Refrigeration was unheard of and food preservatives were few and far between, but somehow our ancestors managed to survive and thrive.
We take a lot for granted when it comes to the foods we eat. Grocery stores are common, and food is carefully packaged, preserved and easy to store in cabinets, refrigerators and freezers. But there was a time when life and conditions weren’t so easy. Food preservation and storage for fundamental survival was both an art and a craft. Native peoples were the experts, but pioneers and explorers were quick to adapt and adopt many of these survival food practices to great advantage. What follows is some of the history, techniques and recipes that have stood the test of time and taste.
Native American Cracked Corn
The name speaks for itself. Dried corn kernels were pounded and pulverized between two rocks until the corn was reduced to a granular powder. The finely cracked corn was stored in a buckskin pouch with a rawhide drawstring. A handful of the cracked corn was tossed into the mouth and a swig of water was swished around in the mouth to hydrate the dried corn. It was then swallowed like a porridge. It was survival food at the extreme but it satiated hunger and provided enough nutrition to keep someone going on the trail.
We typically associate Pemmican with Arctic and Antarctic explorers. Its roots are much deeper. The Hudson Bay Company in Canada first popularized it and sold it through its chain of trading depots, but they borrowed the recipe and the idea from native Canadians.
Pemmican essentially consists of animal fat, powdered jerky and sometimes the addition of oatmeal, berries or raisins. The animal fat was derived from moose, buffalo, bear and in the case of later recipes -beef tallow. The jerky was from a variety of animals from venison to buffalo to beef.
The fat actually presented some preservative qualities but the constant cold of northern latitudes and far southern latitudes leading to Antarctica provided perfect preservative properties. Salt was often added for flavor and its preservative properties assuming a saltwater source was available for salt manufacture.
Explorers traveled with Pemmican packed in cans while early pioneers and Native peoples wrapped the Pemmican in canvas or hides. It was often eaten raw but could also be cooked and eaten as a thick soup. One of the benefits of Pemmican in cold climates was the quality of the calories. Calories from fat are proven to be the best calories for internal heat generation in cold weather. If there is something Pemmican really delivered it was fat and it was a welcome addition to any diet when the weather was frigid.
You want to start with a 1:1 mix of dried beef and fat like beef tallow. It’s easier to measure that way. For every cup of dried, pulverized beef add a cup of fat. The fat should be warm; not hot and not congealed. Mix the fat and meat together with your hands or two spoons. You can put it into a tabletop mix-master and use the dough hook to blend everything. If we’re off the grid you may have to use your hands.
Add the dried berries to suit your taste. You usually add a half-cup and mix it all together again. If you want, you can add some salt to suit your taste. For a cup of meat and a cup of fat plus a half-cup of fruit, add a ½ teaspoon of salt when you add the fruit, so the salt gets blended into the mixture as well. You can give it quick taste to see if it’s salted to your liking.
If you want to make more, double or triple the amounts. That’s the other thing that’s good about a 50/50 ratio of meat to fat. It makes multiplication easier.
When done, spoon the pemmican into a cupcake pan and flatten the tops with the back of a knife or spatula. Refrigerate for 3 hours and turn the tray over onto the counter. Each pemmican cake will be greasy to the touch so place each one in a plastic sandwich bag unless you want to wrap it in a piece of rawhide. You may tend to favor the plastic bags. You can store them in a cool, dark place but most folks store it in the fridge or the freezer.
Pemmican reportedly has a long shelf-life at room temperature. You might want to stick with the fridge, freezer or some other way to keep it cool like a root cellar or basement. In case you’re interested, here’s a recipe using Pemmican as an ingredient popular in Canada in the 1800’s.
- Rubaboo. This recipe was a favorite of fur traders. A chunk of pemmican about the size of your fist was dropped into a quart of boiling water. Flour is added next and you usually mix the flour with a little pemmican first, so you don’t get lumps. Onions, potatoes and carrots can be added and some salt for seasoning. Fur traders would also add a little sugar and chopped salt pork. It will have a soup like consistency and was eaten that way. It’s great with sourdough bread.
Jerky is any form or meat or fish that is cut into thin strips or slices, sometimes marinated and then slow cooked at low heat to remove moisture. The process inhibits bacterial growth and allows the jerky to keep over a period of time without spoiling.
