So, getting back on track, after computer issues and one “final push” to get things at the new place livable for the kids…
Two preserving methods that in my mind go hand-in-hand are salting and smoking. They’re each viable on their own, but the two of them together can be a wonderful mix. “Salting” is just exactly that–heavily salting the food to be preserved. And I don’t mean “going overboard with the salt-shaker;” typically the food has to be completely buried in the salt. (I’ve seen things other than meat salted, but that’s uncommon; I’ll be talking about salting meat here, unless I indicate otherwise.) This has the dual effect of drying out the meat and pushing salt molecules into the cells of the meat–osmosis is a wonderful thing. Most pathogenic bacteria–the ones that make you sick–can’t handle an environment quite that dry or that salty.
Most often, the meat is then taken out to the smokehouse (or grill, or even the oven) and smoked. This further dries the meat, as well as adding flavor. Additionally, some of the compounds in the smoke are apparently bactericidal–or at least slow things down quite a bit. The options for smoke are nearly endless–nearly any hardwood can be used, and each has its own subtle difference. Avoid softwoods (pine, cedar, etc.), as they contain some less-than-pleasant ingredients (turpentine was originally derived from pine tar; don’t want that in your bacon!).
It’s not an overnight process; generally, I’d say it takes a day or two, minimum, per pound of meat. (A 4-lb pork belly is ready to smoke in about a week.) I’m not going to delve into details of “how much” or “how long” here (although I may share recipes in a later post); there are plenty of books and websites out there which cover things. One area I would like to touch on is additives to the salt.
Obviously, while “salty” is a flavor we humans are programmed to like (a trip to your local fast-food restaurant should be sufficient indication), it’s not generally that great by itself. (I haven’t seen a “salt lick” aisle in my grocery store, at any rate.) Very often we add things like sugar, pepper, herbs, spices, etc. Where people tend to wig out is when we start talking about nitrates. Sodium nitrite (aka “pink salt” or “curing salt”) is often added to the cure for meats, as it a) is even more highly bactericidal than regular salt; and b) preserves the “meat” color of the meat, rather than letting it turn an unappetizing gray.
Over time, the sodium nitrite breaks down into sodium nitrate. Most of the remaining nitrite converts into nitrate after we eat it (it’s a pretty standard metabolic pathway in our digestion–our bodies are designed for it, in other words). Where things get touchy are the possible carcinogenic effects of the nitrates… Quite a bit has been written about the “pink salt” debate, both pro and con. I leave it to you to decide; personally, I’m not afraid of it. As with so many things, I’m going to say: “Do your research. Think about it. Decide for yourself.” Sort of the left-wing survivalist mantra (Let’s call it the 1st Commandment…).
As to the “prepping” part of this: We’re supposedly preserving food, trying to get it to keep–if not until/through/after the Collapse, at least through the winter. How long will a smoked and/or salted piece of meat keep? From what I’ve been able to find, the numbers seem to range wildly. As a rule of thumb, I’d say: smoked, probably a couple of weeks. Salted, probably longer–at least a couple of months. Smoked and salted–well, none of my bacon has lasted long enough for me to say… (I’ve seen anecdotal evidence of a salt-cured and smoked ham hanging in a non-weather-tight shed in the mountains of Virginia for over three years.)
Which reminds me–one of my tasks (“copious free time”) at the new place is planning and building a new smokehouse. Hopefully, when that’s done, I’ll have quite a bit more to say on this subject…
So, do any of you have any smoked/salted/cured food tales to share?