Preparing Meat and Poultry
Keep all meat at low temperature until ready for processing. If meat must be kept for longer than a few days, freeze it. Trim meat off gristle and fat. Fat left on meat will melt and climb the sides of the jar during canning. If it comes in contact with the sealing edge of the lid, the jar may not seal. How you cut your meat will depend upon the end product use. If possible, always use fresh meat as it has the lowest bacteria count. Fresh home-slaughtered red meats and poultry should be chilled and canned without delay. Keeping meat in a refrigerator significantly slows down the growth of bacteria, but they still manage to multiply. The more bacteria in the meat, the longer time is needed to eliminate them, even at higher temperatures. Frozen meat may be canned, but it does not make a high quality product. For best results it is better to cut frozen meat into strips 1 to 2 inches thick and plunge into boiling water. Simmer until the color of the meat has almost disappeared, then immediately pack and process. When you must use the frozen meat thaw it in the refrigerator or place the wrapped meat under cold, running water. Trim away all freezer burn. Freezer burn does not affect the quality of the final product, as long as it is removed prior to processing. Smaller diameter cuts may be thawed in a microwave. Thawing results in a loss of natural meat juices and results in about 1-3% weight loss as some of the internal water leaks out. Frozen meat may have a small amount of "freezer burn" on the surface which should be discarded. Freezer burn occurs when frozen food has been damaged by dehydration and oxidation, due to air reaching the food. It is generally induced by substandard (non-airtight) packaging.
The color of fresh meat is determined largely by the amount of myoglobin a particular animal carries. The more myoglobin the darker the meat, it is that simple. Going from top to bottom, meats that contain more myoglobin are: horse, beef, lamb, veal, pork, dark poultry and light poultry. The amount of myoglobin present in meat increases with the age of the animal. Different parts of the same animal, take the turkey for example, will display a different color of meat. Muscles that are exercised frequently such as legs need more oxygen. As a result they develop a darker color unlike the breast which is white due to little exercise. This color is pretty much fixed and there is not much we can do about it unless we mix different meats together. The color of cooked (uncured) meat varies from greyish brown for beef and grey-white for pork and is due to denaturation (cooking) of myoglobin. The red color usually disappears in poultry at 152° F (67° C), in pork at 158° F (70° C) and in beef at 167° F (75° C). The color of cured meat is pink and is due to the reaction between nitrite and myoglobin. The color can vary from light pink to light red and depends on the amount of myoglobin a particular meat cut contains and the amount of nitrite added to the cure.
Adding nitrates to meat offers many benefits:
- Meat becomes pink
- Acquires a slightly different flavor
- Slows down oxidation
- Inhibits Cl. botulinum from growing
Sodium nitrite, commonly used as cure #1, is the strongest agent for preventing growth of Cl.botulinum spores during smoking meat. It is also added to impart the pink color to processed meats like ham and sausages. You wouldn't like to eat gray ham, would you? Well, without sodium nitrite a roasted leg of pork is just a roasted leg, once the sodium nitrite is added it becomes pink ham with its distinctive flavor that sodium nitrite also provides. Adding sodium nitrite (cure #1) to canned meat will definitely lower the resistance of bacterial spores to thermal processing, but as explained earlier a hobbyist should still process foods according to the USDA guidelines.
Nitrate Safety Concerns
There has been much concern over the consumption of Nitrates by the general public. In the 1970's much research was done on the effects of nitrates on our health. Millions of dollars were spent, many researchers had spent long sleepless nights seeking fame and glory, but no evidence was found that when Nitrates are used within the established limits they can pose any danger to our health. A review of all scientific literature on nitrite by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that nitrite does not directly harm us in any way. All this talk about the danger of nitrite in our meats pales in comparison with the amounts of Nitrates that are found in vegetables that we consume every day. The Nitrates get to them from the fertilizers which are used in agriculture. Don't blame sausages for the Nitrates you consume, blame the farmer. It is more dangerous to one's health to eat vegetables on a regular basis than a sausage. You don't need to use nitrites, however, there are many cases when you want meat to stand out, you want it to be the show meat. The example is red color of tongue in blood sausage or red meat in a headcheese. If you want your canned meat be of red color, use sodium nitrite (cure #1), its that simple. Curing is an important part of sausage making technology, so we will touch it very briefly as this book is about canning meats. If you want to study curing in more detail, read "Home Production of Quality Meats and Sausages."
What is Curing?
In its simplest form the word "curing" means "saving" or "preserving" and the definition covers preservation processes such as: drying, salting and smoking. When applied to home made meat products, the term "curing" usually means "preserved with salt and nitrite." When this term is applied to products made commercially it will mean that meats are prepared with salt, nitrite, ascorbates, erythorbates and dozens more chemicals that are pumped into the meat. There are dry and wet methods (brine) of curing. Meat for sausages is usually diced into 1-2 inch pieces, mixed with salt and cure #1 (2.5 g=1/2 tsp of cure #1 per 1 kg of meat) and left for 72 hours. Larger cuts of meat will benefit from injecting them with curing solution at 10% of solution per weight of the fresh meat.
Mild curing solution (21 salinometer degree):
3/4 cup of salt, 1 gallon of water, 2 tsp. of cure #1.
Inject meat or chicken with 10% of curing solution in relation to the weight of the meat, eg. 100 ml brine for 1 kg (2.2 lb) chicken. Immerse chicken in remaining brine and cure overnight in refrigerator. There may be circumstances when there is no time to cure meat properly. In such cases, the curing process, especially the development of color will benefit greatly from cure accelerators, the simplest one being ascorbic acid which is vitamin C. When added to finely ground or emulsified products (e.g., luncheon meat), they can be canned almost immediately, and a uniform color will be attained. A vitamin C tablet may be pulverized and applied to meat. It is usually applied at 0.1%, e.g., 1000 mg vitamin C per 1 kg of meat. Injecting meat with curing solution will increase its juiciness by decreasing cooking loss during precooking. It will also facilitate thermal processing as more meat will be subjected to convection heat transfer. Lastly, sodium nitrite is the strongest agent that inhibits the growth of Cl.botulinum spores and that is why it is always added to meats that would be smoked. Depending how the smokehouse is designed, there could be a little air inside or none at all creating favorable conditions for bacteria spores to grow.
Precooking meat prevents meat pieces from sticking together. It also provides better appearance and flavor. Precooking results in size reduction allowing meat cuts to be packed more tightly. Meats can be packed directly into containers, packed with liquid or mixed with vegetables, for example a stew. Ground beef can be mixed with spices (chili con carne) or mixing with spices and beans (chili con carne with beef). Some products such as pates or luncheon meat require additional preparation steps.