Meat Preservation: The Lost Ways of Curing and Smoking

Categories: Cooking

In the age of the Internet and microwaves, we tend to expect ease and instant gratification to be a perpetual way of life. We can buy a hundred pounds of meat, stick it in the freezer and eat off of it for a year without any special preparations or considerations made.

But what if the time comes when our modern conveniences are no longer available? Who among us could say that in the event of a catastrophe, we would be able to do what is necessary to maintain a hearty stock of food for ourselves and our families? Look ahead to a future in which unpredictable electrical blackouts make refrigeration impossible and the inflated prices of commodities make them unaffordable.

Before refrigeration people relied on salt and smoke to preserve their meat. Most people lived on family farms and the “smoke house” was as familiar as the outhouse. Refrigeration changed the way we did a lot of things, but one thing it did not change was our taste for the flavor of smoked meat.

Consequently, smokers are readily available today and recipes abound, including those for smoking your meat in your backyard grill. But one thing that nearly all of these recipes have in common is: the meat is cooked and so the end product will require refrigeration.

To preserve meat that will not require refrigeration a process known as Hard Smoking is required. Hard smoked meat is similar to jerky. It contains a lot of salt, and it is smoked at a low temperature until there is very little moisture left in it. It is kind of like the dehydration method used for fruits and vegetables, but done with smoke and the addition of salt and usually other spices as well. The salt helps preserve the meat by inhibiting the growth of microorganisms. Sometimes the meat is so salty that you may even want to soak it for a few hours before eating it to remove some of the salt. (People used to save this water and reclaim the salt by allowing the water to evaporate.)

The smoked meats and jerky that you buy in stores today contain preservatives called nitrites, so their moisture content may be slightly higher and their salt content slightly lower. Their recommended shelf-life is one year. Nitrites are known to cause cancer so their consumption should be limited. The jerky that you make at home, if preserved properly, should keep indefinitely even without nitrites, but as with any preserved food its quality will deteriorate over time. It would best be best to consume it within six months to a year.

Spices have been highly prized over the centuries, with certain spices at times being worth more than their weight in gold. You might recall, from your American history class, that when Christopher Columbus discovered the New World he was actually looking for a shorter trade with India, primarily for spices. We enjoy spices because they impart interesting flavors to our foods. But before the days of refrigeration they were also highly valued for their ability to preserve food. By using certain spices that have strong antimicrobial actions, we can reduce the amount of salt needed to preserve our meat, making it more palatable and healthier at the same time.

Spices with antimicrobial action include garlic, ginger, black pepper, clove, oregano, thyme, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, bay leaves, mustard, rosemary, bishop’s weed, chilli (also called cayenne or red pepper), horseradish, cumin, black cumin, pomegranate seeds, onion, celery, geranium and many others. Some spices by themselves have weak antimicrobial effects that become much stronger when combined with other spices. (These combinations are said to be synergistic, because the combination is greater than the sum of the individual parts.) Chili powder is a synergistic combination typically consisting of red pepper (cayenne), onion, paprika, garlic, cumin and oregano. Five-spice powder is a synergistic combination of pepper, cinnamon, anise, fennel and cloves. Most people think that the combination of spices known as curry powder originated in India.

But curry is actually a Western blend devised during colonial times combining the best spices from India. Curry powder recipes vary slightly, but turmeric is always a key ingredient in the blend. The usual recipe for curry powder in the West consists of turmeric, cardamom, cumin, fenugreek and chilles. Other herbs that are commonly included in curry blends include ginger, garlic, coriander, cloves, nutmeg, mustard, black pepper, fennel, and others. 

We can extend the shelf-life of our homemade jerky with the judicious use of spices. Salt and pepper, either black or red, are key ingredients. The other spices that I prefer include garlic, ginger, and turmeric. I also like the spice blends mentioned above, curry powder, chili powder and five-spice powder. If a liquid marinade is to be employed soy sauce may be used as the source of salt.

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