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The Challenge of Preserviing Meat

Mar 06, 2017 0 comments

Building a food stockpile big enough and diverse enough to survive through a disaster takes time, effort and money. Some things, like rice and beans are fairly cheap, allowing us to stockpile them quickly and easily. But few of us would want to try living off of just rice and beans for a month, let alone for a year. While rice and beans is better than nothing, it's not as tasty or nutritious as a truly balanced diet would be.

The next step for most people is adding canned goods. Canned fruits and vegetables are plentiful, readily available at any supermarket and fairly inexpensive (although not as cheap as the rice and beans). You can even get a wide variety, giving your palette a break from the monotony of eating the same thing over and over again.

But that's really not enough. Contrary to what the vegetarians in the world tell us, you really need animal protein as part of your diet. That's the hardest part to come up with, unless you are an excellent hunter and happen to live in an area where there is plentiful game. But I wouldn't count on that.

Obviously, you want to add meats to your food stockpile. You can buy them in a variety of different ways, but you'll quickly find that preserved meats are expensive. The alternative is to preserve your own. But how do you do that? There are ways and it behooves us to learn them all. Besides, if you are able to kill any large animals after the disaster, you're going to need to preserve the meat in order to avoid wasting it.

Let me take a moment to say something about that. Game is not as plentiful in this country as it once was. Whereas we once had wide open spaces which were only populated by animals and Indians, those wide open spaces have been converted into farmland and ranches. While that is a more efficient use of the land, it does reduce the amount of wild game available. So, hunting for meat, once a serious disaster hits, is going to be difficult, unless you have bugged out to a very remote area.

One option is to hunt for farm animals, especially cattle. Of course, those cattle have an owner, so you're actually stealing someone else's food when you do that. I'm going to avoid the morality of that issue for the moment, because the time may come where you have to do that to survive.

But the point is this; whatever you kill, you need to make use of. Killing a deer or a steer and wasting half or three-quarters of it is criminal, especially at a time when people will be starving to death. So, if you find yourself in that position, make sure you make good use of as much of that animal as you can. The American Indians used pretty much everything, you and I need to learn from their example.

The Amazing Power of Salt

One important key to preserving meat is the use of salt. Salt is important to our diet, but it is also a natural preservative. This explains its use in pretty much all of the different methods used for preseving meat.

Try this sometime; take piece of raw meat out of the refrigerator, dry it off and put in on a plate. Then heavily sprinkle salt on it, providing enough of a layer of salt to basically cover the meat, without having much of a buildup. You want to be able to see the salt clearly on the meat. Then just leave it to sit for 15 minutes or so.

When you go back to look at the meat, you'll find that the surface of the meat is wet enough that the salt is no longer visible. Where did that moisture come from? No, it wasn't gremlins that poured a glass of water on the thirsty meat, the water came out of the meat itself in a process called osmosis.

On the most simple level, osmosis is water passing through a membrane, such as cell membranes. It does this to balance the salt level on both sides of the membrane. Since there was much more salt on the outside of the meat (outside of the cells membranes) than on the inside, water migrated through the cell walls to the salt. At the same time, some small quantity of the salt was absorbed into the cells that lost the water.

Given enough time and enough salt, the salt would draw most of the water out of the meat, even the inner part of it. The imbalance of adjoining cells in the meat would cause water to migrate towards the surface, where it would contribute to lowering the salinity percentage of the water outside the meat.

Now, here's how this works as a preservative. Bacteria are very much like the cells of the meat. The main difference is that they are single cell organisms, as opposed to a bunch of different cells together, making up one muscle or piece of meat. So, when bacteria come into contact with salt, the salt draws the water out of the bacteria, following the same laws of osmosis as it did with our piece of meat. The big difference is that once enough water is drawn out of the bacteria, it kills the bacteria.

So, not only does salt kill any bacteria that is already in the meat when it is preserved, but if the meat becomes sufficiently salty in the process of preservation, the salt will draw the water out of any bacteria that come into contact with the meat later. Either way, the salt is performing an important part in preserving the meat, killing the bacteria that want to inhabit or eat that meat.

This explains why so much preserved meat is salty. The salt is not there for flavor, but to preserve the meat. So, you should make sure that you have an abundant supply of salt in your prepping supplies.

There's More to Killing Bacteria

While salt is a very effective way of killing bacteria, it isn't the only way. Often, salt is used in conjunction with other means of killing bacteria, in order to ensure that the meat is safe for our consumption.

