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Preserving Meat without Refrigeration – How Do I Do This

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How Do I Do This

OK, here goes. If you try this, and someone gets sick or worse, I am not responsible. The author will assume no liability for any failure when using any of the food preservation, or storage techniques outlined. All responsibility falls to the person performing the preservation and storage.

Salting

Most red meat, pork, fowl, game and fish can be successfully salt cured. Red meat and pork can be either dry salted or brined. Fowl is usually brined, and fish is usually dry salted. Salt curing meat and fish must be done during cool temperatures or under refrigeration. If the temperature gets too high there is a great risk of spoilage, and if the temperature gets too low the curing process is suspended. The optimal temperature for curing with salt is between 35° F and 45° F. Temperatures lower than 32° F or higher than 50° F should be avoided.

A basic curing salt can be made with 1 pound of pickling or kosher salt and a teaspoon of saltpeter. Do not use table salt, iodized or otherwise. The smaller granules tend to impede the flow of moisture out of the meat, and the ability of the meat to assume salt. The saltpeter can be omitted but shelf life and product color may suffer. This cure may be directly applied to the meat or mixed into a quart of water to make brine. Sugar cures can be made by replacing up to ¼ of the salt with about twice as much amount of sugar, or brown sugar in dry cures. Liquid sweeteners, such as honey, molasses, or maple syrup can be used to make sweet cure brines. Be careful not to replace too much salt. This can lead to improper curing and spoilage. Many herbs and spices can be added to cures and brines. These additions can add considerable flavor to the preserved meat, but have little effect on the quality of the cure.

Although the cure itself remains mostly unchanged, the process and curing time vary greatly depending on the food being cured and the size of the pieces. As a general rule, fish, less fatty fowl, and game will cure in shorter periods of time; fowl containing more fat will finish next; less fatty meats like beef and lamb will take somewhat longer; and fatty meats like pork take longest to cure. There is very little difference in the curing time required for dry curing versus brining.

To dry cure fish, scale but do not skin the fish and split or fillet the fish. If the fish is split remove the backbone except enough near the tail to provide some rigidity. Lay the fish skin side down on a bed of salt about ½” deep. Cover this layer of fish with ½” of salt. Place the next layer of fish skin side up on top of the first. Cover this layer of fish with ½” of salt. This is continued until all of the fish have been added to the stack. Fillets ½ inch thick will cure in 6 to 10 days. Thicker fillets will take longer; about 1-2 days per ½ inch. Fillets greater that 1½ inches should not be dry cured due to the greater risk of spoilage. Dry cured fish is normally packed in salt or dried for storage.

Brining fish takes a little more attention. Make the brine using the basic salt cure. Prepare the fish as for dry curing. Put the fish in the brine, leaving plenty of space. If the fish floats to the surface, place sufficient weight on the fish to force it under the curing brine. Curing times are about the same as dry curing. The brine should be agitated daily to ensure that all of the fish is properly exposed to the brine. Brine cured fish can be stored as dry cured fish. It is not advised to store the fish in brine, but brined fish can be stored in oil after the surface has dried completely. It will become mushy in time. Most brine-cured fish will eventually be smoked.

Dry salt curing pork, beef, or other red meats works best for larger cuts of meat such as pork hams or shoulders, lamb leg, or ¼ round beef roast, but can be used for smaller cuts also. Avoid trying to cure pieces too large because they may spoil before curing is complete. Dry curing meat requires about a cup to a cup and a half of curing salt per pound of meat. Rub each piece with about ½ of the salt required for that piece of meat. Place the meat in a cool dry place well protected from insects and animals for 4-5 days, and not touching the walls of the container or other pieces of meat. After this time rub the meat with the remaining cure mixture and replace. If the pieces are very large, greater than 7” at the smallest part, rub with an additional ½ pound of cure after 5 days. If boneless the meat should cure for 5 days per inch of breadth at the narrowest part, or 7 days per inch if the meat contains a bone. Rinse off the excess salt with fresh water, allow to air dry and store.

