Curing and Smoking Preserve Your Wild Meat

 preserve meat

Even people in the stone age knew that they had to preserve meat. And those clever club users didn’t have freezers.

If you knock down a mammoth and start eating it immediately, it’s all well and good, but that meat is going to rot sooner rather than later.

The problem is bacteria, those tiny organisms which live everywhere on earth.

They’re trying to eat the deer you want to eat, and they’re gonna get to the meat faster than you. The moment the deer dies its carcass becomes a bacterial paradise.

This is when you step in and preserve the meat. Fight back against the bacteria, and keep that meat safe to eat for weeks to come!

What are these different methods? Don’t worry, I’m getting to that.
Instead of just throwing your extra venison in the freezer, take some extra time and learn about canning venison.
Once you have successfully harvested a deer and it has been processed and butchered, you are then faced with the decision of what to do with all your surplus meat. Once you have enjoyed some fresh grilled back-strap, dried some jerky, and made a pot of stew, you still likely have a lot of meat leftover. Now the question is, what to do next.

Sure, you could wrap it in plastic and put it in your freezer, but canning venison is a great way to preserve your meat and have it ready for a quick recipe later in the year with no defrosting necessary. Not to mention the fact that it is an exceedingly easy process.

Here’s how you do it

All you need to get started with canning venison are some empty glass jars, canning salt and other spices (optional), a pressure canner, and of course your venison. The pressure canner is essential to ensure that you safely preserve your meat during the process.

The first thing you will want to do is cut up your venison, removing any excess connective tissue or fat, into the size you want. Cubed meat works great, but you can adjust the size of your cuts to suit your needs. It is a good idea to think about the recipes you may want to prepare with the canned venison in the future during this step. Cutting the meat into the sizes recipes call for before canning will save you time and energy when you are ready to cook.

canning venison

This is also a good time to chop any vegetables that you may want to include in the jars of meat for extra flavoring. This step is not required, but some common additions that add good flavor include onion and garlic.

canning venison

Once you have all your meat prepared, you are ready to start canning. Sanitize your jars and line them up on your workspace. Begin to fill them with meat. You will want to compact the meat into the jar to get as much air out as possible. A wooden spoon is the perfect tool for the job. Make sure to leave about a one inch space between the rim of the jar and the venison.

canning venison

After the jars are filled, add canning salt or other spices to the jars if desired. A good measure for the salt is between one and two teaspoons per quart. You do not have to add spices, but some people find the meat to have a better taste when they do. You could always add salt and spices to some jars and leave others without to find out which way you prefer.

You do not need to add any liquid. This is a step that many people are shocked to follow, but no liquid is needed. The meat will produce its own natural broth in the jars.

canning venison

Next, carefully wipe down the rims of the jars with a damp paper towel. You do not want to leave any meat juice or residue behind which may interfere with the sealing process. Place warmed lids on every jar and firmly screw bands on top then place the cans into your pressure canner.

canning venison

Follow your pressure canner’s instructions to finish preparing and sealing the jars correctly. It is important to note your area’s elevation as this affects both the time of sealing and the pressures required to safely preserve your venison. The general rule of thumb for altitudes is 1,000 feet and below is ten pounds of pressure for one hour and 30 minutes for quart-sized jars.

Once the jars have sealed and cooled, give them a quick rinse (if desired), wipe them dry, and clearly label the type of meat and date of canning on the jars. Store your canned venison in a cool, dry place and you will have fresh meat available whenever you want it. Canning venison also eliminates the chance of losing meat due to a power outage or freezer failure.

canning venison

Even though a little bit of prep work is required, canning venison is a skill that every hunter should be familiar with. The rewards of having canned meat on hand are definitely worth the afternoon of work required.

Methods to Preserve Meat
There are three things you need to do to preserve your meat in the wild:

Keep it cool.
Keep it clean.
Keep it dry.
Warm, wet, contaminated meat will be a haven for bacteria, and will ruin your meat.

Cool, clean, and dry meat is an environment in which the bacteria flounder instead of thrive.

Keeping it Cool
Unfortunately, meat starts off warm as part of the animal’s body. So your first task is to cool it off!

You can do this while cleaning it. Cut the meat off of the bone, remove connective tissue and excessive fat.

That alone will remove insulation, so it cools down faster. Smaller pieces also cool faster.

A fresh mountain stream will also cool down your meat quickly.

Lacking that, the outdoor breeze will help cool things down.

Clean it Up
Make sure your meat is clean. Use clean water to wash off blood and any dirt.

