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When we go to the butcher's shop, we see cherry-red and brownish-red meat in the cooler. I know that change in color alone does not mean the product is spoiled. Color changes are normal for fresh product. USDA says "When exposed to air, myoglobin forms the pigment, oxymyoglobin, which gives meat a pleasingly cherry-red color."

The main issues I wonder are these;

1- When you go to the butcher shop and see 2 different colors from the same meat in the cooler, which color meat should we prefer? Cherry-red or brownish-red? Do these meats have any advantage over each other?

2- Can we say that brownish-red meat is better rested than cherry-red meat? Or is this just about oxygen contact?


  • Have a look at "dry aged beef", a technique to break down the connective tissue within the meat, and that change the color as a side effect.
    – Candid Moe
    Commented Jun 1, 2020 at 15:27

2 Answers 2


The color of beef and other meats is actually a pretty big topic. It is influenced by the animal's diet, the particular breed, how much the muscle was worked, how much the meat has been exposed to oxygen, and how fresh it is. The USDA and other agencies put out articles about it, and it's widely debated which is "better".

There are some stores that will intentionally keep meet away from oxygen until it is displayed and then introduce oxygen to have the meat "bloom" so it looks particularly red, but this reduces its shelf life. It would actually be better to buy beef that has not bloomed and is more purple in color because it's likely to be fresher.

Another aspect for beef is the fat. Studies have shown that grass-fed and free range beef has higher nutrients (which is why you see so many "grass fed" labels), and this causes the fat to take on a yellow color. This meat can have a much stronger flavor, and is sometimes gamier and a little tougher, even though it is more nutritious. I prefer this kind of meat but some people don't.

I have learned to pick meat based on its appearance and the color is just part of it. You learn to determine what looks fresh and does not, it's the color but also the sheen, how well it "stands up", is it flopping or falling apart, is there any kind of sheen on it. There is a difference between the gray color you get from oxidation and the beginning of spoilage, and naturally darker colors of fresh meat. I will sometimes have the butcher flip it over so I can see both sides, they will of course put it in the case with the best side showing and if it's been sitting a while the underside may show that it is gray and starting to lose its freshness. I hate it when I buy a pre-packaged steak that looks good and bring it home and flip it over and it looks like it's several days old.


As already noted, the "red"/"not red" distinction in and of itself isn't very useful, because high quality beef that has not been exposed to air will be "not red", while old, going-bad beef will also be "not red", as will properly dry-aged beef. Without a lexicon of more fine-grained descriptions of color and other characteristics of appearance, it's not possible to say in any sort of reliable, useful way how a "not red" cut of beef differs from a "red" cut.

As a general rule, I'd prefer "fresh-looking, not-red" beef over beef that has been artificially brightened with exposure to air. But neither seem particularly problematic to me. The freshness is much more important than the exact color.

More to the point: if you are using a butcher where you have any question at all about whether they'd sell you a piece of beef that isn't perfectly fresh, or they aren't willing or able to directly and accurately answer your question about why one piece is bright red while another is not and which one you should prefer (if either), you're probably at the wrong butcher.

In other words, find a good butcher, and they will be infinitely better at answering a question like the one you've asked here than we ever possibly could.

Unfortunately, in this day and age of supermarket meat cases, the concept of having trust in your retailer seems to have been lost. But there still are highly professional, customer-oriented butchers out there; it's even possible to find them at grocery stores, now and then. It's worth seeking those butchers out and giving them all of your meat-purchasing business.

With a butcher you can trust in your corner, you will over time learn first-hand what makes for a good, fresh cut of meat, and will be able to distinguish yourself between the various examples of "not red" and what they mean in terms of the quality of the cut.

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