After many years I decided to update my article on salting meat. Here it is as printed in the February edition of the Kingdom of Avacal newsletter the Avantgarde. You can find the old version here.
The salting of meat was a preferred preservation method for most of the SCA time period (600-1600 AD). Several other methods were used as well, such as storing in cool areas, drying, etc., but salting has all the advantages of drying food with the added advantage of being much safer for larger pieces of meat.
Salting meat 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 2006, 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 2006, 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, as well as several different brining methods. 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 – this is very similar to curing meat (very effective on meats with a high fat content such as pork). All of these methods are essentially ways of drawing the water away from the meat (plasmolysis) faster than simply drying it (James 2009). This prevents harmful bacteria from growing and allows the meat to be stored safely
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 1985, 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 2006, 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 2006, 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 process1.
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 1865, 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. Regardless of climate this is the most Food Safe method.
When salting two different kinds of salt were used: gross salt and white salt. Gross salt is what we today call sea salt, and appears to have been the cheaper variety (Woolgar, Serjeantson and Waldron 2006, 182) especially in England. 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 2006, 182-183).
Before cooking salted meat most period cookery books recommend parboiling it in a mixture of wine and water or water and vinegar (Redon, Sabban and Serventi 1998, 83), likely wine vinegar, in an attempt to “draw out the salt” (Power 2006, 164).
In my experiments in salting I was guided by Nkixwstn James, an elder of the Nlaka’pamux Nation (Lytton B.C.), who explained their current and traditional methods of food preservation. It is through her expertise that I worked out the methods I use.
Salting the Meat
Most types of meat can be salted in the same manner, however I recommend trying venison first as it has a fairly low fat content and is an easy meat to work with for this. I would exercise caution if salting pork as it has a very high fat content and can react differently – and you may as well add the nitrites and cure it.
Pat the meat down with paper towel to remove any moisture. Let the meat rest for 10 minutes or so covered with clean dry paper towel. If it looks like the paper towel is getting moist, change it.
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 but you can use any air tight container.
I’ve salted meat with several different blends of salt (canning or pickling salt as the main salt mixed with sea salt) but there is very little taste difference between the mixed salt and pure canning salt. This is likely due to the high quality of our modern salt. I recommend just using canning salt.
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. Then cover the meat with salt, ensuring that each piece is fully covered on all sides with salt. Add enough extra salt to keep any as much air as possible out of the container then put on the lid and place in a cool place. You can do this in the fridge to keep it cool – and that is likely the safest way – but I have done it several times in my pantry without issue (temperatures above 15 degrees should be avoided).
Keep an eye on the meat, 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) remove the meat, clean and dry the dish, add new salt and the meat and re-seal it. This is a food-safe precaution.
After about two weeks the meat should be fully salted. You can now leave it in the salt for several months or more or you can take the meat out of the salt and wash it off, pat it dry and then allow it to fully dry (you can do this in the fridge on a wire rack on a baking sheet).
Using the Meat
When using the meat rule one is smell. If it smells “off” at all then the salting process didn’t take and you need to throw it out. It should smell like a concentrated version of the original meat but it shouldn’t smell bad at all.
Parboil the meat in water and red wine vinegar, don’t use expensive vinegar for this, any kind will do. One part vinegar to three parts water is the normal but adding more water doesn’t seem to be too bad, it’s most important that the meat is covered by about an inch. Once the meat has been boiled take it out and then prepare the meat for whatever dish you’re making. My favourites are grilled, baked in a pie, or stewed. Add no salt to whatever dish you’re making, it will already be salty.
James, Nkixwstn, interview by Noah Arney. 2009. Elders, Nlaka’pamux nation Lytton, B.C., (May 20).
“Liber Cure Cocorum.” In The Philological Society’s Early English Volume, by Richard Morris, edited by Richard Morris, 61. London: Asher & Co.
Myers, Daniel. 2008. “Salted Venison.” Medieval Cookery. Accessed May 15, 2009. http://www.medievalcookery.com/recipes/saltvenison.html.
Power, Eileen, trans. 2006. The Goodman of Paris (Le Ménagier de Paris c. 1393). Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. Accessed May 24, 2009. http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Medieval/Cookbooks/Menagier/Menagier.html.
Redon, Odile, Françoise Sabban, and Silvano Serventi. 1998. The Medieval Kitchen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ridgard, John. 1985. Medieval Framlingham. Dover, New Hampshire: Boydell Press.
Woolgar, C.M., Dale Serjeantson, and Tony Waldron. 2006. Food in Medieval England. Toronto: Oxford University Press.