Chicken Coop Chatter©
In pioneer days and even earlier, preserving meat was a necessity and methods had to be devised to keep the meats for long term without refrigeration. Preserving the bounty was an essential part of long term survival where it could be months before any supplies could be purchased or re-stocked. Some may have been fortunate to have a spring house to keep meats cool, and many had cellars that were reliably about 45 degrees even in the coldest days of winter and hottest days of summer, but even those were not cold enough to keep meat from spoiling without using some form of preservation to keep the meat from foreign bacteria or from going rancid. There are a variety of old methods for preserving meat. Cold smoked, hot smoked, salt cured, sugar cured, corn cured, pickled, dried and jerked and sausage can be included in the list. In addition the later century methods of canning meats to keep them for long term.
Each method has it's own attributes, and flavors but the ultimate goal of preserving for extended periods of time is the same with each method. The idea behind each method is to preserve and to seal in the flavor, moisture and longevity of the preferred meats used. Most are familiar with smoked ham, and bacon, and corned beef, and in some regions pickled pig's feet comes to mind, head cheese and pickled tongue. Given our more modern sensibilities, we'll just stick with the more common cuts of meat and methods used to preserve them.
Cold smoking is a method of smoking where the meat is not actually cooked, but is exposed to smoke that is channeled into an enclosed environment to absorb as much smoke as is desired by the individuals and to assure thorough preservation. This method takes much longer than hot smoking meats, but is preferred by some for the intense depth of the smoke flavor. Buffalo, Fish, and Pork were most often smoked by this method. Basically the meat is cured in salt or brine several days prior to smoking, then layer upon layer of smoke that is applied for days and even weeks. Because the meat is not actually cooked, but rather dried, it is vulnerable to spoilage, lending it best to be done in very cold environments, by experienced individuals, so bacteria does not as easily grow.
Corning, Sugar and Salt Curing are essentially the same thing. If there is a difference it's in the size of the salt grains and the percentages of nitrites to nitrates in the salts used. For corning, the salt grains are large corn kernel sizes or pelleted, while sugar and salt curing is done with a curing salt which is finer grain. This method typically goes hand in hand with cold smoking. The meats are coated with preserving salt, and left for days and weeks to preserve the meats. This method should only be done in cold weather to prevent bacteria growth. The salt cures the meat deep into the core so the meat tends to be drier than brined meats. The best examples of corn or salt curing is Corned Beef, Locs, Salmon and other fish.
Hot smoking can on the other hand be achieved in hours, not days or weeks. Temperatures are adjustable, and the core temperature of the meats can be reached for safe consumption. There are hot smokers available in many brands and features, however hot smoking can be done on your patio grill as well, it will just require more monitoring to prevent the meat from cooking at temperatures that are too high or that dry out the meat. With hot smoking, typically the meats are marinated in brine that has a heavy concentration of salt (curing salt or other types of salt) and/or vinegar, citrus or alcohol beverages along with spices and sweetener which is usually sugar, but a variety of sweeteners can be used or by choice, left out of the brine. Brine can be injected into the meat to retain moistness and for additional flavor penetration. This method of smoking generally produces a moist meat with smoke flavor and the seasonings as well as wood chips used are personal choices. I have smoked literally every variety of meat and particularly poultry meat, but I have also smoked a variety of other foods for a variety of uses. (Refer to my instructions on smoking meat and other foods: http://justfowlingaround.weebly.com/recipes-for-self-reliance/category/smoking-meat
Pickling meat was common practice before there was refrigeration or ice to keep meat from spoiling. A pickling brine was made with vinegar, salt (saltpeter was used, which is difficult to find in modern times), sugar and water. Some may have added herbs and spices of choice. The brine was boiled, cooled, then poured into large earthenware crocks. Meat was added to the brine and held under the liquid with a heavy object, such as a stone or brick. This meat was left in the brine for a few days and essentially preserved like a cucumber. During pioneer times the brine was usually prepared in a large kettle and heated outdoors over a wood fire. The more modern method is done on the kitchen stove in an enamel non-reactive kettle. But the method of pickling is still done today, where pickled bologna, pickled sausage and pickled herring are the best examples of pickled meats. They did not toss away the pickling brine, after the initial meat was preserved, they poured it back into a kettle, reheated it, added more salt and spices and preserved more meat in that same brine. I'm not sure that would be a modern recommendation however. The large pickling crocks are still available today, from 1 gallon to 5 gallon size and even larger that would require more than one person to handle if moving the crock. Unless you are pickling a lot of meat, 5 gallon or smaller will be sufficient, a 3 gallon is about the right size for even the largest ham or brisket. Crocks do not come with lids, which I've always thought was kind of odd, since the food being pickled has to be held under the brine either using a heavy weight or plate with a brick to hold it all beneath the liquid. Cucumbers and Cabbage are often pickled in crocks in basically the same manner as meats.
