It can be way too tempting to pick up a huge pack of discounted ground beef at the store.
After being stuck with too much ground beef one too many times, I decided to personally test each method of preserving ground beef to find out what’s best.
In this article, I outline the best methods of safely storing your ground beef so it keeps fresh for as long as possible.
To store ground beef you must keep it below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Either keep it in the original packaging in the refrigerator for up to two days or transfer it to a heavy-duty freezer bag and keep it in the freezer. Ground beef will last 4 months in the freezer.
How to store ground beef
Ground beef is more perishable than whole cuts of beef because the (exponentially) increased surface area means more of the meat is exposed to air, and there’s more space for nasty bacteria to breed. It also warms up a lot faster because the bits of ground beef are thinner, and air can get in between the cracks.
This means you need to be extra careful to follow the safety rules when it comes to handling and storing ground beef.
Never leave ground beef out at room temperature for more than two hours. Aim to have it in the fridge or freezer as soon as possible. Ground beef should be stored below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (i.e in the fridge or freezer).
I always pick up the meat last in my shop so it’s not been out of the refrigerator for ages before I reach the checkout. If you live far away from the supermarket, an invaluable item to have on hand is a cool bag (this set is the perfect size for shopping and folds completely flat when not in use).
With a cool bag you’ll never have to worry about the groceries getting warm on the way home again (surely I’m not the only one?!).
Once you’re home put the ground beef away first. Don’t leave it hanging around on the side while you go to the loo or feed the cat. The meat should be your first priority.
You can either put it in the refrigerator or the freezer. It will last two days in the refrigerator and four months in the freezer.
How to store ground beef in the fridge
You can keep the ground beef in its original packaging in the fridge. Or you can wrap the meat in plastic wrap and place it in an airtight container. The meat will go brown quicker if you open the packet. But with both options, the meat will last two days.
Your fridge temperature should be below 40 degrees Fahrenheit at all times to keep the ground beef fresh.
Keep the beef on the lower shelves of the refrigerator near the back. The back of the freezer is the coldest and isn’t affected by temperature fluctuations when you open the refrigerator door. This makes it the safest place to keep raw meat.
Also, placing the ground beef on the bottom shelf minimizes the risk of any juices leaking and contaminating other foods.
Related: How To Make Lean Ground Beef Juicy
The ground beef will stay fresh for up to two days in the refrigerator. For longer-term storage, use the freezer. I explain how to freeze ground beef later on in this article.
How long does ground beef last?
Fresh ground beef will last up to two days in the fridge. To extend its shelf-life you can cook it or put it in the freezer. Cooked ground beef will last 3-4 days in the fridge, and you can store ground beef in the freezer for up to 4 months.
How to freeze ground beef (without freezer burn)
To freeze ground beef put it in a heavy-duty freezer bag. Flatten the beef with your hands and then draw lines with your fingers to portion it out. Wrap the freezer bag in aluminum foil to protect the meat against freezer burn. Place the bag in the freezer and use it within 4 months.
Some people also like to season the meat before they freeze it. This saves time later and gives the seasoning time to really soak into the ground beef. But be aware that salt will alter the texture of the beef and make it more dry and chewy, so avoid adding salt before you freeze it.
If you don’t have freezer bags it’s also fine to freeze the beef in its original packaging, just remember to double wrap the packaging in aluminum foil to protect it against freezer burn.
The reasons for removing the beef from its original packaging and flattening it before you freeze it are simple.
The flattened ground beef:
- Thaws a lot quicker
- Uses less space in the freezer
- Is easier to portion out
A thinner slab of ground beef will thaw much quicker than a thick slab. In a thick slab, the meat in the middle will take ages to defrost. Flat slabs of meat are also easy to stack in the freezer, they’re super space-efficient.
Drawing lines in the beef isn’t necessary, but it helps you portion out big slabs into sections that you can easily break apart, just like you would a chocolate bar. It saves you using loads of little freezer bags and means you don’t have to defrost more ground beef than you need.
A quart sized freezer bag is good for a pound of beef.
Heavy-duty ones are best because they provide the best protection again freezer burn.
Try not to go overboard with the flattening of the ground beef. Ground beef that has been handled too much can turn mushy.
There is an argument to say that by thinning the beef and increasing its surface area you’re increasing the risk of freezer burn, but if you protect the ground beef well enough this won’t be a problem. Squeeze all the air out of the bag (air is the main cause of freezer burn), and then double wrap the meat for an extra layer of security.