To cure these meats in brine, make basic brine from your curing mixture, and immerse the meat in the brine. Make sure that the meat us fully immersed in the brine. The meat should remain in the brine for 48 hours per pound, if boneless. If the meat contains bone it should be cured for an additional 12 hours per pound. If multiple pieces are cured in the same container the meat should be removed from the brine and repacked every couple of days to ensure equal coverage by the brine. Curing should be extended by 12 hours per pound in this case also. If the brine should start to turn rancid, remove the meat and rinse in fresh water. Boil the brine to kill the contaminant, replace water lost while boiling, and replenish the brine, if necessary. After the brine has cooled repack the meat in the brine and continue curing. After curing is complete the meat should be rinsed in fresh water and hung to air dry, unless it will be stored in the brine.

The preferred method for salt curing fowl is brining, though dry curing is possible. To brine fowl immerse the bird in sufficient brine to cover completely. Make sure that the body cavity is filled with solution, and that the bird is weighted to keep it under the brine. The bird should remain in the brine for 30-48 hours per pound, depending on the fat on the bird, the strength of the brine solution and whether the meat is to be processed further. Fowl with higher fat content, like duck and goose, will take longer to properly cure because the fat doesn’t absorb the curing solution as readily as meat. If fat poultry is improperly cured the fat will soon turn rancid, and the meat will quickly follow. After curing is complete the bird should be rinsed in fresh water and hung to air dry, unless it will be stored in the brine.

Dry salting whole fowl is nearly impossible because of the shape and cavities. If the bird is split or cut up this presents less of a problem. Small birds are better candidates for dry salting. The bird should be rubbed well with curing mix, and laid on a bed of the same mixture. Cure the fowl for about 4 days per inch of meat thickness. Rinse off the excess cure with fresh water, allow to air dry and store. I do not suggest doing this. It is only presented for completeness. If the cure is not well distributed over the entire surface of the meat, it may not cure properly. Because of the unusual shape of cleaned poultry this is usually the case.

Smoking

Meat, fowl, fish, and game to be smoked must be salted sufficiently to at least resist bacterial growth during the smoking process. This is particularly important during cold smoking, which is performed at optimal temperatures for bacterial growth. Often smoked meats are fully cured before smoking. The length of the curing process is determined by the anticipated storage time and often by personal preference and taste. The cure used on the meat will often contain sweeteners, spices and other flavoring agents. The length of smoking time is also a matter of personal preference in many cases. When smoking to cure taste is less of a consideration; the food must be smoked sufficiently to deposit the curing agents supplied by the smoke. Smoke cured meats are smoked much more heavily than those produced today for the smoke flavor alone.

Smoke curing is done at low temperatures, 75°F to 120°F. If the temperature gets too high the meat will start to cook and caseharden. This cooks and seals the surface of the meat, and as a result decreases the amount of smoke preserving agents that can be absorbed by the food product. While fully or partially cooking the product while smoking may be the eventual aim, the food must be cured at low temperatures, only after curing is complete should the temperature get high enough to actually cook the food product.

Pork, red meats, and game meats other than fowl should be cold smoked for at least 6 to 24 hours per inch of breadth at the narrowest point. The time per inch in the smoker is dependant upon the density of the smoke and to a degree on personal preference. If the smoke is very dense (meat is nearly obscured by only a six inch curtain of smoke) exposure for 6 hours per inch of meat should be sufficient. However light smoke (the meat is obscured at 2-3 feet) would require 24 hours or more per inch. Animal skin or a thick layer of fat covering most of the meat surface will retard the absorption of the curing agents. Smoking times should be doubled for these meats. A whole, skin covered ham, about 10” across might be in the smokehouse as long as 3 weeks. For normal smoking the surface of the meat should be air dried before smoking is begun. The meat will either be hung in the smoke chamber or laid on a rack, depending on the configuration of the smoking equipment and the cut of meat.

Poultry and game fowl should be cold smoked for 12 to 24 hours per inch of thigh or breast depth, whichever is greater. Fatty birds such as duck and goose should be well cured before smoking because the fat in the meat resists penetration of the curing agents carried in the smoke. Ideally fowl should hang by the wings when smoking. This allows smoke to pass freely through the body cavity, and it allows moisture to drain during smoking. If necessary, fowl can be smoked on a rack lying on their back. If this is the case make sure that the body cavity remains open to allow smoke passage through the cavity, and hang the bird to drain well before storage.

