How to Tell If Your Bacon is Bad – And Make Sure It Stays Good

You know the dilemma. First thing in the morning, or last thing at night, or come to that, 3 p.m. on a Tuesday when you have a deadline and you can’t go to the store, and the only thing that will do is bacon.

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You’re not sure if it’s a craving, a phase, or just every cell in your body crying out for the protein, salt, and Heavens to Betsy tastiness that is bacon. All you know is that you need it.

But then.

You see it from a distance in the refrigerator, and a gruesome thought strikes you.

When was the last time you actually… bought… bacon?

Eesh, that seems like a long while ago. Are you forgetting a time since then? Or is this… still the same bacon?

Your mind goes immediately into Google mode. How to tell if bacon is badDoes bacon go bad, or is the fundamental wonder of its taste somehow antibacterial? Have you ever seen bacon go bad? Has anyone ever kept bacon that long? Did you ever hear of anyone who ate bad bacon? Were they fine? Were they locked in the bathroom all weekend? How many funerals in the lower downtown area are caused by eating bad bacon in the last year?

Are you being ridiculous, or are these all valid questions you need to have answered before you go any closer to the possibly prehistoric bacon?

You think about asking Siri, but you’re afraid she’ll judge you – not to mention sending you ads for various bacon options for the next six months, far beyond the point when helpfulness turns into harassment. So you don’t ask, but the questions keep coming.

If this bacon is the old bacon, how do you know if it’s necessarily bad bacon? And come to that, how bad is bad? Sure, you know it’s been a while since you remember buying bacon, but how long beyond the expiration date is still “Screw it, it’s bacon” fine, and how long until it’s “This is no longer bacon as we know it, now it’s a radioactive hazard” dangerous?

Relax.

We’re not Siri. There’s no judgment here. This is a safe bacon-enthusiast space. We know how it is – the raging desire for bacon is kind of like a primal lust. When you’ve got to have it, you’ve got to have it, but once you’ve had it, you’re good for a while.

Leaving maybe a couple of slices behind in case you felt like them later was good, valid bacon management at the time.

Sure, that time was like three dates ago, but what we’re saying is we understand how you could be… unsure… about the provenance and safety of the bacon left in your refrigerator.

We have done that walk of bacon-shame. We feel your pain. And so, for that matter, do most Americans. On average, we eat around 18 pounds of bacon per year. Factor out the vegans in that equation, and the poundage only gets higher.

Bacon, bacon, bacon – we love it, we need it, and so, with one thing and another, it’s probably important to know when it’s gone bad.

Oh yes – answer #1: Of course bacon goes bad. If it tastes good to you, it’ll taste just as good to a whole host of microbes and bacteria that want to chow down. 

So yes, sad as this might be in the 21st century, when we’ve put men on the moon and have a vaccine for Coronavirus, your bacon will not magically last however long you need it to.

Before you call your Congressman to demand why not, let’s get into the business of how you know if that bacon in your refrigerator is still good? We’ve got a craving for the good stuff and calls to your Congressman always go better with a bacon sandwich inside you.

Spoiled Bacon: How to Tell Your Raw Bacon Has Gone Bad

The first thing to say is that there is a cheat mode to this game.

It’s called an expiration date.

Before the mandatory printing of expiration dates on every meat and protein product on the market you could happily – or at least, nervously – play Wheel Of Botulism with a whole host of items in your daily or weekly grocery shop.

With the arrival of expiration dates, things got a whole lot more straightforward in terms of knowing whether your bacon was good or bad.

So – just check the expiration date, and if it’s within date, fire up the burner?

It’s not quite as straightforward as that. Naturally, an expiration date is good for unopened packages of bacon, correctly kept in refrigerated conditions.

Let the temperature drop for too long though and you start to melt away the validity of the expiration date. The minute you open the package and expose the bacon to the outside air, the expiration date is worth a whole lot of diddly with a side of squat.

