Author Topic: Smoked, brined, dried and other methods of preserving meat.  (Read 12722 times)

Offline Delmonico

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Smoked, brined, dried and other methods of preserving meat.
« on: August 14, 2010, 12:16:22 PM »
These are all methods that were used to preserve meat in the Old West.  Sometimes two or even all three of these methods were used to preserve meat.  The real meaning of these and other terms used are often not really understood to day. 

Most of these old methods used salt somewhere in the process, sometimes sugar and Potassium nitrate or Sodium nitrate are also added to the salt, salt meaning Sodium chloride, salt in chemical terms meaning the compound left after a acid is neutralized by a base substance.

The salt, sugar and nitrates prevent microbe growth by absorbing the water from the microbes, thus preventing the microbe from spoiling the meat and producing toxins.

Dry salted meat has the salt, rubbed on the meat or the meat is placed in a container and covered with salt.  If it is rubbed on, the process has to be contained till the salt is absorbed all the way through the meat.  Covering the meat with salt also takes several days to fully absorb.  This process also removes some of the water from the meat; this also slows down microbe growth.

Brining meat is when the meat is soaked for several days in a strong brine solution.  The meat from brining is either kept in the brine solution till ready to eat, or it is removed and dried and then smoked.  Brined beef is often called corned beef and brined meat kept in the brine is often called pickled meat even if vinegar is not added as it often is.

Also meat often has the brine solution injected into it.  This speeds up the process quite a bit and is the method used for most modern hams.  This dates back to at least the beginning of the major packinghouses in the 1840's.

Smoking takes two forms, hot smoking and cold smoking.  Hot smoking cooks the meat as well as smoking it, hot smoked meats are ready to eat as they come out of the smoker, but it does not preserve it well. Cold smoking often takes days and the chemicals in the smoke as well as the drying affect on the meat hel preserve it.  Cold Smoking is often done along with salting.

Large pieces of beef are often salted and partly dried, the dry crust helps prevent spoilage, and well-dried beef keeps well till slicing exposes the moist center. 
Often meat was put in brine, and was kept there to preserve it, this is sometimes called pickling.

One today can go to most any grocery store and buy "salt pork" and this is often seen being cooked up in Civil War camps.  However this is not really the salt pork that was commonly issued to troops.  The salt pork sold today is either "fatback" a strip of fat with little meat from above the loin, or it is from the belly trim, apiece called the brisket.  This is intended to be used to cook with greens or beans and this was in every barrel of pork, but was most often used for the same purpose back then.  One would not fry it and eat it unless one "was scraping the bottom of the barrel."

As you might guess the barreled pork contained "the whole hog." and the issued piece might be from the ham, the loin or the shoulder.  Also the amount of salt in the meat was much more than the salt pork today.  If there was time and water it was often soaked for a couple of hours or even over night to remove some of the salt before cooking.

So if you are a Military ren-Actor, you don't need to eat that fatback or side meat for your rations.  One can just buy perhaps a boneless loin, shoulder or fresh ham into ration sized pieces.  About a week before the event, mix up brine strong enough to float a raw egg. This should be pickling salt since it contains no iodine or caking preventing agent.   Put the pork in a crock and cover it with the brine and use something like a plate with a weight to keep in under the brine.  One can then use this as your ration.

Beef was also cut up and packed in brine to preserve it.  Another term for brine preserved beef is "Corned Beef."  The big difference is potassium nitrate is added to the brine, this helps the beef keep its pink/red color. This was handled like the pork, but most of the beef packed this way was older, lean beef and was not as well thought of as the salt pork by most because it tended to be tough.  It was best cooked by slow boiling and like the pork the whole cow critter was used.

Today most "corned beef" is made out of the brisket, a somewhat tough cut that tenderizes well with boiling, or other slow cooking methods.

As a note, corned beef as I understand it, is not well know, even today in Ireland, where mutton, lamp and pork were the common meats.  The connection with the Irish and St. Paddy's day is American, where the majority of the Irish were poor working class folks in big cities.  Fresh beef expensive and even the preserved beef was often a treat.  So what better to do for a holiday from the "Old Country" than to splurge and by some beef to celebrate.

Today when we think of smoked pork we most often think of ham or bacon.  Ham is either the back leg of a hog or a Picnic Ham, the front shoulder.  Bacon is the belly meat.  Back in our time period any deboned, smoked and salted pork was often called bacon, remember the whole hog needed preserved.

I won't get into specific recipes for the salt, sugar, saltpeter mixes for wet and dry salting, and these are many.  But when the salt had penetrated the meat fully, it was smoked.  The smoking was a cold, smoke, 120 degrees or less.  Modern home smokers most often do a hot smoke, this cooks the meat and it is not used for preserving.  The preserved pork has to be cooked, unlike the hot smoked pork.

The woods used can also vary; regional availability often makes the difference.  Out here on the prairie corncobs were often used. 

