Coolers are so well made these days that they typically keep meats and other foods fresher much longer than they did just a decade ago.
Still, there are limits to what they can do and if you leave food too long it can get warm or go off. Raw meat is especially sensitive and you can't leave it too long or it may go off and make you sick if you were to cook it and eat it.
So how long can raw meat stay in a cooler? How long until raw meat goes off in a cooler and should be thrown out?
The answer varies depending on the type of meat and whether or not it’s ever been frozen.
Fresh beef, lamb, veal and pork raw meat can be kept in a cooler for 3-5 days as long as the temperature stays below 40ºF (4ºC). G Raw ground meats as well as chicken can only be stored 1-2 days in a cooler. If the raw meat starts out frozen not cold then you can get a further 1-2 days in a good cooler.
Learning the “do”s and “don’t”s isn’t as complicated as it sounds so once you learn some basic information, you can keep your meat fresh in the cooler without thinking about it.
How Long Can Raw Meat Stay In a Cooler?
A cooler will act the same or similar to a fridge in how long it can keep raw meat before it goes off.
To ensure your meat stays cold keep it in a waterproof bag and place towards the bottom or your cooler completely surrounded by ice.
Leaving it near the top of your cooler will expose your raw meat to warm air every time you open your cooler and will cause it to spoil more quickly.
Below are some guidelines for how long you can keep raw meat in a cooler, as long as the cooler stays below 40ºF (4ºC).
|Type of Raw Meat||Time in Good Cooler|
|Time in Regular Cooler|
|Fresh beef, veal, lamb and pork||3-5 days||1-2 days|
|Fresh poultry||1-2 days||1 day|
|Bacon and Sausage||3-5+ days||1-2 days|
|Luncheon Meat (unopened package)||3-5+ days||1-2 days|
|Luncheon Meat (opened packet or deli sliced)||3-5 days||1-2 days|
|Hamburger and other ground meats||1-2 days||1 day|
|Ham||3-4 days||1-2 days|
|Raw Eggs||Until ice melts||Until ice melts|
How Long Can You Keep Frozen Raw Meat in a Cooler?
Freezing your meat before putting it in the cooler is the best way to keep that meat longer in your cooler.
If the meat is frozen and you’re keeping it in a cooler, you can keep it in there as long as the temperature inside of the cooler stays under 40ºF (4ºC).
That being said, this can be difficult to do as the ice starts to melt. Your best bet is to keep the frozen meat in your cooler until it thaws, then cook it as soon as possible.
Once the meat is thawed out properly, you need to discard any ice or water inside of the cooler and make sure that you don’t use it on any other foods.
Once frozen meat has been thawed out, you should cook it within three to five days for the best results (24 hours for ground beef and poultry) but make sure that you add ice when necessary so that the cooler temperature remains low enough.
Anything longer than this could result in the meat going bad and being unhealthy for you.
How Long Can You Keep Thawed Raw Meat in a Cooler?
Coolers are not the same as refrigerators and they are certainly not the same as freezers.
Coolers can keep foods very cold but not for long periods of time. Without enough ice and the right cooler, the temperature inside of the cooler can get easily get above that 40ºF (4ºC) temperature.
According to the USDA there is a “danger zone” for food which is between 40-140ºF (4.4-60ºC). In between this range bacteria can rapidly grow which can spoil your food and potentially make you sick if you eat it.
Once the temperature inside of your cooler rises above 40ºF (4ºC) your beef and poultry are only good for about two hours so you’ll need to do something with the meat at that point.
Once the meat reaches room temperature you only have about one hour to cook the meat or throw it away.
This is not a very long timeframe but as long as you keep refilling the cooler with ice or ice packs and testing the temperature inside of the cooler to make sure that it doesn’t get above 40ºF (4ºC) your meat should be safe within the timeframes mentioned above.
How to Properly Store Raw Meat in Your Cooler
You may have to store raw meat in your cooler if you’re planning to go camping or even headed out to a picnic somewhere.
You’ll need to know exactly how to store your meat so that it lasts until you get to your destination.
Although it may sound complicated, the truth is that all you have to do is follow a few simple rules and the process is a breeze.
It starts by getting the right cooler. More expensive and higher quality coolers keep ice for longer but also keep a more consistent overall temperature. Click here to read about the best coolers for ice retention if you need to find a good cooler.
Next, you should store each piece of meat in a leak-proof container, which can be either resealable bags or an airtight container.
In addition, you should never store food in your cooler that is warm or at room temperature. Make sure that the meat is either frozen or at least cold.
If it just came from the refrigerator, this will suffice.
If your food is warm, the ice that you put in your cooler will melt a lot more quickly. When you pack ice in it, use either ice cubes or even dry ice (if you want to freeze your meat). More about using dry ice in a cooler.
For the best results, keep a thermometer in the cooler and look at it regularly to make sure that the temperature never gets above 40ºF (4ºC). If it does, add more ice until the temperature is lowered.
This should last you until you get to where you’re going and you’re ready to cook.
Your goal should be to keep the meat at no higher than 40ºF (4ºC) until you are ready to cook it. Also make sure you follow the guidelines above and cook your meat within the allowable timeframe.
If you're worried about your raw meat in your cooler and it doesn't look or smell right don't eat it! Some toxins that are produced when bacteria grow in raw meat and destroyed through the cooking process and this has the potential to make you sick.
How to Keep Raw Meat Longer in Your Cooler
For the most part, meat will stay fresh in your cooler if you keep it at the right temperature but there are also some additional tips that you can use to make it last even longer.
These include the following:
Consider lining your cooler with aluminized bubble wrap
The Reflectix brand is particularly good — in order to keep the temperature inside especially low. More on how to insulate a cooler so it keeps ice longer.
Consider filling large balloons with water and freezing them then using them as ice “cubes” for your cooler.
Buy a thermometer! Don’t just guess at the temperature on the inside of your cooler. With the proper thermometer attached to the inside of the cooler, you’ll always know the exact temperature of the food you’re storing there.
Insulate your food.
Take an old yoga mat or a thin sheet of foam and place it on the very top of your cooler, making sure that you cover all of the food, to keep it colder longer.
Provided that you have the right cooler, you can keep your meat fresh inside of the cooler for a very long time, meaning that it’s possible to keep it until you get to your campsite or the picnic area.
The most important thing is to keep the temperature in the cooler at 40ºF (4ºC) or below because this is the best way to keep those meats fresh until you get to where you need to go.