Heat

Another way of killing bacteria is with heat. A scientist, named Louis Pasteur (yes, he's French) discovered in the mid 1800s that bacteria die when they get too hot. Specifically, they die at 158oF. So, any food that was brought up to this temperature was made safe to eat, because the bacterial was killed.

Pasteur's method was named after him and is known as "pasteurization." When you buy milk, the bottle usually says that it is pasteurized. That means that the milk you are buying has been brought up to a minimum of 158oF for several minutes, in order to kill the bacteria. This isn't hot enough to cook the milk, but it is hot enough to kill all the bacteria. Raw milk will not have been pasteurized, so it will still contain some bacteria.

One of the reasons why we cook meat is to accomplish the very same thing that Louis Pasteur was trying to accomplish. However, we apply much more heat to the meat, than is typically applied to the milk. This changes the meat, releasing proteins, especially collagen, while sealing off the surface of the meat to prevent the escape of all the meat's moisture.

In many countries, meat is cooked very well. I've spent a lot of time in Mexico and you can't buy a thick steak there. A typical steak is about 1/4" thick. A thick one would be 3/8" thick. Some cuts, like for milanesa, which is breaded and fried, are only about 1/8" thick. They cut it so thin to make it easier to cook throughout and kill the bacteria. There's no such thing as a medium-rare steak either, everything is very well done.

I think it's important to note here that the internal temperature of meat that is cooked medium rare is not hot enough to kill any bacteria in it. Medium rare requires a minimum temperature of 130oF. Even well done isn't hot enough to guarantee killing all the bacteria, as that is only 155oF. But that's for beef; some meats require hotter internal temperatures, such as chicken, which must be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165oF.

This, of course, raises the question of whether or not a medium rare steak is safe to eat. The simple answer is probably yes. American laws and regulations about the handling and preparation of meat, especially on the commercial level, pretty much ensure a minimal bacteria count, for dangerous bacteria, inside the meat. If any bacteria gets on it, it will probably be on the outside, which is cooked to a higher temperature.

In a survival situation, I would highly recommend cooking all meat like they do in Mexico, very well done. This will ensure that the meat is safe to eat, and protect you from any risk of becoming infected by harmful bacteria.

Acid

The third natural bacteria killer is acid. Bacteria can only survive in a narrow pH range. If food, like meat is too acidic, it will kill the bacteria. This is accomplished in preserving by the act of pickling.

Pickling normally uses vinegar as an acid source. Simply put, the food is soaked in a vinegar solution, usually with some spices added for flavor. While this is not a real common method for preserving meats, corned beef was once know as pickled beef and is still called by that name in some quarters. The pickling process changes the flavor of the meat, as well as preserving it. Pickled meats will last a long time, if they are properly stored.

Chemicals

Foods, including meats, are preserved today mostly with chemicals. Whether you buy a package of potato chips or a can of Spam, you'll probably find some chemicals listed in the ingredients which you can't even pronounce, let alone have any idea of what they are. These are probably preservatives.

I merely mention these chemical preservatives for this reason; when you preserve foods, you will not be using these chemical preservatives. Therefore, you will have to do things differently than what commercial food processors do. You will probably not get exactly the same results either. That's okay; as far as I'm concerned, what you can do yourself is better than anything that is done commercially.

Cold

Cold doesn't actually preserve meat in the sense of killing the bacteria that might invade it, cold slows down or stops the metabolism of the bacteria, preventing it from spoiling the meat. In the case of refrigeration, it slows it down. So, you can keep the meat refrigerated for much longer than you can keep it in the open, without it going bad. However, you can't keep it indefinitely.

Freezing, on the other hand, totally stops the bacteria's metabolism and in many cases kills them. When water freezes, it expands. So, it will stretch the cell wall of the bacteria to the point that it will burst. If that happens, then when the meat is thawed, the bacteria will not come back to life. However, you can't count on freezing as a permanent preserving method, simply because not all bacteria will die. So, when you thaw the meat, it will start decaying.

Preserving Your Own Meat

Whether you want to preserve the meat you've hunted down in the wild, picked up as road kill or found on a wild safari to the grocery store, the methods are all the same. There are actually quite a number of different methods you can use to preserve meat, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages.

The major disadvantage of preserving meat is that it will affect the flavor and texture of the meat. There is no real way of preserving a T-Bone steak and having it be a T-Bone steak when you are ready to eat it. About the only thing you can do to keep it that way is to freeze it. But if you lose power and your freezer turns off, you'd better be in the mood for T-Bone, as it won't keep more than few days.