Parts of the hog that were not really ham was also used in a product we still see today. These scraps were salted down then pressed together under heat and pressure and smoked.  This is what is called pressed ham, still made by the millions of pound today. 

This pressed ham was popular for purchase by saloons because it was cheaper.  This along with other cold cuts, bread, cheese, pickles and condiments were set up on what was called "Free Lunch Counters."  You could make "Lunch" and eat, if you had bought a drink.  The very salty food also made you thirstier so you bought more drinks.  This is the origin of the expression "There is no such thing as a free lunch."


Drying meat of course removes a lot of the water from meat.  Jerky and the African equivalent biltong is thin strips of meat cut along the grain and dried to the point that almost all the water is out of the meat.  Jerky can be salted or not.  If kept dry it will keep for years.

 Jerky is a common way to preserve beef and well as other lean game meats. This is a thin strip of lean beef that has had almost all of the water removed from it.  Sometimes it is salted and spiced, but not always.  The natives did not salt their jerky; the white man brought this in.  The salt does help preserve it by preventing microbe growth.

The lean meat was cut into strips and either salt sprinkled on it or it was brined to salt it.  The meat was hung up in a warm place and then dried.  Sometimes it was also smoked, but this was most often done to keep flies and other insects off of it while it dried.  It could be hung on ropes, often wagon trains on the overland trails used ropes on the side of the wagon to dry excess buffalo for harder times, on could travel and dry jerky at the same time if one did not mind the dust.

Sometimes it was just hung on bushes in the sun, or a crude smokehouse was built out of brush or hides.  Properly dried jerky is has a very dry surface, but is still somewhat bendable.  This jerky could be eaten as is; the way most eat it today, but it was often re-hydrated and cooked in soups and gravy when fresh meat could not be obtained.

Also a lot was made into pemmican, the meat was pounded or ground to break it up after drying, berries or other dried fruit was mixed in along with melted fat.  This was stuffed into a cleaned intestine or into canvas tubes.  The canvas tubes were also often dipped in paraffin wax to further seal it.  This mix could supply all the food and nutrition’s a person would need and one could live on this indefinitely.

One often hears the term “dried beef”, this is a form not dried as much as jerky and is in larger pieces.  This dried beef is simply made from the round by separating the 3 muscles of the round.  The out side one is the largest and toughest and is called bottom round.  The slightly smaller one on the inside is tenderer and is called an inside round.  The small one in the middle is even tenderer and is called eye of round. 

The separated rounds are then brined or dry salted often-adding sugar till the salt has fully penetrated.  They are then hung upon a hot dry (90-130 degrees) place and allowed to dry till the outside is a hard dry crust.  This often takes 2-3 weeks.  This beef is somewhat moist inside and keeps well till cut.

Fish was also preserved, often it was dried and/or smoked, but often it was also pickled with salt and vinegar, mostly herring which can still be bought in most grocery stores along with salmon.  Others might have been pickled, but that is what I have seen in grocery lists.

Cod and salmon was the fish most often seen dried and smoked.

Larding is when you cook pork and cover it with melted lard and allow it to harden, this was done in both jars and crocks and it was used for steaks and chops as well as bulk sausage.  The crocks had a cloth tied over the end to keep it clean.  The lard sealed the air from the meat.  This was most often kept in the cool cellar.

I often buy 3-4 pounds of good country sausage and crumble it up as I fry it.  I then put it in a jar and pour the grease over it and any extra lard that is needed to seal it.  I keep this in the refrigerator and dig out what I need and warm it up.  I pour the extra grease back in the jar.  I can make gravy and biscuits in about the time it takes to make the biscuits.  I make the biscuits and toss them in the oven and make the gravy while they are baking. 

I will mention the pork of the time was not the lean pork we buy today.  Very fat hogs were desirable since the lard was as important as the meat.  Besides that folks who worked, often in the cold needed the fuel that most of us don't need today.

As a good example shows up in picture #12937 in the Solomon Butcher Collection:

Look at the amount of fat on it compared to what you buy today at the store.  That was typical of the ham of the time period. We'll talk this time about that favorite of Civil War ren-actors, salt pork.  This method involved brining it, soaking the pork in a barrel of brine.  It was also kept in the barrel of brine to help preserve it and only removed no more than a couple days before use.  This barrel of pork although often forgotten today, has lead to the term "Pork Barrel", a term used to mean your Congressman tries to get you more than you maybe deserve.

While pork, it has become leaner in recent years, our beef today has more fat it.  Just like pork this has to do with both breeding and the way they are fed to finish them up for market.  Today almost all our beef goes to feedlots to finish it up.  Some was fed in feedlots even in the Old West, but not as much as today, the feedlot beef of the time was most often sent to the higher class restaurants back east, even the Texas Longhorns often ended up in feedlots in the late 1860's and 1870's.  These feed lots were often in Illinois, Iowa and North East Nebraska around The Columbus area, this region had farmers with excess corn and the Union Pacific Railroad to ship them back east to the packing plants

Mongrel Historian

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