If you need to make a couple of sandwiches for lunch in a hurry, nothing beats pre-sliced deli meat. At least when it comes to convenience. You add a few slices of ham here and a couple of slices of turkey there, maybe some hard cheese and the sandwiches are ready to go.
But even if you eat deli meat daily, it’s quite easy to buy way more than you need. You’re at the deli counter and see all of those tasty-looking lunch meats, and suddenly you want at least a few slices of almost everything. Or maybe I’m the only one who feels that way, who knows. Anyway, if you’ve noticed that you have more lunch meat than you can use before it spoils, it’s time to take action to preserve as much as you can. But before we get into preserving, let’s talk about checking if the cold cuts are already spoiled.
Can Deli Meat Go Bad and How To Tell If It Is Bad
It won’t come as a surprise that deli meat goes bad, even if it’s vacuum-packed and stays closed. And while some meats last longer than others (e.g., pepperoni), it’s not like you can store them for months. Fortunately, telling if deli meat has gone off is usually easy.
Let’s start with appearance. If the wet surface becomes slimy, the deli meat is about to go off. Technically, the preparation of the deli meat usually involves brining it ([WIKI]), and that slime is brine being released back. So while that brine is generally harmless, I find slimy deli meat disgusting and throw it out right away. Did you noticed that I used the word “usually”?. That additional water might speed up bacterial growth, so it will definitely accelerate the spoilage process. In short, it’s up to you what you do with slimy lunch meat, but if you choose to eat it, at least make sure you cook it through before. Of course, it goes without saying that discolored or moldy meat should be tossed out.
Smell is next in line. If cold cuts or piece of deli meat smell stale or off otherwise, throw them out. When I buy vacuum-packed deli meat, it usually starts to smell off before it gets slimy. And that’s a sure sign that it’s not safe to eat anymore.
Technically, you can test if the meat is good enough by taste too, but if it looks and smells okay, it’s almost always good. Or at least that’s my experience.
Last but not least, observe the date on the package and how long you already store the meat you’ve bought at the deli counter. When it comes to deli meat, it’s better to err on the side of caution and throw out meat that’s past its date, than trying to be frugal and risking food poisoning. Speaking of storage times, let’s talk about the shelf life of lunch meats in general. Because even though there are dozens of different lunch meats available, their longevity is relatively similar. Plus you won’t have to remember the shelf life of every single one you buy.
How Long Is Unsliced Deli Meat Good For?
If convenience isn’t as high on your priorities list as it is on mine, and you go for unsliced lunch meat, good for you. Unsliced deli meat usually has fewer preservatives than its sliced counterpart. If you buy it prepackaged, it comes with a use-by or best-before date on the label. The meat, if left unopened, should retain quality for a few days past that date, but that’s about it.
Once you open the package, or you buy lunch meat unsliced at the deli, it will usually last around 4 to 6 days. To make sure it stays okay for as long as possible, make sure it’s always refrigerated and well wrapped. Aluminum foil, plastic wrap, or freezer bags can all get that done for you. Or you can use the wrap the meat came in if you can reseal it.
How Long Does Sliced Deli Meat Last?
If you buy your deli ham or turkey deli meat sliced, this section is for you. Once again, let’s start with prepackaged slices you can buy in the supermarket or at the deli. The label should have a date on it, and typically, the slices won’t last much longer than maybe a couple of days past that date.
If you get the meat sliced at the deli counter, or just opened a package, try to finish it within 3 to 4 days. Again, remember to wrap the meat well, so it doesn’t dry out and leak any smells to the rest of the fridge. You don’t want everything in your refrigerator to smell like salami, don’t you?
Okay, now you know how long the deli meat lasts in the fridge. What if you won’t be able to consume all of it before that time passes? Enter freezing.
Can You Freeze Deli Meat?
As you probably know, most meats freeze really well. If you’re like me, you often buy meat in bulk and freeze most of it. While that strategy definitely isn’t optimal for deli meat, freezing it is fine in most cases. Please note, however, that some lunch meats freeze better than others. Those 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 just fine for a couple of sandwiches.
When it comes to how to freeze deli meat, I suggest that before freezing you slice it if it’s not sliced already. This way once you thaw the cold cuts you can use them right away. Then think about portioning the slices. Generally, you want to freeze together as much deli meat as you need for 2 to 3 days tops. So if you have a lot to freeze, divide it into several piles. Now the slices are ready to be packaged.
When it comes to freezing deli meat and freezing in general, the most important thing is to protect the food from the cold temperature. And that means wrapping it tightly. If you plan on freezing deli meat for a few weeks tops, you should be able to get away with single-wrapping it. That means you cover it with either aluminum foil, plastic wrap, or put in a freezer bag. For long-term storage, I suggest double wrapping. That means you first wrap the meat with aluminum foil or plastic wrap, and then put the whole thing in a freezer bag or airtight container. Once packaged, put the deli meat in the freezer.
When it comes to thawing, put 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.
In a Nutshell
- Vacuum-sealed deli meat lasts until the date on the label, plus maybe a day or two more
- Opened unsliced lunch meat lasts up to 5, maybe 6 days; sliced 3 to 4 days
- You can freeze deli meat; fat deli meats freeze better than lean cuts
- [WIKI] Wikipedia: Brining