We usually think of steak as the reddest red meat out there, owing to the fact that most food experts believe that the best way to enjoy the real flavors of the steak is to retain some of that pinkness and “bloodiness” and not have it cooked to well done.
In other words, the flavor and texture of steak are best enjoyed when it is at the very least a little pink on the inside – redder and bloodier is fine too if that’s how you roll.
So it can be understandably disappointing when you find that after cooking your steak, it isn’t the appetizing, rosy red-pink color that you expected. Even worse, it has turned into an unappealing pale shade of white.
So what happened?
Why Did My Steak Turn White When Cooked?
Steak can turn white when cooked depending on the cut of the steak, how it was stored and handled, what ingredients were added to it prior to cooking, and how long it was cooked.
What Makes Red Meat Red?
Myoglobin is the iron-containing, pigment-rich protein responsible for bringing oxygen to the muscles, the same way that hemoglobin is responsible for bringing oxygen to the blood cells.
It is this protein that gives red meat its distinctive reddish pink color. It typically needs to interact with oxygen to achieve this characteristic color.
This only means that the iron in the myoglobin does not have any oxygen to bond with to create that bright red color. Myoglobin in this state is called deoxymyoglobin.
When these meats are then exposed to air, in a process that is known as “blooming”, they turn a bright shade of cherry red, which is what we typically associate with “fresh” meat. The myoglobin is at this point called oxymyoglobin.
They do not stay this way forever, though, as after a few days the iron in the myoglobin will lose its ability to bond with oxygen molecules, and they will eventually oxidize and turn the meat into a duller shade of brown.
This process is similar to the process of rusting. The myoglobin then has turned into what is known as metmyoglobin.
At this point, the meat is not necessarily spoilt and can be good to eat provided there are no other signs of spoilage present. However, it does mean that the meat is further along in its lifespan and is not as fresh, and should be consumed sooner rather than later.
Myoglobin and Heat
Myoglobin is also responsible for the meat’s color during and after cooking. Depending on the temperature your steak is cooked at, the myoglobin may either be unaffected and retain its pinkish red color, produce compounds that turn your steak into a pale shade of tan, or turn it into a deep dark grey or brown.
At temperatures of 140°F and below, the myoglobin is not affected by the heat, so if you started out with steaks that are rosy pink or red in color, this color will be retained in the inside of your steak.
Above 140°F, myoglobin begins to break down and cannot bind with oxygen anymore. If it can’t bind with oxygen, it can’t maintain the reddish pink hue of the meat. It produces compounds called hemichrome, which gives the meat a pale, tan color.
As the temperature keeps getting higher, at 170 °F, the concentration of this compound increases and makes the steak appear darker in color, until it reaches a brown-gray color, typical of well-done meat.
Given this, we can say that the color of the steak then, is highly dependent on the behavior of myoglobin, and its concentration in your meat.
Many factors affect this myoglobin concentration, from selection of meat to storage to handling, and finally, cooking. We’ll explore those in the next section.
Why Is My Steak White After Cooking?
The disappointment of disappointments – you bought a package of nice, juicy steaks hoping to impress your family and friends with a simple, elegant meal.
You cook your steaks to the perfect level of doneness, meat thermometer in hand. But upon inspecting them you notice that they aren’t really the appetizing rose-pink colored meats you envisioned. On the contrary, your steaks are white!
Why did this happen?
Steak can turn white after cooking for several reasons.
1. Cut of The Steak
As we mentioned earlier, myoglobin is responsible for supplying oxygen to the muscles and is what determines the color of meat. The more myoglobin is found in the muscle, the deeper and redder its color.
Different parts of the cow have different myoglobin concentrations. The more the animal uses the muscle, the more myoglobin is there because the muscle needs more oxygen.
If your steak is cut from a part that is used often for movement, it will have more myoglobin and thus have a deeper shade of red vs those cut from muscles that are used mostly for support.
