When we think of preserved meats, the thought is usually associated with packaged meats from the supermarket. However, with just a little bit of knowledge, meats can be preserved safely and effectively right from the comfort of home. There are several ways to preserve meat. Some of the most popular methods are as follows.
Storage and preservation are best accomplished by cold. Other methods include smoking, curing, making jerky, and pemmican, salting and pickling, canning and using sugar solutions, and antibiotic treatment.
Salting and Air Drying
Salt curing meat to preserve it is probably one of the oldest preservation techniques known to man. This method of curing meat was known to the Romans, as well as smoking. There exists a story that salt meat was important enough to the Romans that the senate once debated whether man could exist without it. Salt curing preserved both raw and cooked meats, as well as poultry, game and fish. Several receipts for salt curing exist from the Roman occupation to the end of period. These receipts call for a variety of preparations of the meat, and a variety of curing mixtures. One of the receipts from the 15th century even calls for the addition of ‘great salt of Peter’, or sodium nitrate, which is still used in modern food processing operations.
Brine curing is the process that consists of soaking the raw or cooked meat in strong salt solution. If multiple pieces of meat are brined in the same container, the meat is usually rearranged every couple of days to ensure consistent coverage. Often the brine would contain spices other than salt to add flavor or to attempt to disguise the sometimes-heavy salt flavor of the meat. After several days in the brine solution, also called a pickle, the meat is hanged until completely dry on the surface. It can then be stored. The shelf life of the finished product depends on many factors among which are the amount of meat to be processed, the strength of the pickle, and length of the brining process. In many instances brine curing becomes a pre-process to another preservation method.
Dry curing is the process of rubbing the raw or cooked meat with a dry salt mixture, and allowing the meat to stand for several days. Often the salt rub is reapplied after a few days. This may be repeated more than once. The product is normally cured in a container that will drain, laid on a bed of the salt cure mixture. The curing rub was often more than just salt. Saltpeter was added as early as 400CE. Many spices or sweeteners were used in the curing mixture, often in an attempt to cover the salty flavor of many of the foods preserved in this manner.
A combination of brining and dry curing was also used. Both of these methods were used with both raw and cooked meat, fish and poultry, whether domestic or game. Both of the processes should be performed between the temperatures of 35°F and 50°F. This means that unless some kind of refrigeration is employed this must be done at a time of the year when the nighttime low dips no lower than 32°F, and the daytime high is no greater the 53°F. If the temperature drops below 32°F the process is suspended. If the temperature rises above 50°F there is an increased chance of spoilage during the curing process. This 50°F high temperature becomes less important as the meat cures longer. In many cases that is the end of the process; the preserved meat is then stored. Often this was only the first step in a process that involved one or more of the other preservation techniques.
The end product of this method of meat preservation is most commonly known as jerky. All kinds of meat and fish will work well.
What You Need:
- Meat of your choosing
- Coarse salt
- Dry herbs and spices of your choosing
- Trim the meat and slice it into long strips that are approximately ¼ inch thick.
- Lay the meat in a single layer across a sheet pan and sprinkle it with herbs and spices, then turn the meat over and do the same on the other side.
- Liberally sprinkle the coarse salt on both sides of the meat, patting it down with your hands as you go.
- If you do not have a food dehydrator, hang the meat in a room that has a temperature of approximately 60 degrees Fahrenheit and allow it to air dry for at least three weeks. A small utility room with its own air conditioning unit works perfectly for this.
Note: The jerky should be kept in an airtight container or zip-lock storage bag. Some prefer to cook the meat before eating it, but if it is preserved correctly, it is safe and delicious to eat it just as it is.
Smoke as a preservative has probably been around as long as man has been eating meat. A widely believed theory is that smoking was seen to improve both the flavor and the keeping qualities of meat as a side effect of it’s being hung above the fire to keep insects off. As with many beneficial discoveries this was probably completely accidental, but would probably have been noticed because even our most primitive ancestors would have had an interest in preserving their food supply. Although I have seen no period documentation of the processes used, there is evidence of smoked meat from the Roman occupation through the end of the 16th century. This primarily appears in descriptions of Roman foods and orders and invoices for armies and in preparation for lengthy voyages where fresh supplies may be in short supply.
