I recently purchased some meat for a stew from our local butcher. The stew meat was in a display case along side other cuts, and all were different shades of bright red. When the butcher scooped out the amount I needed, the meat underneath was darker. In the past I’ve noticed that meat can darken as it gets older, but this was darker inside the pile. Was this old meat that had some kind of treatment on the surface to make it look fresher? — A.W, Berkeley, California


Meat is a working muscle that is usually dark-red to purple in color. When a surface of muscle tissue is exposed to oxygen, such as after cutting or grinding, a chemical reaction causes the color to turn bright red. This phenomenon is referred to as ‘bloom.’ The part of the muscle not exposed to the oxygen remains dark. Meat that is cut and promptly packaged or stacked may show red on the surface, but the meat below the surface tends to retain its darker shade.

If meat that has already gone through a bloom is exposed to room air for a significant amount of time, a second reaction can take place that causes it to turn brown. The meat will be less appealing, but this color change is not necessarily a sign that the meat is unhealthful or of poor quality Over time, though, the flavor will begin to deteriorate and spoilage can take place.

Butchers, in general, will cut enough meat to keep up with the typical demand. If need be (and depending on the cut of meat), a surface can often be re-trimmed and a new layer allowed to bloom into the more appetizing bright red color. Other options might be to use a film wrapping that can limit air exposure once the bloom has taken place. Some meat packages use mixtures of oxygen and carbon dioxide to help the meat bloom more slowly and retain its color longer.

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