If you cut into a grilled steak straight off the flames, the juices inside will just run all over the plate. You’ll be left with a dried-out hunt of meat and beef-stained side dishes. That’s why a lot of experience backyard chefs make a point to wrap their steaks and let them sit for a few minutes before serving.
Though what if you need to transport that steak or some other piece of grilled meat for more than a few minutes? Let’s say you have to transport it from the grill at your house to your buddy’s apartment, where they’re hosting a big watch party. Maybe you need to grill chicken breasts at your house, to bring them to the family potluck half an hour’s drive away.
In one of these moments is it safe to put grilled meat in a cooler? If so, how do you keep it from making your cooler forever smell like a barbecue every time you want to use it to hold cold drinks?
To shed a little light on the subject of meat transportation and best practices for food safety, we’re going to have to take a closer look at how the pros do it.
How Do Professionals Transport Cooked Meat?
Professional caterers use special insulated cases or catering boxes to transport cooked meat that needs to stay warm for 10 minutes or more. However, even a small professional-grade catering case can set you back over $200.
It’s not really cost-effective if you’re just grilling up some meat for a special event once or twice a year. Though it is possible to repurpose a quality cooler to replicate a professional catering case. You just have to take a few extra food safety precautions along the way.
How To Safely Store Grilled Meat in a Cooler
Time is of the essence when planning to store or transport grilled meat in a cooler. Having everything you need on hand and making sure everything is prepped to perfection before the meat even makes the first sizzling sound is essential.
This starts with having heavy-duty aluminum foil or professional-grade butcher paper at the ready to let you wrap each piece of grilled meat tight. The wise move here is to tear off large sheets that are more than big enough to wrap each piece of meat individually.
You might want to also keep a large heavy-duty plastic garbage bag on hand. You can use it as a liner or a bag to hold the grilled meat inside the cooler. This is another layer of insurance, just in case juices do manage to seep out of the meat.
As you’re getting the meat ready to hit the grill, take a few extra minutes to “Prime” the interior of the cooler. You can do this by filling the inside of the cooler with hot water and letting it sit for 7 to 10 minutes. This will warm the bottom and sidewalls to keep them from leaching heat energy from the meat when it’s finally loaded later.
As soon as the meat hits the grill and starts to sizzle, pour the hot water out of the cooler and give it a quick wipe down to sop up every last drop. Then place an old, clean towel in the bottom and seal the lid tight, and don’t open it again until the grilled meat is ready to go in.
When each piece of grilled meat is done cooking, it should be immediately wrapped in heavy-duty aluminum foil or thick butcher paper. Then put it directly into the plastic bag inside the warm, primed cooler.
If you’re working with meat where the degree of doneness matters, such as steak, you want to layer it into the cooler in order of doneness. Well-done and medium well at the bottom, with medium rare and rare toward the top.
Once the last piece of meat goes into the cooler, cover all the wrapped meat with another clean towel to help hold in the heat.
How Long Will Grilled Meat Stay Warm in a Cooler?
The thickness and temperature of the meat are a major factors when it comes to heat loss in a cooler. The type of cooler you use also matters.
You can trust a properly wrapped steak in a small picnic cooler to stay perfectly warm for 10 to 15 minutes. Perhaps longer if you are transporting multiple steaks as they will share a pooled warmth. This is just about long enough to walk a rested steak from the grill to the dining room or a neighborhood picnic spot.
A larger piece of meat, like a prime rib roast, or a Boston butt pork shoulder that’s been properly wrapped and secured under a warm towel, might stay perfectly warm in a cooler for half an hour or more before it starts to cool a little bit. Especially if you’re keeping it in a high-quality molded cooler with a sealed lid.
How to Clean a Cooler After Using It to Transport Grilled Meat
Let’s say the worst has happened. The plastic bag you had the grilled meat sealed in ripped, and despite your best wrapping efforts the juices from a bunch of steaks and chops ran out. As long as the meat itself isn’t touching the walls or bottom of an unclean cooler, it should be perfectly safe for human consumption.
Though the lingering concern here is that all that meat juice is going to leave your cooler smelling forever like a never-ending cookout.
The temptation here is to deal with the problem with the haphazard use of bleach. You can indeed kill a lot of germs with a lot of bleach and a little cold water. Though the molecular volatility of bleach doesn’t always make it the best cleaning solution for porous materials. Any scuffs, scratches or textures interior of your cooler can then trap meat residue that lingers long after the bleach has been rinsed away.
So, the wise move is to first spray the cooler down with an oxidizing cleanser like hydrogen peroxide. Make sure to soak all textured areas and scuff marks. Then let it sit for five minutes or so before wiping it away. Then you can turn to bleach water to finish the job of sanitizing and refreshing your cooler.