How to preserve meat 

In this brief guide, we are going to answer the question “how to preserve meat” and discuss the different methods of preserving meat.

How to preserve meat

Global meat consumption is constantly increasing; over the last 20 years, it has increased by 58%, reaching 360 million tons annually, with 54% of this increase being attributed to population growth, and the rest being ascribed to increased consumption per capita as shaped by changes in consumers’ dietary attributes and incomes (1).

Meat can be preserved by :

  • Refrigerating
  • Freezing
  • Dehydrating
  • Curing
  • Smoking
  • Canning
  • Freeze drying

How to preserve meat by refrigerating

Refrigerating is one of the easiest ways to store meat. Temperatures below or above the optimum range for microbial growth will have a preventative action on the latter. For fresh meat, refrigeration, including storage above or below the freezing point, has been the traditional preservation method (5). 

When refrigerating, it is recommended to store meat in the original packaging. Meat must always be kept on the lower shelves of the refrigerator, below other produce. This prevents the juices from the meat dripping into other products and causing cross-contamination. Fresh meat packaging is only minimally permeable to moisture and so surface desiccation is prevented, while gas permeability varies with the particular film type used (5).

It is important to maintain the proper temperature when preserving meat in the refrigerator. The recommended temperature for storing meat is between 34° and 40°F (1° to 4 °C) (4). Microbes have the slowest growth rate at this temperature, so the meat will be preserved for a longer time.

How to preserve meat by freezing

Freezing is another simple method that can be used to preserve meat. Freezing is particularly widespread because it does not require either chemical agents or irradiation as preservation methods; besides, nutrient losses are minimized when exposing the food to low temperatures. Foods lose moisture during the freezing process because their surface is exposed to heat and mass transfer exchange with the environment. The difference between the water vapor pressure on the food surface and that in the air bulk is the driving force for dehydration (2).

It is important to maintain the freezing temperature between  – 18 °C to – 22 °C at all times. Meat can be stored frozen for 4 to 12 months, depending on the cut (3).

Frozen meat can be thawed by placing it in a container in the refrigerator. Frozen meat can be also defrosted under running water, or in a microwave, if it is going to be immediately cooked (3). 

How to preserve meat by dehydrating

The drying process is one of the oldest and most widely used preservation methods because it is ancient and cheap. Drying extends the shelf-life of meat and meat products because of the reduction in water activity. In addition, the drying process reduces the microbial load and results in lighter volumes and weights, which decrease storage and transportation costs. Dried meat that has been sliced or cut into cube-shaped pieces is used in the food industry as an ingredient in different formulations, such as paste products and instant soup formulations, to improve the nutritional and sensory value of products (6).

Dehydration enables the meat to be stored for a long period. Since dehydration removes moisture, it inhibits the growth of microbes.

The best and easiest method of dehydration is by using a dehydrator or an oven. 

Meat must be cleaned, cut into narrow strips and boiled or roasted before it is dehydrated. Boiling or roasting is necessary because dehydration alone cannot kill all the bacteria in the meat. The complete method of dehydration can be found here.

Dehydrated meat without any preservatives can be kept refrigerated for up to 6 monthsa year. Dehydrated meat must not be left outside the refrigerator for more than 2 weeks (7).

The containers used to store dehydrated meat must be clean and dry with no moisture. Vacuum packaging can also be used to store dehydrated meat. The containers with dehydrated meat must be kept in a cool, dark area.

How to preserve meat by curing

Curing is an ancient technique that is still being used to preserve meat.

During curing a high salt content is added to the meat. The salt draws out water by osmosis which in turn reduces the growth of microbes. Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are used to produce cured meat products. Earlier on, with the use of salt as a preservative and drying agent, it is likely that people noticed that certain salts preserved meat better than others (8).

Meat must be allowed to cure for about a month in an airtight container. Cured meat has a shelf-life of about 2 weeks 3 months when refrigerated.

There are health concerns over cured meat. Cured meat has a very high sodium content. High sodium content has been linked to cardiovascular disease and hypertension. The nitrites and nitrates in curing salts have been associated with certain cancers.

How to preserve meat by smoking

Smoking is a technique that uses smoke to draw out the moisture from the meat while cooking it. Smoking is used to enhance the flavor as well as to preserve meat.

