Preserving Food (part 4): SALTING MEAT

Naturally, we don’t keep livestock in the garden (shame too), but I have been interested in traditional ways of preserving meat. Without wanting to open a can of worms over the meat-is-murder debate, our ancestors in many cultures relied on meat to provide the type of nutrition that their environment could not provide through plants alone, especially to see them through the winter. Hunting animals was for our ancestors a difficult and energy-consuming undertaking, hence meat was too precious to waste by allowing it to spoil. Compare that with our attitude today in developed countries, where most of us throw away food like it was going out of fashion. If the idea of eating dried meat in unappealing to some, I still prefer it to the idea of letting it go to waste.

Just like with all my earlier food projects, I first turned to the internet to look up methods of preserving meat. This time, however, I hit a little snag. While the internet is full of recipes and advice for making salted meat or beef-jerky, most of them finish with the words: “keep in the fridge and consume within a week.” The trouble with that is that I don’t want to keep it in the fridge. Funnily enough, I want to make beef-jerky specifically so that I don’t have to keep it in the fridge. If I want meat in the fridge I will buy a steak.

In the end I took a leap of faith and decided to make beef-jerky myself based on the little I knew, so (here comes the disclaimer) what follows is just an account of what I did, without suggesting that you try the same unless you seek out training in proper and safe techniques. The little I knew, however, came from something I saw on a BBC television program with Ray Mears (again), watching a Native American Indian hanging some salted meat on a frame to dry in the sun.

I bought some cubes of raw beef from a supermarket and cut them into thin strips, unrolling each cube as I cut along the surface. I then sprinkled some salt on the beef strips and gently rubbed them into the meat before hanging them on a plastic coat hanger. At this point I noticed that the beef strips almost immediately began to drip out their juices as the salt took effect, drawing out the moisture from the meat. Even the smaller strips of meat dripped off quite a few drops of juice, so I had to place some old newspapers underneath the hanging meat in order to avoid making a mess. I also gently dabbed the meat strips with a paper towel to absorb more of the juice. Finally when the juices stopped running off, I placed the meat near a radiator overnight, although the central heating was only set to run for about two hours. By morning the meat was already dry and stiff, but taking advantage of the good weather (at the time) I left them hanging in the sun for several hours, finally putting the end result in a plastic bag.

Following this first attempt, I realised that I had put far too much salt which had subsequently crystalized into a thick layer over the meat. It didn’t spoil it, but just made the jerky less palatable without rinsing it first, not to mention it was a waste of salt. On my second attempt I did initially use less salt, but I later chickened out and added some more during the dripping process, afraid that it was dripping off the meat. It worked better, but it was still too much salt. I now know that the salt is really just there to create the dripping effect, and the reduced amount left on the meat after dripping is still sufficient to season the meat. It does taste good, too, if jerky is your kind of food, and I’m still alive to write about it four weeks later. I’m planning next time to try adding spices to the salt, such as paprika and chili. Now that I can make it, I may as well put my own spin on it.

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