Drying Your Meat
Now the hard part. Keep the meat dry. This is where you need to examine different methods and figure out which one is best for you.

The most basic technique is to use sunlight. You can also dry the meat with salt, smoke, and heat. All have different advantages and produce differently flavored meat.

Salting the meat requires you to carry a bunch of salt with you, but is quick and customizable.

Smoking takes a long time and lots of wood, but produces delicious meat.

Using heat to make jerky is quicker than smoking and produces the longest-lasting meat, but an entire deer’s worth of jerky can be exhausting to chew through.

Don’t worry, this doesn’t violate the “keep it cool” principle because it’ll no longer be raw, bacteria-ridden flesh.

Read on to learn more about the different methods of preserving your meat without refrigeration.

Drying Methods
The simplest method of preserving your game meat without refrigeration is to dehydrate it using the sun.

Slice the pieces of meat into thin strips. This is important, as thicker pieces will take longer to dry out. Fat is also a no-no; trim it off.

After cooling, cleaning, and drying the surface of the game, hang it high in a tree or from some other structure. We don’t want bears eating your hard work.

Make sure that the pieces of meat hang in direct sunlight. The sunlight, and its heat, will dry out the meat. Dry meat does not harbor bacteria.

That’s why you want to use thin slices; if the outside is too dry while the inside is still moist, bacteria will survive and ruin the meat.

This won’t keep your meat preserved for years, but it’s good for a short period of time (1-2 months) if you can’t eat everything all at once.

All of the other preservation techniques are variations on dehydrating your meat, just with other added bits or with stuff other than sunlight.

How to Preserve Meat with Salt (Curing)
The addition of salt to meat is also called curing, or in some places, corning. Yeah, that corned beef doesn’t mean that the cows ate lots of corn, it means that the meat was cured with “corns” of salt.

There are two basic methods of curing meat, a wet cure or a dry cure.

Wet Curing
Wet curing involves making a saline solution, about 14-20% salt in the water. Sugar can be added for flavor, and in fact it can help resist bacteria as well – I’ll get into that later.

Don’t forget spices if you’d like even more flavor (and have them available).

Cut the meat into strips and dip it into the salty water for about five minutes, then hang the pieces to dry in the sun.

The water will evaporate off and leave behind a microcrystalline barrier of salt (and maybe sugar). Salt dehydrates the meat faster than sunlight and heat alone, and also provides a hostile environment for any wayward bacteria that lands on the meat.

How does the sugar help, you ask? Doesn’t sugar feed bacteria? It does, but only when the environment isn’t saturated with sugar. That’s why honey, which is 80% sugar, lasts as long as it does.

Without moisture, the sugar harms the bacteria and aids in the preservation. And makes the meat taste better later!

Dry Curing
Dry curing is similar, except without the water or the part where you hang it up to dry.

Get a bunch of salt and add some sugar and other spices if you’d like. This is your dry rub.

Sensuously massage the rub onto the pieces of meat, making sure they’re well covered.

Then, store them in your container, preferably airtight, if possible. If you layer them, ensure that there’s enough salt between the layers that no two pieces of meat touch each other.

Both wet and dry curing are even better if you add sodium nitrate in some form.

Nitrates? Aren’t those scary?

Not really. You’re probably consuming more nitrates from vegetables than you are from meat.

In fact, nitrates protect against the bacteria that cause botulism! Huzzah for nitrates!

You can add nitrates to your curing solution or rub by using spinach or celery.

Or just use curing salt, which naturally contains enough nitrates to work well.

Cured meats will last for weeks unless you decide to give them a mud bath after curing them. Don’t do that.

How to Smoke Meat
Another good method on how to preserve meat without refrigeration is to smoke the meat.

So let’s learn how to smoke meat in the wild!

Smoking dehydrates the meat, changes the surface to be acidic and therefore hostile to bacteria, and makes the meat mouthwateringly delicious.

An important note is that smoking is not cooking. You bathe the meat in the smoke produced by the fire, but don’t let too much heat from the fire get to the meat!

The wood you choose is important for the final flavor of the meat. You want a hardwood with a good scent.

The same compounds that smell good will also make the meat taste good.

Hickory, cherry, oak, maple, and applewood are all common woods to use.

Avoid resinous woods like pine! You don’t want that pitch getting into your meat. Bleh.

And though it sounds like you want as much smoke as possible, you actually want want to avoid certain types of smoke. Wet smoke.

This means avoiding freshly cut wood, as that green wood will be too full of moisture and will produce wet smoke.

