Many types of bacteria can grow on animal products, so it’s important to safely handle and store all types of meat. However, the different rules for handling different types of meat can be confusing. It may be perfectly safe to eat some meat a week after it was prepared or to freeze it for later. Other types should be thrown away after only a few days.
Safety issues are associated with everything you may eat. A healthy kitchen depends on your knowledge of safe cooking and storage practices.
Never buy meat that’s past the expiration or sell-by date. Also, buy meats at the store after you’ve found all your other items to decrease the time the meat is out of refrigeration.
Follow these specific guidelines when selecting certain meats:
Avoid any beef or pork that’s dark brown or discolored, has a strong odor, or feels tough or slimy.
Avoid any poultry that looks faded, has a strong odor, or feels tough or slimy.
Avoid any fish that’s faded or discolored, has squishy or slimy flesh, and has a strong fishy or ammonia-like odor.
Avoid any meat that’s in damaged, leaking, or torn packages, as it’s likely been exposed to the air and harmful bacteria.
Wash your hands frequently when preparing any type of meat, fish, or poultry. Bacteria can quickly spread between your hands and meat. Always wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling meat, whether it’s raw or cooked.
Because bacteria can spread easily, prepare the meat on a surface that’s separate from all other cooking materials. Keep vegetables and other ingredients away from meat, especially if you aren’t cooking them together in the same dish.
Try to use separate cutting boards, clean all cooking utensils after they touch raw meat, and use different utensils to serve food after you’ve prepared it.
Uncured, raw meat generally lasts safely for around three days in the refrigerator. If you plan to keep uncooked meat longer, freezing it is your best bet. Seal the meat in an airtight package before freezing. Then, it can usually be frozen for at least several months.
Safe freezing and refrigeration time also depends on the storage temperature. Keep your freezer as close to 0°F (-17.8°C) as possible. This helps retain nutrients and keep food fresh. Keep your refrigerator at around 34°F (1.1°C), just above freezing, to effectively prolong the shelf life of foods.
Below are general guidelines for how long basic meats can be kept safely if they’re stored properly.
Type of meat Safe storage times (in the refrigerator) Safe storage times (in the freezer)
uncooked poultry 1–2 days 9 months (pieces) to 1 year (whole)
uncooked ground meat 1–2 days 3–4 months
uncooked steaks or chops 3–4 days 4–12 months, depending on the item
uncooked fish 1–2 days 6 months
cooked poultry, meat, or fish 3–4 days 2–6 months
hot dogs and lunch meat up to 1 week (open package) or 2 weeks (closed package) 1–2 months
Cooking temperature and food safety
Cooking temperature affects both the taste and safety of food.
The rare to well-done spectrum refers to the temperature at the center of the meat, which is best checked using a meat thermometer. These can be found at kitchen supply stores and in most grocery stores. Typical cooking temperatures are:
rare: 120–125°F (48.9–51.7°C)
medium: 140–145°F (60–62.8°C)
well-done: 165°F (73.9°C) or higher
From a safety perspective, hotter temperatures at the center of the meat are safer. However, safe cooking temperatures vary for different types of meat.
Safe cooking temperatures for different meats are:
Poultry: 165°F (73.9°C) for whole or ground poultry. Poultry should never be eaten rare. Undercooked poultry can spread salmonella and other diseases. You should always cook it thoroughly.
Ground meats: 160°F (71.1°C) for ground meats such as beef, pork, and lamb. While whole cuts of meat typically have most bacteria on their surfaces, ground meats may have bacteria mixed throughout. Therefore, they must be cooked to a higher temperature than whole cuts of meat.
Whole meat: 145°F (62.8°C), and the meat should be allowed to rest for at least three minutes before eating. The resting time gives the heat more time to kill any bacteria.
Pork should always be cooked to at least the high end of medium because it can carry potentially dangerous worms and parasites.
Beef has a wider safety range, but lovers of rare meat are safer sticking to steaks, roasts, and chops.
Fin fish: 145°F (62.8°C) or until the flesh is opaque and separates easily.