Wrapping the freezer bag in plastic wrap or aluminum foil will make sure the air stays away and prevents freezer burn.
If you have a vacuum sealer (I have a Food Saver and honestly, it’s one of the best purchases I’ve ever made), this is perfect for storing ground beef since all the air is totally eliminated.
This means no more freezer burn, and increased freezer storage times from 4 months to 1 whole year. You’d never even know the food has been frozen.
I don’t advise using a plastic container to store ground beef in the freezer because the extra space will be filled with air that can quickly freezer burn your meat.
Ground beef will stay at best quality for 4 months in the freezer (one year if vacuum-sealed). It will be safe to eat after that, but the taste and texture will start to deteriorate. Once thawed, you can keep the meat in the fridge for 1-2 days before you need to use it.
How to thaw ground beef
The safest way to thaw ground beef is in the refrigerator overnight. This ensures the meat will never get warm enough to enter the danger zone for bacteria. If you need the beef quickly, then you can either thaw it in the microwave or under cold running water.
If you’ve portioned the ground beef out and flattened it before freezing it, the meat will thaw much quicker than a big block. Flattened ground beef should only take a few hours to thaw in the refrigerator, while a big block may take a whole day.
It’s lunchtime at work, and the suspect-looking lasagne they’re serving in the canteen has just reminded you – you didn’t take out your ground beef to defrost for dinner tonight. DISASTER!
Don’t worry, there’s no need to panic. You can use the quick thaw methods: microwave or cool water.
I tend to avoid using the defrost setting on my microwave because it can go wrong so quickly. I’ve ended up cooking the beef instead of defrosting it multiple times. However, if you’re confident with your microwave skills, or you’re in a real hurry, this is a quick option. It will only take a few minutes.
For fast thawing, I prefer to use the cold water method. Put the beef on a plate (in its packaging) and leave cold water running over it. Flip the packet every so often so the water hits a different bit of the beef. After around half an hour, the beef should be ready to use.
Alternatively, you can leave the beef in a bowl of cold water and change the water every 30 minutes. This won’t be as fast as cold running water, but it uses less water.
These instructions apply to both cooked and raw ground beef.
A neat tip is to keep the meat in the bottom of the freezer so that in the unlikely event of a mass thaw, the juices won’t ruin the other food.
Can you re-freeze ground beef?
Yes, you can refreeze ground beef. The USDA states that as long as you thaw the meat in the refrigerator and don’t leave it there for longer than two days, it’s safe to refreeze it. However, due to the moisture lost during thawing, the texture of the ground beef will change.
This applies to both cooked and raw ground beef.
Harmful bacteria can only multiply at a dangerous rate at certain temperatures (above 40 degrees Fahrenheit). If the meat goes straight from the freezer to the refrigerator, it won’t enter the dangerous temperature zone, so there’s no risk of it being spoiled. Hence, there’s no reason not to re-freeze it.
If you used the microwave or the cold water technique to thaw the ground beef, don’t re-freeze it. These methods give time for bacteria to grow.
Every time you freeze and thaw ground beef you degrade the texture. If I’ve re-frozen meat I always make sure to use it in dishes where the texture isn’t center stage such as a chili or a sloppy joe.
How to store cooked or leftover ground beef
You can store leftover ground beef in the refrigerator or the freezer. Before you store it, drain any excess fat and leave the beef to cool. Don’t leave the ground beef cooling on the counter for longer than two hours or it can start to spoil.
To store cooked ground beef in the refrigerator, after draining the fat and waiting for the beef to cool, place it in an airtight container where it will keep for 3-4 days. Try to use a container where there’ll be minimal room leftover as excess air can dry the meat out.
Related: How To Get Ground Beef Very Fine
Cooking your ground beef before you refrigerate it is one way to extend its shelf life past the 2 days recommended for fresh ground beef.
How to freeze cooked ground beef
To freeze leftover ground beef, drain any excess fat and wait for the beef to cool. Once cooled, put the beef in a heavy-duty freezer bag and squeeze all the extra air out. The beef will be good for 4 months in the freezer before the quality starts to deteriorate.
For extra protection against freezer burn, you can wrap the bag in a layer of aluminum foil or plastic wrap.
I always freeze the beef in portion-sized clumps. This prevents you from having to defrost all the beef only to have some leftover again.
To thaw the beef you can leave it in the refrigerator, use the microwave or use cold water.
How to tell if ground beef is gone off
The last thing you want to do is eat gone off ground beef. You’ll be puking for days. Yuk.
