Cured hams hanging in a traditional storage, with a selection of wine bottles in the background, suggesting a wellstocked pantry or a specialty food shop.

Methods for Preserving Meat at Home – Salt, Acidity Smoke, Fat

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Writer / Enthusiast / Meat Curer / Forager / Harvester | About Tom

For decades, immersed in studying, working, learning, and teaching in the craft of meat curing, now sharing his passion with you through eat cured meat online resource.

This entire website is about meat curing, smoking, and preserving meat, mainly with salt and smoke. This write-up will focus on an overview of all the ways I’ve used and encountered over the years.

Methods at home are often quite different from commercial store-bought ways.

The magic of salt is the cornerstone of most of the methods you’ll find below, but they vary quite a bit. Smoke is a different story and can help preserve, and then there’s fat and lard, each with its style and effect.

Key Article Points:

  • Methods Overview:
    • Salt: a cornerstone of preservation methods
    • Smoke: aids in preservation, adds flavor
    • Fat and Lard: utilized for preservation, each with unique effects
  • How Preservation Works:
    • Salt: Reduces water activity and inhibits microbial growth
    • Smoke: Adds flavor, keeps bugs off, and inhibits mold growth
    • Acidity: De-naturing meat is like cooking it; acidity aids preservation
    • Fat: Preserves by inhibiting oxygen exposure and adds flavor

This topic needs comprehensive coverage; I’ve gone into detail about each of these methods below:

Preserving AgentMethodExampleLength of Preservation
Salt, AcidityDry Salt CuringProsciutto, Country Ham, Salami3 months to 1-5 years
Salt Water BrineWet Brining CureBrined, Cold Smoked Ham1-3 months to 1-4 years
SaltSaturation Dry Salt CuringSalt Pork, Salt Fish1-3 years
Salt, AciditySalt & Vinegar – Dried MeatBiltongUp to 1 month
FatFat, No OxygenJar of Duck or Goose Confit1 to 6 months
FatFat, No OxygenJar of Rabbit or Pork Rillette 1 to 6 months
FatFat & DriedPemmican1 to 5 years
Brine/ PressureCanningCanned MeatMany Years
AcidityPickled MeatRollmopsUp to 1 Month

My focus has mostly been on flavor when preserving meat, but it is also useful to have preserved meat (like dry-cured cold-smoked bacon, salt pork, or lonza) hanging around for weeks or months to savor.

Meat23 2 of 2
Salt Cured & Preserved Beef & Pork – 1 method

Home Methods for Preserving Meat

Using Salt to Preserve:

What is Meat Made Up Of?

Meat is high in water content, regardless of the meat type.

  • 75% Water
  • 20% Protein
  • Fat, sugar, vitamins, and minerals 5%

What I’ve learned over the years about curing, drying, and brining meat is that you either remove or inhibit the water activity to preserve meat (and flavor it).

Or you can cook the meat (in fat), therefore losing moisture, drying it out, and then placing it in an oxygen-free environment. This is a slightly more scientific way of looking at rillettes or confit preservation, which I’ll get into with a bit more detail later.

But the key that I have learned, the bacteria that spoil meat operate in the water part of the meat.

How Does Meat Become Preserved?

Preserving meat is all about drying, which removes moisture and makes it a tough environment for bad bacteria. I am familiar with the salt, fat, and vinegar aspects, so I’ll focus on those with all these methods below.

Since the ‘bad’ bacteria gets in the meat’s water part, is that water aspect that needs to be inhabited?

With Dry Curing or ‘salt’ pork/beef/fish, etc., losing at least 35-40% of the original weight indicates preservation.

As much as this is related to meat science, let’s return to the general overview of some of the preserving aspects of meat and how to do it.

How Does Salt Prevent Meat from Spoiling?

Better let some academic expert answer this (

Salt is effective as a preservative because it reduces the water activity of foods. The water activity of a food is the amount of unbound water available for microbial growth and chemical reactions. Salt’s ability to decrease water activity is thought to be due to the ability of sodium and chloride ions to associate with water molecules (Fennema, 1996Potter and Hotchkiss, 1995).

Adding salt to foods can also cause microbial cells to undergo osmotic shock, resulting in the loss of water from the cell and thereby causing cell death or retarded growth (Davidson, 2001).

National Center of Biotechnology Information https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK50952/

Dry Salt Curing

Specifically, I will talk about the equilibrium curing method, which uses a certain percentage of salt to calculate the weight of the meat. This method allows me to choose the amount of saltiness in the meat while also ‘dry curing’ it for shelf life and flavor.

Dry cured meat penicillin white mold
Dry Cured Venison in my Curing Chamber

Now, this method does have a process, of course, but it’s the main way that I cure meat. It takes a few weeks or months, but once it has lost 35 to 40% of the starting weight, it has dried enough to be preserved and eaten.

