A Trained Chef Offers 11 Signs Your Frozen Steak Should Be Thrown Out

Fridges and freezers are commonplace now, so it's easy to forget that they were life-changing inventions. They made it possible for us to keep food safe for extended periods without smoking, drying, or salting it, and they've made fresh food a viable option all year round.

Of course, just because food is in your fridge or freezer doesn't mean it will last forever. We've all had things go missing in the fridge or freezer and had to decide what to do with them afterward. That's an easy call with a half-bag of lettuce that's turned to mush in the crisper, but what about a steak in the freezer? You probably paid a lot more for the steak and won't want to discard it if it's still usable.

I'm a trained chef and former restaurateur who was also a certified food safety trainer for a few years. I can tell you that with frozen steaks, food safety isn't usually an issue—as long as it stays frozen, it stays edible — but it might reach a point where it's just not good enough to bother with. Here are some key signs that can tell you whether your steak is past its prime.

You're not sure how long your steak has been frozen

In the restaurant business, we chefs are militant about labeling everything that goes into the coolers and freezers. Any item you pick up will have a date on it that shows when it went in there, and identify it if it's not in its original packaging.

At home, most of us don't do that, and I have to confess that (despite knowing better) I'm as guilty of this as anyone. Sooner or later, we'll all pull something from the depths of the freezer and mutter to ourselves, "Well, I wonder how long that's been in there?" A simple rule is that if you can't answer that question, it's probably been too long.

A more detailed answer is that a lot depends on the packaging. A steak that's still on its foam tray from the supermarket won't usually last more than a few months in good condition. At the other end of the scale, a steak that's well packaged for the long term might still be perfectly good for up to two years. Beyond that point, it will usually deteriorate enough that you won't enjoy it anymore, so you might as well toss it. An exception is vacuum-sealed steaks, which can last longer: partly because they tend to be made of heavier plastic than normal freezer bags, and partly because vacuum-sealing removes almost all air from inside the packaging.

Visible blood in the packaging is a bad sign

Some frozen foods show signs of trouble that aren't obvious to outsiders but leap out to the trained eye. One of those is a frozen steak that has a lot of blood visible in the packaging.

To be clear, it's not really blood — which flows in the veins — but an in-muscle fluid called myoglobin. It's ordinarily bound up in the muscle fibers, but when the steak is frozen, it forms ice crystals that puncture the steak's cell walls. When the steak thaws, those punctured cells leak myoglobin. Traces of this fluid in your packaging are normal, but more than trace amounts are a bad sign; it likely means that your steak has, at some point, been previously thawed and refrozen.

The most innocuous explanation is that your store brought the beef in frozen and thawed it for packaging (this sometimes happens with large cuts like a whole striploin or a brisket). It would mean that your steak's texture might not be all it should be, but it's otherwise fine. The more likely explanation, though, is that at some point after you froze the steak, it thawed wholly or partially and then re-froze. That creates a possibility of bacterial growth, and the risk of foodborne illness means it's a steak you should discard.

The packaging of your frozen steak no longer has a good seal

Packaging plays a few critical roles in protecting frozen food. It provides a layer of protection against physical damage from being jostled in the freezer, for example, or having heavy items land on top. It also helps keep out any unpleasant odors that might crop up in your freezer from time to time.

First and foremost, though, packaging is meant to keep air away from your foods. The air in your freezer is very dry — the colder the air gets, the less moisture it can hold — and will dry out the surface of your steak very quickly. More importantly, this contact with air provides oxygen, which reacts with fats and flavor molecules. Oxidation is what makes the fats in your meat become rancid, creating undesirable flavors (and oxidized fats aren't good for you, either).

So, if your steak's packaging has lost its seal, that's a bad thing. It might be due to a finger hole in the original store packaging, a zipper-seal bag that came unzipped, or a vacuum-sealed bag that didn't make a good seal, but the result is the same in each case. Your steak will deteriorate rapidly, and unless you've been lucky enough to spot the problem immediately, it'll probably have to go. You can prevent this by wrapping your steak with multiple layers, such as plastic wrap inside foil or an outer freezer bag.

