting that it’s no longer fresh and may not be safe to eat. If you find a steak that remains indented after pressing, it’s best to avoid it and look for a firmer, fresher option to ensure a delicious and safe dining experience.

When selecting a cooked steak, it’s important to look for one that is firm and resilient.

How Steak Moisture Can Determine Freshness

Moisture levels in steak can also help you determine its freshness. Fresh steak should be lightly moist, while spoiled steak may be excessively wet or slimy. By paying attention to the moisture levels in your steak, you can better assess its quality and avoid disappointment at the dinner table.

Fresh Steak: Lightly Moist

When examining steak for freshness, look for a moderate moisture level.

Fresh steak should be neither excessively dry nor overly moist, indicating that it’s in prime condition for cooking. The texture of fresh steak should also be firm and slightly resilient, without any slime or tackiness. While dry aged steak is known for its unique flavor and tenderness, it’s important to ensure the freshness of any steak before cooking.

When handling steak, it’s important to be gentle. Avoid squeezing or pressing the steak too hard.

Spoiled Steak: Excessively Wet or Slimy

If you notice that the surface of the steak is excessively wet or has a slimy film on the surface of the meat, this is one of the tell-tale signs of harmful bacteria growth and spoilage, similar to rotten meat. The slimy or sticky texture of the meat indicates that it’s no longer fresh and may not be safe to eat bad steak.

So it’s a good idea to avoid purchasing the slimy steak and instead look for a cut with a more appropriate moisture level. By being vigilant about moisture levels and texture, you can ensure that you’re choosing a fresh, delicious steak for your meal.

If you have already bought it, it’s best to toss it in the trash.

How Steak Smell Can Determine Freshness

The smell of a steak is another valuable indicator of its freshness.

A fresh steak should have a mild, metallic scent, while a spoiled steak may have a bad smell that smells sour or has an ammonia-like odor. By using your sense of smell, you can further ensure that you’re selecting the freshest possible cut of meat for your meal.

Fresh Steak: Mild and Metallic Scent

Fresh steak typically has a faint, metallic scent, which is normal for raw meat. This mild aroma is a good sign of freshness and can help you feel confident in your steak selection.

When shopping for steak, it’s important to look for cuts that are bright red in color.

Spoiled Steak: Sour or Ammonia-Like Odor

On the other hand, spoiled steak may emit a sour or ammonia-like odor, suggesting that it’s no longer fresh and may not be safe to eat. This strong, unpleasant smell is a telltale sign of bacterial growth and spoilage, so it’s best to avoid steaks with this odor to prevent potential foodborne illnesses. In this case, one could say that steak is bad for consumption.

Remember, your sense of smell is an invaluable tool when it comes to selecting the freshest steak. By paying close attention to the aroma of your prospective steak, you can make informed decisions and enjoy a delicious, satisfying meal.

Steak Packaging and Expiration Dates: Know What to Look For

Proper packaging and understanding expiration dates can be crucial in ensuring that you’re purchasing fresh steak. By knowing what to look for on your package of meat, you can make confident choices and enjoy a quality dining experience.

When shopping for steak, look for packages that are sealed tightly and have no signs of damage.

Proper Packaging: Vacuum-Sealed or Tightly Wrapped

When selecting steak, look for vacuum-sealed or tightly wrapped packaging to ensure freshness.

Vacuum-sealed packaging helps maintain freshness by removing air and preventing freezer burn, while tightly wrapped packaging, such as plastic wrap or butcher paper, can also keep the steak fresh by reducing exposure to air and minimizing moisture loss. Additionally, choosing a frozen steak can be a great option for long-term storage without compromising quality.

By choosing steaks with proper packaging, you can feel confident in the freshness and quality of your raw beef, ensuring a delicious and enjoyable meal with fresh meat.

Expiration Dates: Sell-By vs. Use-By

It’s essential to understand the difference between sell-by and use-by dates when purchasing steak. The sell-by date is the last day the store should sell the steak, while the use-by date is the last day the steak should be cooked or frozen. By being aware of these dates, you can avoid potential spoilage and ensure a fresh, delicious cut of meat.

Remember to always consume or freeze your steak before its use-by date to avoid potential foodborne illness. By paying close attention to expiration dates and packaging, you can make informed decisions and enjoy a quality dining experience.


In conclusion, understanding the signs of freshness in steak, such as color, firmness, moisture, odor, and packaging, can help you make informed choices and ensure a delicious, enjoyable meal.

Grocery store meat is generally very high quality and has been held to the high standards set by the United States Department of Agriculture, and has also been inspected.

By following the guidelines outlined in this blog post, you can confidently select the freshest steaks and avoid potential health risks. So go ahead, put your newfound knowledge into practice, and enjoy the taste of a perfectly cooked, fresh steak.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can you tell if a steak is fresh?

To tell if a steak is fresh, check the texture – it should not be slimy. Smell the beef – it should not have an ammonia or sulfur smell. Feel the beef – it should not be tacky to the touch.

Finally, look for any discoloration or signs of its expiration date passing.

How can I tell if a steak is fresh by its color?

A fresh steak should have bright red hues; brown or gray tones may indicate spoilage, so inspect the steak carefully.

What is the difference between sell-by and use-by dates?

The sell-by date indicates when the store should stop selling the item, while the use-by date is the last day the item should be consumed.

Crowd Cow in a vacuum sealed bags by sousvideguy is licensed under CC2.0

Jeff Campbell