Smoked meat is irresistible to many, because of its deep woody smoky aroma and unique, delicious flavor.
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: The information in this article applies to hot smoked meat, that we BBQ / cook low n slow, then 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.
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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.
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).
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 of 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 kept 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.