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So, you’re out in the woods, and you’re hungry.
But you came prepared. Whether it’s with a rifle or a spear, you’ve taken down a deer.
You’ve made a fire, cooked some ribs, and had your fill, but there’s an awful lot of deer meat left over.
What do you do? You can’t just let it sit there, it’ll go to waste.
That is why today we will share several methods you can use to preserve game meat in the wild. Continue reading to learn how!
Why You Need to Preserve Meat
Even people in the stone age knew that they had to preserve meat. And those clever club users didn’t have freezers.
If you knock down a mammoth and start eating it immediately, it’s all well and good, but that meat is going to rot sooner rather than later.
The problem is bacteria, those tiny organisms which live everywhere on earth.
They’re trying to eat the deer you want to eat, and they’re gonna get to the meat faster than you. The moment the deer dies its carcass becomes a bacterial paradise.
This is when you step in and preserve the meat. Fight back against the bacteria, and keep that meat safe to eat for weeks to come!
What are these different methods? Don’t worry, I’m getting to that.
Methods to Preserve Meat
There are three things you need to do to preserve your meat in the wild:
- Keep it cool.
- Keep it clean.
- Keep it dry.
Warm, wet, contaminated meat will be a haven for bacteria, and will ruin your meat.
Cool, clean, and dry meat is an environment in which the bacteria flounder instead of thrive.
Keeping it Cool
Unfortunately, meat starts off warm as part of the animal’s body. So your first task is to cool it off!
You can do this while cleaning it. Cut the meat off of the bone, remove connective tissue and excessive fat.
That alone will remove insulation, so it cools down faster. Smaller pieces also cool faster.
A fresh mountain stream will also cool down your meat quickly.
Lacking that, the outdoor breeze will help cool things down.
Clean it Up
Make sure your meat is clean. Use clean water to wash off blood and any dirt.
Drying Your Meat
Now the hard part. Keep the meat dry. This is where you need to examine different methods and figure out which one is best for you.
The most basic technique is to use sunlight. You can also dry the meat with salt, smoke, and heat. All have different advantages and produce differently flavored meat.
Salting the meat requires you to carry a bunch of salt with you, but is quick and customizable.
Smoking takes a long time and lots of wood, but produces delicious meat.
Using heat to make jerky is quicker than smoking and produces the longest-lasting meat, but an entire deer’s worth of jerky can be exhausting to chew through.
Don’t worry, this doesn’t violate the “keep it cool” principle because it’ll no longer be raw, bacteria-ridden flesh.
Read on to learn more about the different methods of preserving your meat without refrigeration.
The simplest method of preserving your game meat without refrigeration is to dehydrate it using the sun.
Slice the pieces of meat into thin strips. This is important, as thicker pieces will take longer to dry out. Fat is also a no-no; trim it off.
After cooling, cleaning, and drying the surface of the game, hang it high in a tree or from some other structure. We don’t want bears eating your hard work.
Make sure that the pieces of meat hang in direct sunlight. The sunlight, and its heat, will dry out the meat. Dry meat does not harbor bacteria.
That’s why you want to use thin slices; if the outside is too dry while the inside is still moist, bacteria will survive and ruin the meat.
This won’t keep your meat preserved for years, but it’s good for a short period of time (1-2 months) if you can’t eat everything all at once.
All of the other preservation techniques are variations on dehydrating your meat, just with other added bits or with stuff other than sunlight.
How to Preserve Meat with Salt (Curing)
The addition of salt to meat is also called curing, or in some places, corning. Yeah, that corned beef doesn’t mean that the cows ate lots of corn, it means that the meat was cured with “corns” of salt.
There are two basic methods of curing meat, a wet cure or a dry cure.
Wet curing involves making a saline solution, about 14-20% salt in the water. Sugar can be added for flavor, and in fact it can help resist bacteria as well – I’ll get into that later.
Don’t forget spices if you’d like even more flavor (and have them available).
Cut the meat into strips and dip it into the salty water for about five minutes, then hang the pieces to dry in the sun.
The water will evaporate off and leave behind a microcrystalline barrier of salt (and maybe sugar). Salt dehydrates the meat faster than sunlight and heat alone, and also provides a hostile environment for any wayward bacteria that lands on the meat.
How does the sugar help, you ask? Doesn’t sugar feed bacteria? It does, but only when the environment isn’t saturated with sugar. That’s why honey, which is 80% sugar, lasts as long as it does.
Without moisture, the sugar harms the bacteria and aids in the preservation. And makes the meat taste better later!
Dry curing is similar, except without the water or the part where you hang it up to dry.
Get a bunch of salt and add some sugar and other spices if you’d like. This is your dry rub.
Sensuously massage the rub onto the pieces of meat, making sure they’re well covered.
Then, store them in your container, preferably airtight, if possible. If you layer them, ensure that there’s enough salt between the layers that no two pieces of meat touch each other.
Both wet and dry curing are even better if you add sodium nitrate in some form.
Nitrates? Aren’t those scary?
Not really. You’re probably consuming more nitrates from vegetables than you are from meat.
In fact, nitrates protect against the bacteria that cause botulism! Huzzah for nitrates!
You can add nitrates to your curing solution or rub by using spinach or celery.
Or just use curing salt, which naturally contains enough nitrates to work well.
Cured meats will last for weeks unless you decide to give them a mud bath after curing them. Don’t do that.