Cold smoking is a process involving saturating the meat in smoke at a temperature of 75°F to 120°F. Meat to be cold smoked is almost always at least partially cured before smoking. In most cases it is fully cured before smoking. The meat is usually hung or placed on racks, and smoked for days instead of hours. Sometimes the process took place in special buildings for that particular purpose, sometimes strips of meat were hung around a fire, and sometimes meat was placed near the hearth or hung in the hearth or chimney where smoke from the cooking fire would pass. The resulting product was either completely raw or only partially cooked. When combined with salt curing this can result in a product that will remain edible and tasty for a year or longer without refrigeration, even under the worst conditions. Cold smoking can be used for all meats, poultry, fish and game.
Hot smoking is essentially the same process with temperatures in the range of 140°F to 200°F. In many cases meat to be hot smoked is not cured, or is only slightly brined for the salty flavor, or to inhibit bacterial growth during the smoking process. The meat is then hot smoked for several hours, cooking in the process. These hot smoked products are usually intended for immediate (relatively) consumption, and will not keep like the fully cured, cold smoked variety. In some cases the hot smoking process was also used to further dry the product in addition to flavoring and adding the smoke based preservatives, as with the famous double smoked red herring. These meats are usually fully cured before smoking.
In both processes the meat is usually completely dried on the surface before it is smoked. In some cases cold smoking is followed by a period of hot smoking. The smoking process, either cold or hot, flavors the meat, improves the shelf life and prevents attack by many insects that will infest meat that is only salt cured or not cured at all. Virtually all manner of meat, fish, poultry, and game was smoked. Many of today’s local specialty smoked food products, and smoked food names survive from the middle ages or earlier.
What You Need:
- Any meat or fish
- Wood chips
- Soak the wood chips in water for at least 24 hours. The wood chips need to fully absorb the water.
- Place the water soaked chips into the smoking box.
- Set the temperature of the smoker to medium.
- Spread the meat in a single layer on the racks of the smoker.
- Add wood chips to the hot plate every 30 minutes or so to produce a continuous flow of smoke. The smoke is what produces the flavor.
- Cook the meat until it comes to its proper temperature. Poultry should reach 165 degrees, pork needs to be 160 degrees and beef or fish should be 155 degrees.
What You Need:
- Meat of your choosing
- Pint size canning jars
- Coarse salt
- Pressure cooker
- Rinse, pat dry and cut the meat into one to two-inch chunks.
- In a medium pan, boil the lids of the jars to soften the seals.
- Fill the jars with the raw meat, allowing about one-half inch of space at the tops of the jars
- Add about ¼ to ½ teaspoon of the coarse salt to the top of each jar. Be sure to cover the entire surface of the meat.
- Use a clean cloth to wipe the rims of the jars, making sure they are completely dry. This step is crucial for obtaining a good seal.
- Put the lids on the jars.
- Place the canner tray in the bottom of the pressure cooker and add about three inches of water.
- Tightly close the lid of the pressure cooker and set the stove burner to high. Cook for about ten minutes, and then put the weight on the pressure valve to allow the release of air from the canner.
- After releasing the air, allow the pressure to build back up. Check the pressure gauge every few minutes.
- Allow it to cook for approximately 75 minutes before removing from the heat. Let the pressure go down on its own before removing the jars.
Note: As the jars cool, you will begin to hear a “clinking” sound as the lids seal. When they are completely cool, remove the rings and wipe the jars clean for safe pantry storage.
All of these methods of preserving meats are great ways to enjoy hearty meals in a pinch without having to defrost your meats. Once you learn how to do it, you will have the urge to start preserving every food in your kitchen.