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How Long Is Deli Meat Good For and How To Tell If It’s Bad?

Packaged lunch meats like chicken cold cuts or deli ham keep for about two weeks. Once you open the package or have the meat sliced at the deli counter, you can refrigerate it for three to five days.

If those few days aren’t enough for your needs, or you bought a bunch of sandwich meat at a discount, freezing is an idea worth exploring.

That’s the shelf life of lunch meat in a nutshell.

Want to learn more about storing cold cuts in the fridge, freezing deli meat, and knowing if your deli meat is spoiled? Read on.

Sliced and diced deli meat
Sliced and diced deli meat

How Long Is Deli Meat Good for in the Fridge?

Packaged deli meat has a shelf life of up to two weeks and keeps for a day or two past the printed date.

Once you open it up, you get only three to five days of storage time. The same period applies to any cold cuts that you get sliced at the deli counter.

Of course, those periods hold true only if the meat has been continuously refrigerated.

If the meat sat on the counter at the deli for too long, or it’s the middle of summer and it took you an hour to get back home with the groceries, the deli meat might not retain quality for the mentioned period. Exposure to heat decreases storage time significantly.

Plus, sometimes the meat itself is poor in terms of quality. And while it tastes okay, it keeps for only a day or two before it starts giving off a bad smell. I’ve seen that happen numerous times with the cold cuts I bought.

Making sandwiches with deali meat
Making sandwiches with deali meat

After Sell-by Date

As I mentioned, lunch meat keeps for an extra day or two past its date in many cases.

Sometimes, the meat keeps for longer. If it’s one with higher fat content, like pepperoni or salami, you might get a couple of extra days, but that’s more of an exception than a rule.

Overall, deli meat isn’t known for its longevity, and I would never count on your chicken cold cuts (or any other deli meat) to keep for more than a day past the printed date.

Left Out Deli Meat

If you left out your deli meat at room temperature for more than two hours on the counter, or more than an hour if the temperature was above 90°F (32°C), throw it out.

That’s the general rule for storing perishable food on the counter.

Of course, it’s up to you to decide if you follow it religiously or not. For me, I use it as a general guideline.

For example, if I accidentally leave unopened packaged deli meat on the counter in the middle of winter for like 3 hours because I forgot to put it in the fridge, I’m still going to use it. But if the same sliced deli meat sits in a sandwich for 3 hours on a warm day, I’m tossing it.

Again, it’s your call on how you go about it.

The thing you should know is that temperatures between 40°F and 140°F (or 4°C and 60°C) are known as the danger zone. That’s where bacteria multiply fast, and storing any perishable foods at those temperatures for longer than absolutely necessary isn’t a good idea.

Sliced deli meat and cheese on a cutting board
(credit: Mathew Schwartz)

How to Tell if Deli Meat is Bad?

Deli meat goes bad easily and quite quickly. Here’s what to look for when checking if your cold cuts are okay to eat:

  • Slime. It’s probably the most common thing that happens to old or low-quality deli meat. That slime is brine sweeping out of the meat and congealing on the surface. Slime doesn’t necessarily make deli meat unsafe to eat, but it definitely makes it gross. Plus, it might help some microbes develop. In short – toss it.
  • Stale, off, or sour smell. If your sliced turkey doesn’t have its delicious meaty smell but smells kind of stale or old, it’s time for it to go.
  • Changed color. If the cuts are turning gray or brown, that’s a pretty obvious sign they are no good anymore. Most deli meat starts to turn from the outside in.
  • Mold. Deli meat rarely grows mold, but if yours does, you know what to do.

Last but not least, pay attention to the storage time. If your packaged sliced meat or cuts from the deli are open for more than 4 to 5 days, it’s probably time for them to go.

The cold cuts might still be safe to eat if they don’t show any signs of spoilage, but you never know. Better safe than sorry.

Bread with cheese and deli meat
Bread with cheese and deli meat

Storing Deli Meat

Make sure your deli meat is always refrigerated and adequately wrapped.

If you cannot reseal the package or the wrapped slices, move the slices into a freezer bag or airtight container, or wrap them. For the latter option, butcher paper, plastic wrap, and aluminum foil should all work okay.

Last, let’s talk about freezing.

Can You Freeze Deli Meat?

You can freeze deli meats, but not all of them freeze equally well. In other words, some lunch meats freeze better than others.

Sandwich meat with higher fat content, like pepperoni or salami, tend to freezer better than lean ones like turkey or chicken. Nevertheless, even frozen and thawed deli turkey should work fine for a couple of sandwiches.

If possible, before freezing a whole bunch of deli meat, grab a few slices of your favorite one and give freezing a try. You’ll know if the quality is good enough after defrosting the meat.

(credit: Wilfred Wong)

How To Freeze Deli Meat

Here’s how you freeze deli meat:

  1. Portion the slices. The slices will freeze together, so if you don’t want to defrost all of them, you need to divide them into separate piles. I suggest each one to have enough deli meat for two days.
  2. Pack the slices. Each pile goes into its own freezer bag. If the slices might sit in the freezer for more than a couple of weeks, wrap each pile with plastic wrap or aluminum foil first. This will help prevent freezer burn. Last, squeeze out all the air from the freezer bag and seal it.
  3. Label and freeze. Add labels to each bag if you like, and freeze them.

Your cold cuts should retain good quality for at least 2 to 3 months if you double-wrap them or 4 to 6 weeks if they’re single-wrapped.

When it comes to thawing, place the frozen lunch meat in the fridge on a plate the evening before you need it. It should be thawed and ready to go in the morning.