How Long Deli Meat Lasts (and How to Know When It's Gone Bad)

Unfortunately, cold cuts have a relatively short shelf life.

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Whether you call it lunch meat, deli meat, or cold cuts, thinly sliced meats are reliable recipe timesavers. The ingredient can be used in a wide range of dishes, including casseroles, omelets, appetizers—and of course, sandwiches. But before you stock up on cold cuts like turkey, ham, salami, and bologna, you'll want to make sure that you'll be able to use them up before they go bad.

We've all been there: You reach the end of the week and those cold cuts are only halfway gone—and you're not sure if it's safe to finish them over the weekend. To help, we asked food safety experts to explain the typical shelf-life of deli meat, plus how to properly store cold cuts in the fridge and freezer.

Related: How Long Every Type of Condiment Lasts After You Open It

The Best Way to Store Deli Meat

For optimal quality and safety, both pre-packaged and freshly sliced meat should be refrigerated as soon as you get home. Avoid leaving it at room temperature for more than two hours, including the time it takes to bring it home from the store, says Vanessa Coffman, Ph.D., program director at Stop Foodborne Illness. After two hours, deli meat will enter the temperature danger zone (40 to 140 degrees), the range in which harmful bacteria can grow and flourish.

On that note, the refrigerator should be at or below 40 degrees when storing any food, including deli meat, says Coffman. You can check that it's set correctly by using an external thermometer if your fridge doesn't have a built-in version. "The coldest part of the fridge is often the back, while the warmest is the door. That's why it's always recommended to store deli meat as far back as possible," says Coffman. "Deli meat can be left in its original container—it was designed by food scientists for this purpose—but if you put it in a different container, make sure to write the [purchase and open date] on the new container," she says.

Handling Tips

Remove deli meat from the refrigerator only when you're ready to use it, says Catie Beauchamp, PhD, the vice president of food science, quality, and safety at ButcherBox. Additionally, when taking the meat out of the container, make sure your hands are clean and only touch the pieces you're using, she adds. This will protect the shelf-life of the product and ensure it stays fresh.

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How Long Pre-Packaged Deli Meat Lasts in the Fridge

Assuming deli meat is properly stored in the refrigerator, unopened pre-packaged versions will last about two weeks in the fridge, according to the USDA. This long shelf-life is due to the preservatives used to make deli meat, such as sodium nitrate and salt, says Coffman. "These additives work by sucking up [any] available water in the meat and bacteria themselves, making it a tough environment for pathogenic and spoilage microorganisms to grow effectively," she says.

How Long Freshly Sliced Deli Meat Lasts in the Fridge

Per the USDA, freshly sliced meat from the deli counter (and opened packaged deli meat) will last for three to five days in the refrigerator. That's because both products have been exposed to air and handling, which introduces new bacteria, says Beachuamp. Again, this time frame is based on the assumption that the deli meat has been correctly stored in the refrigerator.

Deli Meats That Last the Longest

Worth noting: Certain types of deli meats will last longer than others. According to Beauchamp, this includes deli meats that are fermented (like pepperoni and salami) or dried (like capicola or prosciutto). The reasoning? Fermentation lowers the pH of the deli meat, while drying removes some moisture in the product. Both processes make it harder for bacteria to grow, says Beauchamp.

Case in point: According to the USDA, unopened pepperoni and Genoa salami can last indefinitely in the refrigerator.

Related: 12 Foods That Should Never Be Frozen

Can You Freeze Deli Meat?

To store pre-packaged or freshly sliced deli meat for even longer, put it in the freezer. According to Coffman, there are no food safety issues with this technique, so long the freezer is set correctly (0 degrees) and doesn't lose power. If possible, freeze the deli meat in the original packaging—but if the material is too thin, leave it intact and place it inside a freezer-safe container to prevent damage, suggests Beauchamp.

For maximum quality, use frozen deli meat within one or two months. Freezing deli meat for longer can result in freezer burn, according to Coffman. (The caveat is if the deli meat was already sold frozen, which has a shelf-life of six months, notes Beauchamp.) And while freezing can inactivate the growth of microbes, remember that this is temporary. Once the deli meat is thawed, the bacteria "can begin growing at the same rate prior to freezing," says Coffman. "Use the same caution for keeping fresh food safe once [the deli meat is] thawed.

How to Know When Deli Meat Has Gone Bad

"Our eyes and nose are good tools [for alerting] us that deli meat is unsafe to eat," says Coffman. If the product has a different color, smell, or texture (like a slimy or sticky film) than when you first purchased it, throw it out. Avoid tasting the deli meat to confirm, as it may contain dangerous pathogens that you cannot see, taste, or smell. This includes Listeria, which can be especially risky for pregnant women, young children, and people with compromised immune systems, says Coffman.