Buffalo Jerky

This post was originally published on December 3, 2010.  Re-posted today for Eat Alberta.  I chose buffalo jerky for this year’s Eat Alberta tasting board because of the significant role that similar preparations played in the history of this province.  Please read The Story of the Buffalo for more information.

Strips of bison jerkyJerky is my nominee for best representation of southern Alberta by a single food preparation.  This is partly because of its historical connection to the buffalo hunt and ranching, but also because it takes advantage of the arid landscape.  In dry regions jerky can safely be made on hot days, when the temperature is around 30°C, simply by leaving the sliced meat to hang outside.[1]

What Meat to Use.  Buffalo can be purchased at most farmers’ markets in Edmonton.  My preferred producers are First Nature Farms and Thundering Ground at the Strathcona Market, and Medicine Man at the City Centre Market.  

You should use a very lean cut of meat from the hip (butcher-speak for the hind leg).  The cuts from the hip are the inside round, eye of round, outside round, and sirloin tip.  I find that sirloin tip is the most commonly available.

Clean and Slice the Meat.  Silverskin, the lustrous sheet of connective tissue that surrounds individual muscles, is the enemy of tender jerky, so remove as much as you can.  Slice the lean meat across the grain into strips about 1/8″ thick.  It goes without saying that this task is best performed with a commercial meat slicer.  Whether you’re using a knife or a fancy slicer, you’ll get more even, consistent slices if the meat is partially frozen.

Lightly Cure the Meat.   It’s worth noting that the dried-meat made by Plains Indians before European contact was not salted.  Modern jerky is always salted before drying as it helps protect the surface of the meat from pathogens during the drying process.

I’ve included a very basic recipe below.  I think the evergreen flavours of juniper, rosemary, and Labrador tea go especially well with buffalo. Cover the mixture and keep it in the fridge for 24-48 hours.

Basic Jerky Cure

  • 100% lean buffalo meat, cut into 1/8″ slices
  • 2% kosher salt
  • 1% minced garlic
  • 0.5% crushed juniper
  • 0.5% chopped rosemary
  • 0.2% fresh cracked black pepper

Drying Techniques.  To make jerky properly, it’s important that you don’t cook the meat.  I’ve tried the completely passive jerky technique here in Edmonton, but my meat molded before it dried (it was an overcast day, and only about 20°C: I should have known better…) For consistent results, I’ve since used a heat source like a low oven, a food dehydrator, or a barbecue.  The barbecue is good because you can introduce a bit of smoke using this simple technique.  The Plains Indians and Métis often use smoke to flavour their dried meat. Traditionally a hole was dug and a low fire kindled within. Scaffolding was erected over the hole, and strips of meat were hung until dry (crude drawing at right…)[2] At first I was skeptical about whether I would be able to smoke the meat on my barbecue and maintain a low enough temperature, but with the hood propped open about a foot I was able to keep the temperature just under 40°C while letting the smoke linger around the meat.

Strictly speaking, the jerky isn’t done until the meat is completely dry and very hard and brittle. At this point there is no moisture for microbes, and the meat can be kept safely at room temperature.  That being said, if you can pull the meat just, just before it is entirely brittle, you’ll find that the flesh is luxurious and smooth and chewy.

Buffalo jerky

 

References

1. Ruhlman, Michael. Charcuterie. ©2005 WW Norton and Company Inc, New York, NY. Page 65. He elaborates on jerky’s connection to ranching, and its usefulness as a preservation technique, on his blog, in this post.
2. This set-up, and other interesting information on frontier life on the prairies, is from: Thomas, Dorine. Rubaboo. ©1981 Pemmican Publications, Winnipeg, MB.

Homemade Cornmeal

Dried cobs of cornMy bid for Bartlett’s: “Culinary invention has two mothers: scarcity and excess.”

I think everybody understands how scarcity can encourage adventurous eating.  We often say that the first man to eat a lobster, or an oyster, was a brave one, indeed.  But it’s when you find yourself with an overwhelming surfeit of food that you can start doing really interesting things.  The first person to press grapes to make wine must have had a lot of grapes, more than he could have eaten before they started rotting.  And the first person to distill wine to make brandy must have had an awful lot of awful wine.