Canning

Meats are fairly easy to can, although few people do. This is mostly due to fear in not getting it right. However, when properly canned, meats are as safe as vegetables and will keep as long. The one requirement for canning meats is that you have a pressure canner, as a canning pot will not allow you to get the meat to a high enough temperature to preserve it.

The other thing that most people don't like about canning meats is that the canning process cooks the meat. This means that if you cook it before canning it, you're going to have some overcooked meat. But if you're willing to accept the idea that you are going to have soft, mushy meat that falls apart, this really isn't an issue.

The key here is to combine the pre-canning cooking time with the time that the meat will cook as part of the canning process. Typically, meats are heated in the pressure cooker water bath for 90 minutes, bringing them to an internal temperature of 165oF. So, you could start out with raw meat and the canning process alone will cook it.

However, in order to do this, you need extremely lean meat; something like a rump roast or a sirloin steak. Any marbling in the meat or any surface fat has to be trimmed off, or it may become rancid. This will taint your meat; and while it may still be edible, it would not be appetizing.

I have found it very effective to can meats by partially preparing them for specific dishes and then canning them. Prepare stew meat, trimming and cutting it and then partially cooking it, before canning it. Make chili, with all but the beans and diced tomatoes and then can it. To eat, you merely need to cook up a pot of beans (which are preserved dry) add diced tomatoes from your garden and stir in the canned chili meat. Ground beef can also be canned, if you use very lean ground beef and cook it enough to cook out the fat. It can then be added to a variety of recipes, such as casseroles or stir-fried dishes.

Pickling

The only commonly pickled meat I know of is Corned Beef. That doesn't mean that there aren't any others, just that I'm not familiar with them. Typically, picked beef (corned beef) that is going to be preserved for a prolonged time is both picked and then canned. You'll need to follow a recipe closely for this, to make sure it turns out tasting like you want it to.

Dehydrating

Dehydration is probably one of the oldest means of meat preservation there is. I don't really know how far back it goes, but for our sake, we see that it was a common practice of the American Indians. I didn't mention dehydration as a means of killing bacteria, simply because dehydration won't necessarily kill the bacteria. If you dehydrate bacteria by themselves it will kill them; but dehydrating the meat won't necessary do so.

Whenever meat is dehydrated to preserve it, it is salted as well. Jerky, which is a commonly available snack food, is dehydrated meat. But it is always well salted, as well as whatever other spices are added. It is actually the salt which protects the meat. If you make your own jerky, and don't salt it sufficiently well, it will spoil.

Salting is accomplished by either marinating or using a rub. In either case, it is important that the fat be trimmed off, so that it doesn't become rancid and spoil the meat. The marinade or rub must be applied to all surfaces and allowed to soak in. It helps to remove the meat from the marinade a few times and reinsert it, to ensure there are no surfaces which weren't covered.

Thickness of the meat is also very important for the drying process. About the thickest meat you can dehydrate effectively is 1/4". Even that will take much longer to dehydrate than a piece that is 1/8" thick. If the meat isn't fully dried, it may spoil, even though it has been salted. Remember, there is bacteria in the meat itself. If the meat is not fully dried, that bacteria won't be killed and could spoil the meat. All the salt does is take care of surface bacteria.

The American Indians sun dried their jerky, but it is better to use a dehydrator, whether an electric one or a solar one. The higher temperature will dry the meat quicker, ensuring that it is dried before the bacteria can have their dinner.

While beef is the most common meat for dehydrating, it is possible to dehydrate just about any meat. Commercially, they dehydrate turkey, chicken, pork and even bacon. That last one is a bit surprising, as it has a high fat content; but remember, commercially dehydrated meats also have chemical preservatives added.

Dehydrated meats can also be rehydrated for eating. Cut into pieces, jerky works well in soups and will rehydrate while the soup is cooking. Granted, it won't taste like fresh meat, but it will soften and become easy to chew. It will also make sure that you have some animal protein in your vegetable soup.

Salt Fish

Salt fish is another dehydrated meat, which was very common in the northern European countries, especially the Netherlands. To start, the fish is cut into fillets and packed in salt. Now, when I say "packed in salt" I mean much more than a meat rub. The fish is literally layered with salt, putting at least 1/4" of salt between layers of fish. It is left to dry this way for a couple of weeks.

When the fish is removed from the salt, it is partially dried and the salt has turned into a heavy brine. The fish is then laid out on wooden racks to air dry, usually on the people's flat roofs. With such a high salt concentration, there is little risk of any bacteria invading the fish at this point.

