In large part, freshness in meat means a lack of oxidation. Truly fresh red meat will appear — you guessed it! — Bright red. The redness means it has “bloomed,” a result of being exposed to air. However, too long in that same air and the meat will begin to brown. You want to avoid any meat, but especially pre-ground meat, that has a brownish hue. When you buy any meat, you can ask your butcher to smell it. Don’t feel awkward! The result is an easy assessment: if the meat smells bad, don’t buy it.
The big exception is meat that’s already been vacuum-sealed. In that case, all the air has been zapped out through the packaging process, and the color of fresh meat will be purplish rather than red. If you plan to store meat for a couple days, buying good-quality vacuum-sealed meat is a good option. However, if the package seems a bit, well, bloated, with pockets of air around the meat, chances are it was packaged a while ago.
Many of our favorite butchers sell vacuum-sealed meat already frozen. Go home with a few pounds of pork or beef, store in the freezer, and watch them come to the rescue when you return from vacation or are otherwise starving and not in a mood to shop.
When you store meat, keep it away from air if you won’t be using it within a few days. That means keeping it tightly sealed in the package the butcher wrapped up (no peeking). If you’re going to keep the meat longer than that, you can place the wrapped meat in a plastic bag and press out all the air. Zip it partway, and then squeeze out all the air through the remaining opening. Finish zipping. Place this bag in a second bag and repeat. Now, refrigerate for up to 4 days or freeze your double-bagged bounty for longer. An easy test to know if you were successful in your storage methods is that same smell test you performed at the butcher. Sniff the meat; if it smells bad, it is. Toss it and remember our tips next time you go shopping.
Now that your meat is super fresh (even if you really bought it a few days ago), get cooking!