Living on a ranch 40 miles from the nearest grocery store tends to promote food storage. Especially when the last 7 miles or so of that road were straight up a mountain and were often not passable in the winter. Since we had our own cattle, we always had a large freezer filled with beef. Freezing seems to be a perfect way to preserve precious meat. It’s convenient, allows one to prepare it in a variety of ways, and keeps the meat in good condition for up to a year. Yet there is a fatal flaw in this method as we learned the hard way. Our freezer failed while we were gone for several days one summer. We returned to a house filled with blowflies attracted by the smell of several hundred pounds of spoiled meat. A power surge had fried several other appliances, but none as vital as that freezer. It was a potent lesson: a method of preservation that requires a steady supply of electricity is not very secure at all.
We tend to take our refrigerators and freezers for granted, but they are actually a very new innovation in the age old attempt to keep our food fresh and safe. They are methods that require a reliable supply of electricity. I can think of many situations, from severe weather to civil unrest, which would compromise this supply. For a truly secure supply of meat, we will look at five tried and true methods that do not rely on electricity.
Drying – Nearly everyone is familiar with jerky or dried meat. Drying meat removes moisture that fosters bacterial and fungal growth. Meat is cut into thin slices to allow it to dry before it starts to spoil. While meat can be dried without any additives, it is generally soaked in a brine mix with salt and spices prior to drying. The salt draws more moisture out of the meat and also discourages spoilage organisms. Dried meat is highly nutritious and very lightweight which makes it a great provision for traveling. It can also be mixed with vegetables and water to make nourishing soup. Meat to be dried should be very lean as fat will not dry but rather go rancid. Dried beef, especially if it has been spiced, will last 6 months or so, but it never hangs around that long at my house.
Salting – Salting is a very old way to preserve meat. Meat is cut into chunks and layered in a barrel with salt. Each piece is completely surrounded by salt. Salting pulls the moisture out of the meat and produces an environment that doesn’t allow for bacterial growth. Meat that has been properly salted becomes very hard and must be soaked in several batches of water to rinse the salt out of the meat before it can be prepared for a meal. Salted meat is generally used for stews and soups. Salted meat will last at least six months, although it may have to be repacked as the salt absorbs moisture from the meat and becomes brine. However; the longer the meat is in the salt, the more work it takes to make it edible.
Curing and Cold Smoking – Curing and cold smoking are the traditional ways to preserve fatty meats such as ham, bacon, and pastrami. Curing is the process of soaking the meat in a strong brine of salt and spices. The brine is often injected into larger pieces of meat to speed up the process. This not only flavors the meat, but draws out moisture and prevents the growth of spoilage organisms. Curing for preservation requires a stronger brine than those generally used with store purchased meat which are intended for flavor only not preservation. Once the brining process is complete, the meat is cold smoked to seal the surface as well as to add flavor. Cold smoked meat must not be heated beyond 110 degrees or the meat will start to cook and its keeping qualities will be compromised. Once the process of curing and cold smoking is complete, it can be wrapped in brown paper and stored in a cool dry place such as a cellar or basement. Do not try this with store purchased hams and bacon as they were not cured in a way intended for preservation and will quickly spoil. Cured and smoked meat can last up to 6 months, depending on the storage temperature.
Pressure Canning – The most stable way to preserve meat is perhaps pressure canning. The process of pressure canning heats the meat sufficiently to kill all spoilage organisms, including the deadly botulism bacterium. The steps of the process must be followed carefully to assure safety, but they are not difficult. You will need a pressure canner, jars, lids for the jars, and uninterrupted time to do your canning. Meat needs to be cut into chunks small enough to fit in the jars. I prefer to purchase roasts and cut the chunks myself as I like them a bit larger than regular stew meat size. Because the canning process produces a very tender meat, inexpensive cuts such as flank or chuck roast can be used. While the meat doesn’t need to be extremely lean, trim most of the fat. I use the dry pack method for meat. Meat is packed tightly into pint jars, leaving ½ inch of space at the top. A teaspoon of salt is added to each jar. The rims of the jar are wiped with a clean cloth and a hot lid is screwed on tightly. The jars are then placed in the canner. Water is added to the canner about halfway up the jars and brought to a boil before the lid is sealed. Read the instructions that came with your canner as to the best way to operate it and the appropriate time and pressure for your area. It is also wise to have the pressure gauge on your canner tested each year by your local extension office. Pressure canned meat lasts for years and can be used for many dishes from stews to enchiladas.
On The Hoof – The most ancient, and least considered, way of preserving meat is alive or “on the hoof”. Animals are kept alive and only harvested when needed. This method works best with smaller animals such as chickens, quail, and meat rabbits. A word of warning, modern hybrid meat chickens are not suitable for this method as they often do not survive much past their 10 week ideal butchering time. To do this most efficiently, eggs must be hatched and rabbits bred to provide a continuous supply of litters throughout the year. This method takes much more planning and work than any of those mentioned above, but provides a continuous supply of fresh meat if done correctly. The On the Hoof method is best suited to milder climates where some feed is available year round, but can work anywhere with careful planning.
Food storage is great insurance against many misadventures, both personal and more widely spread. It is wise not to base the security of your food storage program on the stability of electrical power. While many food storage items, such as grain and root vegetables, are easily stored with no refrigeration, some thought and effort is required for electric free meat storage. Yet the vital protein and nutrients supplied by it, especially in times of stress, make it well worth the effort. These five methods, all with advantages and disadvantages, will allow you to store that meat with no worries. When times are good, stock up that freezer, but be prepared with some other methods if the unthinkable happens.