Salt for Food Preservation, by Chef N.D.

One survival item that I rarely see listed in any blogs or survival articles is salt. I know that many survival web sites and forums concentrate on the immediate survival needs of individuals and families, but what would a person do if there really was a long term necessity for survival? How would a father feed his family over an extended period of time? MRE’s last forever, but let’s face it, they are expensive and eventually will all be consumed. How will a mother feed her children when all of the canned goods and stores are finished? When you plant those seeds you stored and produce an amazing garden, how do you preserve the fruits of your labor? In assuming the worst, how do you keep your fresh vegetables edible without refrigeration or freezing? How will you feed your families in the winter when game is scarce and can mean using costly energy to try and hunt in the snow? Even if you are fortunate enough to have a secluded farm where you can raise livestock, how do you preserve the meat before it goes to waste?  My solution is salt.

I am an executive chef at a fine dining establishment in the Northwest. Though I enjoy applying the finer techniques to food, my real hobby and passion is trying to cook like people did 100 to even 200 years ago.  My family and friends consist of a lot of avid hunters and fisherman and I have had a lot of experience breaking down deer and elk.  Part of what I enjoy is taking the tougher parts of the animals and making sausage or slow cooked roasts out of them.  This simple enjoyment led me to start researching and experimenting how our ancestors treated game and even livestock to help them get through the winter.  Not only have I tried everything that I will talk about later in the article, I have even served most of them in my restaurant.  In fact I am constantly putting elk and buffalo on the menu whenever possible.  If you start the learning process on preserving your foods, you will see that they are some of the most delicious things you will ever put in your mouth.  Even in a survival situation, you will not help yourself from taking a bite, sitting back, and taking a moment to thank God for His goodness.  I encourage you all to start trying to make the things that I’ll explain below, because they might need some practice for a beginner.  Many of the things you all have probably made before (like sausage), but I’m fairly confident there are other techniques you probably haven’t. 

The key to survival back before refrigeration was being able to preserve your foods and store them for the winter.  In today’s society we see the scions of preservation techniques that were widely used on a daily basis.  Think pickles, olives, cheese, wine and beer (even spirits), bacon and sausage, and anything else you can think of that you can simply pick up at a grocery store.  Most of these require salt.  Salt is key for preservation because it creates an inhabitable environment for bacteria.  The basic rules for preservation are simple: Use salt when possible, high acid content (think vinegar and citrus), and  low to no oxygen.  If you can always remember these three things when you go to preserve your foods, you will be ahead of the game.  There are other important factors to consider, like using sterilized equipment, but in a survival situation the three rules I stated above are the most important.  If you are lucky enough to have the materials needed and the facility to be able to sterilize your equipment, then by all means please do so.  Just remember, that in survival situations, things we take for granted now will be extreme luxuries. 

Before I go on about preserving foods, I need to take a minute to talk about nitrates and nitrites.  There is a lot of bad information out in the media about how sodium nitrates and nitrites can cause cancer.  This is plain false.  Studies done by the AMA and also the Journal of Food Protection have shown that there is no correlation to these salts causing cancer.  Where the bad information came from was a study done in the 1970’s that said when nitrates were cooked at extreme high temperatures, they turn into carcinogens.  The problem with this study is that we don’t cook our food at these high temps, and if we did, nitrates turn extremely bitter when they get burnt.  Therefore, we would not eat these foods anyhow since they would then be inedible!  Also, for you vegetarians out there, most vegetables (especially root vegetables) have more nitrates in them naturally, than bacon cured with pink salts.  If you don’t believe me, look at so called nitrate-free bacon sold at places like Trader Joe’s, and you will see that they cure it with celery powder and celery juice.  In fact, according to the Journal of Food Protection, 93% of nitrates that we intake in our diets come from “normal metabolic sources, if nitrite caused cancers or was a reproductive toxicant, it would imply that humans have a major design flaw.”  So if you have a diet rich in vegetables, especially things like celery, spinach, carrots, turnips, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, any leafy vegetable, (I could go on and on and on!) then you would have died years ago of cancer if nitrates (and nitrites) were truly bad for you.