If you want to learn more, I have written a post here about dry curing meat at home using this method.

ie. Equilibrium Curing

2.5-3% to the Weight of the Meat Minimum

(Metric Scale is Easier)

1,000 grams of Meat (say pork belly)

= 30 grams of salt (there is also a meat curing calculator using the equilibrium curing at the top of the page)

The salt preserving (economical ways of preserving I wrote about) method you’ll see below, which is saturating the meat with a dry salt mix, and drawing out some of the water and moisture in the meat is more focused on preserving. Eq Curing is about flavor & preservation.

Method for curing meat with salt
Dry Cured Venison – the result

Equilibrium curing is more of the modern technique used for dry curing meat.

It creates a precise, accurate water brine that tightly surrounds the meat by vacuum packing it or wrapping it in a Ziploc bag.

So, all the salt is incorporated into the meat, creating an inhospitable environment where the bad bacteria can’t spoil it once it is adequately dried.

I have to note that dry-cured meat, since it has lost moisture/weight, is most intense and designed to be sliced wafer thin – if you think prosciutto, pancetta, or bresaola. There are examples of thinly cut sliced cured meat (salumi is the Italian category for this).

Using Pink Curing Salt 1 or 2 (Prague Powder 1 or 2)

Pink curing salt (I wrote about using them and not here) or Prague powder contains sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite depending on either pink curing salt no. 1 or no. 2.

Pink curing salt no. 1 is designed for curing, consumption, and cooked foods that are under 30 days old, such as pastrami and hot-smoked hams.

Pink curing salt no. 2 is designed for over 30 days, like prosciutto or country ham.

Since there’s been some research about nitrates reacting to high-temperature cooking, I personally do not use nitrates for making bacon. But I make sure that the pork is of very good quality and is traceable as well for peace of mind about its life background.

Using pink curing salt is a decision most meat curers have to make. If you want a bit more information about pink curing salt, please check out this post.

Wet Brining Cure

Fish fillets in large pot, with a strong salt brine before smoking. The fish fillets are submerged in the water salt mixture.
Fish fillets in a Strong Salt Brine before Smoking

Using salt and water, you can create a brine, which can inhibit the meat in the same harsh environment so the bad bacteria are minimized. Drying out the meat can also have a preserving effect, combined with oil for canning sardines or anchovys.

Wet-curing brines are used in many ways. In the commercial fish curing industry, very strong salty brines are used for fast curing.

For a large amount of fish, I have been lucky enough to catch sometimes, we have used strong “80-degree” brines to cure fish fast for cold smoking or hot smoking (cooking and smoking).

A modern ‘equilibrium brining’ method has also become more popular for home curers and smokers.

Saturation Dry Salt Curing

By completely covering meat below and above and rubbing it into all the surface areas. You’re using one of the most ancient techniques of preserving meat. Some have coined this ‘saltbox’ dry curing.

Have you ever heard of salt beef, salt pork, or salt fish?

These basically use this method of saturating the meat with as much salt as possible because of the extreme drying that happens and salt penetration with this type of meat preservation.

This is why it was used during world wars: soldiers were deployed to all corners of the world for months on end and needed protein ready.

It needed to be soaked or boiled in freshwater to be edible.

When it comes to salt pork(not something to be eaten raw), which is quite common in some areas of the world, there are so many variations that some are wet brined, and there are many variations to the classic type of salt pork.

If you want more information on salt pork, here is a link to a bit more info I wrote.

I have seen written that it’s generally over 10% salt to the weight of the meat, which would saturate the meat to the point of long-term preservation.

Salt & Vinegar – Dried Meat

South Africans have a cured and denatured meat called biltong.

(Oh yeah, by the way, cooking fresh meat is denaturing it too)

It is salted and marinated with vinegar and then slowly dried out for six days, depending on how thick the meat is. The most common way I produce this is by using topside beef (I wrote a full article about preserving beef in another article), although I’ve used relatively low wild venison to produce mighty fine biltong.

Biltong is salted and marinated with vinegar, and then, depending on the thickness of the meat, it is slowly dried out for up to 6 days.

The most common thing I make is topside beef, although I’ve used quite a lot of wild venison (here is what I do with venion deer cuts) to produce mighty fine biltong.

Homemade cured meat biltong
my homemade cured meat biltong

You cut the meat into about an inch thick slabs, so it’s not like the superthin jerky style. The salt and vinegar provide the effect, and the meat is traditionally rolled in crushed coriander seed (above is my chili and smoked paprika version).

When I’m going on outdoor missions or hiking, quite often, I’ll be making biltong. It’s either semi-dried (called ‘wet’) or a completely dried version. Biltong is another great meat chewing gum and a great protein snack.

I will write more about Biltong; check out that post here.

How Does Smoke Preserve Meat?

Well, smoking doesn’t preserve meat. It helps, though.

Low and Slow, and Hot Smoking is Cooking and Smoking.

