History tells us that smoking fresh meat has been a food preservation method for millennia. Of course, these days it’s more of a hobby than a necessity. But people are still passionate about enhancing meat with smoky flavors because it tastes amazing.
Unfortunately, just like any other food, smoked meat, fish, and poultry have a limited shelf life before they spoil and go bad.
So, how long does smoked meat last before it spoils?
If it’s not handled or stored properly, not only can all the hours — and perhaps even days — of work end up going in the bin, it may even result in causing food poisoning.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also known as CDC:
48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States.
Food poisoning is serious but easily preventable.
With proper handling and storage, smoked meat can last 4 days in the refrigerator or if properly wrapped, up to 3 months in the freezer.
This article will help you understand the time frame, proper handling and storing of smoked meat before it goes bad, so you can keep it as long as we state.
Note: This information applies to hot smoked meat that we wish to store for eating later. We do not cover below how long you can store meat cold smoked intentionally for preservation purposes, such as charcuterie. This is another topic entirely and will be covered elsewhere.
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- 1 If Smoke Aids in Meat Preservation, Why Refrigerate Them?
- 2 Wrap to Prolong Your Smoked Meat Shelf Life and Seal in Flavor
- 3 Practice Food Safety When Smoking Meat
- 4 Tips for Freezing Your Smoked Meat Stash
- 5 When Is It Unsafe for Consumption?
- 6 How You Store Smoked Meat Matters
- 7 Smoked Meat Is Perishable So Enjoy it Now
If Smoke Aids in Meat Preservation, Why Refrigerate Them?
Before refrigeration people used a combination of smoking, curing and drying to preserve meat. Today we simply smoke it without curing or drying, so it needs to be refrigerated because moisture promotes the growth of bacteria.
As discussed in our guide on how to store meat, we must understand it is bacteria that deteriorates meat and gives us food poisoning. Bacteria thrive in moist protein-rich environments between 40 °F to 140 °F (4 °C to 60 °C). To bacteria, that slab of ribs marinating outside the refrigerator for three hours is a luxury resort.
Bacteria populations multiply exponentially and can double in four to twenty minutes, creating millions of cells in as little as a few hours. Are you aware that it only takes as little as 10 E. Coli bacteria to give you food poisoning? Don’t lick your fingers after touching raw meat no matter how good the marinade looks.
The smoking process kills bacteria because they die at 160 °F (71 °C) and hot smoking brings the external temperature of the meat to 225 °F (107 °C).
The smoking process also dries the outside of the meat and leaves smoke deposits which inhibit bacteria growth and help in preserving freshness. But, the inside is still moist, and as soon as you cut it or poke it with a thermometer, you introduce new bacteria.
You still need to refrigerate or freeze freshly smoked meat as quickly as possible to get it out of the “danger zone” temperature of 40 °F to 140 °F (4 °C to 60 °C).
Wrap to Prolong Your Smoked Meat Shelf Life and Seal in Flavor
Government agencies and home chefs agree that even properly wrapped and refrigerated smoked meat should be consumed within four days. And you don’t want to keep it in the freezer longer than three months. Longer than that and it will be unsafe for you, your family or your pets.
When storing your meat in the refrigerator, use the smallest container possible. Air is not your friend. Vacuum packing or storing in sealed bags are great for removing excess air and sealing in flavor.
Try to refrigerate the meat within two hours, and it should keep well for up to four days.
Practice Food Safety When Smoking Meat
Improper food handling reduces the shelf life of your smoked meat by contaminating it with bacteria and increasing the chance of food poisoning.
Cross-contamination happens when you lay cooked or smoked meat on the same surface as the raw meat or not washing your thermometer before you reuse it.
On the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Smoking Meat and Poultry page, they cover all the aspects of safely handling and smoking meat. A major factor is internal cooking temperatures. Here are the USDA guidelines for minimum internal temperatures for all meat, smoked or not.
- Ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to an internal temperature of 160 °F
- Sausages that contain ground turkey and chicken should reach 165 °F
- All poultry cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F
- Beef, pork, veal, lamb steaks, chops, and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145 °F
If you like to make smoked sausages, here is the link to the USDA guidelines for Sausages and Food Safety.
Tips for Freezing Your Smoked Meat Stash
The goal of wrapping meat for freezing (or for your refrigerator) is to retain the water content and moisture. “Freezer burn” is a condition where the food has dehydrated during freezing.
Wrapping meat for freezing is a 2-step process.
Step one, wrap the meat using a quality plastic wrap. Better still, use butcher paper or freezer paper with the wax side inward. Butcher paper will come off easier than plastic when thawed.
Step two, wrap the meat in aluminum foil. The foil holds the first layer in place and prevents moisture from evaporating (sublimating, if you want to get technical).
You can take the extra step of putting the package inside a plastic freezer bag to protect the foil if you tend to move things around your freezer. Be sure to label and date each package. You should use all frozen meat within three months. Even with proper packaging, the quality will fade so use it before three months.
