Hunt, Store, Eat: Keeping Meat Without Refrigeration
Updated: Jan 7
My sister and I were in full childhood reminiscion mode this past week, playing the card game variety of the 1980s-era computer game “Oregon Trail” over a little wine and a lot of hysterical laughter. Originally designed to teach school children about the realities of 19th century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail, the game involves facing “lots of peril” (as my sister put it), like typhoid, dysentery, broken wagon wheels, bad water, freezing temperatures, deadly snake bites, and starvation. The game involves the player(s) maintaining a stock of clean water, clothes, ammunition, and, of course, shelf-stable foods for your traveling party. Food may also be gained by hunting (at the expense of ammunition, of course).
While that was all fun and games, it occurs to me that this week we’re entering deer hunting season. Though I’m not planning on hunting, our friends do. They generally keep a good-sized chest freezer to store all the collected meat, but—problem—pioneers didn’t have freezers. They didn’t even have ice. So the question is raised: How did pioneers keep meat?
Surely not everything was eaten immediately (a single deer offers upwards of 60 pounds of meat). They couldn’t have dried leftover cuts into pemmican or jerky every single time. Dry aging large cuts of meat requires pretty specific humidity and temperature conditions. So what’s the amateur pioneer to do?
How to preserve meat without means of electricity is still an important thing to know. The significance of that information may especially come into play when the power goes out for a length of time for any number of reasons (e.g. storm, grid overload (aka “blackout”), other power line damage). Here are a few ways to preserve your meats, the pioneer way, without relying on electricity!
1. DRY IT.
This includes methods of salting, smoking, air drying, and freeze drying. According to USDA, “Drying is the world's oldest and most common method of food preservation…
“The scientific principal of preserving food by drying is that by removing moisture, [bacterial, fungal, or naturally occurring autolytic enzymes from the raw food ] cannot efficiently contact or react with the food [and] preventing this enzymatic action preserves the food from biological action [i.e. spoilage].”
2. PICKLE IT.
Sound gross? Well, if you’ve ever enjoyed corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day or pickled herring at a Christmas gathering, you’ve enjoyed a couple of the more popular pickled meats around. Pickling (aka Brining or Corning) is simply soaking and covering over a food in a brine. Brine can be vinegar-based (as for many pickled veggies, like cucumbers or carrots) or water-based, but both methods require adhering to a recipe of salt, sugar, and sometimes spices to get the flavor palatable.
3. STORE IT IN FAT.
It may sound unappetizing, but storing meat in fat is a delicacy in other countries. In France, it’s called confit, and is a method used to preserve meats as well as produce. This method keeps cooked meat moist while also preventing pathogens from making a ruin of your provisions. Modern recipes sometimes utilize olive oil instead of good ol’ fashioned lard (pork fat), but either way the meats are cooked then stored, completely covered in fat to create an air-proof seal.
If and how you decide to store your meats is a matter of preference these days. We obviously have the technology nowadays to refrigerate and freeze at our leisure, but, as so many instances have shown, that relatively modern-day tech is fickle compared to the resilience of Mother Nature’s local wild.
So, just as an exercise in self-preparedness, I’m going to try my own hand at a pioneer-type of meat preservation. Maybe I’ll hunt some rabbit. Maybe I’ll buy a leg of venison off my neighbors. Regardless, I invite you to do the same with me this season as we all (or many of us) hunt, store, and eat our local wild meats.
 “Jerky and Food Safety”, Food Safety and Inspection Service, US Department of Agriculture, 03Nov2016. URL: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/fsis-content/internet/main/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/meat-preparation/jerky-and-food-safety/ct_index. Accessed 12Sept2019.