I wrote earlier in the fall of our bountiful corn harvest, and of a few of the ways we prepared the fresh corn: grilled, creamed, and made into chowder.  We actually had so much corn that we were able to dry some. Lisa set the cobs on a rack in a low oven.  The kernels turned brownish, shrunk into their sockets, and started to look a bit like rows of teeth set in the jaws of an old man.

Dried kernels of corn, ready to be ground into cornmealOnce the cobs were dried through, the kernels popped off easily.  We ran them through a grain mill, and damned if we didn’t have the most flavourful cornmeal that’s ever been in our kitchen.  Between my nostalgia for eastern Ontario (where my dad grew up on cornbread, which they called “Johnnycakes”)  and my background as a line-cook (where I made polenta almost every week) I admit to going through more than my share of bland, industrially-processed cornmeal, so it’s a thrill to have this stuff around.

I once got in a polite argument with a chef I was working for.  He had polenta on his menu, and the recipe he had provided the prep cooks was from the Zuni Café Cookbook, a restaurant in San Francisco renowned for impeccable, fresh ingredients expertly but simply prepared.  The recipe had three ingredients: cornmeal, water, and butter.  I suppose there was salt, too.  Zuni Café no doubt was using the best corn grown in California, dried and freshly ground.  We were using Purity brand cornmeal from a large distributor.  Purity cornmeal tastes only vaguely of corn, and has the crunchy, siliceous texture of sand. It should only be used as a starchy conveyance for the warm, earthy flavours of stock, onions, garlic, melting cheese, butter, herbs, black pepper, and maybe a splash of vinegar.

Having now worked with our freshly milled cornmeal, I completely understand the Zuni recommendation for a light hand.  The flavour is amazing, sweet, and unmistakably corny.  It has an interesting texture, too: a little bit of the crunch you expect from cornmeal, but the grind has made it lighter, and flakier.  While Purity cornmeal needs an army of ingredients to make it flavourful, good cornmeal can definitely stand on its own.

This really was one of the most exciting things to happen in my kitchen this fall.  Stay tuned for a discussion on cornbread…

A fistful of homemade cornmeal

Air-Dried Beef

Air-dried beef goes by many different names in many different places.  The most famous, I think is bresaola, from northern Italy.  In adjacent Switzerland air-dried beef is pressed into a unique block shape and called Bündnerfleisch, after the Swiss canton of Graubünden.  Nearby in eastern France it is often lightly smoked, and called brési.  In all of these alpine regions it is a common accompaniment for fondue.

Eye of round is one of the best cuts to use for air-dried beef.  It is a single muscle, with very little internal fat, easily trimmed to a convenient size.  First remove any silverskin and fat.

Beef eye of round, with silverskin and fat

The cleaned eye of round:

Beef eye of round, cleaned of all silverskin and fat

The clean muscle is then rubbed with salt, pepper, herbs, and spices…

Rubbing the round down with herbs, salt, and pepper

…and left in a covered container to cure for maybe two weeks.  After curing the meat is rinsed and patted dry.

The meat can be strung up in the cellar as is, or it can be stuffed into a casing to help moderate moisture loss.  I have used beef bungs and cheesecloth.

Two rounds, one wrapped in cheesecloth, the other in a beef bung

Ideally a bit of mold will grow on the surface.  “Friendly mold” like this takes up the prime real estate and prevents pathogens from moving into the neighbourhood.

Air-dried beef from the cellar with lots of good mold

Traditionally the meat was dried so thoroughly that it was inedible unless sliced paper thin.  Nowadays, since we’re curing and drying for flavour and mouthfeel more than true preservation, air-dried beef doesn’t need to be taken that far.  It will loose about one third of its weight in the cellar.  In the picture below you can see the vibrant red colour of the finished meat.  Note there is very little marbling.

A bright red slice of air-dried beef

Below you can see the air-dried beef on a charcuterie plate.  Clockwise from top right is the dried beef, elk jerky, grilled bread, pickles, pickled peppers, fresh pork sausage, and dried pork sausage.

A charcuterie plate with air-dried beef in the top right.

Dried Sour Cherries

Dried sour cherriesMost sour cherry varieties, like Evans, do dry okay, but it takes forever.  With my dehydrator running on the “Fruit/Vegetable” setting (135°F), it took 30 hours to reach raisin consistency.

The dried cherries are extremely sour, even more so than when fresh (which I should have anticipated…)

I had originally planned to eat these dried sour cherries in yogurt and granola, but they are way too tart to be consumed with tangy yogurt.  Suggested alternative uses: game terrines, “Raincoast Crisp” style cracker, and other applications where there is meat or starch to temper their acidity.  I also love tossing them into puddings, like wild rice and barley.