The nitrate discussion is important because in preserving food, we absolutely need nitrates.  They usually come in the form of pink salts, colored so that we won’t mistakenly use them as regular salt (consumed in high quantities, nitrates can make you sick).  Nitrates prevent the development of the botulism toxin in foods.  Cooking at high temperatures will kill the toxin but not the spores, so when you can your vegetables, if there is still a spore, it will contaminate that jar.  If you eat this, you could potentially die.  By incorporating nitrates ( a little goes a long way!), the spores are not allowed to form the bacteria and the toxin.  Basically the spore stays dormant.  The botulism toxin is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, so you will not know if the food is contaminated or not.  At this point in your survival, why risk death of you or your family by not properly using nitrates?   Pink salts are found at food supply stores or on the internet, and they are super cheap and go a long way.  For $4, you can get enough pink salt to cure 100 pounds of meat. 

So, now onto the preservation techniques.  I’m going to list what I think will be useful techniques that I think will be beneficial and relevant in a SHTF world.  I will give a brief explanation of what they are and some resources that will help you become proficient at these skills.  Again, I have personally done all of these techniques and I stand behind them 100%.  Let’s start with the simple ones, sausage making and basic curing.
If you have meat and salt, you can cure.  In today’s world, with a huge diversity of ingredients, the cures are filled with all kinds of spices and herbs.  I personally like to use things like ground cloves, turbinado sugar,  fresh thyme and rosemary, garlic, orange peel, and pepper corns in many of my cures.  Honestly, though, all you need is salt (and pink salt!).  Curing is the simplest form of preserving meat.  Think bacon.  Bacon is simply cured, and then smoked, pork belly.  (Smoking is another great preservation technique, one I use all the time, but since I am writing about salt we’ll stick with that.  Also, smoking is a great way to add additional safety to your foods, but is not as effective as salt)  Curing works because it pulls the water out of the meat and it infuses the cells with sodium.  Bacteria prefers moist areas with a balanced PH.  Curing creates an environment that is low in moisture and unlivable for most bacteria, thus making your food safe. 

When you cure, it all depends on how thick the cut of meat is.  You can tell it is completely cured when the meat becomes dense.  Before you add your cure, push against the meat with your finger.  The meat should be fairly soft and should bounce back instantly when you lift your finger back.  As the cure pulls the moisture out of the meat, and basically changes the cellular structure of the meat, the meat will become less soft and more dense.  One important note, after the meat has cured for roughly half the time needed, you need to flip it over.  This is a very important step, and will ensure your meat will properly cure.  Once the meat is properly dense, it should feel firm and will not bounce back fairly quickly.  This means that it has been cured!  Rinse the excess salt off of the meat and pat dry completely.  That’s it, you are done with the curing process and can then add additional steps to ensure proper preservation.  If this is all you plan on doing to your meat, then do your best to store in a cool oxygen free atmosphere.  If you have a cellar, store it there in a airtight container. 

Sausage making is similar to curing except that you are adding fat.  Sausage will not last as long as cured meat unless you add an additional step like cooking it once it is done or smoking it after you’ve mixed it all together.  Sausage is basically an emulsion.  An emulsion is when a fat is mixed with another medium.  Think a vinaigrette salad dressing.  The oil won’t naturally mix with the vinegar, so you have to either blend it, or shake it, or whisk it carefully to combine the two ingredients.  This is called an emulsion.  Sausage is an emulsion of fat and meat.  One note to mention, is that if you can, raise pigs.  Pigs naturally have the correct ratio of fat to meat in most of its body.  You want to have a fat content of around 25% – 30%.  The pork shoulder naturally has this ratio, so all you have to do is literally grind the shoulder and you’re done.  If you will raise beef, sheep, or hunt game, it will be good to have pork fat to add to these.  Pork fat is a very neutral fat and won’t change the flavor of the meat.  I know we are talking about survival and the flavor preference might not be too important, but a pig will generally have excess fat that you can use for the making of sausage from other animals. 

