By Richard Bogath
Food Storage – Are you sure you wanna eat that?
If you missed my previous discussion about cooking with uncertainty please take a moment to step back and read our last post here.
Cooking With Uncertainty
Cooking with uncertainty means that the food has not turned funky shades of green and grey, smelling of old footwear or older cheese, but has been sitting around a little too long to respectfully consider letting it go one more day. Pork, chicken and fish in it’s raw state will need to be cooked or marinaded within 2-3 days of its suggested expiration (I usually prefer to marinate 1-2 days past and then cook by the third day). Why and what marinade? Because a marinade made with a high acid content like vinegar, lemon juice, salt or products containing these items, will stem the growth of bacteria and even begin a chemical transformation of the meat that in many ways mimics cooking on a molecular level. Ever hear of civice? Yep. That’s it.
You may have noticed that I did not include beef or vegetables in the above mentioned cook or toss scenario. That’s because beef, venison, elk, buffalo or other more red meats, have varying degrees of intramuscular fat that change the way bacteria forms. Generally, red meats that have a slight “funk” to them (maybe the same 2-3 days past optimal) can have the outer layer cut away from them and still be perfectly usable. I still recommend marination and cooking beyond that, but they are a little more forgiving.
Vegetables? Ha! They last way longer than expiration dates provided you have managed to see them A) Relatively cool and B) Away from insects. True, veggies will start to lose color, flavor, vitamin content and the same appealing nature they had when purchased or picked, but they will still be perfectly edible.
Utensils and bacteria
For this article, the reference of “utensils” is not referring to your tableware when sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner. Consider the following:
- Your favorite, razor sharp hunting/utility knife gets used to gut that deer you shot last week.
- After gutting is complete, you wipe off the blade with a towel/rag/sleeve/leaf and stick it back in the holster.
- Maybe you remember too rinse it off that night—but probably not.
- Maybe you even remember to wash it! Give it a rinse under hot water, use the kitchen sponge with a little dish soap and it’s as good as new.
- Use same knife to butcher down the deer.
Technically, we cannot count high enough to adequately measure the bacterial colonies now growing on your trusty knife. Between the tiny space where the blade meets the pommel or the pivot point that is almost impossible to clean, to the fact that you washed it with the most bacteria-ridden item in your entire house, your knee is a major germ factory—and you’ve just butchered that deer with it.
But that’s okay! We are still going to cook it or marinate it or preserve it somehow—but you’ve just greatly reduced the lifespan of that meat, exponentially. We can’t keep the bacteria off of everything, but we can do out best to not introduce more.
Uncommon Food Storage Preservation Ideas
So what do we do with the meat and bacteria farm that is exploding across it’s surface? We put it in the fridge and that’s the best we can do or the most we usually do. But, you do have other options.
- Hang drying
Hang drying meat is as old as meat eating itself. Ever hear the term “dry aged beef” or “hung pheasant”? Yessiree, fancy words for “we found a relatively cool place with a decent amount of airflow to hang this meat so nothing else touches it. Simplicity in itself, it’s simple biology—the cool, dry air wicks the moisture out of the outer layers of the meat, forming a type of crust that bacteria can’t enjoy. Without moisture, bacteria slowly dies and cannot reproduce itself. Hang drying also has the added benefit of tenderizing the meat and making it more flavorful. It doesn’t last forever, but it can last a good long time. Ever eat prosciutto? Uncooked, dry ham that has hung from months to over a year. That’s right—raw pork.
Preserving in fat is another age old technique. Cut up your meat to be preserved, place in a clean container, cover in rendered (melted) fat (usually of the same animal the meat came from) allow to cool and then store in a cool, dry place until needed. Dig the meat out of the solidified fat and viola—no way for the bacteria to get at it (and not to mention, some of the juiciest meat you will ever eat). also called “confit” (con-fee) by the French.
While most commonly used for preserving fish, layers of coarse salt can also be used for most meats and poultry for preservation. If there’s one thing bacterial hates even more than cool, dry places, it’s salt. Kills them instantly. The only pain with salt preservation is the continual soaking in clean water in order to remove most of the salt before cooking and eating. Even then, it can still be really salty. Good to make jerky when red meat is preserved this way.
Okay, not many American palettes are accustomed to the flavor of fermented meat. Personally, I have never been able to get it down. Remember, we are not talking about curing here. Curing is the extraction of water from food cells to be replaced with a concentration of water, salts and sugars to change the cellular structure and make it less appealing to bacteria. Fermenting is all about adding beneficial bacteria (bacteria that wont harm us) that metabolize the food (yes, I mean partially digest it) so that harmful bacteria cannot get to it. Texture, color and especially flavor are all dramatically altered by fermentation. But it works.
- Cheese and Butter
Broken down to it’s roots, cheese and butter are simply ways used to preserve milk. A staple of life to most cultures on earth (both ancient and modern), milk before refrigeration could be literally measured in moments before spoilage, much less days or weeks like today. The processes of churning (whipping air into the fat so that they bond and separate into milk solids) which are then pressed into butter after being separated from the whey (liquid left over from the milk), or the process of cheesemaking where the milk is coagulated, separated from the whey and then pressed into blocks of young cheese which is then left to cure for varying amounts of time depending on what cheese is being made.
So there you have it. Tread lightly when it comes to deciding on what is spoiled or not, but realize that there are options other than tossing something that you spent good money on or harvested yourself. Nature thumbs her nose at expiration dates.