You see lots of frost inside your steak's packaging

Every once in a while, you'll take food out of the fridge and find that the packaging is filled with something that looks like frost or snow. You'll often see it inside bags of frozen vegetables, for example, and sometimes in steaks, roasts, or whole birds.

This is a really bad sign because it's the visible first stage of freezer burn. It's caused by air inside the packaging, which is very dry. Those ice crystals are made up of moisture that used to be inside your steak but were extracted into the dry air of the bag through a process called sublimation. It shows that the quality of your steak is actively deteriorating, even if you can't see any patches of discoloration underneath the frost.

At this point, your steak may or may not be unrecoverable, but in either case, now's the time to find out. Thaw it, and give it a good, close look. If the surface is visibly dry and coarse, or if it has acquired any unpleasant odors, then it should probably go in the trash or to the dog as a treat. If not, you may have caught it early enough that the steak might still be serviceable.

Your frozen steak is visibly freezer-burnt

If there's one sign that says more than any other that your steak is done for, it's a patch of visible freezer burn on the surface. You may spot it over the entire steak or on just a portion of the surface, but either way, it's bad news.

It's hard to miss a serious case of freezer burn. Instead of its usual dark red, beefy color, the steak will have a pale beige or gray hue. If you thaw the steak anyway, you'll find that the affected area has a weirdly coarse and leathery texture. That's because the moisture that should have been inside the muscle cells was drawn out by dry air within the packaging, leaving the surface of the steak effectively dehydrated in spots (and not in a good way, like jerky).

Although it's mostly bad news and usually means you need to toss that particular steak, there are two bright spots where freezer burn is concerned. One is that it's easily prevented through the simple expedient of packaging your steaks better in the future. The other is that if you buy thick steaks — 1 to 2 inches — you may be able to trim away the damaged area. Use a thin, sharp knife to slice away beneath the damaged areas until you find fresh, unmarred beef. Ideally, you'll still have a steak that's thick enough to cook normally, but if not, you can at least slice it for stir-fries.

You've had a power outage

Sometimes, the proverbial "circumstances beyond your control" can spoil a steak. If you've recently experienced a power outage, that can affect the quality (or even safety) of the food in your freezer.

Outages happen a lot, from routine seasonal storms to natural disasters, so this is a well-studied problem. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service has found that foods in a well-filled freezer will stay safe for up to 48 hours as long as you leave it closed. In a half-filled freezer, with less food to provide thermal mass, that drops to just 24 hours. If you've been opening the freezer to remove food, both of those figures can be sharply reduced. A steak that's been in the freezer during a long-lasting power outage may thaw or even spend time at a temperature that's too high for continued food safety.

The presence of significant blood inside the packaging is a sign that this might have happened and that the steak later re-froze. In that instance, you should probably throw it out. The best time to check this is as soon as the lights come on. If your steaks (or any other frozen food) have been thawed for more than 2 hours or an unknown length of time, play it safe and discard them. Ideally, you'd have a thermometer in your freezer, so you know for sure it hasn't gotten above a food-safe temperature.

Your steak looks gray-ish (or worse yet, green)

The pale beige-gray of freezer-burnt beef isn't the only color-centric sign you should be looking for in your frozen steaks. Realistically, any color that isn't the deep red of fresh beef is a warning.

If the surface of your steak is visibly brown, gray, or green-tinged, this is a sign that you should think long and hard about eating it. The problem is that while freezing stops any further spoilage in your beef, it won't correct any deterioration that has already happened. So, if you see any of these colors on a steak, it may mean that it had gone bad before you froze it.