Notes on Dry-Curing Meat: Mold

When dry-curing, mold is inevitable, yet there’s little detailed information available to guide the beginner. I don’t know for sure why this is, but I have some theories:

  • mold is so variant and hard to describe,
  • mold-discussions might disgust customers, and
  • mold is a mystery of the charcutiers’ cult.

The general rule in charcuterie is that smooth, hard, white mold is “good.” I don’t think it affects the flavour of the meat in any way, but it discourages the growth of “bad” mold, that is, mold that is pathogenic or that somehow compromises the meat. Any type of fuzzy mold is said to be bad.

Luckily, undesirable mold can simply be cut away; it doesn’t taint the entire batch of meat. Some sources say that if fuzzy mold appears you can wipe it off, soak the meat in a brine solution, pat dry, and continue curing. I have now tried this twice, and the mold returned both times.

Pictured below is a piece of bresaola I cured this fall. Bresaola is a cured cut of beef hip, eye of round in this case, that is air-dried for several weeks until firm throughout. It is very common in northern Italy, especially Lombardia, though its roots are in Switzerland. This specimen has the ideal smooth, white mold, which is easy to identify. When drying meat, I come across countless other phenomena that I don’t know what to make of.

Sometimes when I make pancetta there is a pronounced, mucus-like fluid in the roll. When I squeeze the roll, it oozes out the end. The first time I saw this I waffled for hours on what to do. Was this simply liquid drawn from the meat? Was it pernicious mold? This sounds ridiculous, but ultimately I just started eating the meat. The fluid disappeared in the freezing/slicing/cooking process, and the pancetta was not only safe, but delicious.

A chunk of air-dried beef, or bresaola, from the cellar

Pemmican

When I first decided to make pemmican, I thought the process would be simple: make jerky, pound jerky, render fat, combine. In practice, there were a couple hiccups, but the results were surprising.

In the finest pemmican, the dried meat was pounded until it became a powder. I started grinding pieces of jerky with a mortar and pestle. It worked, but I realized it would take days to process a useful quantity of meat. I eventually found a rock and a solid piece of earth, wrapped the jerky in cloth and pounded it out. You could probably blitz the meat in a food processor and obtain similar results.

With my meat powder made, I ran into a problem:

Buffalo Fat

Removing the marrow from buffalo bonesBuffalo fat is almost an oxymoron. The animal is very lean, and there is certainly nothing like the fatback on a pig. To complicate the matter, buffalo is dry-aged, a process that claims what little fat cap there is to protect the meat. It is therefore extremely hard to obtain raw buffalo fat in the quantity required for pemmican.

I had actually come across the solution to this problem ages ago, without realizing it. “The Plains Indians used to crack and boil bones to make grease.” It was right there in my notes, but I didn’t recognize “grease” as “edible fat.”

I had a bag of marrow bones (that is, leg bones cut into two or three inch lengths). To separate the marrow from the bones cleanly, I emptied the bag into a bucket of cold water. After a few hours of soaking I was able to push the cylinders of marrow out of the bones (photo above). Soaking bones in cold salted water, replacing the water as it clouds, is a common way to purge the marrow of blood. I don’t have a clear idea why the process makes the marrow slide out of the bones so easily, but it does.

These marrow cylinders can be rendered as if they were pure fat scraps: throw them into a pot with a touch of water and place over very low heat. I soaked my marrow extensively to draw out as much blood as I could, as I thought the blood might somehow taint the fat. I retrospect, I’m not sure this was necessary. After rendering for a few hours, I had beautiful fat with a layer of what looked like curdled blood on top. The blood that I was unable to purge had separated cleanly, and it didn’t seem to affect the fat in any way.

I strained out the non-fat components because a) they look gross, and b) they increase the rate of spoilage of the fat.

The next step was to combine the meat powder with the fat in roughly equal parts. Simple enough, though there is an important nuance: the fat must be just, just melted (ie. not too hot). If the fat is too hot, it will cook the meat powder and make it hard and gritty.