So, sure, the expiration date is helpful. But the circumstances in which you keep your bacon when you get it home will distinctly alter the validity of the date.

Are there rules on how long you can keep bacon fresh when you get it home?

Guidelines, sure.

If you keep your unopened bacon sealed in its package and in the refrigerator, you’re probably safe to eat it for about two weeks beyond the expiration date. If the bacon is just sitting there, all sealed up and neglected, and you want to keep it viable for longer, you can happily freeze it in its package and it will last for anything up to 8 months before finally giving up the ghost of its porcine purpose.

If you open a package of bacon, you can still leave it for up to a week before beginning to really question its goodness, though obviously, any plastic wrap that you can introduce to it will be your friend when the bacon cravings hit, because it will help keep any microbes and decay from your treasured pig-flesh.

If you’ve gone ahead and cooked the bacon, and then thought better of eating it, two things are true. 

The first is that we still won’t judge you, even though lots of bacon-fans might. The second is that you can keep it refrigerated for up to 10 days before you have to throw it away as a kindness to all leftover bacon everywhere and a safety measure for anyone who uses that refrigerator.

Once you’ve opened a package of bacon, perhaps weirdly, you instantly knock off two months from its freezer-life, but suitably wrapped, you can still keep it frozen for up to half a year. Who waits six months between bacon cravings? We’re not sure, and the evidence seems to suggest the answer is “No American who eats bacon” – but now you know you can do that if you want to. So unopened bacon lasts longer than opened bacon whether it's turkey bacon or regular bacon slices.

Okay, so that gives us a rough guide on how long bacon might still be safe in various states – raw, cooked, sealed, unsealed, etc.

But it will be no surprise that there are some simple ways to check the status of your bacon.

1. Use Your Eyes

You know what fresh bacon looks like, right?

That’s not a facetious question. The image of fresh bacon is all over our culture, from Tom & Jerry cartoons to Top Chef episodes. Perhaps the weird thing is that you can trust those images.

If we were to give you a pop quiz right now on what fresh bacon looks like, you know you’d say a couple of things. If we asked you to draw and color a picture of some fresh bacon, you already know what your drawing would look like. The meat would be pink. The fat would be white, or at the most, a pale yellow.

Those are the colors you’re looking for in your refrigerator bacon. Pink meat – yes please, grab a pan. White or pale fat? That’ll crisp up beautifully in a handful of heartbeats.

Colors you’re not looking for? There are a couple that are obvious. If you see green, that’s not a sign meaning go get a pan. That’s a go sign that means your bacon should go straight into the garbage.

If you see blue? Remember the fact that chefs in restaurants use blue Band-Aids when they cut themselves, precisely because there are very few raw ingredients that are blue, so the Band-Aids won’t be confused with ingredients.

Meat and blue go together like a sandwich and food poisoning. Blue bacon should beat even green bacon to the garbage.

There are a couple of other colors to watch out for too. If the meat of your bacon has gone dark brown – garbage. If it’s gone gray? That’s bacon that should be thrown away too. That’s not bacon-ageism, it’s pure self-preservation.

There’s pretty much only the one good color for the meat, and one good color for the fat, of fresh unsmoked bacon. If you can squint at your bacon and still see pink and white, grab your pan, it’s bacon time. Anything else? It’s consider-a-better-bacon-management-plan time.

2. Take A Deep Breath

As much as we use our eyes to tell us most of what we need to know on a day-to-day basis, human noses can distinguish between over 1 trillion different odors. That’s more odors than we have words for. If your bacon looks pink, it’s probably fine, but give it a sniff before you drop it in the pan.

Fresh bacon smells inviting, slightly meaty, and at the risk of oversimplifying… fresh.

If you sniff your bacon and get a tang of sourness in your nostrils, that’s a sign that all is not quite right with the bacon you have, whether it looks fresh or not.

