In the days before refrigeration, the steps to meat preservation tended to follow the seasons: You slaughtered animals in the fall, salted the meat as winter set in and let the natural drop in temperature chill it as it cured.
“They would harvest an animal when the weather was cool, which is in the fall or the winter,” said Dana Hanson, associate professor of food, bioprocessing and nutrition science at N.C. State University. With North Carolina’s balmy climate, locals got more time to salt meat before chilly weather hit. “If you’re in North Carolina, winter isn’t truly winter. Where I come from in Wisconsin it was too darn cold to be outside.”
Families hanging salted hog hocks at their bucolic farms or cowboys drying jerky on the open range may sound romantic to the modern imagination, but Hanson says modern sanitation removes a lot of the risk inherent to the old ways. With modern, refrigerator-assisted curing, far fewer meats spoil during the curing process – maybe 1 or 2 percent, versus 10 percent or higher lost with traditional outdoor curing, Hanson said.
Debbie Stroud, a cooperative extension agent serving Johnston and Wilson Counties, agrees. She encourages people interested in canning – and, yes, meat can be canned – to have modern equipment, which have safety mechanisms older canning gear lacks. Stroud specializes in food preservation and is in the midst of a series of related workshops: July 23 brings a meat and poultry canning workshop to the Wilson County Center.
“Some people are terrified of it,” Stroud admits. “They’ve seen images of blown canning lids through the ceiling.” Yet the key is to have reliable, safe equipment and to follow time-tested recipes.
Stroud, whose specialty is in food preservation, started including meat and poultry in her canning courses because of the spread of backyard chickens – hens eventually stop laying, after all. Venison can be canned as well, she noted.
Of all the ways to preserve meat, we spoke to Stroud and Hanson about three that may be doable at home. Some of these involve time and patience, true, but the risk of spoilage – that is, of raising the temperature of your country ham hock only to have it smell like “hot garbage,” as Hanson puts it – is lower than it would have been 100 years ago.
Country ham: First and foremost, Hanson said, use wholesome ingredients. On rural farms, where animals were slaughtered and meat was either consumed right away or packed and salted promptly, this wasn’t a problem. “Fast-forward to today, if someone’s going to run down to the Harris Teeter or the Food Lion or the farmers market or wherever ... if they’re buying it from a retailer, that’s also fairly good,” Hanson said. The meat at modern grocery stores comes from inspected facilities and tends to be reliable.
It is critical to keep the meat under 40 degrees until you’re ready to salt it. To salt it, use 8 to 10 percent salt to the weight of the meat. “If you’ve got a 20 pound ham, that’s 1.6 to 2 pounds of salt,” Hanson said. Rub the salt on the outside of the ham and then refrigerate the whole thing for a month.
After several weeks in salt comes equalization. Remove the ham, brush off any excess salt on the surface and hang it in a slightly warmer environment with high relative humidity: 50 or 60 degrees with 60 or 70 percent humidity, Hanson said. “That’s not your refrigerator or your garage or your basement. Quite honestly, it’s outside – it’s springtime in March and April,” he said. “That’s the old way of doing it, is rely on the ambient temperature.”
After several weeks of equalization, the salt is distributed throughout the ham and it’s considered cured. Then move it to a warmer environment, where the temperature is closer to 85 degrees, to let it age and dry for anything from one month to six, or even more.
“At the end of the process, if they smell like roadkill, they’re not good. It’s really that simple,” Hanson said. Spoiling can happen in the shank, or the portion of the leg closer to the foot. Traditionally, people checked for spoilage with a probe or an ice pick or, in Italy, with a horse bone carved into a sort of toothpick. To do this, poke the probe into the ham. If it comes out smelling good, the meat is cured.
Canning: Of the two canning methods (hot water bath and pressure canning), Stroud said, pressure canning is best for meat, as meat and poultry are low-acid foods. “It’s just as easy to can meat as it is to can vegetables,” she said. Yet the risks are similar, too: Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that produces the botulism toxin, can occur in improperly canned food. Her recommendation is to follow kitchen-tested recipes and processes to the letter, like those from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
“Just because someone posts something that looks fabulous and looks beautiful, you can’t taste pathogens,” Stroud said. In the case of canning, you can’t always smell or taste pathogens. The smartest thing, then, is to use modern equipment and stick with trusted recipes rather than unproven ones from social media. Don’t skip steps, follow the proper processing times and be sure to note the amounts of headspace recommended by different recipes. She recommends the “Ball Blue Book” (a new edition has just been released) and says you can also trust your local cooperative extension agent for canning advice.
Jerky: “Just drying is not enough,” Hanson said. Tough guy image aside, it’s likely many cowboys got themselves sick (or worse) eating bad trail-made jerky. Start out with a lean cut of meat, Hanson said: inexpensive cuts like top round, eye of round or London broil make good jerky. Then cut it into strips. If there’s fat, trim it off.
Then select your favorite marinade, Hanson said, and add 2 1/2 percent salt of the meat’s weight to the brine. Marinate for five or six days to let the salt move in. Then set your oven to its lowest possible setting, usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 170 degrees, and put the strips into the oven on a drying rack on top of a cookie sheet for three hours or more. The longer the meat is in, the drier it will get.
Hanson cautions against trusting that your jerky is desiccated enough to be shelf stable. Without a reliable method of measuring water activity, he said, it’s wisest to avoid playing cowboy. Store your jerky in the fridge, he said. The risk isn’t worth it.
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The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a good resource and an excellent starting point, said Johnston and Wilson County extension agent Debbie Stroud. It has a specific section for curing and smoking meat, as well as canning and other forms of preservation. Visit the site at nchfp.uga.edu.
To learn more about Stroud’s canning workshops, visit johnston.ces.ncsu.edu or call 919-989-5380.
N.C. State University holds charcuterie workshops in the spring, with the next set coming up in early 2017. Read our earlier story about the classes at nando.com/charcuterieschool. Visit foodprocessing.ncsu.edu for the latest news or call 919-515-2956.
Speak with a local cooperative extension agent if you have questions about any type of meat preservation. They can either answer your questions or put you in touch with an expert. Visit ces.ncsu.edu or call 919-515-2813 to find out the local office.