Meat Preservation: The Lost Ways of Curing and Smoking

Categories: Cooking

Safety Precautions

Jerky is considered a very safe and effective method of preserving meat. However, over the years a few incidents of food poisoning have been reported as a result of improperly cured jerky. This can be easily avoided if a few commonsense precautions are followed:

1) Cleanliness is rule number one. It begins in the field when the animal is field dressed or gutted. Try to keep the meat from coming into contact with the contents of the intestines. Rinse the inside of the animal thoroughly with water if possible.

2) Before preparing any food wash your hands thoroughly using soap and water. Use a mild chlorine bleach solution (one tablespoon of bleach to a gallon of water) to clean all surfaces and materials that will come into contact with the meat. (By now it should be evident that chlorine bleach is an important survival item that should be stored in sufficient quantities.)

3) The use an oven thermometer to insure that your smoker/dryer maintains the proper temperature is recommended.

4) Jerky must be completely dry, since bacteria require moisture to grow. Properly dried jerky should crack when bent in half, but not necessarily break into two pieces. Allow the jerky to cool to room temperature before testing.

5) Avoid Cross-Contamination by not allowing your finished product to come into contact with surfaces that have been contaminated by raw meat

6) Store jerky in airtight jars or plastic bags to prevent it from absorbing moisture and bacteria from the air. Allow the jerky to cool to room temperature before placing it into airtight containers.

7) If moisture appears on the inside of the storage container the jerky is not dry enough. Dry it longer.

Drying/Smoking Temperatures

There are a lot of opinions regarding ideal drying/smoking temperatures. Some differences of opinion are the result of safety concerns, and some have to do with what you intend to do with the meat. Those who plan on storing their dried meats in a refrigerator or freezer tend to cook their meat as well as dry it. It is important to remember that cooked meat is not suitable for long term storage and must be stored in a refrigerator or freezer or else eaten within a few days. When properly cured and dried, without cooking, meat will keep indefinitely, (although its quality will begin to deteriorate after a few months so it should probably be eaten within a year.)

Because of the natural preservative nature of smoke, smoking meat can be safely done at a lower temperature than that used when drying meat without smoke. Also, meat properly cured with salt and spices can be safely dried or smoked at a lower temperature. In general, I believe that it is best to use the lower temperatures, by using the smoking process rather than drying alone, and being sure to cure the meat with salt and spices beforehand.

The USDA recommends drying/smoking temperatures of 145o F for 7 hours or 155ofor 4 hours. Care should be taken not to exceed 155o F or the meat will get cooked rather than dried. Lower drying temperatures of 125o F for 10 hours or 135o F for 8 hours are recommended by some, and I have even seen recommendations as low as 95o to 130o F.

I recommend that you begin the drying process at a lower temperature, say around 125o F, and then gradually increase it each hour until the maximum temperature of 145o to 150o F is reached for the final hour or so. This will insure that the meat is thoroughly dried through and through without getting cooked. Check the meat for doneness by allowing a piece to cool down and then bend it.

To convert degrees Fahrenheit to Celsius subtract 32, then multiply by five and divide by 9. Or use the following approximations:



The Drying/Smoking Process

Smoking the meat is not an absolute necessity, but in my opinion it is highly desirable—not only because the smoke imparts a nice flavor to the meat, but more importantly because the smoke is a natural preservative. Jerky can be made in an ordinary oven by leaving the oven door open slightly to allow the moisture to escape. It is important that the temperature does not exceed 155o F because you want to dry the meat rather than cook it. Cooked meat is not preserved. You should set an oven thermometer on the oven rack toward the back to monitor the heat. Obviously this is best done in the cold months of the year when the heat escaping from the oven can be used to help keep your house warm, rather than increasing your air conditioning bill.

Drying jerky can also be done in a food dehydrator. Again a thermometer may be advisable to monitor the heat. Even if your dehydrator has a temperature setting, these are often inaccurate. A solar dehydrator is also an option. The Native Americans (who taught the European settlers about jerky in the first place) used to dry their meat in the open air and sun. In some cultures the meat is actually hung in the sun on the thorns of shrubs. So, despite all of these seemingly complicated instructions, never forget that making jerky is not rocket science!

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