Deli meat – which also goes by aliases like cold cuts, lunch meat, luncheon meat and sliced meat – is purchased precooked, smoked or cured. Precooked lunch meats include sandwich stuffers like roasted turkey breast, chicken breast, ham, roast beef and corned beef. Some common smoked items include smoked turkey breast, smoked ham and pastrami. Dozens of types of ready-to-eat sausages and cured ham, like prosciutto and pancetta, are examples of cured deli meats; some sausages are smoked, too. Because the category of deli meats encompasses so many different products, shelf life varies pretty widely. So, too, do storage needs and freezer-friendliness.
Shelf Life and Storage of Deli Meats
Precooked and smoked lunch meats need to be refrigerated and should never be left out at room temperature for longer than two hours. Keep them in airtight containers or in tightly sealed plastic bags in your fridge's meat drawer to maximize their life.
Freshly cut deli meat in open packaging generally needs to be eaten within five or six days. Some are made with only minimal preservatives though, so their quality sometimes takes a turn for the worse starting around day three. The age of the product that your slices were cut from and how long the original packaging had been open affect how long your portion holds up, too.
Packaged precooked and smoked luncheon meats typically last a bit longer. If there's an expiration or use-by date on the package, that's your deadline for eating it. If there's a sell-by date, the meat should be good for seven to 10 days from that date. Use it within the same window once you open the package, even if that's before the expiration date.
Cured deli meats are harder to generalize about. Most have to be refrigerated, but some dry products are shelf-stable. Packaged products that have to be refrigerated – whether at all times or after opening – are required to have safe handling instructions that give information. The expiration or use-by date is the last day you should eat cured meat. Different products in this category can last for weeks or even months in the refrigerator unopened, and often stay good for one to several weeks after being opened or after their sell-by date. Check the label or ask the deli employee who serves you for specific handling and use-by instructions.
Can You Freeze Lunch Meat?
"Could you freeze cold cuts?" and "Should you freeze cold cuts?" are different questions with different answers. When it comes to precooked and smoked lunch meats, you can freeze them, but they're not going to come out with the same taste or texture they went in with. Still, if you really want to preserve them for an extended period, freezing is an option. Cured meats, however, fare better in the freezer. As with many foods, freezing is still likely to diminish the quality of cured meats, but not to the extent that it does with precooked and smoked deli meats.
How to Freeze Deli Meat
The most important part of freezing any food – including deli meats – is to protect against exposure to the air, which causes freezer burn. If you have a vacuum sealer, use it to package the meat for freezing. Otherwise, lay the meat flat at the bottom of a freezer bag and press as much air out as you can; fold the top of the bag down once or twice, continuing to press the air out, then seal the bag tightly.
Limit precooked or smoked meats' stay in the freezer to one or two months at most. Most cured meats should fare a little better. Freeze hard, dry cured products for up to six months, but stick to three months for other types of cured deli meat. Write the date on the bag when you freeze the meat so you know how long it's been there.
To thaw frozen deli meat, simply move it into the refrigerator for about 24 hours. Never defrost meat at room temperature, as this leads to rapid bacteria growth.
Eric Mohrman is a food and drink, lifestyle, and travel writer living in Orlando, Florida. He spent 10 years working front- and back-of-house in restaurants, adding professional experience to his love of eating and cooking. His stories on food and beverage topics have appeared in numerous print and web publications, including Visit Florida, Orlando Style Magazine, CrushBrew Magazine, Agent Magazine, Dollar Stretcher Magazine, The 863 Magazine and others.