Outdoors/Adventure

As the winter hunting season approaches, here are the best ways to maximize your harvest

Winter hunting seasons are at hand. Most hunters eagerly await the August-September seasons, but the reality is fall seasons are short and crowded. Rain and warm weather can also be factors when it comes to preserving the game we harvest.

The majority of hunters package their game or fish and immediately put it in the freezer. Many times, that is not the solution to preserving meat and fish, but rather the beginning of the end.

To begin, if one chooses to freeze, there are several packaging methods that work well, and some that don’t. Plastic lock bags are not a stand-alone wrap. Meat-wrapping paper does not work by itself either. Game should always be double-wrapped or better, vacuum-packed. Light plastic wrap works well as a first layer. Foil also does a decent job. These two can be combined with each other. Meat paper or plastic lock bags will suffice as the final layer. However, for the most part, unless one vacuum-packs, you’d better eat fast.

Fish are a different prospect altogether. Frozen fish should be vacuum-packed and blast frozen, or equivalent. Any other method will produce an inferior product.

Freezing any volume of product creates its own difficulties. Household freezers just don’t get cold enough. They don’t react quickly to temperature changes. An eight-pound salmon, wrapped and placed in the average house freezer will not reach freezing internally for at least four days. Freezer-burned salmon is a common commodity in Alaska.

Game meat is more forgiving than fish, but stacking 50 pounds of moose in the freezer will create much the same issue as fish.

You can easily see the advantage of winter-harvested critters. My freezer is just outside the front door. The disadvantage is that winter salmon are hard to come by.

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The solution for many harvesters may lie in changing preservation methods. Canning salmon is a common and much-used solution. Fish are easily preserved in pint canning jars. A pressure cooker run at 11 pounds of pressure for 80 minutes will yield a product that will keep for years.

Cold-smoking fish is another preservation method that works well. This way of keeping fish has fallen from favor in recent years. The reason may possibly be because smoking requires a little more expertise and equipment than other ways of preservation. Nevertheless, a properly cured cold-smoked fish will keep through the winter without freezing.

Pickling is another way that fish can be kept. Pickled fish may last forever. I know I have eaten 10-year-old pickled pike without any adverse effects, at least to me. Pickling is easy and requires no special equipment or expertise; if you can follow directions — you got it.

Many of the old ways of preserving game have been forgotten. Harvesters of today’s generation have little idea how to keep meat or fish without a freezer. In fairness, changing tastes are a major reason. Tastes and — the time involved in old methods. The overloaded schedules of today do not allow for smoking and drying. Who among us has a smokehouse? How many will take the time to cut the necessary fuel and keep a smoldering fire going for a couple weeks?

Why would one do that? The local gas station has beef jerky right at the counter, $7.95 for a couple ounces. It has lots of preservatives and sugar. It tastes great.

Those of you with a wood stove in your house, or even a boiler can duplicate that gas station jerky right at home. It takes a little set-up time and a minimum of preparation. Find an old oven rack or a refrigerator shelf rack. Hang it over the wood stove or the boiler so the temperature is about 140 degrees or a little hotter. That may take a little trial and error.

The meat should be fat-free. Cut it against the grain in one-inch strips about a quarter inch thick. The marinade you choose should suit your individual taste. The basic ingredients will be pretty heavy on salt. That is the preservative. Teriyaki sauce, or soy sauce along with a bit of brown sugar plus garlic and black pepper will give you a decent start.

The first step is the salt solution. It does not have to be a 100% saturated solution for meat, but it should be close. Put enough salt in the water so you couldn’t drink it — 16 ounces of water will do a couple pounds of meat. Don’t get carried away with your first batch. Leave it in the salt solution for 20 minutes or so. Shake it off and put it in your marinade. Overnight it.

Put the rack over the sink, place the strips on it and leave it until it doesn’t drip. The rack then goes over the stove or boiler. It is a good idea to turn your strips now and then; maybe a couple times a day, depending on temperature. Every wood stove will be a little different, as will boilers. That’s why you start with a small batch and adjust as necessary.

Don’t eat your product until it is dry! Jerky can also be made very successfully in the oven or a commercial dehydrator. That is the easy way and may work the best for most households.

You may have trouble getting your family to sit down for a home-cooked meal, but they will still eat the caribou you took this past fall if you turn it into jerky. Entire books have been written on food preservation. The key for households today is the ability to achieve a presentable product and not taking several weeks out of your life to accomplish it.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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