Any tinge of fishiness, or anything that makes you wince at its unpleasantness, is worth noting too, because cooking it up is unlikely to get rid of that sourness, that ‘wrongness.’ Bad smells are usually down to bacterial growth, and that can happen even on meat that looks perfectly fine to eat. 

So before you drop your bacon in your pan, give it a smell test. All fresh and meaty and good? You’re very nearly at the stage of the perfect bacon sandwich.

3. Touch Your Meat

This might sound like the most unusual advice you’ve ever heard about cooking bacon, but you can tell a lot about its freshness by simply running a clean finger along the flesh, and then giving a finger snap.

Fresh bacon, tasty bacon, and above all, safe-to-eat bacon should feel soft and moist, but not sticky or slimy.

If you touch-test your bacon and get a slimy or sticky residue on your finger, you could be well on the way to having no bacon.

Why? Because the sliminess or stickiness is not natural to the bacon, that’s why. Something is making it feel that way. And what’s most likely to be making it feel that way is lactic acid bacteria.

You want no part of lactic acid bacteria on your bacon. Besides, once you know your bacon is slimy, and that the slime is a bacterial growth, it loses a lot of its appeal. Try enticing a friend with the officer of a bacon, lettuce, tomato sandwich with a lactic acid bacteria dressing, and see how fast they run away.

If your bacon fails any of these three fundamental tests – the eye test, the sniff test, and the finger-snap test – we hate to tell you this, but you should get rid of it rather than risk cooking it up.

Ideally, wrap it up before you dispose of it, because bacon that’s already bad is not going to start to smell any sweeter in your garbage than it does up close when you sniff it – and everyone else in the house has the same powerful billion-odor-sensing nose that you do.

It’s the friendly, socially responsible thing to do to keep the tang of rotting bacon away from those noses as far as you possibly can.

“But my uncle used to eat bad bacon all the time…”

Any time you tell people about the dangers of eating bad meat, there’s an inevitable clap-back. “But my uncle ate bad bacon all the time and he lived to be 93…”

Good for your uncle. But here’s the thing. The risks of eating bad bacon – and of eating any bad meat, for that matter – are not inconsequential.

In the first place, if your meat looks bad, smells bad, or is covered in slime, the likelihood that it’s going to taste great and give you the pleasure you anticipated from it is minimal.

More than that, though, bad meat has risks beyond those you can see, smell, feel, or taste.

We’re talking about hidden bacteria in large quantities. You’ll have heard of some of the biggest stars in the bacterial world - Staphylococcus, Salmonella, Bacillus, Clostridium, and Escherichia coli (known to its friends informally as E-Coli).

If you want to play Food Poisoning Jeopardy, try this on for size:

These commonly include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever, headache, body aches, and can include severe abdominal pain, blood vomit, severe dehydration, high fever, and extreme drowsiness.

If you just said: “What are symptoms of food poisoning?” – congratulations, you just won the game without laying down your gastro-intestinal tract as collateral. Which puts you ahead of around 48 million Americans a year who contract some kind of foodborne poisoning (that’s roughly 1 in every 6 people). 

Sure, but that’s not serious, right? Well, yes and no. Certainly, a lot of cases of food poisoning https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001652.htm – which is not to say they’re a fun way to spend a weekend. 

But if you want to up the ante and play Healthcare Roulette instead, it’s worth remembering that food poisoning also results in 128,000 hospitalizations per year in the US, and that around 3,000 people die – each year – from foodborne poisoning.

You want to play the game again, but this time make it interesting? Go ahead and cook up your slimy, green-tinged, stinky bacon.

We’ll wait…

The Correct Storage and Maintenance of Bacon

We’ve said you can keep your bacon in the refrigerator or the freezer for different lengths of time depending on whether it’s open or still sealed in its store packaging. Let’s take things a little further so that ideally, you should never run the risk of eating bad bacon by mistake.

