The Bushcraft Field Guide to Trapping, Gathering, and Cooking in the Wild - Dave Canterbury (2016)
Part III. Living Off the Land
Chapter 19. Preserving Caught and Foraged Foods
“Good food is very often, even most often, simple food.”
—Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential
As you consider harvesting the resources from the world around you, you should consider what can be preserved. Letting food spoil or otherwise go unused isn’t just wasteful, it creates more work for you.
Humans have been preserving food since the beginning of time, from cooking a large quantity of meat in order to make it last for a few days longer to burying it in snow to keep it fresh. There are a variety of ways to preserve meat and process plant food sources to extend their use.
Flours and Meals
Plant-based flours and meals can be used in many recipes and are a good way to preserve some plants.
Acorn flour was a staple food item for many Native peoples throughout history and remains a major source of food for forest animals today. I tend to seek out white oak acorns because they have fewer tannins and taste less bitter. Tannins within the acorn can give it a very astringent taste. It is important that acorns are processed correctly so they have a gentler flavor.
To process, you must first remove the shells. A rock or an axe can do this job efficiently. Then place the crushed acorns in a bowl of water where the shells will float and the meat will sink. Toss the shells. You want to process the meat down to the smallest size granules possible so you will want to leach the meat and remove the tannins.
To do this, drop the meat of the acorns in a clean batch of boiling water and let them cook until the water becomes brown. This discoloration is from the tannins. Place the acorn meat in another pot of boiling water and repeat the process. Make sure the water in the second pot is already boiling because if the acorns come in contact with cold water the process will undo itself. You will likely need to move the acorn meat to a new pot of boiling water 3–4 times before the staining stops. When the majority of the tannins have been removed, the water will start to run clean.
In an emergency, the acorns can be leached in running creek water by placing them in a cloth sack and leaving them in the creek for a week or so. Just know that the resulting flavor is not as reliable as what you get with the boiling method.
Once the meat is well soaked and clean you can grind it into a meal for hot cereal, use it as a bread ingredient, or dry it out and store it for later use. If you decide to save the acorn flour for later, plan to soak it in water before you use it to rehydrate it to its mushy status.
The tannins that give acorns their astringent taste can be a great resource for other things such as medicines and tanning. Save the liquid from the first boiling pot of water you used to leech the acorn meat and reserve it for later use. Astringents work best for external use in a wash or poultice, but the solution will be antiparasitic as well.
Cattail makes the best form of starchy flour that nature has to offer, and the process of extracting it is not overly complicated. First you will need to collect a good bucketful of cattail roots. Loosen the soil around the cattail and its root area. Then put your hand at the base of the stalk and pull to release the entire plant with the root. At this point you can ditch the stalks and just hang on to the roots. Once you have washed them thoroughly and peeled them, place them in a bucket of clean water. Now begin to break up the roots, which causes the flour to separate from the fibers. Continue until you have separated all the fibers in the roots. As you work, the flour will settle at the bottom of the bucket. Pour out the excess water and dump the remaining mush on a flat surface where it can dry in the sun. Once the flour is completely dry, store it in a cool, dry place away from insects.
The center of the cattail shoot is a nutrient-dense edible resource that makes an excellent vegetable you can simmer in soups or sauté as a side dish. Harvest the cattail shoots in dry weather so that the ground is not too muddy. Select large stalks that have not begun to flower, and separate the outer leaves from the core of the stalk. Discard these tough outer layers until you get down to the soft center. This process requires a lot of peeling, and your hands might get pretty sticky, but the product is delicious and rich in vitamins including vitamin C, beta-carotene, and potassium.
Cattail Acorn Bread
2 cups acorn flour
2 cups cattail flour
21⁄4 teaspoons active dry yeast
11⁄2 teaspoons salt
1⁄3 cup maple syrup
1⁄2 cup water
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
You can mix these ingredients into a dough and throw it on some hot coals to make ash cakes.
Ash cakes are one of the easiest things to make in camp, and self-rising JAW mix works great for this. In the old farm days these were cooked on a farm hoe and called hoe cakes.
What I like to do is just mix in the bag, so I open it, pour in a few tablespoons of water, and stir to create a ball on the top of the other dry powder that did not absorb water. The ball should have the consistency of cookie dough. Take the ball out of the bag and sprinkle with some dry mix after flattening. Then place on hot coals, turning once during the cooking. It takes about 5–7 minutes to cook. Wipe off the ash after cooking. You can use this same formula for cooking on a shovel over coals.
In the early winter months, many trees can be tapped for their sap but maples and birches are the best sources. This liquid makes a delicious drink straight from the tree on a cold morning or it can be further rendered into syrup by boiling it down to evaporate the water content.
Maple syrup is made by further rendering the sap so that it becomes a sweet sticky liquid. Maple syrup can be used to sweeten any food or drink and keeps very well if stored properly. Once the sap is collected, pour it into a cooking pot until the pot is about 3⁄4 full. Next boil the sap to evaporate all the water content. This will take several hours of constant boiling. The most difficult thing about making maple syrup is knowing exactly when the water has completely evaporated and the syrup itself has started to boil.