Remember, freezing does not kill bacteria. Always use proper care when handling any food products from prep to cooking to storing. If you contaminate the meat before freezing, it will be waiting for you when it thaws.
An alternative to the paper & foil method is vacuum sealing. It will help extend the shelf life, seal in flavor, but bacteria can still thrive without oxygen, so freeze immediately after sealing.
When Is It Unsafe for Consumption?
If meat feels slimy or smells questionable, don’t hesitate to dump it. And, if you have doubts…NEVER taste it unless you heat it at least to 165 °F first. If you aren’t sure, it’s always best to follow the adage…
When In Doubt, Throw It Out!
How You Store Smoked Meat Matters
According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) guidelines:
Refrigerate meat and poultry within 2 hours of removing it from a smoker. Cut the meat or poultry into smaller portions or slices, place it in shallow containers, cover, and refrigerate. Use it within 4 days or freeze for later use.
Here are some meat and poultry storage guidelines for your reference, for both refrigerated and in the freezer:
- According to the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, they say you can store cured or smoked poultry up to two weeks in the refrigerator or if properly wrapped, up to one year in the freezer. (TAES Extension Poultry Scientists 1999).
- You can store lightly cured fish for between 10-14 days in the fridge, or between 2 or 3 months in the freezer (Luick 1998).
- Vacuum packaged meats, e.g., smoked fish, must be kept at 40 °F since the reduced oxygen atmosphere increases the risk of botulism poisoning (Luick 1998).
Set your refrigerator between 33 °F (0.5 °C) and 36 °F (2.2 °C) and freezer at 0 °F (-17 °C) or below.
Smoked Meat Is Perishable So Enjoy it Now
You go to a lot of trouble to make smoked meat, fish and poultry so enjoy it while it’s fresh.
Other than when dried, such as jerky, smoked meat has a relatively short shelf life, which comes as a surprise to many people who believe it can keep for as long as cured or dried meat.
But by following standard sanitation practices and refrigerating it promptly, you can have safe and delicious smoked products in store and fresh, ready for eating at your convenience.
Have you anything to add that might help other readers? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Let me know how can I preserved smoked meat, 1. Meat containing low oil,
2. Meat containing less oil etc.?
To be perfectly honest with you, meat preservation is not my strongest point!
I’ve made many bacons, and of course smoked fish, cheese etc. But this all either gets eaten right away, or gets frozen and eaten within weeks / months. For long term preservation I’ve not got a ton of advice.
However, there is an excellent group on Facebook that I’m part of that is full of incredibly knowledgeable food preservation practitioners called the ‘Salt Cured Pig.‘ I would recommend checking that out, searching the group for previous posts, and perhaps asking questions there.
I have had some smoked brisket in the refrigerator for three weeks in a small seated container. I chop this up and add it to my baked beans which I cook for approx 2 1/2 to 3 hours at 350 degrees. Should they be OK with the smoked brisket in them? (Approx. 4oz)
Why not just freeze it in small batches? Maintain freshness and better quality, as well as KNOW that it’s safe when you use it?
I will be putting up a BBQ business here in the Philippines and planning to operate it by the way America is doing their BBQ. I mean of course in the USA when it means BBQ it is only authentic when it was smoked. But the process is for along period of hours and most of the food businesses here requires fast serving of ordered food.
Just like to ask if I can do a precooked (Smoked) meat and serve later to be re-heated on the grill? How long can I keep a smoked BBQ meat in the fridge or in a container?
If you are catering in a professional manner, I’m sure if there will be very tight rules and regulations on food safety and hygiene you need to be following when it comes to preparing, storing and reheating foods, so it would be remiss of me to try and advise. I could lead you astray of your countries rules that might lead you into trouble!
“Natural” smoke, eh? Lol.
Having a slow morning or something, Justin? :p
What’s meant was ‘actual smoke, over fire, from burning or smoldering wood’, as opposed to liquid smoke (which, yes, is distilled from smoke) or any other way of adding a smoky flavor (pre-smoked salts, spices etc.)
I’ll change it 😉
The 3-4 days in the fridge is generally the max for ANY cooked meat in my experience having never gotten sick from refrigerated cooked meat. I’ve found that most websites are simply using CDC or FDA guidelines which are ‘lowest common denominator’ super safe guidelines that disregard the salt, sugar, smoke, moisture and fat content of the meat which all significantly affect how long it will last. Of course no website wants to say that smoked fatty bribed pork belly is good to eat 10 days later even if it is, due to the litigious culture we live in.
I agree with you completely. I have personally kept brisket, pork ribs etc. that I’ve smoked in the fridge for over a week, reheated them and eaten it no problems. However, as a ‘public source of information’ that many people read, sites like mine are duty bound to quote, source and refer to the official guidelines, and the ‘lowest common denominator’, because if we don’t and somebody gets ill, then we would be somewhat responsible (or we will have been irresponsible.)
So I do agree with you, and keep smoked and salted meats in the fridge longer than discussed above, but I and other websites really MUST use the official guidelines, not guess at it or throw in our own opinions, because it could have very dangerous consequences for peoples health if we do not, and from that quite likely legal repercussions.
