Homesteading

Preserving Meat: Why and How We Do It

There are a few questions I tend to get from people when talking about how we butcher our own meat. One question is why we raise so much of it. The other is about how we store it. We’re not experts at this, but since we just wrapped up butchering season, and we’ve been getting a lot of these questions, I thought it would be good to address these questions.

Question One

I’ll dig into the question one, first. Why do we raise so much meat? This year, we butchered 16 chickens, 7 turkeys, and 2 pigs. We also bought a quarter of a cow, and now we’re hoping to get some deer from hunting season to fill in gaps. Now I agree, that is a lot of meat. 2 pigs, a bunch of chickens, and several turkeys fill up the better part of a large freezer. But keep in mind, we have a larger family, which equals more mouths to feed. And 5 of the 6 kids are boys, and I can verify that yes, boys tend to eat more than girls. In my experience, they’ll especially eat more meat than girls.

That’s my farm boy, feeding the pigs!

It goes beyond that for us, however. We’re still trying to figure out good target numbers for us, but generally speaking, we have been trying to figure what will be enough for our needs (adding on a buffer for chicks and turkeys because they can be fragile in the beginning), and adding on a little extra to be able to give some meat to the people who help us butcher as a ‘thank you’ for their time.

We started with 30 chickens this year, and within the first month or two, we were down to 24. We were at that number for a long time, but the chickens stayed smaller this year for some reason, and they were escaping from their chicken tractor, and I think getting plucked off by racoons. There was never any sign of struggle or break-in in or near the tractors, and we had to wrangle chickens multiple times because they were escaping. That’s how we ended up with 16. 3 of those went to the people who assisted with butchering, which left 13 for our family. I ended up cooking one and canning 4, so that leaves just 8 put into the freezer. My point is that a) things happen, and b) things don’t go as far as they sound like they will.

To expand on that a little, assume you want to use one chicken a week for meals. That chicken, depending on it’s size, the size of the family eating the meals, along with the the type of meal being made, could make one meal or many for a week… if it’s many, it’s probably broken down into dishes like soup or pot pie where you don’t typically put a lot of meat in. Assuming the bird is small (like ours were this year) and your family is large (like ours), one chicken might make one meal. That’s just one meal a week.

If we were left with 13 after butchering, and ate 1, that means we have 12 left for the year (unless we would chose to do more sometime before a year from when we butchered). That’s less than one chicken a month. Now, I can make that work, but when your talking about a chicken making one meal, we still eat the other 353 days a year. (Granted, they don’t all have to have meat in them.) And that’s just one meal out of three per day. We often don’t eat meat at breakfast or lunch, but certainly do on occasion.

To the final point of this question, I’d like to highlight the things we as consumers in a society disconnected from our food can easily miss… A pig’s belly is where bacon comes from. Each pig has a varying amount of bacon, but from the ones we butchered, it was 10-12 pounds per pig (an amount our family can easily consume in a year). Every chicken has just two of each part you might eat, like breasts or drumsticks. Every pig or cow can produce two full sets of ribs (one ribcage, but divided down the spine creates two racks of ribs). Now, you might be able to break down those ribs to use for multiple meals, and you get two sets of spare ribs, but how many people consider how many ribs they eat in a year?

This isn’t a chastisement of anybody and how they eat. The meat industry has it worked out to produce as little waste from a single animal as possible. The hides might go to a tanner, the bones to a soup company and/or ultimately to a pet store, the “not fit for human consumption” parts may get turned into animal feed. Blood and bone meal fertilize fields and gardens. Waste tends to happen on our end. We don’t eat everything we ordered, we forget to use something we purchased from the store… The full use of the animal is something we are striving to achieve at home, and it helps us value our food and maybe not just eat favorite parts all the time.

So yes, we do eat and raise a lot of meat; for us as a large family, for sharing with others (as a thank you or a gift or a meal), for planning for the unfortunate but inevitable death of some animals.

Question Two

Time for part two. How do we store all of that meat? This has two main components for our family right now: the freezer, and canned. I would guess that after refrigeration and near immediate consumption of fresh meat, the majority of meat in the United States is stored in freezers today. It’s a quick and effective way of storing meat, it can help kill off potentially harmful things like parasites, and it provides you with quite a bit of versatility in how you chose to use the meat.

Freezing

Freezing has been our only method of preservation up until this year, unless you count dehydration. We’ve made jerky in the past, and jerky or dehydrated meat would have the potential to store a long time when done properly. This was the first year I’ve attempted canning meat. If we didn’t raise our own fruits, veggies, and meat, we’d probably still have one large freezer for our family to store pre-made meals (homemade or store-bought), frozen fruits and veggies, and things like butter. But seeing as we do raise our own food, we have more than one.

