After the Lions Gate A&S Defenders competition I got a lot of questions about how to salt meat. So I decided to put my research together into an article for the local newsletters. So, here it is.
The preservation of food has always been a major concern of civilization. Modernly we tend to rely on refrigeration to preserve our foods. Cooling was also a method for food preservation in the middle ages, however, for obvious reasons there were limitations. Other methods needed to be devised to preserve foods, especially regarding meat. In this article I will be focusing on the medieval method of salting meats to preserve them for later consumption. The methods I describe are those which would have been used in England and France in the late medieval period.
The salting of meat was a common practice in the middle ages. This allowed for the preservation, storage, and transport of meat without refrigeration. According to Food in Medieval England “it was a routine procedure on big estates for deer to be hunted according to season, when the meat was at its best, and the venison prepared and stored in larders till needed, and in this case heavier salting would be necessary” (Woolgar, Serjeantson and Waldron 181). The salting of venison was common in great households, so much so that there were quite often men whose sole job was the preservation of food. They would accompany the huntsmen so as to make sure that the deer were treated properly and would be preserved properly (Woolgar, Serjeantson and Waldron 181).
There are several different ways of salting meats: lightly coating in salt, temporary packing in salt, partial packing in salt and long term packing in salt. The short term salting process seems to have been lightly coating the meat in salt, just enough to cover it, and then hanging it by a fireplace to fully dry, then it may be consumed. When I began researching food preservation I was living and working in Lytton B.C. This gave me the opportunity to talk with local First Nations Elders about their methods of food preservation. The food they primarily preserve is Salmon, however they do still preserve game meats from time to time. Nkixwstn James, an elder of the Nlaka’pamux Nation was my major source for this. She explained that the light salt coating is a form of drying using the salt to draw the moisture out quicker. This leads to a similar end product to air drying the meat, though it is quicker (James).
Temporary packing in salt seems to function as the main method of salting for most meats. In this method the meat is packed in salt in a cask. The term used for this cask in most existing manuscripts is the Latin term “doliis” (Ridgard 29) which is the same word used for wine casks. From this I assume then that they mean watertight casks such as would be used for wine. After a period of time running from one day to a month, they removed the meat from the salt and hung it by a fireplace, or other warm location, until fully dry. After that it may be hung in a dry place for one to four years depending on the type of meat (Woolgar, Serjeantson and Waldron 181-183).
Partial packing in salt was a method which I only ran across in Le Menagier de Paris, translated by Eileen Power: “it is appropriate to salt it in a wash-tub or bath ground coarse salt, and after dry it in the sun” (Power 164). This seems to imply that covering is not necessary if the meat is immersed in salt. That line of thought is continued by Daniel Myers in his experiments in salting which I used as the first basis of my salting process.
The long term method appears to be packing the meat in salt, ensuring that the meat is fully covered, and in a water tight container. In Lieber Cure Cocorum, published first in 1430, it says: “Salt hit wyth drye salt, alle in fere. And do hit in a barel þenne. Þe barel staf ful as I þe kenne, Stop wele þo hede for wynde and sone, For hit wylle payre þo venysone” (Morris 33-34). The meat would then be removed shortly before using, perhaps up to a week previous. This method keeps the meat from exposure to moist air, which all forms of salting seem to agree is bad for it. As I live in a very moist climate I decided that this is the most Food Safe method.
When salting it seems that two different kinds of salt were used: gross salt and white salt. Gross salt seems to have been what we today call sea salt, and appears to have been the cheaper variety (Woolgar, Serjeantson and Waldron 182). White salt appears to have been refined salt which cost more, but was of higher quality, and was a better salt for preserving meat. It would have taken a large amount of salt to preserve an animal the size of a deer, with some records putting the amount at between ½ a bushel and two bushels depending on the size of the deer. Because of this the better white salt was normally mixed with the coarser gross salt in an attempt to keep costs down (Woolgar, Serjeantson and Waldron 182-183).
Before cooking salted meat most cookbooks in period recommend parboiling it in a mixture of wine and water or water and vinegar (Redon, Sabban and Serventi 83), likely wine vinegar, in an attempt to “draw out the salt” (Power 164).
I have salted several different cuts of venison, and all seem to work in the same manner. Traditionally of course fresh venison would have been preserved, but when I have been unable to acquire it fresh I allow the meat to thaw in the fridge, and used a sink full of cold water to finish making sure that it was fully defrosted. I patted the meat down with paper towel to remove the moisture, as traditionally the meat would have been hung for a day or two, which would have removed most of the incidental moisture. I let the meat rest for a few minutes covered with clean dry paper towel. Whenever it looks like the paper towel is getting moist, I change it. This way the only moisture left on the venison is the moisture of the meat itself.
I use Pyrex baking dishes with an air tight lid for salting. I do this because it is cheaper than buying a water tight cask, and this way I can see how the salt is doing throughout the salting process (Meyers’ attempts turned a reddish colour, which I think was from a combination of not patting the meat dry enough and the open top).
I use two kinds of salt, canning or pickling salt as the main salt, and sea salt in order to get a similar salt content to what would have been used during the middle ages. The sea salt (or gross salt) would have been the cheaper of the two in period, but today canning salt is cheaper. Because of this instead of the approximate one to one ratio, always hedging in the direction of having more gross salt than white salt, which seems to have been used in late medieval England, I use a two to one ratio in favour of the cheaper canning salt. I have also salted venison without sea salt without tasting much difference in the end product. I use canning salt because it is the closest salt we have to the white salt that was used in period.
I cover the bottom of the Pyrex dish with the salt, and place the meat on top of the salt, ensuring that the pieces of meat do not touch. I then cover the meat with salt, ensuring that each piece is fully covered on all sides with salt. I put enough salt in to ensure that there will be no air in the container. Then I put on the lid and place in a cool place, but not in the refrigerator or freezer, normally my pantry.
I keep an eye on my venison, and check it every few days without opening the lid. If there is a lot of liquid at the bottom of the container (a small amount is normal) I remove the venison, clean and dry the dish, add new salt and the venison and re-seal it. This is a food-safe precaution.
After about two weeks or more I take the meat out of the salt and wash it off. Then parboil it in water and red wine vinegar, I don’t use expensive vinegar for this, I use No Name Red Wine Vinegar and it works well. I generally use about one part vinegar to three parts water, but adding more water doesn’t seem to be too bad. An easy rule of thumb I go by is to use one bottle of the vinegar and enough water to cover the meat by about an inch. Once the meat has been boiled I then prepare the meat for whatever dish I’m making. My favourites are grilled, or baked in a pie.
James, Nkixwstn. Elders, Nlaka’pamux nation Noah Arney. Lytton, 20 May 2009.
“Liber Cure Cocorum.” Ed. Morris, Richard. The Philological Society’s Early English Volume. London: Asher & Co., 1865. 61.
Myers, Daniel. “Salted Venison.” 2008. Medieval Cookery. 15 May 2009 <http://www.medievalcookery.com/recipes/saltvenison.html>.
Power, Eileen, trans. The Goodman of Paris (Le Ménagier de Paris c. 1393). Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2006.
Redon, Odile, Françoise Sabban and Silvano Serventi. The Medieval Kitchen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Ridgard, John. Medieval Framlingham. Dover, New Hampshire: Boydell Press, 1985.
Woolgar, C.M., Dale Serjeantson and Tony Waldron. Food in Medieval England. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2006.
 You may examine his results at http://www.medievalcookery.com/recipes/saltvenison.html