A critical consideration when making jerky of any kind is to remove as much fat as possible from the meat and even fatty fish like salmon or whitefish. Even when dried the fat can become rancid. Another consideration is the use of salt in a marinade. Salt is a natural preservative and adds flavor. Some contemporary marinades use soy sauce or Teriyaki which has a good amount of salt as an additive.
Heat sources include an oven, food dehydrator or barbecue grill. What’s important is to expose the strips of meat or fish to very, very low heat for a long, long time. A typical temperature for an oven is 125 degrees Fahrenheit for 8 to 12 hours. Taste after 4 to 6 hours until you have the texture you like but it should have a hard, resistant chew.
A food dehydrator is your best bet and you should dehydrate the jerky for 2 to6 hours or follow the manufacturer’s instructions. They usually include a jerky recipe in their instruction books. Here again, taste as you go.
In a charcoal grill you want to use the indirect heating method with the meat or fish strips on one side of the grill with the coals piled in a small pile on the other side. If your charcoal grill has a thermometer try to maintain a temperature between 125 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s customary to have a water pan opposite the coals for many recipes, but you should forgo that step when making jerky.
All of these methods will also work for fish, but the time may be less given the more delicate and less fibrous nature of most fish. The fish should also be marinated in the marinade of your choice.
This takes a while to make but you can use a food dehydrator to dehydrate the venison. You can buy a basic model like this one for about $30. There’s an 8-hour marinating process and a 2 to 6-hour drying time in the dehydrator. I usually marinate overnight and put the venison strips into the dehydrator on an early Saturday morning.
- 1-pound venison roast
- 4 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce
- 4 tablespoons of soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons of liquid smoke
- 1 tablespoon of ketchup
- ½ teaspoon of black pepper
- ½ teaspoon of garlic powder
- ¼ teaspoon of onion salt
- Slice the venison roast into long strips about 1-inch wide and 1/8 of an inch thick. If you partially freeze the roast and use a very sharp knife this will be easier. Combine all of the marinade ingredients in a large bowl. Add the venison strips and gently press the meat into the bowl of marinade to distribute the marinade. Refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight.
- When marinating is complete you can sprinkle with cracked black pepper as an optional step. You can also cut the strips into 2 to 3-inch lengths for bite size pieces. Put the strips on a baking rack to drain. Make sure none of the strips are touching.
- Place the strips or pieces on the dehydrating racks and cover and dehydrate for 2 to 6 hours. Taste as you go. You could also consult the instruction book that came with your dehydrator for more specific times, but the time usually depends on the cut of meat and the type of meat. Refrigerate in plastic bags when done.
Smoked Fish and Game
Unlike jerky, fish and game smoking usually involves larger pieces of fish or meat that are marinated and either cold smoked or hot smoked. Marinating usually takes one to two hours and consists of one cup of salt dissolved in one gallon of water. The fish should be allowed to air dry before smoking until a glistening “pellicle” appears on the skin. This can take up to an hour.
Marinade times can vary widely depending on the size of the cut and the salinity can also vary. Here’s a chart to understand salinity for marinades.
This chart measures Kosher salt in teaspoons and tells you what combination or concentration of Kosher salt you need to add to water to make a saline solution measured by percentage. For the record, 48 teaspoons equal one cup and 24 teaspoons are a half cup.
|% Salinity Concentration||1 Quart Water||2 Quarts Water||3 Quarts Water||4 Quarts Water|
|10%||6 tsp salt||12 tsp salt||18 tsp salt||22 tsp salt|
|20%||12 tsp salt||22 tsp salt||33 tsp salt||42 tsp salt|
|30%||18 tsp salt||33 tsp salt||51 tsp salt||66 tsp salt|
|40%||24 tsp salt||48 tsp salt||69 tsp salt||93 tsp salt|
|50%||30 tsp salt||60 tsp salt||75 tsp salt||100 tsp salt|
This list could go on, but a 50% solution is as about as high as you want to go. That’s the solution to use for brining fish before smoking with a saturation time of 2 to 4 hours depending on the size of the fish. Fatty fish like salmon and trout require more time up to 4 hours, while whitefish like walleye, pike and carp require only a half hour or so at 50%.
