Editor’s Note: In the previous issue we featured Tina’s first article, which covered the basics of wild game curing with a recipe on smoked venison — or bear — garlic sausage. For part two, Tina cuts through the gristle to get to the bottom of whole muscle curing and sausage fermentation.
Fermented and dried meats aren’t cooked, and as such require different considerations than the sausages in the first article. Having never experimented with whole muscle curing wild game, my biggest concern was that there could be diseases present in deer meat that could not be managed through the regular pork or beef preserving techniques – particularly when creating anaerobic environments by grinding and stuffing sausages. After some research, I discovered most deer-related diseases are transmitted through ticks, or people and/or meat coming into contact with stool or urine. Bacteria present in the intestine pose a threat to humans if it is allowed to contaminate the meat. So in this case, the first step in ensuring a safe end product is that there are no shots to the gut as it reduces the potential for intestinal flora/fauna contaminating meat. Proper procedures for cleaning the carcass should be followed to ensure that no fecal matter or intestinal fluids contaminate the meat during processing. Lastly, avoid hunting sickly animals to decrease the chance of exposure to parasites and disease. As far as I’ve researched, freezing deer meat below -4F for four days will kill most parasites and tapeworms. You can also look for visual clues of tapeworms in the flesh – particularly obvious in the back straps if cut in cross-section. Again, based on my research, bear meat has to be cooked and should not be fermented or dried.
There is a level of sanitation required when making fermented sausages. If you take a moment to think about it, when you grind meat you’re almost infinitely multiplying the surface area of the meat in question and exposing it to potential contaminants: present on the surface of your work table, on any of your equipment, on your tools, on your hands, or even just in the air around you. You’re offering the pathogens a bunch of food and a warm cozy environment in which to multiply. You have to think about it as if you are creating the perfect environment for pathogens to live long and prosper. A clean workspace, clean clothes, clean hands and clean tools are a crucial step in making cured meat safe. A cold workspace is ideal, however, if it’s not available, monitoring the temperature of your meat, and putting it back in the fridge periodically is essential. There are a lot of ways to ensure clean surfaces and equipment which I won’t get into here, but the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has a lot of information on how to ensure safe procedures for fermented meat production.
When anaerobic conditions are present, we employ triple redundancy to ensure meat safety – if one preservation method fails, we have at least two others that ensure a safe final product. Firstly we use 15% kosher salt by weight (or 15g salt/kg of meat). Secondly, we use .025% preserving salt by weight (or 2.5g preservative/kg). Preserving salt for cured sausages is known as Prague No. 2, and is a combination of Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite. Preserving salt for cooked meats is also known as Prague No.1, or pink salt, and is mostly Sodium Nitrate.
Different forms of preserving salts have different maximum allowable volumes by weight so it’s important to pay close attention to the labels. Pink salt is dyed pink so that it doesn’t get mixed up with regular salt but Prague salt is not dyed any color. The Prague we use should not be consumed in excess of 3g/kg of meat, which is why we opt to use 2.5g/kg. It is up to each individual to practice due diligence. Lastly, we introduce a bacterial culture that will decrease the pH of the sausage. We follow specific procedures to ensure that the pH drops at the prescribed rate given the temperature at which it is being fermented. The acidification of a sausage prevents pathogens from multiplying if they are present in the first place.
Juniper – Fermented Salami
The idea that you can harvest wild juniper berries at the same altitude, and in the same regions that you can hunt blacktail deer makes my hyper-local wild-foraged heart swoon. The pairing of flavors couldn’t be more exciting and well suited — it’s a classic for a reason. We complimented the bright juniper flavors with aromatic rosemary and deeply rich confit garlic. Wine is used in all our fermented sausages to help kick-start the fermentation process. In this case, we used red wine. Wine also offers some sugars to the bacterial culture and helps kick-start the fermentation process. We decided to keep the sausage format small so that we could maintain a ‘snacky’ feel. In this case, we used a synthetic plant-based casing that can be easily peeled off. The smaller format also lends itself to pocket-ability — and thus snack-ability — which we thought was fitting for hunters. These little beauties were cased in 6” links, fermented for two days until an internal pH of less than 5.3 was achieved, and then hung in our aging room for ten days until they lost 30% or more of their original weight. The final pH of the sausages was 4.8 (a pH of at most 4.9 is required before consumption).
Bastourma – Whole Muscle
Whole muscles are a whole different beast from sausages. Ideally, there should be no threat of anaerobic pockets — if there is, you can use Prague No. 2. What you’re trying to do is cure and dry out the cut using salt and time, the longer the better too. Fermentation is not part of this process. The longer a cut is allowed to hang, the richer its flavor becomes. With most deer cuts being so small, they dry quite fast, which can be a double-edged sword. If you’re impatient or are squeezed for space, this is ideal. If you are like me and prefer the long game, you can tie multiple pieces together.
Our Bastourma recipe is a version of the South African whole muscle cured meat. At Picnic we use beef eye of round because it’s a larger cut than tenderloin and has a small amount of evenly distributed fat marbling. The more evenly the fat is distributed, the easier it is to cure the cut evenly, as fat doesn’t dehydrate the same way that protein does. If you have a heavy fat cap on or vein through a cut of meat, the meat immediately next to the fat will dry more slowly than the meat that is exposed to air. Obviously, this isn’t so much an issue with deer as they tend to be lean, but for those of you who are going to dive into curing, it’s a good thing to be aware of.
Typically, we cure the eye of the round using the salt box method. The salt box method is the process of tossing a whole muscle in salt, coating the cut evenly until no more salt will stick to the surface. It is then wrapped in plastic and pressed — one day for two pounds of meat. For this deer-specific recipe, we removed the eye of round and combined it with two other long and relatively even cuts of deer to make one slightly larger ‘cut’. I wanted to make the meat dry like a larger cut, to slow down the drying time so that the result would be more like something you can thinly slice, rather than an air-dried jerky. This does create an anaerobic environment between the cuts, so we used curing salts in addition to kosher salt. We netted the three pieces together and proceeded as usual. Once the meat is done curing on salt, it’s removed from the plastic wrap, washed with water and dried in a refrigerator for two days. The Bastourma spices are mixed with olive oil and then packed around the outside of the meat, creating a crust. The meat is then hung in the aging room for three – six weeks, or until 30% of its weight is lost.
I’ve had success knitting meat together to make larger cuts in the past, but was unsuccessful this time. The netting I used was too loose as it is normally used for hams and larger cuts, so there wasn’t enough pressure to keep the cuts together as they dried. Adding a continuous tie over top of the netting would have likely been enough to help the pieces knit together. Either way, the meat cured well and tasted exquisite. Part of the enjoyment of curing your own meats is finding out what does and doesn’t work for you along the way.
There are so many elements you can play with when processing meat. You can experiment with the size of the grinding plate, the number of times you grind, how much fat and the diameter of the casing. To change the flavor, switch up the combination of spices, whether the sausage is smoked, fermented, or fermented then smoked. The key is safety, particularly when it comes to curing.
Before you send your next batch of wild game meat off to be ground or made into pepperettes, consider taking on these recipes yourself. The options are almost endless, especially with the rich flavors of wild game meats.
About The Author: Tina Windsor is the owner/operator at Picnic Charcuterie located in Tofino, BC. She produces high quality cured meats and provisions using local and seasonal BC ingredients, while practicing traditional production and aging techniques using only the minimum required preservatives.