What meat preservation methods can you use to sustain your hunt or protein harvest? There are many options. What you choose depends on your resources.
Buying in bulk saves money. Raising your own animals allows you to obtain meat in ways that uphold your standards. And hunting is a thrilling way to provide for your family. But what do you do when you have many pounds more than you’ll use in a single meal?
There are different meat preservation methods out there. Some require sophisticated appliances while others are cheaper and easier to store. Using several methods guarantees your food will last through seasons and circumstances.
Freezing is difficult to mess up unless you use the wrong container or forget to plug in the freezer. Whether you purchase meat in bulk, hunt it, or raise it yourself, little work is required to portion the cuts and either wrap them in freezer paper or use freezer-safe bags or containers. Meat stored at 0° F will stay safe indefinitely but quality declines after four months to a year, depending on cut and fat content. Storing in vacuum-sealed bags can double or triple the storage life.
Whether you use freezer paper or plastic bags, remove as much air as possible to avoid freezer burn. Stack meat before it freezes to conserve space.
Freezing has downsides. And those downsides can be devastating because when it goes, it all goes at once. Freezers fail. Power goes out. And if your appliance breaks, you may not realize it until brownish red liquid seeps from inside and blowflies congregate around the source of the rancid odor. Many homesteaders learned, the hard way, to never rely solely on a freezer. Check your appliances often to ensure they’re still working. Food within a fully stocked freezer can remain frozen for up to a week if the door isn’t opened, which will give you time to call a repairman or salvage the food.
Freeze-dried products are considered some of the best survival food and can be arranged so a single meal fits within a Mason jar, ready to be hydrated and cooked. Including meat within the arrangement makes a well-rounded meal, even if times are dire.
The easiest way to utilize this meat preservation method is to purchase a freeze-drying unit which does most of the steps for you. Simply slice fresh or cooked foods and place them on the unit’s trays. The machine then drops the temperature to -30° to -50°F and creates a vacuum around the food. The food is then gradually warmed in this vacuum environment and all the water in the food turns to water vapor and is sucked away.
If you don’t have the money for such a unit, you can find instructions on the internet for freeze-drying using a deep-freeze, dry ice, or a vacuum chamber. Some of these methods can take over a week and risk freezer-burn but they produce foods which can be stored dry within pantries.
One of the oldest meat preservation methods, drying has been done on flat rocks in the sun, handmade hanging racks, and with electrical appliances. Thankfully a dehydrator can cost less than $40 new and much cheaper if purchased secondhand. Jerky is dried meat in its most popular form, soaked in brine and spices prior to dehydration. Learning how to cook venison often involves learning to make jerky.
Dehydrate the leanest cuts of meat and remove residual fat because it can quickly turn rancid and spoil the entire product. Cut thinly for quicker processing; freezing the cuts beforehand helps you create the thinnest slices. If you want to make jerky, marinate for up to 24 hours beforehand, using acidic liquids such as vinegar, honey, or beer plus your desired spices.
University cooperative extensions suggest pre-cooking meat before dehydrating to ensure safety. Either cook in an oven, preheated to 275°F, for at least 10 minutes or steam/roast to an internal temperature of 160°F. Heat poultry to 165°F. Arrange meat in a single layer on food dehydrator racks and dry at the machine’s maximum setting. Be sure the internal temperature reaches at least 145°F. Dry four to six hours then store in airtight containers.
Though frozen meat only lasts up to a year, combining this meat preservation method with dehydration can make it last several years. It also saves space. Simply dry your meat as described above, vacuum seal, and store in the freezer.
Nitrates have gotten a bad rap lately. That’s partly because sodium nitrate is toxic in large quantities. However, it’s necessary for curing meat because salt won’t eliminate the possibility of botulism but sodium nitrate will. Look for “curing salts” to use this meat preservation method. Though these are also called “pink salts” because of added dye, it is not the same thing as Himalayan pink salt.
Dry-curing involves combining the curing salts with table salt and spices, dry-rubbing meat such as pork belly to ensure even coverage, and refrigerating for up to a week. The meat is then rinsed thoroughly, wrapped in cheesecloth to keep away pests and hung in a cool, dry location such as a walk-in refrigerator for up to two months.
To wet-cure meat, mix a brine with water, curing salts, table salt, spices, and perhaps brown sugar. The meat sits within the brine for one day per two pounds of meat. This can surpass a week for large hams. After rinsing the meat thoroughly, drain it on a mesh screen for 24 hours then refrigerate up to a month. A cured ham is even more delicious after smoking.
Always mix curing salts according to directions on the package so you don’t use too much sodium nitrate.
Unlike other food preservation methods, this one takes a bit more education. That’s because meat cannot be safely preserved with a water bath or steam canner, no matter what anyone tells you. It must be pressure-canned.
Both red meat and poultry can be raw-packed or hot-packed (pre-cooked then jarred with broth or tomato juice.) Excess fat should be removed because it can get on the jar’s rim and prevent a good seal.
Always use clean meat from healthy animals. Though meat may be canned with bones included, any scales, fins, viscera, or blood must be removed and washed away. Educate yourself on successful pressure canning. Have your gauge checked at a local cooperative extension office. Follow directions. If jars refuse to seal within a few hours of processing, either refrigerate and eat within a few days or freeze and eat within six months.
The National Center for Home Food Preservation says, “Properly canned food stored in a cool, dry place will retain optimum eating quality for at least one year.” Do not keep canned food near furnaces or hot pipes, or in either direct or indirect sunlight. Discard if jars have unsealed or have bulging lids. If you open jars and liquid spurts, contents look discolored, or the food is foamy or smells “off,” place both jar and food in a pan of water and boil at least thirty minutes. Then discard everything, including the jar, so you don’t accidentally contaminate your house with botulism. Wipe countertops and equipment with a mixture of bleach and water.
On the Hoof
Have you wondered why traditional cured or dried meats are usually beef, pork or venison? Chicken and rabbit sausage exist but are rarer. This is because curing and drying came of necessity for larger animals.
Perhaps the oldest of meat preservation methods is to simply keep the animal alive until consumption. Rabbits, chickens, and geese feed a family for one night and can grow to butcher size within a few months. “Fatted calves” were saved for special occasions when many friends or relatives could share the animal and nothing would go to waste. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the father ordered the fatted calf to be slaughtered to celebrate his son’s return.
Families living off the grid may be unable to spare the energy necessary to power several freezers so they keep their animals alive until they need them. Raising smaller, more sustainable animals avoids the problem of finding alternative meat preservation methods for beef or pork. Smaller animals also allow homesteaders to raise more of their own meat without a lot of acreage.
Keeping animals “on the hoof” may not work if all adults in the household have jobs outside the home. Butchering, dressing out, and brining meat takes time. It’s much easier to remove a roast from the freezer. But if electricity and appliances are more limited than feed or grass, keeping the animals alive a little longer can solve a problem of storage space.
Which of these meat preservation methods do you use? Do you have one you’d like to add to our list?