Mention dried meat and most of us will think of that American product called ‘jerky’, however if we really think about it, there are many kinds of ‘dried meat’ and the list becomes much longer if we include cured and smoked meats e.g. bacon and hams from Britain and Germany, Salami and Prosciutto from Italy, chorizo or chourico from Spain and Portugal etc.
In all cases drying or curing meat was a means to deal with surpluses of meat that could not be eaten straight away, which was particularly necessary when dealing with large game such as deer, elk, caribou, reindeer or bison or buffalo.
Drying meat was also important as a way of preserving food for use whilst on the move since the drying process drastically reduces the volume and weight of the meat by the removal of the water content, but still retaining the same quantity of nutrition for a traveler on the move who was unable to hunt for game or fish. There are examples of dried meat that were ground into a powder so that they could be carried easily, very similar to modern Bovril cubes, of which Pemmican is perhaps the most famous because of its use by European Arctic and Antarctic Explorers.
Anyone who has hunted animals will know how quickly meat can ‘go-off’ i.e. bacteria associated with decomposition will start to affect the carcass and cause it to become unappertising and ultimately dangerous to eat, depending on the length of time it is left. It is therefore important in most cases to deal with a new ‘kill’ as soon as you can.
Sometimes we use a slight decomposition process to tenderise or ‘improve’ the meat and this is the reason why hunters ‘hang’ game meat such as pheasant. Beef is also sometimes ‘aged’, and you will see the term used on top quantity supermarket meat packaging, however this is done in ‘cold stores’ and relies on enzymes to weaken structural and myofibrillar proteins.
The ancient ways of preserving meat was by salting, drying and smoking or a combination of the three and it is not hard to see how this came about, since hanging meat or fish in the roof space of any shelter that has a fire in it, will dry and smoke the meat simultaneously and thereby preserve it.
We presume however, that although salting is now a part of many air-dried meat processes, it emerged later as a process, since the earliest evidence for salt production has been found in Romania and only dates back to 6050 BC, where as the evidence for air-drying meat may stretch back hundreds of thousands of years into Neanderthal cultures and perhaps beyond - and in which case humans would have been dealing with surplus meat from very large kills of Pleistocene prey animals, such as Woolly Mammoth and Rhino.
The list of names of dried meats from across the world is very large therefore below is just some of the most famous and interesting ones, however a few will be known to us Brits, such as Biltong from South Africa, Pemmican from Canada and Jerky from America. In all cases the process of drying or desiccation are the primary means of preservation, however in many cases salting and smoking are also used to ensure the meat stays free from bacteria and fly infestation whilst it dries and the addition of spices provides extra flavour.
Biltong, South Africa
Dutch settlers who colonised southern Africa in the 17th century brought with them ways of drying meat from Europe and Biltong itself evolved from wagon-travelling Voortrekkers who needed to carry their food with them as they migrated north-eastward into the interior of South Africa – away from the British - and needed a way to preserve large masses of hunted game meat in a hot climate and whilst on the move. The name is made up of the Dutch words ‘bil’ (rump’) and tong (‘strip’ or ‘tongue’).
Preparation involved marinating the meat in a vinegar solution, then rubbing the strips of meat with a mix of herbs, salts and spices and then drying the meat for up to a fortnight, when it was have become black and rock-hard. The use of vinegar makes it different from Jerky.
Air-dried horse or beef meat often ground into powder and mixed with water to create soup and used as travellers food.
Charqui South America
Made from Llama, horse or beef meat and the derivation of the name gave us the name ‘jerky’.
Khlea, Khlii or gueddid, Moroccan
Beef or camel meat which is cut into strips, marinated with cumin, coriander and garlic, and then dried in the sun for days before it's cooked in a mixture of animal fat, oil and water. The meat, once cooled, will keep for up to two years at room temperature when packed in the cooking fat.
Pemmican, North American
A famous dried meat because of its associated with Arctic and Antarctic explorers such as Robert Peary, Captain Scott and Roald Amundsen. It is a Cree word derived from the word ‘pimi’ (“fat, grease”). Prepared from lean meat from animals such as Buffalo, Elk and deer that was dried over a slow fire or in the hot sun until it was hard and brittle. It was then pounded into a powder using stones and then mixed with a similar quantity of melted fat, sometimes with dried fruit being added, and packed into rawhide pouches for storage.
Discovered by French voyageurs during the early years of exploration along the Canadian waterways, it was extensively adopted as a foodstuff because it was easily transportable in canoes for the voyageurs who had no time to live off the land and therefore had to carry their food with them. It became a valuable source of trade for the Native Americans, who would slaughter plains buffalo, convert it into pemmican and then carry it north to the trading posts of northern Canada.
Of course, in this country we don’t have a great history of dried meats, probably because of our rather wet climate. Instead we have a much great history of cured meats and smoked fish, such as ham, bacon and gammon and smoked salmon and haddock etc. The one exception to this is ‘dried and salted cod’ which, because the process allowed the transportation of fish into the every part of the British Isles, was once part of our staple diet. This probably reflects an older tradition of dried and salted fish, but in terms of the use of cod, this only appeared as a significant part of the British diet after the discovery of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland by European trawler men five hundred years ago.
The difference between dried and cured meat is not clear-cut, since many dried meats involve a curing process that involves salt and many salt cured meats are air-dried, such as hams etc. However the major difference is that dried meats like Jerky and Biltong etc rely on air to dry them and hence any meat used for this process has to be lean i.e. containing little fat, as fat does not dry well in air and therefore this leaves the meat open to bacteria, flies and fungal infection.
Curing also dries the meat but it does so by the chemical action of salts and nitrates or nitrites, therefore the meat can contain fat which is a more useful product since fat was a much-treasured resource through out human history. Today, commercial pigs are bred without much fat, because the modern British consumer has grown to dislike their bacon or ham with a large covering of fat, however you only have to look at bacon from ‘rare breed’ pork to notice the considerable difference in the thickness of the fat layer.
However the aim in both processes is the same, which is to remove water from the meat, which creates a hostile environment for bacterial, parasitic or fungal organisms.
In bushcraft, drying meat or fish is a fairly simple process and can be done in camp – depending on the weather – over either air-dried open racks or cold-smoked within a simple smoke-house. However, in the UK Food Standards Legislation prevents us from air-drying our meat or fish in the open and would make most food inspectors go weak at the knees. Luckily drying meat is a simple operation that can be do at home as long as the meat is lean i.e. the fat has been trimmed off it. Meats like rabbit and pigeon lend themselves readily to being dried made because they are naturally lean anyway and I have to remark that pigeon jerky tastes absolutely fantastic and I prefer it to beef jerky because the flavour is more intense.
Another alternative is cold-smoking meat, which can be done by the building of a simple smoke house that can be made from a simple wooden box with a flue system to draw the smoke from the fire into the box. As an analogy, I once went sea fishing in south-west Ireland and the fisherman whose boat we used had a simple box smoker set up at his house where he would smoke the copious quantities of mackerel that he caught, as there is only a certain amount of fresh mackerel that anyone can eat at one go. The only rule he had was that you never smoked on a Sunday – strangely enough he was Dutch!
As a last point of interest, when I’ve been mountaineering in Switzerland, the Swiss mountain guides mostly took with them a length of Salami and a piece of cheese and you have got to wonder, how ancient is that as a food source for a traveller in the high mountains.