Lamb, known as the ‘4th’ meat (after beef, chicken, and pork) is delicious and packed full of flavour, and for centuries has been eaten during cultural, religious and seasonal festivities.
But, before you buy that whole rotisserie lamb or roasting leg, do you know whether or not it’s safe to eat?
This article will cover everything on signs to tell if your lamb is bad and review storage tips and shelf lives of lamb.
How to Tell if Lamb is Bad
There are many ways to tell whether or not lamb has ‘turned’, or gone bad. But, these signs can be confusing depending on the age of the lamb, or the butchering process the meat has undergone.
As most shoppers will acquire their lamb from a supermarket, the leading guide will be a ‘Use By’ or ‘Best Before’ date. Whilst these guides are just that, guides do give a good indicator of when the meat was processed and packaged, and the suppliers projected shelf life for the meat.
But, you should never fully rely upon these guides alone.
It surprises many to know that meat in the supermarket is considerably fresher than that sold to our parents and grandparents. In the last 20 years, butchering practices have changed significantly, and this has meant that the meat supply has been sped up.
As such, the meat we bought on Friday was most likely still walking the fields the previous Sunday, this shorter processing time can lead to confusion when comparing supermarket meat versus the meat you can buy from traditional butchers.
So, how do you tell if lamb is bad, or safe to buy? Here are the best ways to self-assess whether or not the lamb is safe to purchase and/or eat.
If buying from the supermarket, look for brightly coloured meat that is pink-red. There should not be an excessive amount of liquids in the tray if purchasing pre-cut meat – the meat should not be ‘swimming’ in juices.
If you are buying your lamb from a traditional butcher, you can expect the meat to be displayed, and to select the pieces/cuts you want.
As the meat will not necessarily be in vacuum-sealed packaging, you can expect it to have a drier appearance. It will also potentially look darker, and this is acceptable.
At no point at either a supermarket or traditional butcher should the meat have ANY green hues, or grey colouring of the ‘white’ fat. These are indicators that the meat has begun to, or has gone bad.
It’s true, lamb has a distinct smell, and it’s an aroma that is not to everyone’s tastes. The smell can also vary throughout the year; this is due to the different types of grass or grain that the animal may have been eating prior to processing.
However, if the lamb has a sulphuric smell, like rotten eggs, then that’s not okay. Lamb should smell, well, lamby; fresh and grassy, almost gamey, a distinct herby kind of aroma mixed with the usual smell of ‘meat’. If it smells like anything else, you should be cautious.
Just because it’s no longer bouncing around in the fields, doesn’t mean your meat shouldn’t be in good shape! This is where you want to get a little personal with your cut of lamb.
Whether you’re at the supermarket or the butcher’s, give the tray a good poke through the film; any legs of lamb or cutlets should resume their pre-poked shape.
You can also ‘scratch’ the surface if you suspect that glossy sheen isn’t real – if it’s real the gloss will still be there, if the meat has had a hand from dubious butchers, that gloss will rub off.
Lamb already has a flavour all of its own, you’ll never mistake it for the other three big names (beef, pork and chicken), but many restaurants will serve their lamb heavily spiced.
This is done to maximise and enhance the flavour, but it can also be used to mask the turning meat. So, if you’re at a restaurant, and you order the lamb, don’t panic if the flavours are bold.
But, if you bite in, and don’t like what you taste or you suspect that the lamb has gone bad, you should stop eating it, and politely bring it to the restaurant’s attention.
You will NEVER see any mould on fresh or even aged (the traditional way of tenderising butchered meat) cuts of meat. If you see any growth forms on meat, DO NOT purchase or cook with it. It should be discarded immediately.
NOTE: Consuming any meat product that is spoiled will most likely lead to severe illness, and potential hospitalisation. Never eat meat that has any of the indicators outlined above, and seek medical advice if you suspect you have eaten rotten meat products.
How Long Does Lamb Last
Properly stored, lamb will last a surprisingly long time – much longer than pork, chicken, or fish.
However, that doesn’t mean that it’s wise to keep lamb past its best or to keep it in conditions that are not optimum or safe.
Ideally, once you have purchased your lamb, from either the supermarket or your preferred butcher, you will be enjoying it as soon as possible.
But, should you need to keep it, there are a few tips and tricks to keep it safely.
How Long Does Lamb Last in the Fridge?
Just as you bought it from the supermarket, probably in a vacuum-sealed bag or tray, your lamb should last 3-5 days, or check the Best Before or Use By date.
However, if buying directly from a butcher, do ask how long the meat has been on display or out of the ‘cold room’. You want to hear the answer ‘today’, as this indicates the meat is freshly cut and displayed that day. If the butcher is unable to tell you, you may wish to consider another outlet.
If you do decide to purchase from that vendor, do thoroughly inspect the meat, and refer to the guide above for advice.
When keeping lamb in the fridge it’s best to keep between 1˚-4˚C/35˚-40˚F for a maximum of 3 days. Place the meat at the back of the fridge if possible, away from any warmth that may be introduced by the door opening, this will help keep the meat properly chilled.
How Long Does Lamb Last in the Freezer?
In most cases, lamb will be kept for between six and 12 months before home use. You can store your lamb either whole, in larger joints or cuts, or processed into pre-prepared cuts, i.e. diced, strips, etc.
It’s wise to remember, the smaller the cut, the shorter the time. As the number of exposed surfaces increases, the number of weeks or months of storage decreases.
NOTE: According to the USDA, lamb kept at 0˚C/32˚F or below, will last indefinitely. But, the lamb must be properly stored in order for this to be achieved. See the storage section below.
How Long Does Lamb Last in the Countertop
Left on a kitchen countertop, at room temperature, lamb will only hold for a short while if kept in a sealed container.
This should only be done for immediate marinating and cooking, and for no longer than a couple of hours. It is wise to keep the lamb in the coldest part of your kitchen, and as close to 4˚C/40˚F as possible while doing this.
How to Store Lamb in the Fridge
Lamb that has been cut into dice or strips is more likely to spoil quickly, so it’s worth using them sooner, and keeping them as cold as possible. Ideally, keep the lamb in airtight containers and at 1˚-4˚C/35˚-40˚. Usually, the back of your fridge is the most consistent for temperature regulation.
As mentioned above, storing your lamb in the fridge is a great way to have it on hand, and ready to cook. But, if you can’t eat the prepared meat quickly, freezing it is wise.
How to Store Lamb in the Freezer
Freezing prepared lamb cuts can also have advantages to how you’d like to ultimately cook the meat. Freezing the lamb in strips or as cubes with a marinade is a great way to impart flavouring and tenderising the meat over a longer period of time, and cuts down on kitchen prep later.
Simply store your lamb in thick plastic bags, or reusable containers, and place deeply into the freezer until required. Lamb stored at or below 0˚C/32˚F in the freezer will last indefinitely, and is perfectly safe to eat, according to the USDA.
How to Store Lamb on the Countertop
When it comes to getting ready to cook your lamb, you want to keep it with as little contact with air as possible – to limit any airborne contaminants.
To do this, do not remove it from any packaging until you are ready to cook the meat, then do so as directed, and follow food safety guides.
To Sum Up
Lamb is versatile and packed with flavour, but selecting and storing the right lamb can be tricky. Choose lamb using these identifiers; smell, appearance, texture, and taste (if cooked) to assess if the lamb is bad or not.
Then store it at 1˚-4˚C/35˚-40˚ in the fridge or 0˚C/32˚F in the freezer.