I highly encourage you to find a way to have pigs at your safe house location.  In the mean time you can learn how to butcher, process, and store the animal and have the best tasting pork you will ever have.  It’s a win-win situation.  If you don’t have casings, don’t worry about it, sausage is, in my opinion, best when formed into a patty and then stored.  Just don’t over handle the ground meat and you will be ok.  Another item that I think is necessary for a safe house would be to have a meat grinder.  Without one, you will have to chop all the meat with a knife, which will take a ton of time and severely dull your knives.  In a survival situation, time is always going to be short and you will always need your tools at their best.  A meat grinder will help the job of making sausage a quick task. 

Another form of curing is air curing.   This method is fairly easy to do, but takes time and practice.  You will still need salt to do so, but the air (and time) does the job of sucking out moisture from the meat.  Prosciutto is an air-cured ham from Italy.  Most countries that have a heavy supply of pig have a version of an air-cured ham.  Basically, you salt it pretty heavily for about three weeks.  After three weeks time, you then rinse the excess salt off and pat dry completely.  Then you want to wrap it in whatever you have available to protect it from flies and bugs.  If you have cheese cloth, use it.  Burlap sack, great.  You then hang it outside for about a year.  I’ve seen people create a box using a wood skeleton and surround the skeleton (with the ham inside) with a very fine mesh wire screen.  This ensures that flies and mosquitoes cannot lay eggs in the meat, and also keep critters like squirrels and birds from getting to the ham.  If you live in a hot climate, store it in your cellar, if you live in a fairly temperate climate with all four seasons, (and the summers don’t get too hot), you can hang it from a tree limb or a post outside(just make sure it gets a ton of shade). 

As it sits out all year, the water in the meat will evaporate and leave a nice salty meat.  This is a product that I would encourage to use as a meat seasoning.  Add it  to soups or stews to flavor the product (save your salt for preserving, not daily cooking).  One final note on the air-cured ham, as it ages it will start to grow white mold.  This is OK!  White mold is what you want.  It will cover the ham and help protect it.  Simply cut the mold off when you are ready to store or consume the meat and you will be fine.  In fact, some of the other products you store may get white mold sometimes.  Don’t worry, you will be fine as long as you cut off the part that has mold on it.  What you don’t want is green mold.  If your preserved meats ever have green mold, throw it away!  Don’t even bother trying to save it, you will get sick and you may even die.  It is not worth it! 

One final preservation technique that I would like to elaborate on is the confit method.  This method is probably one of the best for preserving meats, because it does three things to the meat to preserve it.  It cures it, it cooks it, and it seals it from oxygen.  And, it is the best tasting way to cook anything, period.  Pork belly confit makes bacon taste like cardboard.  Basically a confit is a meat that is cured, and then slow cooked until it is fall apart tender in its own fat.  Now in a survival situation, you may have to use pork fat in all instances, but if you have enough chicken or duck fat saved up you can use that too.  Basically, whatever the meat is, you cure it like mentioned above.  Typical time frame is about 2-3 days for poultry and ducks (or geese), and about a week for pork belly.  If it’s thicker than 2-3 inches, you may need to cure it for 10 days to 2 weeks, but you get the point.  After it is finished curing, you will roast the meat at about 250 degrees submerged in its own fat for about 6-8 hours.  Then you simply pull the container out of the oven (or whatever you used to cook the confit in) and let cool.  If you only have one roasting pan, then move all of the meat and fat to another container making sure the meat is completely submerged.  Let cool.  As the fat cools, it will seal up the container locking out oxygen.  As long as the seal doesn’t break, the confit will last for months if stored in a cool dark place. 

