What’s the most effective primitive method of preserving meat?

Do you know how early cultures preserved meat and fish by hanging thin strips on racks out in the sun and wind? Is this method effective? How do you know when food has had enough exposure time? Richard Budd Arlington, Massachusetts

Tony Nester

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Great question Richard. Meat preservation is a skill area that gets into what I call the realm of Bushcraft. These are the long-term skills of living with the land that go beyond mere survival. To answer your question, it all depends on where you live and what the humidity level is.

Where I grew up in the Great Lakes, we had to do as the pioneers did and construct a primitive smokeshack that would smoke and dry out the meat over a three-to-four day period. This was necessary because the high humidity made air-drying on an open rack next to impossible.

In the arid Southwest—where I live now—making jerky is caveman simple. We cut the meat (deer, squirrel, beef from the grocery store) into 1/8″ or thinner strips, douse it with some spices or hot sauce, place it on a drying rack in the sun for somewhere between eight to 16 hours, and voila-the best jerky you’ll ever taste.

My favorite “marinade”? Soak the batch in a mix of barbecue sauce and honey before hanging it on the drying racks. If I am going all primitive, then the meat just goes on the rack minus the marinade. Fat must be trimmed off so it doesn’t later go rancid.

I once used this method with a group on a desert survival course in May and our strips of meat were dry and brittle within six hours! Making jerky is a good reminder of why you have to stay hydrated in the desert too. The test to see if your jerky is done is whether you can crisply break a piece in half.

You will find that indigenous cultures throughout the world all trim their strips of meat into 1/8″ thickness or less as this prevents flies from laying their eggs in the meat and also speeds up drying.

So, I’d say look into the archeological record for your region and see what methods were employed by the natives. It is either going to be a smokeshack of some kind, or air-drying on open racks. Practice with some cheap cuts of lean beef from the supermarket and see what works in your neck of the woods.

Good eatin’!

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