Brown Steak

You’ve purchased a piece of steak from the supermarket or pulled one from your fridge or freezer, ready to cook a delicious lunch or dinner. As you remove the wrapping, you notice the steak isn’t bright red; instead, it has a brownish tone. In this article, I will explain why steak can turn brown and what it means for you.

Is the Brown Steak Safe To Eat?

In most cases, yes. Just because a steak has turned brown doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. If you’ve stored it properly and it’s not past its expiration date, it’s probably safe to eat. 

Of course, sometimes a steak turns brown because of bacteria. However, please remember that this typically comes with other changes, like a rotten smell and a slimy or sticky texture. That’s why it’s a good idea to sniff the brown steak to see if it smells unusual and check its texture. If you notice any of these warning signs, it’s safer to toss it out and pick up a fresh one.

Why Does Raw Steak Turn Brown?

When raw steak is exposed to air, it undergoes oxidation, which changes its color. Typically, the raw steak starts with a purplish hue, turns red, then brown, and cycles back to purple. This cycle from purple to red to brown continues until all the natural enzymes in the steak run out completely. Once that happens, the steak stays brown.

Vacuum sealed whole eye of round

Myoglobin is a protein in steak that reacts to oxygen and changes the steak’s color. Right after cutting, the steak is purple. It turns bright red if you expose it to the air for about 15 minutes. If you then vacuum-pack the steak and remove all the oxygen, the red will fade to brown in a few hours and slowly shift back to purple over the next few days in the freezer. If you open the package and expose the steak to air again, it starts all over, turning from purple to red. Over time, however, the enzymes in the steak break down, and it stays brown no matter what.

Here are photos showing how steak’s color changes when exposed to oxygen.

Example 1: Here’s a steak freshly cut from the vacuum-sealed eye of round beef roast. The steak has a purple hue because there’s no oxygen in the package, which keeps the myoglobin in the meat from being exposed to air and changing color.

Freshly cut eye of round steak

Example 2: Here’s the same steak, photographed 3 hours after being taken out of its vacuum packaging and exposed to the air (in the fridge). The myoglobin in the steak reacts with the oxygen, changing the color to a bright red.

Eye of round steak after being exposed to oxygen for 3 hours

Example 3: The next example shows what happens when steaks are stacked and stored in the fridge for 3 hours before being separated. As you can see in the photo, some parts of the steak turned brown. This browning occurs because the stacked steaks block oxygen from reaching certain spots. This lack of oxygen causes the protein myoglobin to change color, which is why those spots look brown.

Eye of round steaks stacked and refrigerated for 3 hours before separating
Stacked eye of round steaks separated after being stored in the fridge for 3 hours

Example 4: This time, I vacuum-sealed the steaks I mentioned earlier to remove the oxygen and put them in the freezer. Here’s what happened to their color after four days in the freezer.

Stacked eye of round steaks after being stored in the freezer for 4 days
Eye of round steaks thawed overnight in the refrigerator

Example 5: I thawed the steaks I mentioned in the previous example and exposed them to the air again. After 3 hours in the fridge, here’s what happened to their color.

Example 6: In the next photo, you can see what happened to one of those steaks after I seasoned it with salt and left it in the fridge overnight. After being left in the refrigerator for 24 hours, the steak turned a deep red again.

FAQs

Why do most packaged steaks look red?

Most packaged steaks are red because they’re packed with a special gas mixture. This mixture does two things: it keeps the steak fresh longer and helps it hold onto its vibrant red color. This bright red color comes from myoglobin, a protein in the meat that needs oxygen to stay red. On the other hand, steaks that are vacuum-packed without these gases turn dark red or purple because they don’t have any oxygen inside the packaging.

Is it bad if steak turns brown in the fridge or freezer?

In most cases, the answer is no. If the steak has been stored properly and isn’t past its expiration date, typically, there’s no need to worry. It’s still good to eat. However, it’s always a good idea to sniff it to ensure it hasn’t gone bad. If it smells okay, then the brown color is probably just from oxidation, which isn’t harmful.

How to determine if the brown steak has gone bad?

The color alone won’t tell you if a brown steak is still good. Here’s what you should check:

  1. Check the expiration date: Make sure the date on the package hasn’t passed.
  2. Feel the texture: If it’s slimy, sticky, or slippery, that’s a bad sign.
  3. Look at the appearance: A dry or shriveled steak is a bad sign.
  4. Smell it: Any strong, unpleasant odors, especially one that smells like ammonia, means the steak has spoiled.

To learn more, see my full guide on How to Tell if Steak is Bad.

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Written by: Adam Wojtow

Adam Wojtow is a Polish entrepreneur and writer who founded Steak Revolution in 2020 because of his passion for steaks. Adam has been cooking steaks for over 5 years, so he understands well all aspects of steak, from the types of steaks and their cooking times to choosing the best cooking technique for any steak.