We just bought 4 smoke butts vacuumed sealed on 11/16 because it was a good sale. We wanted to prepare them for Xmas. I thought since it was vacuumed sealed I could keep them in the frig until then. Should we really be freezing them?
I would follow whatever instructions came on the packaging personally.
However, I would freeze them, yes. Although smoked, and it is a preservative, I wouldn’t take the chances of it spoiling. The good thing is, them being pork butts, they are so moist, they have so much intramuscular fat and connective tissues that will have broken down during the cook, that freezing and reheating doesn’t take much — if anything — away from a pork butt. Some other meats certainly lose quality during a freeze, thaw, and reheat.
So I would freeze them, and then give them 48 hours in the fridge to defrost before I wish to use them.
I purchased a box of cured, smoked, and sauced meats (ribs, pulled chix, pulled pork, burnt ends, etc.). They were all vacuumed sealed and shipped to me with ice packs. By the time I got the delivery they were room temperature for about 8 hours. The company said they believe it is still good because they are cured and smoked and vacuum sealed. What would be your thoughts? Should I open them and see if they smell or are slimy? I would definitely reheat them to 165 for several minutes. Just hoping for a definitive answer.
It would be wrong of me to recommend what to do here, because if I advise you wrong, and make you ill for eating unsafe meat…well, you can see where I’m going with this.
However, with that said: If it was a delivery of food such as this, I would be asking them for a replacement / refund. Pretty sure if there’d be laws against delivering food that arrives like this and would be considered unfit for human consumption, as per USDA guidelines.
But if it was my meat, that I had cured, smoked and vac packed….then I would feel sure and quite safe eating it, because yes, curing, smoking, they are both preservatives and known killers of bacteria and pathogens. Think of meats held hanging up outside in places like Italy, and Spain: Cured, smoked, left for many months just hanging around unwrapped, in shop windows, outside peoples houses, you name it. However, the USDA would say this is unsafe and not to eat it.
So I cannot tell you what to do here, I can only say what the USDA would say, and that is: Do not eat it. Get a replacement or refund. However, I would personally, think it’s still safe to eat…but you have to take that for what it’s worth. I’m just some random dude on the internet with no food science background or qualifications, who maybe should not be listened to as an authority when it comes to YOUR health 🙂
Sorry I cannot be more definitive.
From the freezer, how do you thaw the smoked/ cured meat so that it’s safe for consumption? Thank you!
Same way as you would defrost any frozen meat. There’s a few methods, but best way being to simply move from the freezer to the fridge until thoroughly thawed.
Hi! I am a barbecue food stall owner. I have a problem in spoilage of raw meats in the freezer. Any best practices you can help with this? Thanks.
Thanks! This was very helpful.
So you’re saying that there is no difference between smoked meat and plain cooked meat in lasting in the refrigerator? That just seems wrong from both a scientific and historical perspective. Smoking has been used for centuries to preserve meat.
There’s a note on this at the start.
I will be smoking a turkey on Monday before Thanksgiving to be eaten Thanksgiving Day. Should I freeze it after smoking and thaw Wednesday or just keep it refrigerated until Thursday
Hi Joey. As long as you cook it thoroughly and are careful with the handling and storage, it will be fine to eat on Thursday, if cooked Monday. Also, depending on the size of your bird, you’d be hard pushed to be able to freeze it, and then defrost it, all from a Monday to Thursday. Some Turkeys can take days to freeze, and days to thaw, depending on their size.
So as I understood
Smoked meat can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
What happens if I freeze the smoked meat immediately after smoking (using a vacuum bag)
And after two months I took it out of the freezer to the fridge.
How long can I keep it in the fridge now? Still 4 days?
Hi Moti. 4 days, minus some time required to freeze and defrost it, yes.
Brining(salt, sugar, and spices), sous vide, and smoking pork, beef, chicken, or fish.
Hi, Maurice. Sorry but what part of the article (or a comment) are you replying to? (I’m just genuinely not sure 🙂 )
I do goat and beef hot smoke when its dried well and well packed it csn stay longer shelf life up to 2 weeks without fridge
I smoked a pork chop and wrapped it and put it in the fridge.. I meant to take it out but forgot and my son ate it by mistake It was in the fridge for a week. How do I know if he is ok? Can bacteria from that show up later?
I’ve no way of knowing, as there are just too many variables involved. And I’m afraid I have a responsibility to NOT give out what could be taken as ‘medical advice’, as I have no qualifications in that area and it would be irresponsible. Sorry I can’t help with any advice.
We are smoking Boston Butts and chicken for our daughters wedding in June… The wedding is a couple hours away and are hoping to be able to smoke them at home and transport them there. I thought about immediately after smoking putting the pulled pork and chicken in vacuum sealed bags, refrigerating them, transport them in coolers and then reheat by immersing the bags in boiling water. Would this be the best way?? If not do you have any suggestions that might work?