Very little fish is cold smoked; salmon and herring are processed this way. Cold smoked fish is processed between 75°F and 100°F for 4 to 12 hours. The fish must be sufficiently cured to resist spoilage during the smoking process. If the temperature rises above 100°F, the fish will start to cook, and may caseharden. This will retard the smoking process. Unless fully cured cold smoked fish will only keep for several days unless refrigerated. Under refrigeration smoked fish will often keep for 3 weeks or more.

Some fish can be hot smoked at temperatures ranging from 140°F to 180°F. This is usually done with salted herring or a similar fish, or small (under 5”) whole fish like anchovy and shiner sardines. This process cooks the fish while smoking. Smoking times and smoke density vary greatly depending on the intended product, but will usually range from 2 hours to 2-3 days. Fish destined for the hot smoker should be fully cured unless it is to be eaten immediately or stored under refrigeration. Most hot smoked fish is intended to be dry stored, sometimes in oil.

A third process for smoking fish, called kippering, involves cold smoking the fish for several hours, then hot smoking for sufficient time to cook, or partially cook, the fish. This is usually done with fatter or oilier fish such as herring, trout, and salmon. Depending on the desired end product and fish being used the fish may be only lightly salted or fully cured. The lightly salted varieties should be eaten immediately, or stored under refrigeration. Fully cured kippers can be dry stored or packed in oil.

Drying

The process of drying for preservation is primarily used for red meats, game meats, sausages, and fish. Some oriental cultures will dry smoked duck and other waterfowl. Unless previously processed meat or fish that will be dried should be cured sufficiently to resist spoilage during the drying process. Because much of the meat to be dried is sliced quite thin curing times are often significantly reduced, often to only hours. Often meats that will be dried are smoked first. Some recipes even call for the product to be cooked before drying.

Meats that will be dried should be cut into strips no more than ½” thick, or cubes about 1” square. The prepared meat should be cured sufficiently to inhibit spoilage during the drying process. Usually 6 to 12 hours is enough. A variety of spices may be added to the cure, depending on the intended use of the dried meat. After curing the meat may be rubbed with additional spice, or smoked, or both before it is dried. Fish should be fully cured before drying.

In dry climes the product can be sun dried. This is not the case for most of us. Alternative methods include oven or commercial food driers, drying in a smoker at low temperatures, and drying near an open flame. Drying times will vary depending on the size of the pieces, and on the drying method chosen.

Sun drying is recommended only for thin slices of meat and fish fillets. Meat should be laid on a rack and placed in the sun. It should remain there until nearly all of the moisture has been removed from the meat. The time will vary according to the relative humidity. If the product must be dried for more than one day take care to protect it from dewfall. When it is done it will be leathery and crack when bent or folded. Fish fillets should be hung in the sun to dry. Again the time will vary with relative humidity. Fish should be dried completely. It will resemble wood when done. In less arid climes oven or smoke drying is the preferred method. Heat the oven or smoker to 100°F to 120°F; place the meat into the oven or smoker on racks, and dry until done as above. Make sure that the oven door is left slightly open or that there is good flow through the smoker to evacuate the moist air. This should take between 12 and 24 hours, depending on whether the meat is sliced or cubed.

Pickling

Pickling is accomplished by soaking the meat in a strong vinegar, honey, or sugar solution. Both acid and sugar have the property of inhibiting bacterial growth. Red meat, fowl, and fish can be successfully pickled. To pickle, the meat should be cut into smaller pieces or sliced, and immersed in the pickling solution. The meat must remain in the solution until it is permeated with either sugars or acids, and should be kept at lower temperatures (35°F to 45°F) until pickling is complete to avoid bacterial contamination. The time required depends on the size of the pieces or thickness of the slices. It may be either raw or cooked, however most pickling receipts call for the meat to be cooked first. Normally, pickled meats are stored in the pickle until used.

When pickling in vinegar, the vinegar should have at least 6% acid content. This is stronger than standard white or cider vinegar. Check the specialty vinegars, or vinegars sold at gourmet shops. Sugar pickles should contain at least 50% sugar by weight. Honey pickles should be 100% honey, with only seasoning agents added. Sugar and honey pickles are not very popular for meats because the flavor of the end product can be somewhat alien to the modern palate.

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