For all of us there are certain parts of camping that are an absolute highlight. The events, sights, or moments you really look forward to. Cooking over a campfire has always been one of my favorite parts of outdoor living.
Steak night has always been a favorite from my time scouting to enjoying seasoned fire-kissed beef as an adult. Cooking steak over a campfire leads to a delicious meal – but you better have stored it right beforehand!
Steak can safely stay in an ice-filled cooler (under 40 degrees Fahrenheit/4 degrees Celsius) an average of 3-4 days. Conservatively three days should be the max, in theory the time can be even longer as long as the cooler’s interior remains continuously under 40 degrees which heavy ice/ice water will generally do with a well-sealed camping cooler.
This topic can often cause some fiery debate among experienced campers and grill masters. Look, some people may have iron stomachs compared to others. And having food that’s boderline versus having a reaction to it, especially if heavy drinking is involved, also means you might roll the dice a lot and not get bitten.
That said, the health and science answers are clear. The key to keeping your steak safe in a cooler comes down to one all-important detail: what’s the interior temperature of your cooler?
40 Degrees Fahrenheit Is the Temperature That Matters
The question of how long you can safely store steak in a camping cooler is one that basically comes down to temperature. Forty degrees is the temperature where you can safely store steaks in a sealed cooler.
Doing this means loading up the cooler with ice, making sure it stays firmly sealed, and that the cooler is kept in the shade. Best practices means that you want to pack the meat at the bottom of the cooler which should remain coldest once all the ice is packed in on top.
Keeping a good kitchen thermometer in the top of your cooler is an important tool to make sure that you are keeping your steaks properly and safely chilled until it’s actually time to prep for cooking.
It’s impossible to understate the importance of temperature (more on food temperature safety from the FDSA can be found following that link) when it comes to knowing how long you can keep steaks in a cooler safely.
Assuming you have taken all the proper precautions and your cooler has remained consistently at or below 40 degrees then your steak should be safe for 3-4 days. You shouldn’t press your luck beyond that, and if at any time the cooler got hot or the temperature spiked then it’s possible the steak is no longer safe even if cooled the rest of the time.
While not 100% accurate, a general rule of thumb is that for most people a regular cooler is probably good for two days while a high end cooler is good for 3-5 days. Although 5 days is pushing it if you’re not monitoring the ice.
Once the temperature rises above 40 degrees for two or more hours the steaks are no longer safe to eat. At that point you’re gambling (at best).
Some important tips to help maintain a safe steak temperature in your cooler:
- Make sure to store the steaks at the bottom
- Use a high quality cool
- Don’t open the cooler more than necessary
- Make sure the top is fully closed and sealed after the cooler has been opened
- Don’t drain the water – ice water is incredibly cold and draining it can actually raise the heat in the cooler – especially if you don’t top it off with more ice!
- Consider using frozen water bottles for additional coldness
- Keep the cooler as full as possible with ice (though the top should still seal firmly shut upon closing)
Important Note: The 4 days is for steak, not ground beef. Steak can last longer in a cooler than ground beef, the same way pork chops will last longer safely than ground pork.
How to Make Your Cooler Even Colder
If you have a high end cooler like a Yeti, then as long as it’s in good shape you shouldn’t have to do too much to keep your steak properly chilled before cooking.
On the other hand if you find yourself on a budget and having to deal with budget coolers that are a bit past their prime, then there are a few things you can do to help maintain that low 40 degree interior temperature you’re looking for.
One tip I’ve seen my uncle use over various hunting seasons is lining an old over-the-hill cooler with aluminum bubble wrap. Generally used for insulation, it’s as good for helping to keep extra cold in a cooler as it is for keeping warmth inside a building.
This same concept can be used for over the top insulation. After packing with ice have more wrap, a sheet, or even a thick slab of flexible matting that will help to keep the cold of the ice you have in the cooler contained and slow any ice melting.
The biggest mistake to avoid? Don’t drain the water. Ice water is freezing. Ever stick your arm in an ice water barrel for a beer or a soda? There’s a reason you can’t feel anything afterwards. Ice water is freezing, and it is way colder than empty air unless it’s a harsh winter somewhere.
Just keep the ice levels healthy. Adding ice to some ice water will help keep the temperature safe and low.
Does Vacuum Sealing the Steak Change Things?
Vacuum sealing is a great way to add some additional time to how long you can store meat in refrigerators or freezers. Generally speaking survivalists, hunters, and others used to vacuum sealing food will tell you that many types of food can even sit at room temperature for up to two weeks when vacuum sealed.
This is a bit of a complicated question because generally speaking if the steaks are properly vacuum sealed, and were sealed when the beef was fresh (key point right there) then that definitely adds to the time you can safely store the meat.
Of course room temperature and 95 degrees and hot in the middle of summer are two different things. You still need to pack the coolers with ice, and it’s still important to be careful and as safe as possible.
However, properly vacuum sealing the steaks when they are freshly cut and refrigerated can make a difference.
High End Coolers Are Better
While camping can be expensive, and it can be tempting to cut corners, if you want the best gear you need to look at buying premium. When it comes to keeping your steaks, and other food, cool high end coolers are better than your run of the mill cheap options.
There are plenty of options out there and the best options are going to be those high end coolers that are recommended by hunters, campers, and other outdoorsmen who understand the importance of top notch gear.
Yeti is my personal favorite when I have the money in the budget to buy a new cooler, but you may find others that work just as well for your specific steak storage needs.
Campfire Cooking Steak Is a Treat
As long as you go through the basic checklist and are careful, you can rest easy knowing your steaks have been safely stored and are ready for steak night during that next campout. Or tailgate.
Whatever the reason, all that debate on picking the best steak to grill over a fire is going to go to waste if the end result is an upset stomach or even food poisoning.
Keep your steak in a solid cooler that stays under 40 degrees and you’ll be all set to enjoy one heck of a good meal while enjoying something else that you love!