Salt, smoke, air: traditional ways of preserving beef

Salt, smoke, air: traditional ways of preserving beef

by Great British Chefs 3 March 2017

When we think of preserved meat, pork is what normally springs to mind. Beef, however, is just as suitable for pickling, curing, smoking and drying – here are some of the most common methods.

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For such a large animal, it’s somewhat surprising that we don’t do more with beef. Steaks tend to hog the limelight, with roasting joints and mince equally as popular. Compared with pork – which we turn into bacon, sausages and salami as well as enjoying fresh – it seems as though we’re missing a trick when it comes to being inventive with beef. But a quick look at the history books shows there’s always been a strong tradition of preserving beef using all sorts of clever methods.

There are a few reasons why beef doesn’t have the rich preserving history pork does. Perhaps most importantly, beef tends to be leaner and therefore becomes quite firm and tough when dried, so the same methods used to make charcuterie and salami with pork aren’t always suitable. However, there are other methods of preserving beef which extends its shelf life far beyond its fresh state – here are some of the most common found all over the world.


Salt beef is one of the most famous ways of preserving beef, and with good reason – the meat takes on the flavours of the spices beautifully, remains nice and moist thanks to the curing method and can be kept for up to two weeks in the fridge if properly prepared. Confusingly, it is known as corned beef in the US (‘corn’ was what the rocks of salt used to cure the meat were called, hence the name), which has nothing to do with the corned beef we know in the UK, which is finely chopped salt beef set with gelatine or fat and cut into slices.

Brisket is the most common cut used to make salt beef, as it has the right ratio of fat to meat that prevents it falling apart during the lengthy preserving process. It’s actually quite a simple thing to prepare and cook; the meat is submerged in a very salty brine flavoured with spices for around five days (referred to as pickling), before being rinsed and soaked in cold water. It is then simmered in water flavoured with more spices and vegetables for several hours until the beef is soft and tender.

Traditionally, salt beef is served in sandwiches with plenty of gherkins or chopped up with potatoes and fried into a hash. It can be eaten hot or cold and has a wonderful depth of flavour with a juicy, moist texture.


Preserving beef in brine is popular because it prevents the meat from drying out. But once it’s cured, there’s more than one way to cook it and turn the meat into a finished product. At first, pastrami might look very similar to salt beef, but there’s one key difference – it’s smoked.

Salt beef is simply boiled until cooked, but pastrami is rolled in spices and hot-smoked after the brining process. This adds plenty of flavour but leaves the meat tough and chewy, so a final steaming process is required to break down the connective tissues. It’s then thinly sliced and usually included in a Reuben sandwich with mustard, pickles and sauerkraut on rye bread.

As with all cured meats, the process varies slightly from region to region. In Canada, you’ll find something called Montréal smoked meat instead of pastrami. This tends to be dry-cured in salt rather than wet-cured in brine before being smoked and steamed, which gives it a slightly different texture.


Even though air-drying beef results in tough, chewy meat, if it’s served in the correct way (which in most cases means thinly sliced against the grain) it becomes a delicacy in its own right. Jerky is one of the simplest ways to dry beef – very thin slices taken from lean cuts such as fillet steak and sirloin are salted and marinated before being either hot-smoked or placed in an oven at a very low heat until dry and leather-like in texture. There’s also South African biltong, which is similar to jerky but cut into thicker pieces, soaked in vinegar and then air-dried without heat over several days.

In Europe, there are some examples of charcuterie and salumi that use beef instead of pork. The most well-known is bresaola, from the Lombardy region of Italy. It’s made by dry-curing legs of beef in salt and spices (usually juniper and cinnamon) for a few days before being hung and left to dry for several months. Cecina, from northwest Spain, is similar, although the meat is flavoured with smoke instead of spices and is left to dry for up to a year instead of a few months. Both bresaola and cecina are served sliced as thinly as possible, otherwise the meat would be too tough and chewy to eat.

One very unique and traditional way of drying beef can be found in Indonesia. Beef rending might now be seen as a sort of thick curry with coconut milk and hot spices, but it was originally created to help preserve meat in the hot and humid weather. Farmers would slowly cook beef in a spice paste full of chillies, garlic and ginger (all of which help prevent bacterial growth) and coconut milk. As the liquid evaporated, the meat would begin to absorb the spices and flavours, and skilled Indonesian cooks were able to continue to cook the dish until the beef itself had lost enough moisture that it could be kept at room temperature for several weeks.

As you can see, people have been preserving beef all over the world for centuries, and while we tend to think of preserved foods in terms of bacon, chorizo, smoked salmon and pickled vegetables, all these methods can be used to create delicious beefy specialities. What’s more, many of them are easy to recreate at home, and if you’ve never tasted a homemade slice of salt beef or even a piece of jerky you’ve dried yourself, you’re missing out on a world of flavours and textures that have stood the test of time.