Written by: James Walton
The struggle to keep and store enough food is not a new problem, and as far back as 12,000 B.C., there is evidence of food preservation. The greatest tools to the ancients would have been sun and wind. Of course, we also can look to the Native Americans to learn how food was preserved. They smoked and salted meat to make it last longer.
Or we can look to the classically trained chefs of the 1800s. Their stories may not be as exciting or as fraught with peril as the American pioneers, but under certain kings they could be one bad meal away from the gallows!
1. Fat cap
Fat has an astounding ability to preserve. This is especially true when it rises to the top and seals in food. When fat cools and seals food in, it also keeps oxygen out. Without that precious oxygen, it takes much longer for the food to spoil. That is because bacteria need oxygen to proliferate.
One of the best ways to take advantage of this fat or fat cap is to create a stock or broth. Bone broth has become very popular and would work here, as well. As you simmer the bones in your stock or broth, try not to skim off the fat. (Although you do need to skim off the foam and impurities.)
As this mixture cools, you will see the fat cap begin to rise, form and solidify. Store this somewhere cool. A refrigerator is ideal for the modern homesteader, but a cool basement will work, as well, particularly in colder temperatures. In the fridge, you will get up to a month if you leave the fat cap undisturbed; you could get up to two weeks in a nice cool area.
2. Salt cure and hang
This is a combination of techniques and is one of my very favorite preparations. The best method comes from the world-famous chef, Jacques Pepin.
Traditionally it is to be used on the pork picnic or hind quarters. You will first have to salt this piece of meat for 30 days. Place it in a large container or odorless trash bag. Cover it completely with salt and leave it in a cool place for a month.
After the month is up, wipe off the salt, but do not rinse it because we are in the business of dehydration with this preparation; rub it with some whiskey or bourbon. In France, they would tell us to use cognac but we are in America so I use what we make here.
Next, wrap this beauty in some cheesecloth or a breathable chef’s coat.
The timing is critical, as it will take six months to hang and dry. You must be aware of your climate and the time of the year. To do this right, you need a nice cool, dry environment that will stay that way for most of the six months. On the East Coast, that means hanging your pork around September or October and pulling it down in March or April.
After about three months, unwrap your meat and give it a look. Make sure it hasn’t fallen prey to bugs or something bigger! Also, there may be some mold growing on this meat and you will need to trim that off, as well. Rewrap and hang for the remainder of time.
Once you have reached the six-month mark, drop your meat and bring it inside. Touch the meat; is it springy in the center or solid? Cut it in half and look it over. If it’s not completely dry, it will still be gummy in the middle. Wrap it again and hang it for another month. If it’s dry, shave off any mold and unsightly pieces.
Eat it raw or use it to flavor soups, pastas and stews.
In today’s world, this might sound like a lot of work for something you cannot eat for six months, but if you killed an animal in September and you could have access to the meat six months later, that would be a huge benefit to the people who are storing food.
I have used this on the following cuts of meat as well:
- Beef shoulder — same prep as pork
- Deer hind quarter — same prep as pork
- Duck breast — salt one week; hang 1 month
- Goose breast — salt two weeks; hang 2 months.
The rillette is a preparation that also takes advantage of the powerful preserving qualities of fat. This preparation is traditionally used for rabbit and is one of my favorite ways to enjoy a good hare.
The meat of a rabbit should be roasted slow and low in an oven until it gets tender. It is then minced or processed in a food processor with a mix of herbs. (Chefs of the 1800s, of course, would have used cleavers.) For this flavor, use lavender, thyme and oregano. Chill the meat at this point.
Add fat to this mixture, as that is what makes it a rillette. Traditionally duck fat is used for this and you want the mix to be pretty creamy. In other words, add chilled fat slowly into your food processor until you achieve a good balance. Season it if you wish with salt and pepper.
Divide your rillette into smaller containers and top each with some warmed duck fat that will harden like the fat cap we mentioned earlier.
I am not positive on shelf life of the rillette because they get eaten fast. I bet if you had tops to cover them and buried this in the ground during winter, they would last at least a month.
I have saved my very favorite chef prep method for last. To “confit” is to cook on extremely low heat, submerged in fat. It is basically deep fat baking instead of frying. The results are totally different from that of deep fat frying, though. Meat is transformed into something incredible at these low temps.
We will focus on duck legs, as that is the classic meat used. Salt the duck legs for 24 hours and cover them with a little fresh thyme. After 24 hours, rinse and place the legs in a nice deep baking dish. Next, cover with duck fat and bake at about 200 degrees for six hours.
The legs become juicy, tender and incredibly succulent. They are also covered in fat. I am sure you know where this is going. Once cooled, the fat will harden and prevent spoilage. Shelf life: one month.