Cold Smoking is done under 86°F or 30°C (fish starts cooking around that temp)

People always seem to get a bit confused about cold smoking specifically, which is not that complicated). You apply smoldering hardwood smoke from a non-resin smoking wood (like apple, manuka, or hickory). But when it comes to meat, it is always salt-cured before you cold-smoke it.

You can have sublime flavors and cold smoking – cheese or salt.

I do quite a lot of cold smoking, whether it is pork, venison, or any other harvested or farmed meat. The cold smoke (more I wrote on smoking and how it preserves here) is the same as drying out the meat, but when you’re cold smoking, you also want airflow and, ideally, high humidity so the meat doesn’t go hard.

This is why cold smoking at night, when the dew point is high, and moisture is in the air, works well.

Cold smoke (here, I wrote about different cold smokers you could use) carries antibacterial and antifungal properties, which is why it has been used for thousands of years.

I wrote a beginner’s guide to cold smoking. If you want to read more about this, check it out here!

How Does Cold Smoking Meat Help Preserve it?

In addition to the above helpful factors, it keeps the bugs off.

When you are also dry-curing meat to make things like prosciutto or lonzo, these cured meats take quite a few months to develop.

The meat and the surrounding area typically carry some healthy, good mold, penicillin. Yes, this is the same penicillin found in hospitals.

Do you know that salami that has that white powdery stuff on the outside?

The real salami has been inoculated with white penicillin mold normally or occurs naturally. Although the cheap stuff typically uses white flour (fake good mold! Watch those cheap salamis!).

Anyway, sometimes it takes some help to get the penicillin instead of other funky stuff growing on your meat. So, a little cold smoking can help keep the unwanted mold off the cured meat. Cured meats that get long cold smoking often don’t get any penicillin growth.

Lard (Fat) Preserving Meat

Fats Can Taste Different

Before diving into fat as a meat preserver, it is worth noting that many fats lead to different flavors. I wouldn’t use lamb or sheep fat for the below. Tallow or beef fat may also be a bit much.

Goose or duck fat can generally have a clean/pure flavor. But it, of course, depends on where the duck lived and what it was eaten. Ducks that live near saltwater can have quite an odd fat flavor.

Pork is a good fat that is relatively neutral in flavor.

  • Confit for Preserving Meat
  • Rillettes for Preserving Meat
  • Pemmican for Preserving Meat (& Energy)

Confit for Preserving Meat

Every year I have a close friend who loves to make duck confit, jar, and jars of it after harvesting wild ducks each year.

The duck is salted generally for 24 hours and then starts the cooking and rendering.

Slow roasting that duck, surrounded by duck fat -that’s the way.

From what I understand, the meat is losing its moisture, but the fat has also occupied it.

Before it cools down, the pieces of fatty cooked duck are placed in a sterilized jar, and the fat is poured on top to ensure that no oxygen can reach the duck.

And with flavors of garlic and thyme, a very classic French style. You have preserved meat lasting up to 6 months in a cold pantry or larder. However, for safety’s sake, using a fridge helps. It also depends on how it was made.

Smeared on a nice piece of toast, duck confit is delicious.

Rillettes for Preserving Meat

If you can imagine pulled pork cooked in rendered fat, it has some similarities to confit.

You cook it until all the cells are broken down, like pulled pork. Then, it is stored in a sterilized jar with fat.

I’ve actually seen French pork rillettes that have been shelf-stable, some assuming that they can last more than 6 months.

However, I’m not sure about the preservatives or additives that might have been added to the rillettes to extend their shelf life.

Presumably, if it’s salted harder at the start, this may lead to a longer shelf life, the same as with confit-jarred meats.

Pemmican for Preserving Meat (& Energy)

Traditionally made with wild meat like elk, deer, or moose.

The native American Indians created a way of making a protein snack bar they hung around the neck that allowed them to survive on long journeys (wiki link to more historical info)

Here is a decent overview and recipes for pemmican, used to preserve meat.

Canning Meat

So, as long as you’re using a pressure canner, you can remove all the oxygen inside the can to preserve it.

Here is a good homesteading canning guide I came across.

Here is a link to canning from the National Center of Home Food Preservation.

Pickling Meat

From what I have read, this is leaving the meat in a ‘brine’. The term pickling is used for brining. I find this somewhat confusing. For me, pickling would mean acidic vinegar would be used.

The below goes over the basics but then highlights that for a long preservation effect, you should also use canning.

https://delishably.com/meat-dishes/How-To-Pickle-Meat

When I think of pickled meat, I think of pickled fish, that Scandinavia is famous for and has a long history.

But the below, I’m keen to try, fermented as well! I worked in Sweden a little and had some delicious pickled fish! But I can’t remember if I tried this fermented classic!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surstr%C3%B6mming

Here is a rollmop pickled fish recipe, no salt, sugar, and vinegar to pickle – which is what I consider pickling!

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/jan/23/herring-recipes-hugh-fearnley-whittingstall


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