Uncooked Bacon

In the Store

A natural tip is to reach as far back in the refrigerated cabinet as you can. Products with an expiration date are usually displayed with the closest date towards the front.

Grab yourself some bacon from the back and you’re likely to give yourself more time to cook and eat it. This applies to what we call ‘speculative bacon’ only – bacon you’re buying because you know you like bacon and will probably need it at some point.

If you’re in the store because the bacon you thought you had turned out to be green, slimy, and pretty much a Star Trek alien, and you need good bacon now, then by all means, grab some bacon from the front.

You know you’re going to eat it today anyhow. In fact, while you’re here, grab some from the front, for now, and some from the back for those bacon-based contingencies your life contains. 

That way, if you don’t use all the short-dated bacon now, you won’t be left with just a couple of slices the next time you want some – which means you’ll probably get more use out of all the bacon you buy.

Storage at Home

Naturally, when you get your packaged bacon home, keep it in the package as long as you can. That will give you the optimum length of freshness.

Once you’ve opened the package though, and assuming you have some bacon left over that you need to store, there are a few tricks to keeping it fresh – and to giving yourself the best chance of using it before it enters the Twilight Zone of Dubious Goodness.

First, wrap your bacon in kitchen towel. That will absorb any excess moisture that might otherwise be a breeding ground for mold or bacteria.

Then wrap or contain your bacon in something to minimize its exposure to the air. This can be anything from plastic wrap, which will give you a relatively tight seal, to aluminum foil, which is looser but still a fairly effective physical barrier. Perhaps the two smartest options though are the ones that allow you to monitor dates and usage.

If you store your bacon in a reusable, sealable plastic food bag, you can do two or three very useful things.

Firstly, you can smooth out the bag to give you minimal air inside, and therefore minimal chance for bacterial growth.

Secondly, you can take this a step further – if you have a vacuum sealer, always vacuum seal the bag before refrigerating or freezing any meat. Again, this helps to minimize the likelihood of infection, so that the next time you want some bacon, you have a much higher chance of it being good to eat.

And thirdly, you can take a Sharpie and write on the bag either the date of purchase, or, more usefully, your own version of the expiration date.

You know you can keep bacon in the refrigerator for around a week once it’s opened. Date your bag accordingly and you’ll know at a glance when it should be good until.

Still do the sight, sniff, and finger snap tests when you take out your bacon, but this should give you the best chance of keeping uncooked bacon fresh and using it within the time limit.

If you have the space in your refrigerator, you can also keep it in a shallow air-tight container like a Tupperware box. In this case, we still advise wrapping the bacon in kitchen towel to minimize moisture, and ideally also wrapping it in plastic wrap or aluminum foil.

Storing Cooked Bacon at Home

If you store it properly, you can keep cooked bacon in the refrigerator for anything up to – but probably not exceeding – 10 days.

But what does storing it properly look like?

Actually, it looks remarkably similar to what you would do with uncooked bacon. You can wrap it in plastic wrap or aluminum foil, you can put it in a sealable plastic bag, and you can even draw the air out and vacuum seal it if you want – though be sure to do this gently, as you don’t want to break up the cooked bacon by too violent vacuuming.

You can also go the shallow air-tight container route if you have sealable Perspex, glass, or food-safe plastic containers. Usefully, you shouldn’t need to wrap cooked bacon in kitchen towel, because most of the moisture will be locked in the meat by the cooking process.

For those who are up to date on their technology in the 21st century, there’s a helping hand when it comes to good bacon management too.

If you have either your refrigerator or your grocery list connected to something like Siri, you can actually tell it to buy fresh bacon at regular intervals and connect through the net to your store of choice, so you never need to face the Good/Bad Bacon Dilemma again.

Backing that up with a smart note of the expiration dates of your perishable groceries – including bacon, dairy, raw chicken, etc – saved to your phone means whenever you get a bacon craving, you should be good to go.

Cassie Marshall
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