Meat is easy to dehydrate. It can be smoked first then dried, or just dried. Most modern drying is in the form of jerky and most commercial jerky is finely ground meat, rolled out thin, cut into long strips, marinated then dehydrated. If you try this method, grind the meat as fine as possible or have the butcher grind very fine, marinate the ground meat overnight, then squeeze out any excess liquid. Roll out on parchment paper or foil until no more than 1/4" thick, using a rolling pin. Place the strips on the dehydrator sheets and dry until pliable but thoroughly dried, with no spongy spots. There are probably as many methods and flavors for jerky as there are jerky making enthusiasts. Roasts and steaks are best for jerky, but if you process your own meats, the meat removed from the bones such as the leg and rib bones works fine for jerky rather than just stew or ground meat. For steaks or roasts, it works best if it is partially frozen to make slicing easier. I use a meat slicer that is set to 1/4" thickness, and slice the meat quickly rather than tediously cutting with a knife, but either method works if you are able to slice thin enough with a sharp knife. Place the sliced meats in brine and marinate overnight. Lay out on dehydrator sheets at 135-145 (or your dehydrator manufacturer instructions), until dried through but still pliable. It is not done if it is spongy or too bendable. Continue drying until there are no spongy spots remaining. If you wish to make smoked jerky, place in the smoker on low heat until the wood chips have burned down to ash, then place on dehydrator sheets to dry the meat strips. Beef and Venison are the most common meats used for jerky. Pork and Bear is not recommended because of the high fat content that can turn rancid. If you choose to use those meats, make sure they are kept refrigerated. The shelf life of Pork and Bear is very short. Poultry can be used, either as ground or sliced meat. My brine is usually a blend of Teriyaki or Soy sauce, brown sugar and vinegar, but there are brine mixtures and brine recipes available according to individual tastes, such as Cajun, sweet and sour, peppered, south of the border, herb and spice, hot and spicy, and every other flavor you could possibly want, or make your own individual marinating brine, meat rubs or sauces for a unique blend of flavors. Solar/Sun drying is not a recommended method, there is too much opportunity for bacteria to penetrate the meats before they are thoroughly dried, and getting trapped inside the dried meats.
A pressure cooker is absolutely required for canning meats. Most meat and venison can be canned, but bacon is not recommended because of the high fat content. Follow strict guidelines when canning meats and use good hygiene and proper meat handling methods to prevent food borne illnesses. Do not take short cuts, they are not time savers if your health is compromised. Stews, soups and meat based recipes are ideal for quick winter meals when proper canning methods are employed. Read up on canning meats through reliable sources, not just random websites or random facebook pages for your safety and the safety of your family. One source we recommend: http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can5_meat.html. Canning can be done over an outdoor fire, IF and ONLY if, the proper temperature and pressure can be maintained during the entire recommended processing time, which for meats is no less than 45 minutes and often even longer. Solar/Sun canning is not recommended for meats or low acid vegetables, no matter how the pioneers did it and no matter what recipes may have been handed down with the antiquated pressure cooker. When using a pressure cooker, always have the pressure gauge tested before each season of canning and make sure the rubber seal is not split, checked or frayed. Replace both for safety. Most brands of pressure cooker gauges, rubber seals and other parts can be replaced if you have manufacturer information on your pressure cooker. Your county extension office provides testing throughout the community just prior to canning season. This is a free service and worth the time it takes to have those checked for your safety and the safety of your family.
Each of the methods were used during the pioneer times, and recipes have been handed down generation after generation. Our oldest sis recalls our Great Uncle cold smoking and pickling meats, which was usually bacon, ham and hocks, which he learned from his pioneer parents. Native Americans smoked and dried buffalo meat to preserve meat through the winter months when hunting was more difficult and wildlife more elusive. Some of the meat was pounded and pulverized for pemmican. A full grown buffalo would yield 90 lbs of pemmican, which was used for hunting parties and long journey's as an *energy* bar and may be the only thing they ate for days on end. (Refer to my link on making your own Pemmican: http://justfowlingaround.weebly.com/recipes-for-self-reliance/category/chicken-pemmican
No matter which method you attempt, make sure you use good hygiene and meat handling practices to prevent food born illnesses. The process of preserving your own meats is rewarding and worth the time and effort it takes. I would recommend that you follow your smoker and dehydrator manufacturer instructions and use a prepared brine with your first attempts. Then experiment once you are comfortable with the methods and the results. As for cold smoking and salt curing, we recommend having a seasoned mentor to assist you through your first attempts, before you attempt on your own. Even if you do not intend to preserve meat now, having the knowledge to fall back on for the future will be worth your research and the security of having the available information tucked away. Above all enjoy the experience and satisfaction of preserving meats for the pantry for your own attempts at modern pioneering and self reliance.
For further information on meat preservation and safe meat handling: http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/nchfp/lit_rev/cure_smoke_cure.html
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Sources for curing salts, liquid smoke, dehydrators, smokers, pickling crocks and pressure cookers, can be found at our following links.