An example would be a strip steak that is cut from the short loin of the cow that is not worked as much compared to flank steak, which comes from the part that is often used by the cow. The flank steak would have more myoglobin and would have a deeper red color.
The age of the animal is also a factor in myoglobin concentration. The older and the more exercise the animal gets, the more myoglobin is present.
Taking these factors into consideration, your steak might appear white or pale if it came from a younger animal or from a part that has low myoglobin concentrations.
2. Storage and Handling
Steak that has been stored for longer and exposed to air longer will have a paler color than a steak that has been freshly cut and processed. This is because of the process of oxidation.
When meat is first exposed to oxygen, its color becomes bright red, but over time, the process of oxidation changes the bright red color of the meat to a paler, lighter color. If your meat has “aged” in this way, it could probably lead to a paler, whiter color when it is cooked.
Freezing and then thawing meat may also cause your steak to oxidize and lose some of its myoglobin, and thus lose its color.
When meat is frozen, water molecules turn into ice crystals which eventually migrate out of the food, resulting in loss of moisture. Oxygen molecules can then creep in and cause oxidation, resulting in a dulling of the color, which may make your steaks pale.
The process of thawing can also cause the meat to lose color. You will notice that when you thaw your steaks, it will be watery and some of the “blood” will drain out. This isn’t actually blood, but myoglobin mixed with water.
So thawing “washes away” the myoglobin in the meat, which is why previously frozen and then thawed meat can appear a little paler than freshly bought, never-frozen meat.
3. Added Ingredients
If you have added other ingredients to your steak prior to cooking, such as acids like lemon or lime juice, salt or fruits which contain enzymes, or if you have soaked your steak in a watery marinade, it may cause your steak to appear paler in color from when you first bought them due to the leaching of myoglobin or the reaction of the ingredients with the myoglobin.
4. Cooking Time
Finally, how long you cooked your steak plays a role in whether it will retain its reddish pinkish hue or turn pale, white, or brown.
Steak that’s cooked rare will have an internal temperature of 140°F. At this temperature, myoglobin will not be affected and will retain its reddish hue.
Anything above this temperature, and the meat will start to change color as the compound hemichrome is produced, turning the steak into a lighter tan color before eventually turning it to brown.
Is Steak That Has Turned White When Cooked Safe to Eat?
Steak that has turned white when cooked is safe to eat as long as it is cooked and handled properly and does not show any signs of food spoilage.
It may not be as appetizing as that rosy steak you’ve always envisioned but provided it was well-prepared and handled, it should still be safe to consume.
Frequently Asked Questions to Steak Turned White When Cooked
Why Does My Steak Look Gray After Cooking?
Steak can turn gray on the outside if the pan wasn’t hot enough, which causes the steak to steam rather than to sear. This can also happen when there is some type of liquid or water in the pan that causes it to steam.
Why Does Meat Turn White When Cooked?
Meat turns white when cooked because heat denatures the proteins present in the meat and causes it to break down and reassemble to form a different type of protein with different characteristics from the original one. This is more readily seen in white meat like poultry and fish. White meat looks glassy when raw but turns white when cooked. In red meat, the color change is mostly associated with the behavior of the pigmented protein myoglobin.
Conclusion to Steak Turned White When Cooked
Steaks can turn white when it is cooked for a number of reasons, and most of it has to do with the concentration or presence of myoglobin, the iron-containing, pigment-rich protein responsible for giving meat its red color.
If the steak cut has low concentrations of myoglobin, if it was frozen and then thawed, soaked in water or was exposed to acidic ingredients, or if it was cooked up to a certain temperature, it may cause the steak to turn a paler and lighter shade than what we are used to seeing.
This does not mean that the steak is bad, as long as it was properly handled and prepared and show no other signs of food spoilage, you can still safely enjoy it.
Daniel Iseli (Head Chef)
Hi, my name is Daniel and I am passionate about cooking. I have been cooking for the past 20 years and am happy to share my best recipes and cooking-related knowledge with you.