As the long days of summer arrive, you might imagine yourself carrying overflowing platters of hot dogs and juicy burgers at the next big family cookout.
And summer is a time for relaxation and time with loved ones. But with rising temperatures and outdoor gatherings lasting from morning to night, it’s definitely not a time to relax those important, science-based safety standards for food.
Each year, fall sick from food poisoning, whether in a restaurant or in their own home, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s not entirely clear how many of these cases occur in the home specifically. Researchers say it may be anywhere as low as 12 percent to as high as 80 percent. But no matter the statistic, it’s up to you to safely store and handle your food at home.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines for refrigeration and food safety, there are two kinds of bacteria that can grow on your food:
- Pathogenic bacteria. These are especially dangerous as they cause foodborne illness. They grow rapidly in unrefrigerated foods and can’t usually be detected by how a food looks, tastes, or smells.
- Spoilage bacteria. These develop and grow as food spoils. They do change the taste, look, and smell of your food. However, they’re far less likely to actually make you sick.
In either case, following the rules of safe food storage will help keep the food you eat both delicious and safe.
So, if you’ve been wondering how long you can keep that steak in the fridge or whether that can of tuna in your cabinet is still good enough for your casserole, we’ve got you covered. From freezer and fridge to canned foods in the cupboard, we’ve outlined the rules for safe food storage of beef, pork, poultry, and fish, all in time for your next set of leftovers.
Best practices for storing meat
Whatever the meat — beef, chicken, pork, or fish — there’s no question about it: You can safely store your food the longest in the freezer. That’s because you can safely freeze meats indefinitely.
According to USDA guidelines on freezing and food safety, freezing these foods to 0°F (-18°C) inactivates microbes like bacteria, yeasts, and mold as well as slows enzyme activity — all of the stuff that can cause your food to go bad.
The good news is no fancy vacuum sealer is required to safely freeze meat. However, sealing out moisture certainly does help keep these foods tasting fresh for longer when you eventually defrost and cook them.
So while you can safely store these foods in their original packaging, the USDA recommends that you add another layer of plastic wrap or foil before plunging your meats into the frozen abyss. That extra layer will help keep out moisture and keep those foods tasting fresh. Freezing meats when they’re as fresh as possible also helps preserve taste and nutrients.
You can even safely refreeze thawed meats that you don’t end up cooking. This assumes you thawed them properly to begin with (more on that later).
According to USDA guidelines, however, don’t refreeze foods left outside the refrigerator for longer than two hours or one hour in temperatures above 90°F (32°C).
Despite your freezer’s capacity to store meats and fish for a millennium, you probably shouldn’t keep these foods in your freezer for quite that long (unless you enjoy eating meat that tastes of shoe leather). Freezing your uncooked meats and fish is a safe practice, but at some point, it’s no longer a tasty one. It’s important to consider the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA recommended time limits for freezing cuts of meat and seafood.
Whether you follow those time limits or keep these foods frozen for much longer, the freezer will always be your safest bet. Raw meats and fish will always last longer in the freezer than they do in the fridge.
In addition to food storage guidelines, it’s just as important that you take care in defrosting these foods once you take them out of the freezer. USDA guidelines on safe defrosting say you should only thaw frozen meats in the fridge or in a leakproof plastic bag submerged in cold water. That’s because defrosting those foods at room temperature allows bacteria to grow too rapidly.
And as you defrost those frosty meats in the fridge, you also want to make sure they don’t drip on anything else as they thaw out. The same goes for marinating raw meat in the fridge. Place the meat in a covered dish to avoid spilling.
Beyond the freezer, canned meats and fish also offer you a very long storage life: between two and five years. This assumes you store these foods in proper conditions.
Your options for canned meats and fish are more limited than what you can store in your freezer or fridge, however. This is because canned meats and fish tend to come in a very specific format, like Spam, a tin of anchovies, or canned tuna fish.
Canning involves a different process to keep your food safe and unspoiled. The food is heated to kill bacteria then vacuum sealed to create a sterile environment and prohibit new bacteria growth.
There are very few examples where the fridge is your best storage option over your freezer or canned foods in your cupboard, but these examples do exist. The FDA recommends you skip freezing prepared meats that have been stuffed, for instance, and only refrigerate those before cooking.
Also, the USDA says mayonnaise, cream sauces, and lettuces don’t freeze well. Don’t freeze these foods or any meats that have been prepared with them.
Freezer storage guidelines
So just how long is “too long” before frozen meats won’t be so tasty?
When it comes to most uncooked cuts of beef, you can freeze them for several months without sacrificing quality.
According to the FDA, you can keep cuts, like roasts, frozen for anywhere from 4 to 12 months and steaks for 6 to 12 months. Ground beef should be frozen for no more than three to four months.
Once cooked, you can also safely freeze those beefy leftovers. But the FDA recommends you keep these frozen for only about two to three months. Again, this is purely a matter of quality. Meat can be kept longer in the freezer than these guidelines espouse. But at that point, you may begin to sacrifice quality.