When this happens, the liquid will actually burn, something you want to avoid. Keep an eye on the color. The syrup should gradually turn gold and then darken until it becomes the mahogany shade of maple syrup. Once the syrup is complete you can strain the liquid to get rid of any particles that might have fallen into the concoction during the long boiling process. Pour into glass jars or plastic containers and store in a cool place. It should last in the refrigerator for about 6 months.
Maple syrup can be even further processed into a delicious sweetener called maple sugar. Bring maple syrup to a boil and skim off the air bubbles as they rise. Reduce the heat a little if it starts to boil over the sides of the pot. When the air bubbles stop appearing, remove the liquid from the heat and transfer it to a wooden bowl. Stir for at least 5 minutes to remove any remaining moisture and then let it stand until it turns hard. This hard material can be ground into sugar and stored in a cool place.
Preserving meat, no matter which method you choose, is a critical process because meat spoils very quickly, especially if you do not have access to refrigeration. Here are a few ways of preserving meat from your hunting or trapping campaign so that it can be safely consumed later.
Moisture is the enemy in meat preservation because it allows bacteria to grow. The process of drying meat involves pulling moisture from the meat at a slow rate so that the outside of the meat does not dry first. If the outside of the meat dries too quickly, moisture might get trapped inside, which will cause the meat to go rancid. With this understanding, two environmental conditions are necessary for properly drying meat:
1. A humidity level of about 30 percent or less
2. A few straight days with an even temperature where there is little fluctuation from day to night
For this reason, winter is generally not a good time to air-dry meat. Be careful in the spring that the weather is not too humid. Consider also the meat that will be used. Meats containing high concentrations of fat hold moisture, which makes the fat go rancid quickly.
If you do not have the means to cool the meat in a refrigerator, then you will need to salt it immediately after gutting the animal. All of the fatty tissue must be removed from the muscle meat before getting started. Then slice each piece of meat into long thin strips that are similar in size so that you can achieve even drying. Prepare a heavy salt solution into which each strip will be dipped before hanging.
Salt-Dried Meat and Fish
This solution will add flavor to the meat, speed up the drying, and keep insects away.
20 ounces salt
1 gallon water
1. To make a salt solution for drying meat and fish, stir salt into water until the salt is dissolved.
2. Dip the strips into the salt solution right before hanging. Suspend the meat strips vertically by the thickest end. Attach them to a line with loops of cordage of a small diameter if possible. Dried meat can then be stored in a breathable bag. You can eat it just as it is or rehydrate right before use.
Sun drying works best with fish, but the main concepts are the same regardless of the game you’re sun drying. Again, evaporating the moisture from the inside layers to the outside is absolutely critical. Remove the heads and guts and then split the fish right at the spine. Now you should have two pieces, side by side with the skin on top of each. From here, cut the fish into several equal chucks. Fish will generally dry more quickly than red meat. Dip the strips into the salt solution. Dry the fish strips on racks, which you can easily fashion with two tripods and a cross-stick.
You can make jerky by adding a good salt solution and some spice to the meat, which is then dried over a low-heat fire about 120ºF. Cut the meat into lean, thin strips before drying.
Making jerky is different from salt drying because when making jerky, direct heat (not just the sun) is used to hasten the process. Hunters used this process long ago because it does not necessarily require salt or rubs (although those extras can give it a sensational taste) and it makes storage and transport easy. They would eat all they could at the kill site and then dry the rest, which substantially reduces the weight of the meat. If done properly, 1 pound of meat will reduce to about 4 ounces. When finished, the meat should crack when bent but not snap in half. It should be dry and not moist or greasy.
The cold-smoking process is similar to making jerky in that you cut meat into thin strips, then salt and dry it with heat. Here, meat is dried at a temperature that is lower than what you use for jerky, about 85°F. You want a fire with lots of smoke to add flavor (and deter bugs). This method takes 12–24 hours in most cases.
In the winter, if the temperatures linger around freezing for a few days, meat can safely hang to dry. The cold temperatures ensure that bacteria do not develop. In this process, the meat does not need to be deboned and cut into strips but the animal must be completely gutted and opened with a cross-stick in the breast so that the carcass stays open while it dries.
Tips and Tricks
· Meal planning can help cut down on the need to preserve foods you’ve gathered or trapped. But be flexible; it’s easier to carry out the JAW packets that you packed in because you thought you might need them than it is to preserve all the trout you caught; eat the trout and save the JAW packets for next time.
· Remember to store all food in bear-safe containers.
· Except for when you’re drying foods, keep them out of direct sunlight as this tends to speed the spoiling process.
· Whether you’re at home or in the bush, the principles of food safety are always the same. Cold foods need to stay cold; hot foods need to stay hot. The range between 40ºF and 140ºF is known as the “danger zone” because this is where most food spoilage occurs (bacteria grows rapidly in this temperature range).
· Don’t leave food out when you leave the campsite. It doesn’t take long for squirrels, raccoons, and other animals to come investigate—and leave a mess.