by The Culinary Institute of America
Humans have been preserving meat for thousands of years. It’s economical. It’s environmentally smart. And, it’s a great way to get the most out of choice cuts of meat.
But it’s also a healthier way to eat – eliminating the need for additives and preservatives found in so many of today’s processed foods. Beyond this, preserving is a fun and rewarding hobby the whole family can enjoy together.
Early meat preservation methods date as far back as 4000 BC, but meat preservation has been a challenge man has worked on throughout human history. The earliest methods developed to prevent spoilage were most likely happy accidents.
Hunters would hang fresh kill by the fire, where it would be dried and smoked. Fishermen would throw saltwater fish, which was naturally ‘brined,’ onto the shore where it dried or fermented in the sun. Whatever was happening to the meat made it unfriendly to microbes.
As knowledge about preserving meats became practiced and consistent, it was possible for nomadic people to set roots and form communities. These original methods for drying, smoking, brining and curing meat – found in all cultures throughout the world – have evolved over time.
Drying food is one of the oldest and simplest preservation methods. Removing moisture allows food to be held for months without going rancid, and the final product takes up minimal storage space.
While our ancestors exposed meat to sun, the modern method is to salt and then heat the meat at low temperatures to remove its weight and moisture. This also helps it retain its nutritional content and concentrate its flavours.
Several methods of drying require no specialized equipment. Jerky is the most common example of dried meat in the North American diet, but other cuisines have their favourites, as well. ‘Bresaola’ is a refined Italian dried meat that undergoes a slow, cool drying period that can take up to several months.
Smoking is another way to preserve meat. Contact with smoke – generally produced by burning wood or other plant materials – preserves food by applying antimicrobial compounds to the surface of the meat. These compounds cling to the outside of foods, which protects the surface by preventing the growth of mold or bacteria.
As a delicious side effect, smoking also adds wonderful flavour not just to meat but also to fish, cheeses, among other foods. Flavour can be affected by the smoking technique, type of wood used, and length of time the food is smoked. Feel free to experiment when smoking at home.
BRINING AND CURING
Brining and curing are two other techniques that add an incredible amount of flavour to foods. Curing foods with salt and/or sugar was an early meat preservation method to keep meat from spoiling. Curing is essentially a process by which moisture is removed from food (generally meat) through the application of a dry cure – direct application of salt/sugar to the meat. The process takes a bit of time, but also extends the shelf life of food since the moisture is removed from the finished product.
Wet curing, or brining, is traditionally a simple mixture of water and salt. Modern chefs have begun to experiment with adding ingredients including vinegars, herbs and spices to produce a more flavourful result.
QUALITY AND ECONOMY
The key to success in any meat preservation recipe is to choose quality ingredients. Most types of meat are subject to a grading system, making it relatively simple to make the best choice for any given recipe. Many small farms will not pay to have their meat graded, but they can identify and discuss the quality and/or types of meat available with you before you purchase.
For the budget conscious, preserving meat is an economical choice because one can purchase a large piece of meat then portion and preserve it. It is also healthy, as home preserving allows you to control what is added (or not) to your meat – certainly no chemical additives, artificial colors, or preservatives as is so often found in store bought items.
Preserving good quality meat is a way to eat locally, sustainably and seasonally. Best of all, preserved meats are delicious; and that’s something all home cooks can really sink their teeth into.
- Always follow basic food safety and sanitation guidelines while preserving, to avoid food borne illnesses, cross contamination, or spoilage. Food borne illnesses can be caused if chemical contaminants such as cleaning products or physical contaminants such as glass accidentally find their way into prepared foods. Contamination can happen if toxins or pathogens get into the food. The best way to prevent this is to work quickly and cleanly.
- Always purchase fresh meat and store it properly and safely. Cross contamination can occur when a harmful substance is transferred from one surface to another. The best way to prevent this from happening is to be as sanitary as possible while cooking and preserving. Wash your hands frequently, try to use separate work areas when working with items like produce and meat products, and thoroughly wash and dry any storage containers.
- It is especially important to remember the temperature danger zone when preserving: between 5° C (41° F) and 57° C (135° F). Many preservation processes will bring food through this temperature range. Drying, for example, is done at moderate temperatures that can encourage the growth of pathogens. These foods should be closely monitored and timed to reduce any chance of contamination. Always follow correct storage instructions for preserved foods – most meats will need to be kept in a cool, dry environment.