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Beef Handling, Safety & Storage - Cooking Tips

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Contamination Prevention
Doneness | Proper Storage | Safety and Handling Tips

Contamination Prevention


When shopping for beef, make sure it is among the last items selected so that the length of time it is without refrigeration is as short as possible. This will help reduce the growth of harmful bacteria on the meat between the time when the meat is purchased and when it is placed in the refrigerator at home. If the meat is without refrigeration for more than an hour, because of the travel time from the market, a cooler with ice should be used to transport the meat, and any other perishable items, for the duration of the travel time.


It is important to follow the basic rules of cleanliness when preparing beef. Work surfaces, dishes, and utensils should be washed thoroughly with soap and hot water after using them. Bleach can be used as a disinfectant for cutting boards and other work surfaces or an antibacterial spray may be used. When taste testing food, do not use the same utensil that was used for preparation and be sure that a clean spoon or fork is used for each taste to eliminate the spread of germs. Beware of kitchen washcloths and towels that have been used on multiple surfaces because they can spread germs. Use paper towels or other disposable cloths whenever possible.

Cross Contamination

Various types of foods should be kept separate from each other during storage and preparation. Never store ready to eat foods next to raw meats. Bacteria that may be present on the raw beef may contaminate the ready to eat foods.

It is very important to wash your hands often during food preparation to avoid transferring harmful bacteria from one food item to the next. If you were handling raw meat, for example, you would want to wash your hands thoroughly before chopping vegetables to reduce the risk of transferring bacteria from the meat to the vegetables.

If cutting boards are used in your kitchen, it is a good idea to use one for meats and a different one for fruits and vegetables. Cutting surfaces made from tempered glass are safer to use because you don't have to worry about cracks and pores harboring bacteria as you do with wood or plastic surfaces. Tempered glass surfaces are also the easiest to clean. Regardless of the material they are made from, cutting boards should be cleaned thoroughly after each use.

The knife that was used to cut raw beef should not be used to chop vegetables unless the knife has been washed thoroughly first. When serving cooked meat, do not place it on the plate that contained the raw meat.


Bacteria such as E. Coli may be present on any cut of beef, but it is most common on ground beef because the grinding process may distribute the bacteria throughout the meat. Whole beef cuts usually have bacteria on the surface, so cooking them to an internal temperature of 145°F is sufficient to kill the bacteria. (The surface of the meat will be at a much higher temperature; usually 160°F or higher). Ground beef must be cooked until the internal temperature reaches a minimum of 160°F to ensure that dangerous bacteria are destroyed.

Traditional guidelines state that beef cooked very rare, rare, or medium rare should have an internal temperature ranging between 115ºF to 140°F. With increased concern over bacteria that may be present in the internal portions of meat, it is now recommended that whole beef cuts be cooked to an internal temperature of not less than 145°F, even though bacteria is usually only on the surface of the meat. Searing beef on the stovetop before roasting is also a good method of killing surface bacteria as well as browning the surface and adding flavor.

Proper Storage

Refrigerator / Freezer

Most cuts of beef can be safely stored in the refrigerator at temperatures between 33°F and 40°F for 3 or 4 days. They can be stored in a freezer with a temperature of 0°F or less for 6 to 12 months. Refrigerated ground beef should be used within 1 or 2 days and can be stored in the freezer for up to 4 months. Leftover cooked beef that is refrigerated should be used within 3 or 4 days and can be frozen for up to 3 months.

Beef should be stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator until it is ready to use. If the beef will not be used within a few days, it should be stored in the freezer. It may be stored in its original packaging if it will be frozen for only 1 or 2 weeks. If the beef requires long-term freezer storage, it should be rewrapped with heavy-duty protection to prevent freezer burn.

Freezer Burn

Freezer burn causes the beef to become discolored and dehydrated. This is because exposure to the cold, dry air of the freezer compartment can cause moisture loss, especially if the beef is packaged incorrectly and/or stored in the freezer for an excessive length of time. A layer of plastic wrap followed by a layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil works well as protection against freezer burn. Heavy white freezer paper is another alternative for protecting the meat. It is important to note that freezing beef may affect the flavor, texture, and appearance of the meat when it is cooked at a later date, and in some cases, there may be a noticeable difference between fresh and frozen.

Vacuum Packaging

A storage method that works well for fresh or frozen beef is vacuum packaging. It helps to keep beef fresh for longer periods if properly refrigerated or frozen. The vacuum packaged is usually made from plastic bags. The cut of beef is placed inside the bag, the air is removed creating a vacuum in the bag, and then the bag is sealed to maintain the vacuum. Beef that is frozen for long-term storage in vacuum packages (or other types of packaging) can be dated so that it can be used within the proper time limit: up to 1 year for raw beef cuts, 4 months for ground beef, and 3 months for any type of cooked leftovers.

Safety and Handling Tips

Whole Beef Cuts Safety and Handling Tips

  • Make sure any juices from raw beef do not come in contact with any other food items. Packaged raw beef can be placed on a plate in the refrigerator to ensure that none of the juices drip onto any other food items in case that there is a leak in the package.
  • Do not allow beef to reach room temperature before it is cooked, as this can promote the growth of harmful bacteria. Beef should be cooked as soon as possible after its removal from refrigeration.
  • Leftovers should be placed in the refrigerator or freezer as soon as the meal is over. Beef should not be away from refrigeration longer than 2 hours after cooking. Cooked food left at room temperature for more than two hours should be discarded.
  • When eating outdoors, food should not be consumed that has been without refrigeration for more than an hour, especially in hot weather.
  • Beef that has been ground, cut into chunks for stew or kabobs, or cut into strips for stir-fry is much more perishable than larger cuts of beef. This is because there is more exposed surface area, which increases the risk for bacterial growth.
  • After meat has marinated, the marinade should be discarded because of its contact with the raw meat.
  • Raw beef that has been thawed should be used as soon as possible. It should never be refrozen because this increases the risk of food poisoning when the meat is finally used.

Ground Beef Safety and Handling Tips

  • Ground beef should be defrosted in the refrigerator and never at room temperature.
  • Ground beef should be cooked as soon as possible after it is defrosted.
  • Ground beef patties should not be cooked unless they have thawed fully. A frozen or partially frozen patty will not cook evenly and the center will not cook to the proper temperature even though the outside may be completely cooked.
  • Ground beef must be cooked to an interior temperature of at least 160°F.
  • Ground beef should be purchased before or on the "sell by" date or "last date of sale" and then used within 2 days of purchasing.
  • It is recommended that ground beef dishes such as meatloaf be checked for doneness with a meat thermometer. This is especially important when the meat has been blended with dark sauces that can mask the color of the meat, making it difficult to determine if any pink color remains, which would indicate that the meat is not fully cooked.