Well, here you are, ready to smoke that fine vacuum-sealed brisket you bought at the store the other day.
You’ve got the smoker all prepped up and ready to go. You have all the ingredients you need to marinate or rub this fine cut of meat.
All you need to do now is free that brisket from its vacuum-sealed prison and get to work.
But when you unseal it, you quickly find everyone around you covering their nose and fleeing for the hills. It hasn’t hit you yet, but once you take a deep breath, you swear you’re in the presence of the Prince of Darkness.
Okay, it’s not really the Prince of Darkness. Or rotten eggs, like some of your visitors are claiming they can smell. However, with the meat reeking of sulfur, there is some merit in thinking it could be both.
This doesn’t mean you need to call in a brisket exorcist (ha-ha, more sulfur jokes).
In fact, the biggest thing you need to do is understand:
- Why the brisket smells like sulfur in the first place;
- That it isn’t necessarily because the meat is rotting.
So, let’s take a look at what may be causing that infernal odor and how patience is often the biggest thing you need to employ before safely smoking your choice cut of meat (instead of throwing it right in the trash can along with the money you spent on it).
Cryovac Meat: It’s What’s for Dinner
Cryovac meat may sound like it’s meat from the future, like someone decided to cryogenically freeze a cow to preserve it and, one day, years from now, unfreeze it to save the world or eat it because cows are now extinct.
This is a long way of saying it’s not from the future. It’s just a cut of meat that has been vacuum-sealed.
Cryovac, in this case, is a variety of vacuum-sealed, heat-shrinked plastic products.
Why explain the difference between a product and a process?
To ensure anyone reading this isn’t confused if they see Cryovac on one site but vacuum-seal on another. For your cut of brisket, it’s pretty much the same process of preservation.
So, if you hear or read a cut of meat was Cryovacked, it’s the same as vacuum-packed. Both involved the reduction of air prior to sealing. This stops the growth of bacteria and fungi while preventing the evaporation of important liquids.
In other words, it keeps meat fresh and moist while extending its shelf-life before it can be cooked.
Why a Sulfur Smell (And Other Places You’ll Find It)
There are a lot of different things out there that can smell like sulfur or “rotten eggs.” And they smell that way for normal reasons that don’t involve anything rotting or decomposing food you may end up ingesting.
Some examples include:
Himalayan salt. This type of salt can have a rotten egg odor due to sulfur compounds present. The sulfur is natural and is found in the region the salt comes from. It doesn’t pose a danger.
Tap water. Tap water can also have a rotten egg smell if sulfur bacteria or hydrogen sulfide is present in the water supply. This could be due to an issue with your water heater or if you’re on well water.
The sulfur itself isn’t usually dangerous, or due to unhealthy pollution. There are a number of things that can cause it and the solution is usually finding the cause, not avoiding using the water.
The beach. If you smell rotten eggs at the beach, then it is probably something rotting, just not eggs. No, that smell is usually the result of hydrogen sulfide gas emitted from rotting organic matter, whether it’s dead fish or washed-up seaweed or kelp.
The main thing, in this case, is you’re not looking to cook anything you find on the beach. Just that the smell is normal sometimes.
So, what’s causing that particular smell to come from your freshly opened, previously vacuum-sealed brisket?
Well, in this case, it’s almost always due to the actual process involved in vacuum sealing meat.
Again, the point with vacuum-sealing is to eliminate as much oxygen as possible to preserve the meat and delay the process of decomposition. Eliminating the air, though, doesn’t eliminate all the other stuff that gives meat its particular smell.
In most cases, that would be the liquid or juice that comes from the meat.
So, just because you’re locking out the air doesn’t mean you’re locking out the moisture or that moisture smell, which usually tends to be more like strong eggs once opened.
The good news is, it’s part of the process, the meat is almost always perfectly fine, and the smell should quickly dissipate and be completely gone in 15-20 minutes. Which is a good amount of time to let the meat rest, anyway, and start to work its way toward room temperature.
Sulfur Smell Versus Rotting Meat Smell
If you’re wondering what the difference between a sulfur smell and a rotting smell is, well, it’s pretty simple.
A sulfur smell can be quite strong, like rotten eggs or a drive through a swamp. However, even though it can be offensive, it doesn’t go much beyond a momentary unpleasantness tinged with the scent of tangy eggs.
Rotting meat, on the other hand, is pretty foul, beyond unpleasant, putrid, and can cause tough stomachs to turn instantly weak and sickened. It doesn’t pass and it literally smells like something dead.
Get the picture?
Everything Has an Expiration Date
Now that you know a vacuum-sealed—or Cryovacked—brisket is usually okay if it smells a bit like sulfur when you open, don’t go around starting to believe that all vacuum-sealed meat is good forever or that you can store Cryo meat at room temperature.
Everything has an expiration date.
That being said, the refrigerator life of Cryo meat is considerably longer than traditionally sealed meat. Where a normal package of uncooked meat will last a couple of days in the fridge, vacuum-sealed meat can last a couple of weeks if it’s unopened.
In the freezer, that time goes up to a couple of years.
A brisket that smells like sulfur once you free it from its vacuum-sealed pack can be surprising and alarming.
However, that smell is almost always the bi-product of the sealing process and will fade away after about 20 minutes.
If you ever find yourself in doubt, toss the meat out. It’s always better than risking getting sick.