Ground beef is one of the most versatile forms of beef – you can use it to make everything from meat sauces to burgers and meatloaf, and everything in between. Because it’s so versatile, it’s common to buy some each week with the intention of using it, but not always getting around to doing so. This means you need to know how to tell if ground beef is bad, so you can avoid throwing out good minced beef or eating bad ground beef.
In this guide, we’ll explain all the ways you can tell if your expired ground beef is actually bad, or if an in-date packet actually contains spoiled ground beef.
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How to Tell if Ground Beef is Bad
The sell-by or expiry date on the ground beef packaging should be the thing you look at first – while the date on it won’t always mean the meat is bad or good, expired ground beef should be put to the test with all the steps below.
The best way to tell if ground beef has gone bad is to simply use your senses. The color of the beef and the smell are two of the biggest indicators, but there are others, too. Here’s how to use your senses to determine if you have spoiled ground beef on your hands:
Step 1. Look at the Color
Before you even pull back the plastic packaging, you should be able to see the color of the minced beef. Healthy mince is red or red pink. If there are any gray or brown areas, it has spoiled, and you can go ahead and put it in the trash, without even opening the packaging.
There is one caveat to the above – sometimes the mince may get a little brown in the middle of the mince, which can simply be a sign that no oxygen is getting to it. If there’s brown there but the rest of the mince looks good, put it through the next steps.
Step 2. Look for Excess Moisture
Another thing you can look for before you open the packaging is excess moisture. Generally, ground beef should be relatively dry in its packaging, so if there’s water rolling around in the packaging, it may be a bad sign. If that water is a cloudy off-white color, it’s likely spoiled.
Note, however, that if you’ve defrosted frozen ground beef, there will be some excess moisture, though it is usually much redder in color.
Step 3. Smell the Beef
This is the real tell-all sign of bad beef – if you pull back a corner of the packaging and sniff, you should know fairly quickly whether it’s safe to eat or not.
Beef that is still good should have a neutral smell. It may smell a little meaty, or like a butcher’s, but it shouldn’t make you wrinkle your nose.
If you suspect your meat is bad, make sure you sniff gently – heaving in a big breath is not a good idea when it may smell really bad! That’s a great way to trigger your gag reflex.
Step 4. Check the Texture
Ground beef will always be moist, but it shouldn’t be slimy. If it is slimy, there will usually be some of the other signals we’ve talked about above if it’s bad, but trust your gut here. If you don’t think it looks and feels normal, don’t use it!
How to Correctly Store & Handle Ground Beef
Storing and handling ground beef is straightforward, you simply need to make sure it is transferred to the fridge or freezer as soon after purchasing it as possible. Here are a few tips:
- Use a cold bag or cold box when transporting ground beef, especially if you need to run any other errands before heading home from the grocery store
- Don’t eat ground beef in a package that has a hole in it – even if it’s just a pin-prick-sized hole
- If you aren’t going to eat your beef within the next few days after purchasing, consider putting it in the freezer instead. Beef mince is easy to defrost by moving it to the fridge around 12 hours before you want to cook it.
- Make sure you wash your hands, kitchen counters, utensils, and any plates you use after it has come into contact with raw ground beef in hot water (the dishwasher is best).
How to Know When Ground Beef is Ready to Eat
There are a few ways to tell when ground beef is done:
- If you’re cooking it in a shape: if you’re cooking your minced beef as a burger patty, meatballs, or similar, then you can use an internal temperature probe to ensure the meat has reached 160F before you serve it. This is often the best way, since you may find the inside of a burger is still a little pink while the outside is dark and crispy, which may throw you if you’re only judging by visual cues.
- If you’re cooking it loose: if you’re breaking it apart into smaller pieces for chili, taco or burrito filling, Bolognese sauce, or similar, you’ll be able to tell by sight alone. Depending on how long you plan to cook it for, the mince is done when it has lost its pink color, going brown if you’re cooking it on high heat, or a grayish-brown if you’re cooking it for a long time without adding a sauce or seasoning.
Should I worry if I ate bad ground beef?
If you cooked the beef properly for a long enough time at a heat that kills most bacteria (160F internal temperature), you should be fine. It’s not a good idea by any means, but if you just finished eating and now believe something wasn’t quite right, don’t panic.
That said, food poisoning is a common side effect of eating badly cooked meat of any kind. If there are bacteria on the meat when you get it, or if bacteria transfer to the meat while in your household, you may experience food poisoning with symptoms including nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, weakness, inability to keep down food, and even water in some cases, and a fever.
If you experience any of these symptoms for more than 2 days or feel severely ill, it’s best to seek medical attention. There is a high risk of dehydration when you have food poisoning, so an IV drip may be necessary to aid your recovery.
When in doubt, throw it out. If you’ve ever had food poisoning you’ll know that it’s the kind of awful you’ll remember for the rest of your life, so it’s never worth the risk if you have any doubts about the safety of your meat.
All that said, once you know how to properly handle and identify bad ground beef, you can enjoy the myriad of delicious ground beef recipes out there without worry!