My reasons for making pemmican were quasi-academic, and truthfully I wasn’t expecting the dish to give a pleasurable eating experience. Of course the flavours of the jerky, smoke and juniper in my case, dominate. Salt is not traditional at all, as it wasn’t harvested by the Plains Indians, but by seasoning the meat and fat before cooling, this pemmican was actually damn tasty. The texture was strange, though not unpleasant. It was a bit like a rillette that you don’t have to chew.

This is a preparation that you could toy with. For instance: what if the jerky were simply pulled apart and mixed with the marrow fat, so that there was still a characteristic jerky chew? Dried saskatoons would definitely allow you to play with texture.

A puck of pemmican

Dried Tomatoes

A tray of partly-dried tomatoesTwo years ago, I had no place in my heart for tomatoes. With the stiff, pale burger-garnishes in mind, I wondered how anyone could get excited about them.

Then a few potted tomato plants in the backyard taught me how much heat they need to mature. Once they started to fruit, the woman next door was in awe, as not thirty feet away she had tried to grow tomatoes to no avail. We decided it was the exposed, south-facing cement wall behind my plants, storing heat during the day to pass to the tomatoes at night, that let them flourish. After harvest, I built a special room in my heart for tomatoes, the demanding plants that grow best in greenhouses and small anomalous corners of backyards. They are a luxury, and the crown of the late-summer harvest.

In Edmonton, it’s hard to acquire the amount of tomatoes that necessitates preserving. However, for several years my mom has been taking advantage of a boom and bust greenhouse production cycle. She buys from a greenhouse that only produces in summer months, so come September they have a windfall of beautiful tomatoes that are dirt cheap. She’s able to buy 40 lbs of romas for $20.

Oven-Drying Tomatoes

I keep expecting preserving to compromise the eating-quality of fresh ingredients. But, as with other preserves like jam and pickles, I’m left with a fantastic pantry item with an intense, focused flavour. In fact, I think I enjoy oven-dried tomatoes more than fresh ones.  People feel compelled to specify that they are oven-dried because of the popularity of the brilliantly marketed sun-dried tomatoes.  However you dry them, the process evaporates moisture to concentrate flavour and acidity, and gently caramelizes some of the sugars. These tomatoes are dynamite in pasta or tapenade, or just on a plate with garlic sausage.

Cut the romas in half and remove the juice and seeds. Strain this mixture and reserve the juice, either to drink or to use in canning (see below). Toss the flesh of the romas in oil, salt, and pepper. Go easy on the seasoning, as the tomatoes will reduce to a fraction of there original mass. Place the tomatoes on a sheet pan lined with parchment or silicon, and put them in an oven on low heat, maybe 200°F. Not trusting the thermostat in my oven, I have a high-temperature thermometer clipped to the oven rack. I have to set my dial below 150°F to achieve 200°F. Leave the tomatoes for several hours, until they develop a dense, chewy texture. This year mine took about twenty hours. Packed in oil they will keep for months.

Canning

Authorities like Bernardin and the USDA say that the pH of tomatoes is on the cusp of acceptable acidity for canning. As such they recommend the addition of lemon juice to the canning liquid, about two tablespoons per quart. From a flavour standpoint, this makes me cringe. I have, however, read testimonies of people who grew up on tomatoes canned without any acid supplements.

I wonder if, since the pH walks the line of food safety, I could give it a bump in the right direction by slightly reducing the tomato juice we can with. Some water boils off, leaving a higher concentration of acidity.

As this was my first year canning tomatoes, I tried a bunch of different recipes. All started by blanching, shocking, and peeling the tomatoes. Then I canned some in water, some in tomato juice, some with lemon, some without, some with herbs and salt, some without.

Air-Dried Sausages

Hanging sausages to dry in a cellarI just finished my first batch of dry-cured sausage. It is essentially fresh ground pork, stuffed into casings with nitrate and seasonings, then left to dry. The temperature and humidity have to be just right for the sausage to dry properly. I experimented with climate-control when making pancetta this past spring. In that case the meat had already been cured in my fridge, and the drying was just to change the texture. The pancetta was also cooked before eating. This is a whole other ball game, as these sausages aren’t cured in the fridge beforehand, and aren’t cooked before eating.

Dry-curing is an interesting process. With most charcuterie preparations, there are easily-described visual indicators to guide you along. For instance, when grinding meat, you look for a clean extrusion from the die, with each stream of ground meat remaining distinct from its neighbours. If the streams smear together in globules, either your meat and fat are too warm, or perhaps the grinder blade has collected connective tissue and needs to be cleaned. When dry-curing, you have to rely on subtle changes in the feel of the meat. The textures and densities are hard to describe to the beginner.