How to Smoke Meat
Another good method on how to preserve meat without refrigeration is to smoke the meat.
So let’s learn how to smoke meat in the wild!
Smoking dehydrates the meat, changes the surface to be acidic and therefore hostile to bacteria, and makes the meat mouthwateringly delicious.
An important note is that smoking is not cooking. You bathe the meat in the smoke produced by the fire, but don’t let too much heat from the fire get to the meat!
The wood you choose is important for the final flavor of the meat. You want a hardwood with a good scent.
The same compounds that smell good will also make the meat taste good.
Hickory, cherry, oak, maple, and applewood are all common woods to use.
Avoid resinous woods like pine! You don’t want that pitch getting into your meat. Bleh.
And though it sounds like you want as much smoke as possible, you actually want want to avoid certain types of smoke. Wet smoke.
This means avoiding freshly cut wood, as that green wood will be too full of moisture and will produce wet smoke.
So use dry wood. Dry and rotten wood, aka punky wood, is nearly perfect–it smokes more but without excessive moisture.
If you’re going to stay in one place for an extended period of time, I would recommend that you build a smokehouse.
A basic smokehouse is a square wooden building, eight foot at its tallest and four feet wide all the way around.
The roof should slope, and there should be an opening in the wall near the top of the slope so smoke and heat can escape.
A fire is built at the bottom of the smokehouse and meat is hung up top, far enough away from the fire that it doesn’t cook – aim for 100 degrees Fahrenheit or a little less.
A thermometer stuck in the wall is a great idea, as is a dutch oven or other vessel to contain and control the fire.
The meat should be hung from wires stretched out across the top of the smokehouse, just under the ceiling. Remember, we don’t want to cook the meat, just smoke it!
However, if you need to preserve your meat without being in one place long enough to justify building a smokehouse, you can make do with a campfire.
The best way to do this is to dig a pit in the ground to place your campfire. Cover the fire partially to block the heat from cooking the meat, and hang the meat where the smoke escapes.
This won’t be as efficient as a smokehouse, but it’ll get the job done.
Smoked meat will last longer, and have a heavier flavor, the longer you smoke it.
One day’s worth of smoking will get you about a week or so of preservation.
Two day’s worth of smoking will get that meat saturated enough to last for up to a month.
Too much more than that and the flavor may be too much, though.
Some sporting goods stores will gladly sell you packets or sprays of concentrated chemical preservatives.
These are typically citric acid, and guess what, they work.
Like other preservation methods, the citric acid provides an environment hostile to bacteria and inhibits their growth.
The problem is that they do not last long.
So if you are in the field for a day or two and need your meat to be preserved just until you get back to civilization, they are good choice.
The packets are light and do not require much work to use–no need to hang strips of meat in the sun.
But they don’t exactly preserve meat for long term storage. Just a couple of days.
If you are stuck in the woods longer than that, you can reapply the citric acid.
But the more you use citric acid, the more of a crust forms on the outside of the meat.
That crust should be trimmed before you cook and eat the meat.
How to Make Jerky and Pemmican
You can also “cook” your game meat to preserve it for a long time in the wild.
I say “cook” because you apply heat, but it’s a low heat, so it’s not actually cooking your meat. It’s just using heat to dehydrate it.
You don’t even need an oven to do it!
For jerky, you want to cut the meat into quarter inch thick or smaller strips, against the grain.
Make a wet cure solution similar to what we discussed above. Then hang the strips over a campfire, though this one can be a normal fire instead of a pit in the ground like the smoking campfire.
Hot coals are better than open flames, and the addition of sunlight will make the jerky dry out even faster.
Once you have jerky, which can take from several hours to over a day depending on the humidity, you can use it to make pemmican!
Render the fat you trimmed off into tallow. While doing this, grind the dried jerky into powder.
Mix the liquid tallow and the jerky powder together. Pour just a little bit of the tallow at a time, until you can squish the mixture without it crumbling.
Pemmican is better than jerky. It lasts just as long (a long time! From 3 months up to several years!) but provides more energy per bite and prevents rabbit starvation (AKA protein poisoning).
You do, after all, need some fat to survive. And game animals, with their healthy diets, produce healthy fat.
How Long Does Wild Preserved Meat Last?
Now that we’ve taught you how to preserve meat without refrigeration, for how long exactly will these methods preserve your meat?
Sunlight and citric acid alone will keep your meat safe for a couple of days. The citric acid has the benefit being able to be reapplied, but it’ll cause wasted meat as more trimming will be required.
Curing and smoking preserve your meat for much longer. A weak effort will result in a week of preservation, but a good effort can extend that to a month.
Making jerky is perhaps the best long-term method, as it’ll last up to three months. But it’ll be the least flavorful and most annoying to eat over a long term.
Those mammoth hunters of old knew how to preserve meat in the wild.
Today, many of those techniques are still used around the world by various peoples.
Not just native tribes, but hunters, bushcrafters, and survivalists who need to preserve meat in the wild.
And now you know how to do it too.
If you enjoyed this post and would like more articles on preserving food, let us know in the comments!
2 thoughts on “How to Preserve Meat in the Wild”
I’ve heard that dry-curing and hanging meat, and re-applying the cure several times (like 3 times) per week, will make the meat last for months.
Not sure if you have an opinion on this or not.
Thanks so much for the great information you give here.
When I said 3 times per week, I meant 3 times, once every week, for 3 weeks. Sorry for the confusion…