Autumn means that hunters are taking to the woods. While successful hunters enjoy fresh, wild game meat, it’s likely that at least a portion of any harvested wildlife will need to be preserved for future use. Penn State Extension recently offered a webinar about safe home preservation options for wild game.
Although the meat from wild game animals, birds and fish is perceived as wholesome, it may harbor dangerous pathogens like salmonella and E. coli from its wild sources’ digestive tracts. Without proper handling, contacting this raw meat during processing, or later ingesting improperly cooked meat, can cause serious illness.
Lancaster County Penn State Extension educator Stacy Reed explained that safe game meat begins with good hygiene. Persons handling wild game should start by washing their hands in warm water for 20 seconds. Avoiding cross contamination requires keeping raw meat, the utensils handling it and any surfaces they touch separate from other foodstuffs or utensils, and sanitizing them promptly after completing raw meat processing. Thereafter, thoroughly cooking the game meat before consuming it or properly preserving it for future use is essential.
The easiest, most popular way to preserve wild game is freezing it at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or less. Freezing is fast, preserves food well and prevents growth of microorganisms. It also preserves the natural color, flavor, nutrition and texture of wild game, poultry or fish. If freezing cooked meat, cover it in broth, gravy or an acidic sauce, such as something tomato-based.
The key to success is rapid freezing, which creates smaller ice crystals, resulting in less cell damage, reduced freezer burn and less dripping when thawing. For fastest freezing, spread new packages out around the freezer, leaving space for air to circulate. If adding larger quantities to the freezer, set its thermostat to minus-10 degrees Fahrenheit at least 24 hours in advance.
Vacuum-sealed bags yield the best storage results in the freezer, but rigid freezer containers, freezer bags or freezer papers also work well. Clearly label the contents, packaging date and quantity.
Drying or dehydration is a preservation method that limits spoilage, restricts microorganisms’ growth and slows enzymatic effects, but does not destroy any existing bacterial pathogens.
Various styles of dehydrators are available. Choose one with a heat control from 95 degrees to 155 degrees; a fan for air flow; and easily cleanable, low-sided trays. A programmable timer is also a plus.
Drying wild game into jerky requires lean meat trimmed of fat and regulating drying times to remove moisture without over-drying, which can result in unappealing “case hardening.” Typically, 140 degrees is considered the ideal drying temperature; trying to rush the process by using higher settings will trap moisture in the meat and risk mold. Storing jerky in the refrigerator prevents mold growth.
Gamebirds should first be smoked and then marinated to add flavor before drying. Wild game animals should be treated to kill the trichinella parasite by freezing it in portions less than 6 inches thick for 30 days at 0 degrees prior to dehydrating it. Typically, 4 pounds of meat will yield 1 pound of jerky.
Canning game meat in heat-sealed jars is another effective way of preserving these provisions. This method kills and prevents growth of unwanted microorganisms and inactivates enzymes that can adversely impact flavor, color and nutrients. It also avoids moisture loss and prevents reactions with oxygen that hasten deterioration.
Reed said that when preparing to can meat from larger game such as deer or bear, the meat should have the bones removed, be trimmed of fat and cut into chunks of uniform sizes. Gamebirds, as well as fish, may be canned with or without first removing the bones.
It is always best to choose lean meat. To counteract any “gamey flavor,” soak wild game in a brine solution of 1 teaspoon salt per 1 quart of water for one hour before canning.
Using proper home canning procedures is essential for both safety and quality. Especially important is using a pressure canner at a high enough temperature (adjusted for altitude) and a long enough time to eliminate all bacteria that could cause spoilage or food poisoning, including deadly botulism.
Foods’ acidic levels are another concern addressed by pressure canning. Meats, poultry and fish, whether harvested in the wild or farm-raised, are low-acid foods that require severe heat treatments — processing at 215 to 240 degrees Fahrenheit — to kill heat-resistant spores like Clostridium botulinum (botulism). This requires a pressure canner to accomplish the job safely, since steam pressure transfers “an enormous amount of heat” that can’t be achieved through other means such as a boiling water bath canner or an atmospheric steam canner. Reed stressed that open-kettle canning, also known as “hot fill,” is not adequate when canning meats.
Pressurizing water in a pressure canner raises its boiling point above 212 degrees Fahrenheit. When canning strips, cubes or chunks of meats, pressure cooking times based on style of pressure canner and elevations can be found in Penn State Extension’s “Let’s Preserve Meat” brochure. Reed also emphasized the importance of pressure dial-gauge testing at least annually; this is a service which local Penn State Extension offices provide for free.
A key to successful canning is making sure the meat is protected by a strong vacuum within its sealed canning jar. Achieving this occurs when air in the jar is replaced with condensed steam during pressure canning, which then condenses and “burps” out as it cools, creating the vacuum that keeps oxygen out and prevents post-processing microbial contamination. The integrity of each jar’s seal involves clean, intact jar rims and new canning lids, which should never be reused. Additionally, it is important to leave adequate headspace between the jar’s contents and its lid (generally about 1 to 1-1/4 inches), remove any air bubbles using a plastic spatula, and pack the jar while the food is hot (unless raw-packing).
When initially placing the jar ring band over the lid, only make it “fingertip tight,” to allow the lid to be drawn down as the contents later cool; seeing an indentation in the lid will tell you a vacuum seal has formed. The jar ring bands should be fully tightened after jar contents have completely cooled.
Berks County Penn State Extension educator Andy Hirneisen provided helpful demonstrations of wild game preservation methods. For jerky making, he cut meat into 1/4-inch strips using a well-sharpened knife, then placed the strips and a marinade into a zip-close plastic bag for refrigerating overnight. Before dehydrating, he said to drain the marinade into a small pot and heat it to boiling to kill any bacteria; add meat strips and stir while bringing mixture to a second boil. Pre-cooking opens up fibers in the meat and allows it to dry faster. Drain meat and place in dehydrator.
For pressure canning, he pre-warmed jars before filling them. To avoid gamey-tasting venison, he suggested adding tomato juice instead of water or broth around the meat when canning, then pouring off that liquid prior to cooking the meat. While game can be raw-packed, for best-looking results, Hirneisen advocates sautéing meats like venison just to the rare stage and hot-packing it. Wipe off rims of filled jars with water or vinegar before adding lid and fingertip tightening; place jars into pressure cooker’s heated water as they’re filled.
Follow your selected recipe and the pressure cooker’s instructions carefully. Then, at the end of the processing, remove pressure cooker from heat and wait 10 minutes before opening the pressure cooker’s lid. Remove hot jars with tongs to a heatproof surface and allow to sit for 12 to 24 hours. The resulting canned meat will have a soft consistency, perfect for gravies, stroganoffs, soup or pulled meat sandwiches.
For additional information about food preservation, visit the Penn State Home Food Preservation website at extension.psu.edu/food/preservation. Or, contact your county’s Penn State Extension office. To receive notices about Penn State Extension’s webinars, classes and articles based on interests you select, go to https://extension.psu.edu/email-preferences.