Smoke is a mixture of multiple wood combustion products (gases, tar, ash, carbonyls, phenols, etc.) that are visible as gases (carbon dioxide, water vapor, nitrogen, etc.) and carry unburned solid particles (resin, tar, ash, etc.) as they escape the combustible heat source. The exact composition or ratio of gases and solids within the smoke stream is defined by the type and moisture content of wood, rate and temperature of heating/burning, and other factors such as air flow. Smoke is imparted on the subjected meats at different rates depending on the air flow into the smoke house, surface moisture of the meat, temperature, and humidity of the smoke house (8).

If smoked meat is refrigerated within 2 hours after smoking, it will last up to 3 days. Smoked meat can be preserved further by freezing. Smoked meat must be frozen in an airtight container or a vacuum-sealed bag. Properly frozen smoked meat has a shelf-life of about 3 months. Curing meat before smoking will extend the shelf-life up to a year.

How to preserve meat by canning

Canning allows the destruction of virtually all microorganisms and their spores, able to proliferate and/or produce toxins, especially Clostridium botulinum, as well as spoilage microorganisms. The result of some thermal-processing methods, such as canning, is the production of self-stable foods, with a considerably long shelf-life, without the need of applying and other special storage conditions. However, thermal processing usually alters sensory and physical characteristics (8).

Canning meat requires a bit of practice, but if done correctly, canning can preserve meat for at least a year.

Canning meat requires mason jars, a pressure cooker, water and salt. Spices are optional.

Canning can be done with or without bones, on meat stripes, chunks of minced meat.

A recipe for canning can be found here.

How to preserve meat by freeze-drying

Freeze drying meat preserves it for the longest time.  Commercially freeze-dried meat has a shelf-life of about 25 years when stored properly. Commercial freeze-dried meat is packaged in nitrogen which preserves the meat for longer.

Home-based freeze drying requires a freeze dryer. Homemade freeze-dried food is stable for 8-10 years.

How to identify if meat has gone bad

In general, no signs of deterioration become evident in meats contaminated with pathogens. Some of the most important microorganisms causing food poisoning, involving meat and meat products are Salmonella spp., Escherichia coli O157:H7, Yersinia enterocolítica, Campylobacter jejuni, Staphylococcus aureus, Listeria monocytogenes, Clostridium perfringes, C. botulinum, Bacillus cereus, and Staphylococcus aureus (8).

Bad meat can be identified easily from smell and texture.  Meat has gone bad if it has a :

  • Bad smell: If meat smells foul and pungent, it must be discarded.
  • Slimy texture: Spoilt meat would feel slimy or sticky to the touch.
  • The fat oxidation occurs also in meat products and can lead to unpleasant colors, besides off-odors and flavors (8).
  • Odd color: Spoilt meat also sometimes changes color. If meat is greenish-brown or green it must be discarded. This indicates the microbial production  of H2S, which binds myoglobin and forms sulfmyoglobin (8).

If in doubt about if meat has gone bad, always discard without tasting.

Other FAQs about Meat that you may be interested in.

Why can’t you eat meat on Christmas eve?

Can you eat spoiled meat?

Can you eat meat on Christmas eve?

Conclusion

In this brief guide, we answered the question “how to preserve meat” and discussed the different methods used to preserve meat. We also discussed how to identify if meat has gone bad.

If you have any questions or comments, please let us know.

References

  1. Manessis G, Kalogianni AI, Lazou T, Moschovas M, Bossis I, Gelasakis AI. Plant-Derived Natural Antioxidants in Meat and Meat Products. Antioxidants, 2020, 9, 1215.  
  2. Campañone, Laura Analia, et al. Monitoring of weight losses in meat products during freezing and frozen storage. Food Sci Technol Int, 2002, 8, 229-238.  
  3. Freezing and food safety. US Department of Agriculture.
  4. Beef from farm to table. US Department of Agriculture.
  5. Zhou, G. H., X. L. Xu, and Yuan Liu. Preservation technologies for fresh meat–A review. Meat sci, 2010, 86, 119-128.
  6. Aksoy, Aslı, et al. Effects of different drying methods on drying kinetics, microstructure, color, and the rehydration ratio of minced meat. Foods, 2019, 8, 216.  
  7. Shumaker, K; Kendle, C. Food preservation: making jerky. 2017. Ohio State University.
  8. Martin, M. I. K. E. Meat curing technology. Meat science and applications. 2001, 491-508.