Turkeys and chicken require more time but a lesser salinity of about 20%. You usually brine a turkey at 20% salinity either refrigerated or in a cooler filled with ice for 24 hours. Whole chickens and other poultry like ducks and pheasants do nicely with a 10% solution under refrigeration for 12 hours.This list could go on, but a 50% solution is as about as high as you want to go. That’s the solution to use for brining fish before smoking with a saturation time of 2 to 4 hours depending on the size of the fish. Fatty fish like salmon and trout require more time up to 4 hours, while whitefish like walleye, pike and carp require only a half hour or so at 50%.
Woods for Smoking
Hardwoods are best for smoking including oak, hickory, maple, apple wood, cherry wood, or mesquite if it’s available. The wood should have the bark removed and cut or sawn into chunks. Many people soak the chunks in water overnight and let the them partially dry to extend the time that smoke is released and to prevent the chunks from bursting into flame.
Cold smoking is a long process that subjects the fish to a low smoking temperature in a dry environment. The smoke is fed indirectly into the smoking area to reduce the temperature to around 125 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the customary arrangement with a large smokehouse where the fire is outside of the smokehouse and the smoke is funneled in through a length of chimney pipe. You’ll need to keep an eye on the smoldering fire to maintain the heat and smoke output.
Large barrel smokers with an external firebox can also work for cold smoking but be careful to monitor the temperature and keep the fish or game at the far end of the barrel away from the direct heat of the firebox. Cold smoking in a barrel smoker can take as little as 1 to 2 days but remember to keep the fire smoldering.
Hot smoking is a faster process taking from 2 to 4 hours and is usually done in a bullet smoker. A barrel smoker has a pan at the bottom for the coals or an electric coil with a water pan filled with water above it and two tiers of grills to support the fish. There’s usually a door in the side of the smoker to add charcoal or more wood chunks to the lower pan. These smokers often feature a built-in thermometer and the temperature should range from 225 degrees to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hot smoking and cold smoking can be done with fish or game cut to any shape or size from fillets to chunks to whole fish or whole birds. Just remember that the larger the cut the longer the time. Most smokers come with instructions and here again they will often have recommendations for temperature and time.
Raisins and prunes have been around a lot longer than you may think. Roman soldiers ate raisins, dried dates and prunes as a regular part of their diet and they most definitely kept them “regular.”
In ancient times grapes, plums and dates were dried in the sun but today a food dehydrator makes the process simpler and more reliable. Any variety of grapes can be dried to raisins but be sure to buy a seedless variety. Plums should be split, and the pit removed although dates typically are dried with the pit still inside.
The dehydrating time varies from two hours to 8 hours depending on the size of the fruit. Grapes dry faster, and plums take longer. The instruction book that comes with your dehydrator should have instructions for fruit drying. If in doubt you can always take a look and taste as you go until you have the result you like or expect.
Remember too that you can dry just about any fruit from apples to peaches to pears. These fruits are typically peeled and cut into thin slices and dried for 2 to 4 hours. Once again, inspect and taste as you go until you have the result that you like.
Bannock bread is a bread type popularized by Alaskan and Californian Sourdoughs. However, it’s not a sourdough bread. It’s a thick, batter bread made with flour, water, salt and baking powder and was usually known as frying pan bread. This was because the bread was usually baked in a cast iron frying pan over hot-coals. After one side of the bread had browned it was flipped in the pan and the other side browned.
A variation on this bread was called “Hoe Bread.” This was a bread favored by farmers and loggers and was literally baked a on hoe or in the case of loggers, a large ax.
The hoe or ax basically took the place of the cast iron frying pan and the bread recipe was the same as basic Bannock bread.
Here’s the recipe:
Bannock Bread Recipe:
- 2 cups of flour
- 2 teaspoons of baking powder
- ½ teaspoon of salt
- ½ cup of dry milk powder
- 2 tablespoons of shortening
- Water until you achieve a dough-like batter
- Before you add the water, you need to cut-in the shortening using a couple of knives or a pastry cutter. After the texture appears crumbly, slowly add water until you get a putty-like consistency.
- Oil a cast-iron frying pan. Mountain men would use bacon, salt pork or even bear fat. I’m okay with the bacon but I’ll pass on the bear fat. Pour the mixture into the pan. I used a small size 1 cast-iron pan. Place the pan over some coals or on the stove top and brown for about 3 to 5 minutes.
- Flip the bread over in the pan and finish the other side.
