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.

How to Preserve Meat (With Salt, 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.

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In a way, this entire website is about preserving meat with salt and smoke, but the focus of this write-up will be an overview of all the ways I’ve used and come across over the years.

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

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

When it comes to using salt, you can make a piece of meat that lasts years by applying the saturation method thoroughly. It depends on your goals and what you’re trying to achieve with the preserving aspects.

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

Potentially, with all dry-cured meats below, you can get many years of use out of it (if held at the right conditions – lower temperature & higher humidity). It’s also part of the fine art and craft with some science.

How to Preserve Meat

Preserving AgentMethodExampleLength of Preservation
SaltDry Salt CuringProsciutto, Country Ham3 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, VinegarSalt & 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
AcidPickled MeatRollmopsUp to 1 Month

I’m familiar with all of the above methods apart from canning and pickling meat, I’ve noted some useful links to decent information down the bottom for your interest.

It’s really quite amazing all the variations that are out there, and many of these were used pre-refrigeration. Before there was the luxury of having a fridge & freezer like most first-world households nowadays.

Where it is helpful I’ll put some links to recipes and authorities on how to preserve this type. Some of this I have written about in detail too.

My goal here is to introduce you guys to all the various methods and styles that are available to achieve the preservation of meat. Whether it is used for survival aspects or, on the other end of the spectrum, used more for enrichments of flavor.

And of course, there are a few that fall somewhere in between as well.

Using Salt to Preserve

What is Meat Made Up Of?

Meat is actually really high in water content, regardless of which type of meat it is.

From the textbook of home production of quality meats and sausages by Marianski and Marianski, they highlight that meat is composed of:

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

So what I’ve learned over the years is about curing, drying, and brining meat. is that you are either removing or inhibiting the water activity to preserve meat (& flavor it).

Or you are cooking 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, making it a tough environment for bad bacteria by removing the moisture. What I am familiar with is the salt, fat, and vinegar aspects so I’ll focus on that with all these methods below.

Since it’s the ‘bad’ bacteria that gets in the water part of the meat, 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 that preserving has been achieved.

As much as this is related to meat science, let’s get back to just 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

Dry Salt Curing

Specifically, I’m going to talk about the equilibrium curing method, by using a certain percentage of salt to the weight of the meat. By using this method, I can choose the amount of saltiness that is in the meat whilst 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, which takes a few weeks or months, but once it has lost 35 to 40% of the starting weight. Then, it has dried enough to be preserved and eaten.

If you want to learn more I wrote 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 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 that’s used for dry curing meat.

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

So all the salt is inhabited into the meat, creating an inhospitable environment so the bad bacteria can’t spoil it once it is dried properly.

I have to note that dry-cured meat, since they have 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 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. Like pastrami, hot smoked hams, etc.

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, personally for making bacon I do not use nitrates. But I make sure that the pork is of very good quality and is traceable as well for peace of mind about it’s 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

Salt brine 80 degree fish large
Strong Salt Brine before Smoking

By using salt and water you can create a brine, this has the ability to inhibit the meat with the same harsh environment so the bad bacteria is minimized. Then dry out the meat after can also have a preserving effect.

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

For a large amount of fish, which 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 old techniques of preserving meat. Some have coined this ‘saltbox’ dry curing.

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.

It is why it was used during world wars for soldiers to be deployed around all corners of the world for months on end and have protein ready.

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

When it comes to salt pork which is quite common in some areas of the world, there are so many variations that some are actually 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 type of 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 to tip six days depending on how thick the meat is. Most common that I am production of this is using topside beef, although I’ve used quite low wild venison to produce mighty fine biltong.

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

The most common that I make is with topside beef, although I’ve used quite a lot of wild venison to produce mighty fine biltong.

Homemade cured meat biltong
homemade cured meat biltong

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

When I’m going on the outdoor missions or hiking – quite often I’ll be making biltong, it’s either done in a semi-dried way (called ‘wet’), or it’s all completely dried version. And is another great meat chewing gum, a great protein snack.

I write a bit more about biltong, check out that post here.

Adding Cold Smoke Preserving Meat

How Does Smoke Preserve Meat?

Well, smoking doesn’t actually 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 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 is basically 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 time when the dew point is high and moisture is in the air works well.

The cold smoke carries antibacterial and antifungal properties, this is why again, it was used for thousands and thousands of years.

I wrote all about a beginner’s guide on cold smoking if you want to read more about this one check it out here!

How Does Cold Smoking Meat Help Preserve it?

As well as the above helpful factors, it keeps the bugs off.

When you are also your dry-curing meat-making things like prosciutto or lonzo, it takes quite a few months for these cured meats to develop.

The meat and the surrounding area normally carry some healthy good mold, which is penicillin. Yes, this is the same penicillin to be 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 normally 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 little bit of cold smoking can actually help to 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 preserver of meat. It is worth noting many fats lead to different flavors. I wouldn’t use lamb or sheep fat for doing the below. Tallow or beef fat may also be a bit much.

Goose or duck fat can generally be a clean/pure flavor. But it, of course, depends on where the duck lived and what it’s eaten for instance. 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.

Duck is salted normally 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 it has also been inhabited by the fat.

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

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

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

Rillettes for Preserving Meat

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

You are also cooking it down until all the cells are broken down just like pulled pork. And then it is stored in a sterilized jar with fat.

I’ve actually seen French pork rillettes that has been shelf-stable, some presuming that relates can last more than up to 6 months.

However, I’m not sure about the preservatives or additives that of been put in the rillettes that might give it longer shelf life.

Presumably, if it’s salted harder at the start, this may lead to longer shelf life, the same 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 historic info)

This is actually one that I have not made myself but I am very interested in it. Here is a decent overview and recipes for pemmican to preserve meat.

Canning Meat

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

I guess this creates an inhospitable environment for the bacteria to survive (I’m guessing, going to get a pressure canner soon).

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 basically 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 for a long preservation effect you should use canning as well.

When I think of pickled meat, I think of pickled fish that Scandanavia 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 delicous pickled fish! But I can’t remember if I tried this fermented classic!

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

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.

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