So use dry wood. Dry and rotten wood, aka punky wood, is nearly perfect–it smokes more but without excessive moisture.

If you’re going to stay in one place for an extended period of time, I would recommend that you build a smokehouse.

A basic smokehouse is a square wooden building, eight foot at its tallest and four feet wide all the way around.

The roof should slope, and there should be an opening in the wall near the top of the slope so smoke and heat can escape.

A fire is built at the bottom of the smokehouse and meat is hung up top, far enough away from the fire that it doesn’t cook – aim for 100 degrees Fahrenheit or a little less.

A thermometer stuck in the wall is a great idea, as is a dutch oven or other vessel to contain and control the fire.

The meat should be hung from wires stretched out across the top of the smokehouse, just under the ceiling. Remember, we don’t want to cook the meat, just smoke it!

However, if you need to preserve your meat without being in one place long enough to justify building a smokehouse, you can make do with a campfire.

The best way to do this is to dig a pit in the ground to place your campfire. Cover the fire partially to block the heat from cooking the meat, and hang the meat where the smoke escapes.

This won’t be as efficient as a smokehouse, but it’ll get the job done.

Smoked meat will last longer, and have a heavier flavor, the longer you smoke it.

One day’s worth of smoking will get you about a week or so of preservation.

Two day’s worth of smoking will get that meat saturated enough to last for up to a month.

Too much more than that and the flavor may be too much, though.

Commercial Preservatives
Some sporting goods stores will gladly sell you packets or sprays of concentrated chemical preservatives.Game carcass spray

These are typically citric acid, and guess what, they work.

Like other preservation methods, the citric acid provides an environment hostile to bacteria and inhibits their growth.

The problem is that they do not last long.

So if you are in the field for a day or two and need your meat to be preserved just until you get back to civilization, they are good choice.

The packets are light and do not require much work to use–no need to hang strips of meat in the sun.

But they don’t exactly preserve meat for long term storage. Just a couple of days.

If you are stuck in the woods longer than that, you can reapply the citric acid.

But the more you use citric acid, the more of a crust forms on the outside of the meat.

That crust should be trimmed before you cook and eat the meat.

How to Make Jerky and Pemmican
You can also “cook” your game meat to preserve it for a long time in the wild.

I say “cook” because you apply heat, but it’s a low heat, so it’s not actually cooking your meat. It’s just using heat to dehydrate it.

You don’t even need an oven to do it!

For jerky, you want to cut the meat into quarter inch thick or smaller strips, against the grain.

Make a wet cure solution similar to what we discussed above. Then hang the strips over a campfire, though this one can be a normal fire instead of a pit in the ground like the smoking campfire.

Hot coals are better than open flames, and the addition of sunlight will make the jerky dry out even faster.

How to Make Jerky and Pemmican

You can also “cook” your game meat to preserve it for a long time in the wild.

I say “cook” because you apply heat, but it’s a low heat, so it’s not actually cooking your meat. It’s just using heat to dehydrate it.

You don’t even need an oven to do it!

For jerky, you want to cut the meat into quarter inch thick or smaller strips, against the grain.

Make a wet cure solution similar to what we discussed above. Then hang the strips over a campfire, though this one can be a normal fire instead of a pit in the ground like the smoking campfire.

Hot coals are better than open flames, and the addition of sunlight will make the jerky dry out even faster.

Once you have jerky, which can take from several hours to over a day depending on the humidity, you can use it to make pemmican!

Render the fat you trimmed off into tallow. While doing this, grind the dried jerky into powder.

Mix the liquid tallow and the jerky powder together. Pour just a little bit of the tallow at a time, until you can squish the mixture without it crumbling.

Pemmican is better than jerky. It lasts just as long (a long time! From 3 months up to several years!) but provides more energy per bite and prevents rabbit starvation (AKA protein poisoning).

You do, after all, need some fat to survive. And game animals, with their healthy diets, produce healthy fat.

How Long Does Wild Preserved Meat Last?

Now that we’ve taught you how to preserve meat without refrigeration, for how long exactly will these methods preserve your meat?

Sunlight and citric acid alone will keep your meat safe for a couple of days. The citric acid has the benefit being able to be reapplied, but it’ll cause wasted meat as more trimming will be required.

Curing and smoking preserve your meat for much longer. A weak effort will result in a week of preservation, but a good effort can extend that to a month.

Making jerky is perhaps the best long-term method, as it’ll last up to three months. But it’ll be the least flavorful and most annoying to eat over a long term.



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