There has never been so much meat available as there is today. We’re so far beyond our local hunting ground days that not only can you buy your familiar beef and pork at the supermarket, you can even bid on exotic meats like Spanish octopus or green iguana on Facebook. One day all this will inevitably contribute to global societal collapse, but in the meantime: What are you supposed to do to keep it all edible?
Storing your meat isn’t as simple as just tossing it in the fridge — it all depends upon what stage in the meat-eating process you’re at, so this guide will explain how to handle your meat at the grocery store, in your own kitchen and at your doomsday homestead after society collapses.
At the Grocery Store
“You shouldn’t assume everything is fresh,” says food-safety consultant Jeff Nelken. “You can be misled by the visuals.” When shopping for meat, then, Nelken says to look for a few key things. First, refrigerated meat displays should feature a visible thermometer. To prevent bacteria growth, the meat must be kept at 41 degrees or lower. But even when the thermometer indicates a safe temperature, the meat may not necessarily be safe. “You want to be careful that they’re not overloading the case where the meat is being displayed,” says Nelken. If more than three packages are stacked upon each other, the meat may be warmer than the case indicates.
Once you make your purchase, it’s basically a race against the clock to prevent the meat from heating up. “Once the meat gets closer to 67 degrees, bacteria doubles every 15 minutes,” he says. Depending on how quick your commute from the store back home is, you might want to consider acquiring a cooler or insulated bag. After two hours outside the fridge or freezer, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says the meat should be tossed.
You can imagine, then, that shipping rare meats direct-to-consumer is a rather challenging task.
In Your Filthy Kitchen
The same general grocery store rules apply with your own fridge and freezer. The fridge needs to be 41 degrees or lower, but many refrigerators don’t actually offer a temperature gauge, so Nelken recommends buying a legit one, instead of relying on the “Low/High” knob your fridge came with.
“The location in the fridge is also critical. The door is usually about five degrees warmer than the interior of the fridge, and because it’s exposed to outside air when the door is opened, it spoils faster,” says Nelken. The bottom shelf is ideal — if the package leaks, you don’t have to worry about its juices contaminating everything else. “Regardless of the meat, it probably has a shelf life of three to four days in the fridge,” he warns.
In the freezer, Nelken cites a shelf-life of about three months. According to FoodSafety.gov, the shelf life of frozen meats varies. Bacon, for example, should only be frozen for a month, while steaks could last anywhere from four months to a year. Just write the date on the package when you place it in the freezer and you should be fine.
Of course, meat handling rules aren’t exclusive to the fridge or freezer. “[Washing chicken before cooking it] is an old wives’ tale,” says Nelken. “This will just splatter the salmonella across the kitchen. The latest CDC recommendations are to not wash poultry in the sink, and to sanitize surfaces and hands after handling.” He also recommends that people use color-coded cutting boards for different meats and products. You should probably put that sponge through a dishwasher cycle, too.
When the Grid Goes Down
I don’t eat meat because of the environmental impact, and also because I’m not freaking Daddy Warbucks with the ability to buy local meat from pricey health food stores. Not to mention, pigs are too dang cute! That said, when the national grid goes down permanently, you can bet your sweet butt that I’ll be chopping off chicken heads all day. The bigger problem will be figuring out how to properly store it.
Here’s the thing, though: Yes, life pre-modern refrigeration had some ups and downs, but humanity still survived on meat. According to Cody Lundin, a survival and primitive skills expert, how people stored meat has historically been dependent on climate. In cold regions, meat could be buried in the ground and naturally frozen. But in hot regions, like Arizona, where Lundin is based, the primary technique would be to allow the meat to sun-dry.
“When you dry meat, you want to remove the fat,” Lundin explains. “When we’re drying meat, we’ll cut it into strips and create a sort of tripod pyramid with horizontal sticks to lay the meat on. The main thing that dries meat is heat and air movement — the more air movement and the more heat you have, the quicker it’s going to dry. Fat impedes that process.” For that reason, thin, low-fat cuts of meat work best. “It’s pretty much common sense. If you expect a big glob of meat to dry out, you’re gonna get maggots.” Thinner cuts don’t attract maggots because the exterior dries rather quickly, and without water, flies can’t lay their eggs.
It doesn’t make much of a difference exactly what meats you’re drying, so long as it doesn’t have much fat. For that reason, pork isn’t a great choice, but other than that, dried and smoked meats are a pretty reliable staple, each with the ability to last several months, according to Lundin and Nelken. Remember, Lewis and Clark practically lived off jerky alone when they explored the West, and although they were hella constipated for it, being constipated is better than being dead.
In the past, salt-curing meat was also a common practice. “I had a friend salt a portion of rabbit. I think he had it on salt for half a year,” explains Lundin. “Historically, salt curing has been used for thousands of years. But in a survival situation, in an apocalypse, salt would be a form of currency. Without salt, you die. You wouldn’t want to put meat in a bunch of salt — you’d be an idiot. You’d want to trade that salt for stuff.”
Until that day comes, however, you can keep enjoying the conveniences of modern agriculture and technology that allow you to buy your meat from the store, then store it in the fridge. But know that I will not be sharing my jerky with you.