- You might want to flip a few times to cook the bread through and to prevent burning. When you think it’s done, poke a stick into the center of the bread. If it comes out clean and dry the bread is done. If not, you can let it rest in the pan off the heat until it finishes.
Food fermentation has been around since the time of the ancient Egyptians. It essentially allows benign bacteria to cause foods to partially rot, and in the process tenderize, preserve and alter the flavor of the food. It sounds offensive to think of eating rotten food but if you’ve ever eaten sauerkraut, yogurt, or Kimchee you’ve eaten fermented foods subject to a rotting process.
The perfect temperature for fermentation is between 60 degrees and 70 degrees Fahrenheit or 21 degrees Centigrade to 15.5 degrees Centigrade. Any temperature the rises or falls above or below will compromise the fermentation process to some degree. This is because of the affect temperature has on the “good” bacteria that drive the fermentation.
Here are the recipes for sauerkraut, yogurt and Kimchee that you can make at home:
- 1 Medium Head of Cabbage
- 3 tablespoons of seal salt or kosher salt or pickling salt
- Caraway seeds as an optional seasoning
- Cut the cabbage into shreds and sprinkle with the salt.
- Knead the cabbage with clean hands. You might want to wear rubber gloves. Do this for 10 minutes until the cabbage releases its juices.
- Sprinkle the caraway seeds on the cabbage and blend with your hands and stuff the cabbage into the jar and make sure to press the cabbage underneath the liquid. Add a bit of water if you need to completely cover the cabbage.
- Cover the jar and let sit at 60 to 70 degrees F. for 2 weeks. Burp the jar once a day.
- Taste the sauerkraut and if it’s to your liking, seal the jar and store in the refrigerator or root cellar. It should last for 6 to 12 months but once opened, finish it within a month.
Kimchee is the signature dish of Korea. If you go to a Korean restaurant a bowl of Kimchee is set on the table much like a basket of bread in the U.S. The recipe is a bit complicated and you should wear rubber gloves when handling the cabbage and the spices to make the Kimchee. Napa cabbage also knows as Chinese cabbage is the cabbage of choice. The result is a spicy and highly flavorful fermented food.
- 2 heads of Napa or Chinese cabbage
- 1 ¼ cups of sea salt or kosher salt or pickling salt
- 1 tablespoon of fish sauce
- ½ small white onion minced
- 2 cloves of garlic chopped
- 2 tablespoons of sugar
- 5 teaspoons of chile powder
- ½ teaspoon of ground ginger
- Cut the cabbages into 2- inch square pieces.
- Place the cabbage into large resealable bags and sprinkle salt on the leaves so they are evenly coated. Use your hands to rub the salt in to the leaves. Seal the bags and leave at room temperature for 6 hours.
- Rinse the salt from the cabbage leaves and then drain and squeeze out any excess liquid.
- Place the cabbage in a bowl.
- Stir in the fish sauce, green onions, white onion, garlic, sugar and ginger. Sprinkle the chile powder over the mixture. Put on some plastic gloves and rub the chile powder into the cabbage leaves until evenly coated.
- Carefully pack the Kimchee into a jar and seal the jar.
- Seal the container and let sit at 60 to 70 degrees F. for 4 days. Burp daily. Refrigerate before serving, and store in the refrigerator or root cellar for up to 1 month.
Yogurt is an invention of the Middle-East and Mediterranean. It’s fermented milk and is highly touted these days for its probiotic properties. It’s easy to make and you can flavor it any way you like once it’s done. Some people add fresh fruit, vanilla or shaved coconut and even instant coffee crystals. That’s up to you.
- 1⁄2 gallon of whole milk
- 1⁄2 cup of store-bought, plain Greek yogurt
- Bring milk to just a boil and set aside to cool until warm to the touch.
- Pour the warm milk into a 1-gallon glass canning jar and add the ½ cup of Greek yogurt. Stir in the yogurt starter and cover the jar with small washcloths.
- Let sit at room temperature for 3 to 4 hours.
- Taste and if to your liking refrigerate for 8 hours or add a flavoring of your choice before refrigerating. It should be good for up to 2 weeks.
Yes, There’s More
But we’ve covered enough. You can easily research recipes and ideas like this on the Internet. Better yet, try to make some of the things that we’ve covered. They’re great skills to know and who knows, you may need them someday.