We’re continuing to talk about meat this week. Without refrigeration or freezing, many of us would have trouble keeping meat from spoiling. Potted or canned meat is one option to preserve the harvest, but it doesn’t have the allure or flavor profile of smoked or dried meat.
Drying techniques preserve foods by robbing microbes of the water they need to reproduce. We usually call this water content, but food scientists call it water activity, which is a measure of how easy microbes can get from one location to another. Pure water has perfect water activity (1.0) as microbes can travel freely. Dried foods must have a water activity of less than 0.7, but this varies by the foods’ structure, for example, whole milk powder must be kept at only 8 percent moisture content, while dried peas can have twice that much, and dehydrated fruits are still safe at up to 25 percent moisture. Usually drying is coupled with salting, smoking, or other techniques, but the primary preservative is getting water out of the foodstuff.
Dehydration was probably the first human technology for preserving food. Hunter-gatherers have used smoke and sun to dry fish, meat, and plant foods for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of years. When meat or fish is dried with smoke, their internal structures are often degraded, but the texture is often overlooked because of the enhanced flavor. Smoke infuses meat with alcohols, acids, aldehydes, and phenolic compounds, all of which work together to stop or inhibit bacterial growth.1 Both fruits and vegetables can be reliably dehydrated, but the former are especially well-suited for this treatment, and both can last nearly indefinitely. Grains were also stored by drying. Early agriculturalists could store grains for months in large pits in the ground, while later societies used above-ground granaries to store grains for years. Our own word “jerky” came from the ancient Inca word ch’arki, meaning freeze-dried meat.
Applying salt works as a preservative by drawing the water out of cells through reverse osmosis. Both food and bacterial cells are dehydrated by salting. Ancient societies preserved fish (and other meats) by gutting, cleaning, and washing fillets before packing them in 10-20 percent of their weight in salt, thus preserving them for up to three weeks. The salt content of the meat and fish rises 10-15 percent and in many cases this is combined with air drying and/or smoking for increased durability.2 The Romans went a step further by soaking fish in a salt brine until they dissolved into a brown goo called garum. Salted fish goo might be more palatable than the invention of my ancestors: Lutefisk, a fish soaked in salt and lye.
1Modern “smoked” meats and fish are usually treated with artificial flavors instead of the labor-intensive smoking process, and thus instead of being better preserved, they are in some cases less stable than the raw ingredients themselves.
2Much modern fish is sold with much less salt, 2-4 percent, which imparts the salty flavor but must rely on other methods for preservation.
Try It for Yourself
I use fresh venison because that is what is available to me, but it must be made of red meat, as chicken, pork, and other meats might not be safe to eat without cooking. I also use a food dehydrator (a later plan is to build a solar-powered dehydrator, but for now I have to use the electric shortcut), but you can achieve the same results in an oven. The following recipe is a base; feel free to spice it up, literally. It is most energy efficient to do a large batch if you are using your oven.
3 lb. lean meat, cut into 1/4-in thin slices
1 T salt
1 T brown sugar
1/4 c teriyaki sauce
1/2 c soy sauce
spices to taste: cumin, ginger, chili, paprika
1 T red chili paste
1 1/2 c water
- Put the meat in a water-tight container.
- Mix the rest of the ingredients in a bowl and then pour over the meat.
- Stir the meat in the brine, cover, and refrigerate for 24-72 hours, stirring twice a day.
- Lay out each piece of meat on a drying rack in the dehydrator, or hang it on skewers in your oven or smoker with one rack at the top and another rack at the bottom with a cookie sheet below the meat to catch the drippings (another option is to cover one of the racks with tinfoil, poke holes between the wires to let drippings through, and lay the meat flat on the tinfoil; this is not the most environmentally friendly option, however).
- Turn the dehydrator on at about 155°F or your oven on at the lowest setting (mine is 170°F) and wedge a tea towel in the top of the door to keep it open just a crack. Refer to your smoker’s directions for smoking the jerky dry.
- Let the meat dry until it is barely flexible; it is best to stop just before it snaps when you bend it. In the dehydrator or oven it is from 6-9 hours.
- Store the jerky in a cool, dry place. Enjoy!
Johnson, Scott A. J.
2016 Why Did Ancient Civilizations Fail? Routledge, New York.
Rahman, Mohammad Shafiur and Conrad O. Perera
2007 Drying and Food Preservation. In Handbook of Food Preservation, 2nd edition, edited by M. Shafiur Rahman, pp. 403-432. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.
Robinson, R. K.
1983 The Vanishing Harvest: a study of food and its conservation. Oxford University Press, Oxford.