Summer on the Homestead
A freezer filled with chicken from a few years ago.

However, freezing is maybe not my favorite method of preservation. I can’t say that I love canning meat because we have yet to crack open a jar, BUT I do love the idea that it’s shelf-stable. We’ve had a small chest freezer with maybe 30# of meat in it die, and we noticed too late, because I was big and pregnant with our sixth child and not doing much cooking from scratch. Another time, one of the kids turned a freezer off, and I didn’t notice until things were getting quite thawed out.

I did catch it in time, and we were able to salvage things, but my option at the time for salvaging the meat was to cook it all and freeze it again. It was too thawed out to refreeze. I would have canned the meat, but I had never used the pressure canner at this point, and wasn’t comfortable with it. Plus, I cooked the meat more than is recommended for canning purposes. Another time, we had the power go out for the better part of the day, and while I knew the stuff in the freezer would be okay, I did think “What would we do with all that meat if the power stayed off?” Those things are where canning came into play for us as an important alternative to freezing.

How It’s Packaged

Before I get into the canning, I think I should probably clarify how we store our meat in the freezer, because that has been something I have been asked more specifically as well. There are three primary packaging methods we use for freezing: zip lock bags, vacuum sealed bags, and freezer paper and plastic wrap together.

(And before we go into that, I just want to state that it’s incredibly important to cool the meat properly before freezing to help ensure the best texture of your meat. Meat can be really tough if it’s frozen too soon after death. I use a combination of coolers and refrigerator space to accomplish this. Sometimes the meat is packaged for a day or so before putting in the freezer, sometimes it’s chilled, then cut and packaged and put into the freezer. It just depends on our schedule, really, and what we’re processing.)

We use vacuum sealed bags as our packaging of choice. If the meat can fit, that’s what we’ll use. This is, from what I’ve read, the best for freezing meat. Prior to packaging any roasts, I tied whatever cuts needed it. This way I don’t have to try to thaw the meat out, tie it, trim it and all that prior to cooking. I can take a roast and stick it straight into the crock pot, frozen. It’s incredibly convenient, for home-grown, home-cooked meals.

These pork roasts were tied and trimmed before sealing in vacuum seal bags.

However, it’s not always practical to vacuum seal your meat, and therefore, we need other methods. Freezer paper is a great way to store odd cuts of meat that won’t fit into the vacuum sealer packaging. Ribs, for example, we felt would be better stored in freezer paper. Any meat we wrapped in freezer paper, we wrapped in plastic cling wrap, first. This keeps things from leaking and getting all messy. Everything is taped with freezer tape because the adhesive won’t stop working in the freezer, where as masking tape will.

But then there are things that are even less obviously packaged, like a turkey. It’s too big for a vacuum sealed bag, and it’s and awfully odd shape to wrap with freezer paper. For these, we purchase large, 2.5 gallon zip lock bags. We also used these to store the fat and some of the grinding meat we’ll use for sausage-making. It’s a temporary storage plan. We’d generally use a whole cooked turkey in the winter months, but if I wanted turkey meat stored for the whole year, I’d probably piece the turkey and store it in vacuum bags. Or can it.

No matter how I package the meat, all packaging is labelled with three important pieces of information: The butcher date, the weight, and the contents of the package. All roasts kind of look the same after awhile. A large chicken or a small turkey could easily be confused. When you get frost on the outside of a package, it might be difficult to see what’s inside of the packaging. The only thing I don’t bother labeling is chicken and turkey necks and feet. They are glaringly obvious in the freezer, weight isn’t important, and I usually use them up pretty quickly in a year to make stock that I can.

Canning

Which finally brings me to canning. As I said before, canning came into play as a viable meat storage option for us because we realized what a risk it is to have a year’s worth of meat in the freezer. Things can go terribly wrong, and I want a back-up plan. We canned turkey, chicken, and pork this year. I canned 4 chickens, 3 turkeys, and some of the odd scrap meat from the pigs hind legs. I really didn’t end up canning all that much meat, and if I would can more, it’d be either venison, beef, or potentially more pork (that I’d thaw out and then freeze).

Canned pork and broth

Prior to this year, I was really nervous about the idea of canning meat. It always sounds so unappetizing to me. But I’ve got several years of experience in with the pressure canner now, and I’ve done broth and veggies with no incident. Raising as much meat as we did, I didn’t want to have to invest in even more freezer space! I figured canning would be a good way to spread some of that storage out, and it’d also be good practice for if something would go wrong and we needed to process a bunch of meat.

