Within the last one hundred years much knowledge has been lost concerning long term food preservation. Canning food is a concept many consider to be an old way of preserving food, yet it is fairly new. Since the age of refrigeration and freezing this basic skill which would have been considered common knowledge is now unknown to most within society. In fact some confuse various methods of food processing believing that they understand the older ways. Within the wild there is really only one way to ensure the safest end product to consume for the long term.
When people think of food preservation in the wild the most common solution that comes to mind is smoking. Yet smoking alone is not long term preservation. Typically smoking falls into two categories, hot smoking and cold smoking. Hot smoking is simply smoking food that is being cooked. This food must be consumed as soon as possible as it will begin to spoil quickly. Cold smoking is an attempt to smoke the food for the purpose of preservation. Yet there are some misconceptions and complications with this process alone.
While there are foods which can be cold smoked typically it is not done as a stand alone process. Often other processes will be incorporated such as salting. Cold smoking alone without other preservation processes can cause more harm than good. While this can work for meat which is thinly sliced it is short term at best and risky at that. Lets delve into the why behind what is safe, and what is not safe.
Many survival websites, books and tv shows will detail some process where a meat rack is made and a smoldering fire is made beneath it while smoke pours through the covered food. You will then hear terms such as smoking and preservation. Yet what they are not addressing in their pitch to the public are two dangerous components which must be dealt with. The first is any microbes or bacteria which may be already present in the meat or fish. The second is the active water levels within the meat.
Cold smoking often uses temperatures below or at 100 deg F. Studies have shown that E coli can survive smoking and a drying time of up to ten hours at 145 deg F. This is why with cold smoking salting or a mix with spices are used with the meat. This is especially true with ground beef which can have one of the highest E coli rates. This additional step in the process aids in the destruction of the nasty things which make us sick.
Within live fish and animals there can be already be existing issues such as bacteria. Once killed then more can be introduced via insects, especially by fly's and gnat's. Also the decomposition process begins once the life of the animal is gone. Time and temperature become an issue for the meat immediately and in the wilderness where there is no refrigeration this is a serious concern.
As stated earlier, the other aspect which cold smoking does not address is the active water levels within the meat. This water is where microbes and bacteria can begin to multiply. Cold smoking alone in the wild will not always guarantee that enough of the water has been removed to prevent contamination. One must consider that low heat temperatures and water content offers prime conditions for issues to arise.
So how can food be best preserved in the wild? Dehydration of the meat is the best way and it is the oldest way that man has used for thousands of years. Be aware that dehydration alone does not protect you. For the safest results we will borrow components from the cold smoking methods people often promote in survivalist forums or tv shows. In borrowing this smoking technique we will need to add one additional element, an initial heating of the food to approximately 160 degrees F before we allow it to go to a cold smoke. More details pertaining to how to accomplish this process can be found in food dehydration (link and article soon to come).
After the food has been properly processed by dehydration we enter into another complex element of food preservation. Food storage is an issue that can perplex people within our modern world and it becomes all the more difficult within a more primitive world. Once dehydrated it does us no good to allow humidity to reintroduce moisture into the food. Also ambient temperature becomes a problem. The food must be stored within something that is air and water tight.
The easiest solution to this is to salvage man made products in the wild which can act as a container that is air and water tight. It would surprise you as to how often these items can be found across the world in the most unlikely of places. Mankind always leaves something behind wherever we have been. One mans trash is another mans food container. Once the food is stored the best temperature control one can find in the wild is by burying the container. The ground temperature beneath the surface may be the coolest place you can find. If your location permits a cold stream that is below 40 degrees F then consider yourself lucky.
If you cannot find man made containers suitable for food storage there is still a solution. Containers can be made from green wood that will be air and water tight. This is done much in the same way Native Americans have practiced many years ago. While this method is best learned through observation and practice I will give a brief and poor description of how it is accomplished. Understand this is a hands on skill and one that is learned with asking questions and obtaining direct answers.
A tree trunk of desired size by width and length must be cut as a log. It must be green so felling a small tree may be required. Once the log is cut an additional log from the same section is cut but this second log can be shorter than the first. The first log which is to become the container that holds the food will be hollowed out. If the container is large the base of it may need to be sawed off. The purpose for this is so that it can be replaced later as the base of the container.
If the base is sawed off you will have a piece of tree trunk that is now hallowed out from one end to the other. A groove must be cut into the inside base end of the log. This groove will receive the base you cut off earlier. Trim the base so that it tightly fits into the groove. If done properly when placing the base into the log it will not only be a tight fit, but you will be in fear of it breaking.
The lid is similar to a plug. A groove can also be utilized here if one is careful. The groove must be shallow, or corkscrewed as you would find on a glass jar. The plug for the top is carefully shaved down to fit in a similar fashion that a cork seals a wine bottle. The finished product is then set out to cure or dry. The purpose of using green wood is that once it begins to dry out the wood will shrink. This will create the air and water tight attribute required to store food.
The one danger is that if the plug and the base are not produced and formed properly then there will be integrity failure. Also if the wall of the log after being hollowed out is too thick it will crack. If the wall is too thin it will not accept the base or plug. This is not a skill one simply picks up after making it into the wild beginning their adventure as Robinson Crusoe.
Dehydrated food when properly stored can last for months. Obviously for short term survival purposes the concept of long term food storage is not necessary. For those who wish to obtain this knowledge and skill for their own education it is a practiced art. One can begin to appreciate the amount of work and preparation that was required by our forefathers in a far more primitive world.