These things happen, and even as a trained professional, I've been guilty of it on occasion. You may pop one into the freezer after forgetting it in the fridge for a couple of days, or buy marked-down steaks approaching their use-by date without giving them as close a look as you should have (food is expensive, we get it). It's disappointing to pull a steak out of the freezer and realize you should never have frozen it in the first place, but tossing it is the prudent option.

Your frozen steak smells bad once thawed

The ideal time to recognize that your steak is past its prime is before you thaw it. That way, you'll still have plenty of time to grab a different steak from your freezer or settle on an entirely different dinner plan.

Unfortunately, sometimes, a steak that looks fine when it comes out of the freezer may still be too far gone to eat. While it passes the "eye test" just fine, your other senses may still sound an alarm once it's thawed out. Its surface may feel sticky or gummy to your fingers, for example, or — more dramatically — it may have the telltale sickly smell of decomposing beef.

This may happen because the beef was already spoiled or partially spoiled when it went into the freezer, or because it partially thawed and then refrozen at some point. Either way, if it's whiffy now, it's best to get rid of it.

You've thawed your steak once before

There's a persistent myth that frozen food should never be refrozen after it has thawed. While there's a kernel of truth to this common advice, it's not entirely true. It can be safe to refreeze food, even meat, but it has to be done right.

Let's say for the sake of argument that you've thawed a steak for dinner, but your plans changed, so you put it back in the freezer. It may or may not still be food-safe, depending on how you've defrosted it. If you let it thaw in the fridge for 24 hours, it's perfectly fine because it has remained at a food-safe temperature from start to finish. If you thawed it in water, or the microwave, or — worst of all – on the counter at room temperature, then you've provided ample opportunity for bacteria to flourish and grow. That steak shouldn't have gone back into the freezer and shouldn't be eaten.

Even a steak that's been thawed properly won't be at its best after refreezing. Each cycle of freezing and thawing causes some of the beef's cells to rupture, leaving your steak less juicy. It can also impact the steak's texture, taking some of the tender chew from your premium cuts. That's why many aficionados try to avoid freezing at all and would never refreeze a steak.

Your freezer has frosted up

You may encounter a major warning sign before you ever pull your steak from the depths of the freezer. If the freezer itself is thickly encrusted with frost and ice buildup, that's a red flag that casts doubt on the condition of everything in your freezer, including the steaks.

That kind of buildup is almost invariably a sign that the seal around your freezer's door is failing. If you inspect the seal closely, you may notice that it's cracked or that parts of the seal have shrunk away and don't make good contact anymore. This means your freezer will be working harder and cycling on and off more frequently to maintain its target temperature, and this, in turn, accelerates the deterioration of your food. Everything at the top of your freezer (or in the front, for an upright freezer or front-opening refrigerator) is at risk of frequent thawing and refreezing. It's a bad thing.

Replacing a gasket is not hard (I'm not the handiest person, and I've done it), and it's certainly cheaper than buying a new fridge or standalone freezer. Once you've done that, check any steaks (and other food) near the top of your freezer for any of the signs of spoilage we've discussed here. Inspecting your new gasket regularly and keeping it well-maintained should prevent the problem from recurring.

Your frozen steak tastes bad once cooked

Even if your steak has passed all of the others with flying colors, there is one final test: It comes when you put that first bite of steak into your mouth. Does it taste like something you want to keep eating or something you want to spit out immediately?

If you have the second response, you don't need us to tell you the steak should be tossed. It's unfortunate, but at this point, you need a plan B in the form of an alternative protein option or maybe takeout. Despite your best efforts, you won't always be able to tell whether a steak has reached its end of life without tasting it.

Having said that, it's important to stress that while you can taste spoilage, you can't taste the bacteria that cause serious illness (pathogens). The taste test isn't about food safety, just whether the flavor and texture are acceptable. You can only know your frozen steak is safe if you've kept it cold from the store to your freezer and then thawed it safely as well. Otherwise, follow the professional's rule of food safety: "If in doubt, throw it out."