How to Know If a Steak Is OK to Cook

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Put that steak to the test before you cook it.
Put that steak to the test before you cook it. (Image: Zedcor Wholly Owned/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images)

Steak can be a versatile menu item. Feast on a succulent porterhouse to commemorate an anniversary, show off your barbecue skills with a grilled flank steak topped with a spicy chimichurri sauce, or celebrate the end of a hectic workday with an easy top round steak and vegetable stir-fry. However, before you start prepping that steak for dinner, there are certain key factors to consider.

What You Need to Know

Be careful when purchasing your steak. Whether you plan on cooking the steak on the day that you buy it or storing the steak in your refrigerator or freezer, read the buy-by-date information on the package. Don't buy steak with holes in the package or if the package has a lot of liquid. According to the the Cattlemen's Beef Board and National Cattlemen's Beef Association, this liquid could mean “problems with temperature or storage.” Look for a steak that has plenty of marbling, the ribbons of fat running through the steak making it tender and delicious, and that has a reddish/purplish hue. If the steak has spots of gray or brown, leave it at the store.

Decide when you plan to cook the steak. The United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) advises that steak should be cooked “within 3 to 5 days” of purchase. If you choose to freeze the steak, simply place the steak (still in the grocery store's vacuum-sealed package) in your freezer. The USDA FSIS advises that the steak can be stored in your freezer for 6 to 12 months. If you don't plan on using the steak within six months, the USDA FSIS also urges that you “overwrap these packages with airtight heavy-duty foil, plastic wrap, or freezer paper or place the package inside a plastic bag.” Also write on the package that it contains a steak and its date of purchase. This way, one year from now, you won't have to ask yourself the question of “what is this and when did I buy it?”

Use your senses when preparing a steak, whether it be frozen or fresh. When defrosting a frozen steak, you can let it have a long, lazy thaw in the refrigerator; an invigorating bath in icy cold water; or a warm jolt courtesy of the microwave.

Examine your steak. Does it have an iridescent sheen? If so, that is okay. The USDA FSIS says that this sheen is due to the “various pigments in meat compounds [that appear] when exposed to heat and processing.” Once the package has been opened and the steak has received oxygen, it will turn a bright red. This red color is a positive indication that you can cook your steak. Now, lift the steak (either shiny or red) to your nose and smell it. Does it have a rank odor? If so, it is not safe to eat. Touch the steak, does it feel slimy or sticky? If so, it is not safe to eat.

Cook the steak to an internal temperature of 145 degrees, as recommended by the USDA FSIS. After cooking, allow the steak to rest undisturbed. If you slice into that steak immediately, a majority of the juices and flavors will be lost. Instead, let the steak sit and reabsorb its juices. In fact, the Food Lab at Serious Eats.com recommends letting a steak that is at least 1 1/2 inches thick sit for 10 minutes for prime juiciness and deliciousness.

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