A couple of things to mention about confit, is that it takes a lot of fat (another reason to raise pigs).  If you plan on raising chickens or hunt duck or geese, every time you butcher one, save the fat and slowly cook it until it becomes liquid.  Let it cool and solidify and then store in an airtight container.  This will help the fat last longer.  Note, the fat in this state won’t last for months, so if you plan on making a confit, try and gather enough fat as soon as possible.  If you raise pigs and have excess back fat or jowl fat (after making your sausage) this will be easier to accomplish.  In a survival mentality, fat is a good thing.  I know we are raised on not being obese and eating low fat foods, but in a survival situation fat is a good thing.  You WILL need the calories and stores that fat provides.  Many vitamins our bodies need are fat soluble and store in our fat.  This is very important to remember in a survival situation.  The confit method is fairly simple and is probably one of the best ways to preserve your meat.  I highly encourage you to try this at home a few time and become proficient at it.  It may save your family’s lives some day. 

There are many books that talk about curing meats and sausage making  and the like, but the one that I think is the best, that has great ratios of salt to meat, and is very easy to understand is Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.  They have great recipes in there and they are tried and true recipes and methods.  They also have many more types of preservation techniques listed that might be something you want to take a look at. 

For your vegetables, if you are able to can your vegetables, I highly encourage you to do that.  If you can’t in a survival situation, then here are some guidelines that I recommend.  These steps might seem like overkill, but it will ensure your safety.  First off, I would recommend everybody to pickle their vegetables they are planning on preserving.  Now don’t think like “pickle” pickling, you know the dill pickles at the store.  Pickling refers to vinegar and salt.  Basically, if you find a ratio you like of vinegar, sugar, and salt, just boil these ingredients together, let cool and use this for your pickling liquid. Take your jars if you have them, fill them up with the vegetables you are planning on pickling, and fill up the rest of the way with the liquid.  Put a tiny pinch of pink salt in each jar, to make sure you won’t get sick  from botulism.    If you can fill the jar all the way up so there is little to no air in the jar when you seal it, the better.  Again, if you can and know how, boil these to properly seal the lid.  Vinegar may be hard to come by, but if you have access to things like apple trees and pear trees, you can juice them and make vinegar (that process is for another article).  The thing to remember is to have the acid content and salt to inhibit bacterial growth. I’ve pickled all kinds of vegetable from garlic, onions, beets and celery, to cucumbers, peppers (of all kinds), and eggplants.  They will last for weeks if not months just sitting in the liquid without any precautions to oxygen.  They will last years if you do the necessary work to create an oxygen free environment.  And they taste great too. 

Vinegar and salt are useful to feed your family when you don’t want to risk having to cook.  If you think having a fire and smoke will attract people to your location (in the short term) soaking your fish, or other types of meat in a salt-vinegar solution will make it edible and safe to eat.  It will still have a raw texture, but will be safe to eat.  The acid will literally “cook” the meat without heat.  Think steak tartar and ceviche, or Italian crudo.

Having salt available to use to preserve your meats and produce will go a long way to helping you and your family to survive in the long run.  You will also be able to use salt to make cheese (if you have milk producing livestock) and breads.  If you have decided that salt is a necessity, I would go with the Kosher salts.  They have a bigger size than table salt, and it goes further as well.  Kosher salt is fairly cheap, about $2 for three pounds.  If you have a safe location that you plan on going to in the need for survival, I would recommend stocking up as much salt that you can store.  It will never go bad, and if used correctly will keep your family fed and alive for years.  Survival is not just a chain of decisions to make when the time comes, but a lifestyle choice.  If you are truly concerned about you and your family’s survival, then take the time now to prepare.  Learn how to farm from local small farmers.  They are always looking for volunteers and the knowledge you gain from them will be valuable.  Take the time to learn what medicines you can glean from nature and how to preserve food stuffs from nature as well.  Surviving will be much more than a bug out bag to safety.  That will be the first of many challenges to overcome when the SHTF.   Think long term and prepare and you will be further ahead than most of the people in today’s society.