Cured meat cure-all!
Backpacking Food Tip #4: Bring cured meats.
After writing about eggs, I feel obliged to round out the classic American Country Breakfast bit by bit. Next up is really the meat option, which is (in my book) one of four things: a giant slab of ham, bacon, sausage links, or a country-fried steak.
The latter seems a challenge because you need some fresh cubed steak, but you could theoretically accomplish it if you bring some pre-cooked cube steak and it it on, say, your first morning out. The steak is thin, so it will heat through in the time it takes to fry the batter that surrounds it. I will have to try this. But I’m really here today to talk about the first three options, which you can take out fairly spoil-free if they are wonderfully cured.
Curing meat is absolutely ancient and is really what we used to do when we wanted to carry our protein around with us, and it seems to either fall into the fine foods category (a lovely smoked salmon) or the horrible foods category (salt pork and hardtack, boys!) when really it’s everywhere and highly useful for outdoor adventures. Curing can involve several methods which ultimately preserve the meat in question, usually with salt, sugar, brine, drying/dehydrating or smoking. We covered the dehydrating part; technically that is curing too.
A brief primer on nitrates:
Since about the 1800’s, nitrates and nitrites have also been used to cure meat. They give meat a red color which sold better than the greyed out cured meats in newly industrialized societies with the growing working and middle classes as a market. The greying is really an oxidation thing, an interaction between the hemoglobin in the blood and exposure to air. It’s normal, but now sometimes peeps get all weirded out when meat (especially uncooked meat) goes grey. That doesn’t mean it’s gone bad. Get over it! Anyways, nitrates interrupt the oxidation process, causing the meat to stay pinker longer. While not necessary in most meats, nitrates are actually needed in cured dry sausages to prevent things like botulism poisoning.
Nitrates and nitrites are also controversial because when they are in the meat, they break down to nitrosamines, a carcinogen, when the meat is brought up to high temperatures. This is also true of potatoes. So, if you see nitrate or nitrites on your cured and bought meat, look for another ingredient: ascorbic, or ascorbic acid. The ascorbic reduced the formation of nitrosamines when cooked. No word on adding that to the potatoes. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide whether or not you want nitrates in your food, and do the research on them as a carcinogen, though I recommend checking the label for ascorbic if you do. And I’ll leave it to you to form your new opinion on potatoes. But that’s why you might see the Prop 65 warnings (carcinogen warnings) in fast food joints in California. The potatoes.
Back to meat:
Cured meat provides delicious and long-lasting options for backpacking, but I dont really see folks taking them out. I was on one two-night trip that took out some good sausage links, and the use of meat at all has generally seemed to be confined to short weekend trips like these. So, I would like to point out that a slab of ham is an excellent way to get protein and takes mere minutes that you can count on one hand to heat up over a skillet, fry pan, or grill. That can be worth it’s weight in delicious edible gold.
Cured bacon is perhaps worth double. While a little harder to find, smoked bacon is out there and is delicious. Most bacon is uncooked, but smoked bacon seems to be regaining popularity, particularly with applewood. Bacon is great; it’s light and thin and, wait for it, flexible. If you need to carry a bear canister, you can bend your bacon around the inside of the can. It barely takes up space when it can conform to the shape of your container. A little also goes a long ways. Consider typical breakfast of oatmeal, possibly with dehydrated egg, or the very same oatmeal with two of your fresh eggs (from Backpacking Food Tip #3) and two slices of bacon. Just sayin.’
Many sausages are pre-cooked or cured in some way, which makes them an excellent and also perhaps easy to pack option if you repackage them a bit. Additionally, consider the joys of antipasti, like Italian coppa, prosciutto, and salame, or the German-Tyrol version of prosciutto-bacon awesomeness called speck. These make excellent lunch or snack meats and are also typically thin sliced, so you can also mold them to your container somewhat if you replace rigid packaging. Heck, if you have an awesome deli nearby, just take them wrapped in the deli paper. You can do that, because they are cured.
I don’t mean to be snarky, but if I’m going out for a big day, a good breakfast really does feel like the most important meal of the day. That doesn’t mean you need the Trucker/Jailhouse/Farmer Special version of the country breakfast where your plate is overflowing with food (I would highly discourage overeating on a single meal in the backcountry, it’s impossible to hike well!) but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good tasty breakfast that’s well proportioned. We often pass other backpackers camping near us on the trail though we took longer eating breakfast and left long after they’ve gone. Not the super hard-core guys, but other average joes like us. It’s like the old saying that an army marches on it’s stomach, a backpacker surely hikes on hers.
So, consider adding meat on to typical fare (oatmeal, granola, etc.) or making a breakfast sandwich with an egg, ham, and an English muffin, or going full out with pancakes and bacon. Or biscuits and sausage. Or save that ham for dinner (particularly a brined ham) and reminisce on the holidays. My purpose here is to raise awareness and get you to consider real meat as an option.
The Bottom Line: Cured meats will last your entire backpacking trip, whatever your conditions are and they pack in your needed daily protein in a most delicious way.
The Bottom Bottom Line: One word: bacon.