The first thing to do is check the expiration date on your ground beef. Never eat ground beef past its expiration date.
Of course, ground beef can go off before its expiration date.
So to prevent eating gone off meat, it’s good to be aware of what gone off beef looks and smells like (you don’t want to taste it).
One sign of ground beef going bad is the color. I explain this in more detail later on, but the quick explanation is as follows.
If the ground beef is a little gray on the inside, this is okay. But if it’s gray on the outside too, this could be a sign that it’s beginning to spoil – but there will be other signs too. Gray color on its own doesn’t indicate spoilage.
Any mold is instant grounds for binning.
Smell is a big one too.
Give the meat a sniff and if it makes you recoil don’t eat it. Raw ground meat will have an odor but not a particularly strong one. If it starts to smell rancid or sour, then it’s time to throw the beef out.
The way the ground beef feels is another indicator of spoilage. Fresh ground beef will feel soft and moist to the touch. It should fall apart easily when you crumble it. Gone-off ground beef will be tackier and stick together more.
If there is any reason for you to doubt that your ground beef is gone off, don’t eat it. It’s not worth getting sick over.
Also, it’s important to note that salmonella and E. Coli don’t affect the look, smell, or feel of the beef. They’re invisible assassins. If your ground beef looks and smells fine, but you know it was out of the fridge for more than two hours, don’t eat it.
Why does ground beef turn gray and does it mean it’s bad?
Meat freshness is a touchy subject for most people. Who wants to get food poisoning, right? But the color of meat isn’t actually as great an indicator of freshness as most people believe.
Color change alone does not indicate spoilage.
Think of your ground beef as an apple. Over time the apple will change color, from white to brown as it oxidizes. The brown apple is just as safe to eat as the white apple.
Ground beef is the same.
Super fresh vacuum-packed beef will be purplish in color. Once this meat is exposed to oxygen it turns red, and then eventually gray or brown.
Why does this happen?
Ground beef is packed with a protein called myoglobin. When myoglobin is exposed to air it turns from purple to the bright red color that you’ve come to associate with fresh beef.
After a few days, the myoglobin will oxidize and the meat will turn a grayish brown.
Because so many people assume that red meat = fresh meat, most packaging is permeable to oxygen so the top layers of the beef turn red.
However, the oxygen doesn’t reach the middle of the ground beef so this part turns gray. That;s why when you break open your ground beef the middle might look a bit gray.
Gray meat isn’t an indication of spoilage on its own, but it does mean that the meat has been hanging around for a few days. After a while, the outside of the ground beef will also start to oxidize and the whole thing will turn gray.
Again, the grayness itself doesn’t mean the meat is spoiled. But it does indicate how old the meat is. By the time the whole block has turned gray, the meat will be reaching the end of its life and might be showing other signs of spoilage such as an off odor or a tacky texture.
The more air your ground beef is exposed to the quicker it will gray. So if you open your ground beef packet the meat will gray faster than if you keep it in the original packaging.
Smell the meat and touch it. If it seems fine then the gray meat should be okay to eat, if it seems a little off then the beef has probably started to go off.
Ground beef will often gray in the freezer. This is normal and the meat will be perfectly safe to eat (unless it smells bad).
How To Store Ground Beef
- Vacuum Sealer (optional)
- Airtight container
- Heavy Duty Freezer Bag
- 1 portion ground beef
How To Store Raw Ground Beef
- You can keep the ground beef in its original packaging in the fridge. Or you can wrap the meat in plastic wrap and place it in an airtight container. The meat will go brown quicker if you open the packet. But with both options, the meat will last two days.
- To freeze ground beef, put it in a heavy-duty freezer bag. Flatten the beef with your hands and then draw lines with your fingers to portion it out. Wrap the freezer bag in aluminum foil to protect the meat against freezer burn. Place the bag in the freezer and use it within 4 months.
How To Store Cooked Ground Beef
- You can store leftover ground beef in the refrigerator or the freezer. Before you store it, drain any excess fat and leave the beef to cool. Don’t leave the ground beef cooling on the counter for longer than two hours or it can start to spoil.
- To store cooked ground beef in the refrigerator, after draining the fat and waiting for the beef to cool, place it in an airtight container where it will keep for 3-4 days. Try to use a container where there’ll be minimal room leftover as excess air can dry the meat out.
- To freeze leftover ground beef, drain any excess fat and wait for the beef to cool. Once cooled, put the beef in a heavy-duty freezer bag and squeeze all the extra air out. The beef will be good for 4 months in the freezer before the quality starts to deteriorate.