As it turns out, canning meat is no more difficult than canning veggies. Both use pressure canners and follow the same set of guidelines, albeit with different cook times, but the premise is the same.

The first step, for me, was to get meat off the bones. You use broth to can the meat, and since I don’t have pre-made broth, I had to make my own. In truth, I focused on getting the meat all off and cut up first. I put it all in a big bowl, covered it with plastic wrap, and stuck it back in the fridge until the next day. Once I had the cutting process finished, I’d take the bones and start a stock. I cooked it for several hours that same day, turning the stove off, and allowing it to cool a bit, and then storing it in the fridge overnight.

The next morning, I took the broth out, and continued cooking to maximize the strength and quality of the broth. I’d do this for maybe a few more hours, then strain the broth. (I do use veggie scraps that I freeze and herbs for making the broth, so it’s not just bones.) If there was any meat left on the bones, I can remove it from the parts that were strained out, and I might save it for making shredded chicken and gravy or something to that effect.

Once the broth is ready, I begin to cook the meat slightly, just browning it a little, but not cooking it all the way through, and then I can begin the canning process. I am not totally certain of the reason the meat is cooked prior to canning, but I suspect that the primary reason is that the meat will shrink as it cooks, and this will allow you to maximize what you fit into your jars.

To can meat, you prepare the jars and lids like you would for any other canning project. Always be sure that your jars are thoroughly clean, especially the rims, as this is where seal failures can happen. (I was working on this while my broth was finishing cooking.)

Into each jar, I put the recommended amount of salt per the canning book recipe. Using my canning funnel, I fill the jars with meat, pack it down, and then fill until I have sufficient meat to fill up to 1″ below the rim. Once that is complete, then I fill space with broth, again, up to the 1″ line. Rims are cleaned, and lids and rings put on.

Everything was processed at 240F (or 10# of pressure). For pints, it’s processed at that temperature for 75 minutes, for quarts, 90 minutes. Any broth left over from this process I also canned. Same temperature, but for 20 minutes. I canned all chicken and turkey meat in quarts, and all in the same canning batch, so to be sure I didn’t forget which jars were which (they look the same), I labeled the lids with a sharpie before canning. Just a C or a T, so I could easily identify them.

Both chicken and turkey meat and broth, canned. You can see the T’s on some of the lids. After the jars cool overnight, I remove the rings, wash the jars off with soap and water (they can get grimy from siphoning that sometimes happens in the pressure canner), then write the whole label on the jars.

Other Possibilities

There are other way in which we’d like to learn to store our meat. True country ham is a months-long curing process that we’d love to learn how to do. Now that we’ve actually butchered a pig, it’s something I’m motivated to learn how to do for the next round of pigs we raise (or maybe the one after that). It requires salt, sugar, and spices, and it requires a smokehouse. Meat can be cured in the refrigerator as well, from weeks to months, based off of what I read. However, the end product would be different than a country ham.

We do typically make a batch of venison jerky if we get a deer during hunting season. Dehydration is one possibility for storing meat that frankly, we haven’t spent much time looking into. there are plenty of dehydrated meals that can be purchased, but many are actually freeze-dried, so I’m not sure what the options here are, but I do know they exist (such as dehydrating cooked ground beef, and salt pork).

Freeze-drying is a possibility, but the machines to do that process are very cost-prohibitive for most people to get into, and it’s not something I’d expect we’d try doing anytime soon. Building a smokehouse on the other hand?… That’s something we’ve been thinking about for a few years.

I think that about sums it all up. If I missed anything or you have additional questions or information for me, leave those in the comments!

Love and Blessings~Danielle

One Comment

  • Trudy

    I think as long as you’re willing to put in the hard work, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to preserve your meat for now. It’s a great experience for the whole family, as you all certainly learn a lot, and along with your bountiful garden, a great appreciation of where all of that food for a large family comes from! Obviously you can save a lot of money (although your time is still valuable and you do have to buy the right tools/equipment upfront), there’s something to be said for knowing how to take care of yourself and knowing just where your food comes from.

    Your kids may not want to do the same one day, claiming as others before us often have: It’s so much work and so easy to go to the store and buy it after somebody else did all of the work. There’s no shame in that. But what I have learned after talking to many people well into their adulthood that grew up on a farm but chose a different path in life, is they have fond memories of what they helped be a part of and a true appreciation for what people like you and your family do.

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