Methods For Preserving Meat
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.