Curing

When we talk about cured meats, we're talking about most of the deli meats that you are accustomed to seeing in your supermarket deli. Salami, bologna, sausages and a host of other cured meats were originally developed as a way of using cuts of meat that couldn't otherwise be used. While it may not seem like it, the cuts of meat used were typically small, tough cuts from the animal.

This is another method of preserving that depends on salt. The difference in this case is that the meat is ground and the salt is mixed throughout the mixture. That allows the salt to have the same effect throughout the cured meat that it would normally have on the surface of meat that is dehydrated. Spices as well as nitrates and nitrites are also added to the meat. The balance and quantity of these ingredients is important to the curing process. Too much can be dangerous for consumption, while too little will prevent the meat from being properly preserved.

The use of nitrates and nitrites allows a much higher fat content in cured meats, than what you find in other preserved meats. These chemicals prevent the fat from going rancid, allowing its inclusion in these meats.

Cured meats are typically "cold cured" under refrigeration, rather than hot cured. It takes a few weeks for the meat to be cured and ready for use. Some cured meats are eaten raw, while others are smoked before eating.

Smoking

When we talk about smoking meats, we must be careful to identify whether we are talking about hot smoking or cold smoking. Cold smoking is what is often done to meats and cheese to add the "smoke flavor" but it doesn't cook the meat. Therefore, it doesn't preserve the meat in any way. Hot smoking is a two-stage operation, in which the meat is first cold smoked for flavor and then hot smoked to cook it. Meats prepared in this manner are considered preserved.

However, smoking is not a perfect process. It produces a skin of proteins over the meat, called the pellicle. This, like your skin, is virtually impervious to bacteria. But, when the meat is cut, such as cutting off a slice to eat, you then have exposed meat that can be infected by bacteria. The only way to prevent it from being attacked by bacteria is to smoke it once again, or preserve it in some other way.

In pioneering and colonial times they used smoking to preserve certain meats. But what they would often do is to hang those meats in the kitchen chimney or return them to the smokehouse after cutting off a portion for use. In this way, the meat was constantly smoked, preserving it. However, this would also tend to dry out the meat.

Before smoking, all meats are soaked in a brine. This is very salty water. In order to accept more salt, the brine is usually made over the stove, as more salt will dissolve in hot water than in cold. After 24 hours of soaking, the meat is ready to be laid on racks or hung on hooks for smoking.

You can smoke meat in a smokehouse or a smoker. There are a number of commercially available smokers around, either vertical cabinet types or those that look like a cut in half steel drum, laying on its side. In both cases, manufacturers try to set the firebox off to the side, so that the heat reaching the meat comes via the smoke, rather than the fire. In this way, the meat is slow cooked, tenderizing it while it cooks. Tough cuts of meat can be smoked, producing a very tasty and tender finished product.

Temperature control is a very important aspect of smoking, so a thermometer needs to be inserted through the wall of the smoker or smoke house. Cold smoking is done at a temperature of 68 to 86oF. Once that is complete, which usually means an hour and a half per pound of meat (in one piece, not the total meat being smoked), the temperature is raised to 200 to 225oF for hot smoking.

If you are going to smoke meats, it is important to be able to determine the internal temperature of the meats you are smoking as well, not just the smoker temperature. Different internal temperatures will provide different results, just like the difference between a medium-rare and a well-done steak is the internal temperature.

Smoking is a slow process. You can expect it to take all day and maybe well into the night. Be sure to have a good supply of fuel, before staring any smoking process. Adding a pan of water, inside the smoker, where the heat can cause it to turn to steam, will help prevent the meat from drying out.

A Final Word

Experimenting with preserving food is dangerous, especially with preserving meats. The easy solution is to find a proven recipe and follow that. Once you have some experience, you can do your own experimentation with spices and flavorings, but stick to the recipe times and temperatures.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides some of the best information for times and temperatures of food preservation. This data has been compiled from years of experimentation, determining the safe limits for the various means of preparation. Any recipe you find probably traces its roots back to this information. You can find it online at the USDA.gov website.

Dave Steen

About The Author: Dave is a 58 year old survivalist; father of three; with over 40 years of survival experience. He started young, learning survival the hard way, in the school of hard knocks. Now, after years of study, he's gray-haired and slightly overweight. That hasn't dimmed his interest in survival though. If anything, Dave has a greater commitment to survival than ever, so that he can protect his family. Click Here To Read More About Dave


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