If you want to freeze a whole chicken or turkey, the good news is that frozen poultry can keep for up to one year without sacrificing much quality. The FDA says chicken parts like thighs, breasts, or wings keep well for up to nine months, but giblets should be kept no longer than three to four months. Ground chicken should probably be kept for no longer than three to four months as well.
For uncooked pork, freezer guidelines are similar to beef. Roasts can be kept frozen for between 4 and 12 months. Chops are OK in the freezer for four to six months.
For cooked cuts of pork, the FDA recommends you keep these frozen for only two to three months to maximize quality.
When it comes to smoked and processed pork like ham, hot dogs, bacon, and lunch meats, the FDA recommends you only freeze these foods for one to two months.
Recommendations for freezing seafood are a bit more complicated. Lean fish like catfish or cod can be kept frozen for six to eight months. Fatty fish like salmon should be kept frozen for only two to three months.
Shellfish like shrimp and other seafood like scallops can be kept frozen for three to six months. Cooked fish should be kept frozen for no longer than four to six months. And smoked fish should only be kept frozen for two months before sacrificing taste.
Fridge storage guidelines
When we shift to thinking about storing food in the fridge, unlike the freezer, safety as well as taste is a concern. A fridge kept at 40°F (4°C) does slow the growth of dangerous bacteria. But since it’s not as cold as a freezer, you want to pay close attention to storage time limits set by the FDA and toss any foods that have been kept too long.
Most uncooked meat, regardless of cut, can be stored in the fridge for three to five days. But there are definitely exceptions. Ground meat and offal like liver and kidneys should only be kept in the fridge for one to two days. Leftovers containing cooked meat should be kept for no longer than three to four days before tossing.
Raw poultry, whether whole, parts like breasts or thighs, or ground giblets or meat, can only be kept for one to two days in the fridge. But, once cooked, you get a bit of an extension. The FDA says you can keep cooked poultry in the fridge for three to four days.
Fresh, uncooked pork can be refrigerated about as long as other meats: three to five days. This is regardless of whether it’s a roast or pork chops. Raw ground pork should also only be kept in the fridge for one to two days. Once cooked, pork dishes should be kept for two to three days in the fridge before tossing.
The guidelines are different for processed pork products. Unopened packages of hot dogs and lunch meat can be kept for two weeks. Once those packages are opened, only keep hot dogs for a week and luncheon meat for three to five days.
Only keep bacon for seven days. The same goes for a whole, cooked ham. But for half a ham, you can refrigerate it for three to five days. Ham slices can be kept in the fridge for three to four days.
Lean or fatty fish and shellfish can only be refrigerated for one to two days before needing to toss. You can keep cooked fish leftovers for three to four days. Smoked fish, on the other hand, can be kept longer. You can safely refrigerate it for 14 days. Once opened, canned fish like tuna can be safely refrigerated for three to four days.
Canned food storage guidelines
In the world of safe food storage, canned food is a real boon. It provides many affordable and long-lasting options. According to USDA guidelines, you can keep canned food for two to five years, whether it’s fish, poultry, pork, or beef.
Commercially canned food is placed in a sterile, vacuum-sealed container and heat processed at 250°F (121°C). This process kills microorganisms, halts enzymes from forming, and prevents new bacteria from entering the stored food.
Things can, however, go wrong. Sometimes canned food can be damaged during the manufacturing process or become badly rusted. If your canned food is heavily rusted or damaged, you’ll definitely want to discard it. You’ll also want to get rid of any canned food that’s bulging or smells bad. It might be a sign of C. botulinum, a bacterium that can cause a deadly form of food poisoning. Botulism is incredibly rare, especially in commercially canned foods. But there’s a risk of it developing in foods canned improperly at home.
Once in your home, you’ll definitely want to make sure to store canned food properly. That means keeping canned food somewhere that’s cool, dry, and dark, ideally below 85°F (29°C) and no higher than 100°F (38°C). Never keep canned food somewhere that’s damp or hot, like under the sink or next to the stove.
Once you open canned food, bacteria can begin to grow, so you’ll want to quickly refrigerate and store any unused portion. According to the USDA, you can safely put your leftover canned food right into the fridge. In order to preserve taste and flavor, it’s recommended that you refrigerate any unused portion in a separate, clean storage container.
You can also freeze unused canned seafood in a proper storage container for up to two months.
So, what if after reading all of this, you immediately forget all of these best practices? If you find yourself staring blankly at your open fridge, wondering what to do, keep the following contact information tacked to your fridge:
- For food safety information, call the USDA’s meat and poultry hotline at 888-MPHOTLINE (888-674-6854). They’re available year-round, Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST. You can also email them at MPHotline.email@example.com and chat with them online.
Jenny Splitter is a writer and storyteller based in Washington, D.C. She contributes science, food, and health stories to outlets like The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Mental Floss, and Slate, as well as the science communication project SciMoms. She also appears in the “Science Moms” documentary and is the story director for the D.C.-based immersive experience company TBD Immersive. She performs her own true, occasionally embarrassing stories about herself on stage for audiences at the 9:30 Club, the National Gallery of Art, and the Birchmere. In her spare time, she carves ice sculptures and grows heirloom wheat. Just kidding, she has two kids.