Given the mysterious and temperamental nature of the process, I’m sure most charcutiers take thorough notes on temperature, humidity, and the feel of the meat at each stage of curing, though they don’t seem to share these notes very often.

On the contrary, charcutiers are legendary for their secrecy. Some examples:

  • “Good charcuterie recipes are as closely guarded as family secrets. As a young cook in Moissac, France, I had to spy and even participate in the killing of my neighbor’s pig just to get his pâté recipe.” Eric Ripert, in a review of Ruhlman’s Charcuterie
  • “He seemed less than happy about aiding us, probably because he was having second thoughts about letting go of his family’s priceless boudin noir. After both Fred and I again pledged that we would not publish a recipe giving exact quantities, he relented, remaining slippery on only one or two matters.” Jeffrey Steingarten, It Takes a Village to Kill a Pig
  • This ridiculous article, succinctly titled, “Chefs become experts at charcuterie thanks to secret website”

Here are some basic notes on my first attempt, notes that I hope to elaborate as I do more curing.

Preventing Case Hardening

According to my humidity meter, the curing room was at 65% humidity, which is very good (though 70% would be ideal). I slowly developed a mistrust of this hygrometer, as over the first two days of curing the casings dried out completely. During this period, the casings should be a little tacky if you run your thumb over them. My casings were dry and smooth, offering no moisture-indicating friction when rubbed. To prevent the outermost parts of the sausage from hardening and trapping moisture within, I started misting the sausages with water a couple times a day. I did this from about day three until day seven.

Judging Doneness

I’m kicking myself for not weighing the links before I hung them up, because a good indicator of doneness is when the sausages have lost 30% of their weight. I was left squeezing the sausages every day, trying to decide when they were done. After three weeks they still had a slight give in the centre. A few more days and they were stiff throughout.

Preserving Shape?

When the sausages were first hung they were shaped like any other fresh sausage, cylindrical and tightly packed, the casings pulled taut. As the sausages lost moisture, they did not shrink uniformly into slender cylinders, but shrank in only one dimension, forming an elliptical cross-section instead of a round one (see photo below). Made for a very “rustic” product. The shrinkage patterns don’t seem to be related to how I hung the sausages. I wonder if there is a way to control this.

The finished air-dried sausage

Dried Chili Peppers

Dried chili peppersWe didn’t eat spicy food when I was growing up.  Not at all.

I didn’t learn to appreciate spicy food until I was in my early twenties, and it was at an Italian restaurant, of all places.  I patronized Mercato in Calgary throughout high school, then later I had the opportunity to work in their kitchen.  They make food from all over Italy, but the owners are Calabrian, and there’s always a few pastas on the menu made by infusing olive oil with garlic and hot chili flakes.  I remember the first time that I realized how effective a little heat can be.  It wakes up your mouth, and it elongates the sensation of the dish, as your mouth is warm well after you’ve swallowed the pasta.

Lisa and I now use chili flakes on noodles, in grilled chicken marinades, and on pizza.  In fact we use so many that we started drying our own peppers.

At the end of the growing season the greenhouses at farmers’ markets often have fantastic sales to get rid of the last of their produce.  Lots peppers can be got on the cheap: the only problem is using them up before they go bad.

It turns out that peppers dry very, very easily in Edmonton, especially hot varieties, which are selectively bred to have thin skins.  At first we just strung the fresh peppers together using dental floss (makes sure it’s not flavoured with mint…) and hung them in the kitchen.  This completely passive method worked about two out of every three times, but every now and then we found that the peppers would mold slightly on the inside, at the top were the stem, flesh, and placenta meet.  (The placenta is the name of the whitish membrane than holds all the seeds…)  Since then we’ve been jump-starting the drying process in a low oven for a few hours.

The skin becomes paper thin and brittle, and when held to the light you can actually see the shadows of the seeds. It’s a simple preserving method that requires almost no work and keeps us in peppery heat all winter long.

You can blitz the whole peppers in a spice grinder, but to get something resembling commercial chili flakes, use a mortar and pestle that will pulverize the brittle flesh while keeping the seeds intact.  If you use a spice grinder you can open the peppers and remove the seeds before busting up the dry flesh, then reincorporate the seeds before sprinkling the flakes onto your food.

chili_flakes.JPG