Friday, May 05, 2023

Healthy, Easy and Very Very Dry - The Lazy Man's Salmon Jerky

Life before refrigeration was, to say the least, tricky. From households enduring barren winters, to sailors on lengthy voyages, to quartermasters trying to outfit an army; the challenge of turning fast-spoiling food into shelf-stable fuel has been a common challenge. What was this like?

While I can watch plenty of YouTube videos on the topic, the living history community has convinced me it's far more meaningful to roll up my sleeves and strive to experience history first hand.

To fully appreciate this food dilemma, I could hit the local fishing hole, catch some fish and then do some field expedient smoking of the fillets. While that sounds like fun, I don't have the time to go this big. But what about a simpler experiment? Why not take a page out of our Native American neighbor's playbook and try drying the fish I have in my freezer? Sure, it's cheating to use store bought fish and an oven instead of freshly caught fish and a fire; but I'd still get a sense of what it was like to turn a quick to spoil food into one that endures.

So that's what I did. I started by defrosting the frozen salmon that we had on hand. I then sliced the fillets into strips, and for good measure, sprinkled some salt on top. Finally, I put the trays of fish in the oven and hit the 'Dehydrate' button. I started with 680 grams or so of fine looking salmon:

After about 24 hours, I had a very shriveled 163 grams of "fish."

To my surprise, the dried salmon actually tasted good. When I experimented with making beef jerky, the result was mediocre at best, and I haven't bothered to try again. In contrast, I'm already thinking about the next batch of dried salmon I can cook up.

Truthfully, I was expecting the drying process to yield something barely edible. I figured I'd walk away with a fresh appreciation for how tough folks were back in the day, and how thankful I am for our modern amenities. Instead, I feel like I've stumbled on a new backpacking super-food. The dried fish is lightweight, protein dense, mess-free, stoveless, shelf-stable, kosher, parve, easy to procure, effortless to prepare, historically motivated and compared to store bought jerky, an absolute bargain.

How has this not been part of my backpacking and hiking menu since forever?

The main thing I would do differently next time is to play around with reducing the drying time. I assume that the dryer the fish is, the longer it will endure without refrigeration. When I ran the experiment above, I sampled the batch after 4 and 6 hours, and it definitely tastes better with more moisture left in the fish. So, assuming that I'm not planning a lengthy sea voyage or extended military campaign, I may try to get away with less drying time in exchange for a somewhat better taste. Or, maybe not. We'll see.

In theory, if I'm feeling really luxurious, I may try marinading the fish and making myself a proper batch of salmon jerky. But it's hard to argue with the simplicity and elegance of slice, dehydrate and done.

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