By Wade Truong
Photos by Wade Truong
Freezing has become the standard method for preserving wild game and other foods. It’s convenient, safe and easy to do. But before freezers were commonplace in homes, other preservation methods were used to extend the life of food. Whether you are short on freezer space or just looking for other methods to preserve your hard earned calories, the following methods are worth knowing and understanding.
This is a widely used method—anyone who has made jerky has utilized this technique. Dehydration simply removes the water from food. This can be done in many ways, but most of us will use a dehydrator or similar low heat device. The reason dehydration works is that bacteria needs moisture to grow. Depending on the food being dehydrated, the addition of salts, nitrates, and sugars further aids in the preservation method. Low protein (peppers, herbs, etc.) foods don’t need any additional additives for preservation, but high protein (meats) will require salt and nitrates for shelf stability. You can technically skip the nitrates, but it’s recommended that dehydrated meats preserved without nitrates be stored under refrigeration.
Tip: I always use sodium nitrate (instacure #1) at a scale of 0.025% when making jerky to help prevent the meat from going rancid at room temperature.
Hot Water Bath Canning
Another common method of food preservation, hot water bath canning is essentially removing the oxygen from the food and holding it in an environment too acidic for bacterial growth. The most common use of this is pickles and jams. Hot water bath canning is very simple and there are a lot of resources on best practices. Always follow the recipes and methods cited from trusted, tested resources, as getting the correct amount of acid is essential to safe preservation.
Tip: Hot water bath canning fruits and vegetables at the peak of their ripeness allows you to enjoy and utilize these often ephemeral flavors year round. I process wild berries and fruits to use in months where fresh fruits are not available.
Similar to hot water bath canning, this method does not require a high acid environment, but rather uses extremely high heat coupled with the removal of oxygen to create a shelf stable food. This process absolutely requires the use of a pressure canner, which is a great investment if you already water bath can and can be used as a pressure cooker as well. Where this method shines is processing high protein foods, like fish or venison. I pressure can venison every season. Not only does this free up space in the freezer, it also creates ready to eat braised meats for soups and stews. This method can be used for almost any type of meat. The guidelines and process for pressure canning are exact, so read up on how to do this safely.
That being said, unlike hot water bath canning, there is a little more room for adding your own twist on seasonings as long as the process is followed. I pressure can shad, mackerel and bluefish every season, as well as tougher cuts of venison. It’s hard to beat homemade kipper snacks and ready-to-eat osso bucco. Another favorite use for this method is pressure canning stocks I make from wild game. This frees up a ton of freezer space, and having homemade stocks to use in recipes at the ready is a game changer.
Tip: Because the meat is being pressure cooked while processing, use tougher cuts with connective tissue like venison shanks, necks, and goose or turkey legs. The process will render these tough cuts tender, and the connective tissues present in these cuts will add body and flavor.
Fermentation is one of the oldest and most prevalent preservation methods. Cheeses, yogurt, slim jims, pepperoni, pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi are all fermented. Fermentation makes use of natural or additional bacterial cultures and cultivates those beneficial cultures to change the PH of the food to prevent spoilage. The tangy flavor of fermented foods is the result of this process. This can be done in many ways, some very simple and some more advanced. Once you understand how to safely ferment sauerkraut, pickles or kimchi, it’s easy to adapt the method to other foods. The fermentation of meat is a bit more advanced, but with an understanding of the core concept you are able to make salami and other shelf-stable meat products.
Tip: “The Art of Fermentation” by Katz, “Charcuterie” by Ruhlman & Polcyn, and “The Art of Making Fermented Sausages” by Marianski & Marianski are incredible resources on the subject.
Possibly the simplest preservation method, salt curing is, as its name implies, using salt to preserve food. Salt is used in almost every preservation method, but the use of salt in curing meats is the most iconic. Salt cod, prosciutto, and Virginia ham all utilize large amounts of salt to make these wonderful proteins last almost indefinitely. This technique requires very little other than salt and the correct environment to cure. The salt does two key things to preserve the meat: it prevents bacterial growth and it draws out moisture. What is wonderful about this method is that instead of changing the protein with heat or acid, this method allows you to enjoy the meat at its purest and most concentrated form.
There is a lot of nuance and I highly recommend researching and understanding best practices before attempting to salt cure your own ham or fish. Again, the book “Charcuterie” by Ruhlman is a great resource, and there are also a myriad of articles published by universities on best practices for salt curing meats.
Tip: Because the only major ingredients are the meat and salt, the quality of the meat will determine the quality of the end product. Wild game is a shoe-in for this with its complex flavors and depth.
Wade Truong is a lifelong Virginian, self-taught chef, and hunter whose work has been featured in The New York Times and Garden & Gun. His recipes appear in the Fare Game column of Virginia Wildlife magazine, and through Elevated Wild he educates about wild game processing and recipes.