November 8, 2013
Through her work as an Alabama Cooperative Extension System food safety agent, Janice Hall has noted two food trends in recent years.
One is a slight uptick in hunting — at least, partly driven by a desire to reduce food costs; the other is a keen interest among many over-worked, over-stressed consumers to reduce the time invested in food preparation.
Drawing on these insights, Hall is re-acquainting consumers with pressure cooking, a technique that, while not exactly going the way of the dinosaurs in this age of ready-to-eat, microwavable foods, has undergone a sharp decline.
At workshops throughout the state, Hall is issuing a forthright call for consumers to dust off those pressure cookers and to enlist them once again as an integral component of home cooking.
Pressure cooking works by creating steam, which, in turn, builds pressure. A small amount of water or other liquid is placed in the bottom of the cooker and heated to boiling. The steam produced from this boiling, which is mostly trapped under a tightly sealed lid, raises the pressure and temperature to exceptionally high levels, cooking the food in considerably shorter time.
As Hall has discovered through her own experience, pressure cooking is an ideal way not only to reduce the toughness commonly associated with game meat, but also to enhance its taste.
“Pressure cooking effectively gelatinizes — breaks down — the connective tissue associated with tough meat, particularly game meats,” Hall says, “but the process also infuses meat with whatever ingredients you choose to add while preserving the natural flavor.”
Greatly reduces cooking time
The technique can reduce cooking time by as much as two-thirds in some cases.
A relative newcomer herself to pressure cooking, Hall was sold on the process after successfully cooking her first batch of field peas.
“I burned my first pot, but after I got the hang of it, I couldn’t believe you could cook something that tasted so delicious in such a short time.”
Among her most enduring memories associated with pressure cooking: her first serving of lima beans.
“The flavor was unbelievable,” she recalls, speaking to a pressure-cooking workshop held in Monroeville.
Pressure cooking is also considered ecologically friendly, requiring less energy than other conventional cooking techniques. It’s an especially convenient cooking option during powerf outages.
“Whenever the power goes out, it can be safely and efficiently used with an alternative source of energy, whether this happens to be propane, charcoal or wood,” Hall says.
Daniel Robinson, state executive director of the Alabama Farm Service Agency, who attended Hall’s workshop last year, is one of many Alabamians who spent his boyhood hunting and fishing to help his family stretch food dollars.
While he rarely hunts now, Robinson still has an affinity for game meat — squirrels, rabbits and turtles — and holds a high regard for pressure cooking as an effective way to tenderize these meats.
“I noticed a big change not only in tenderness but also taste, with the ingredients completely enclosed in the meat,” he recalls, adding that he values the process not only for turning out tastier, tender meats but also in a fraction of the time.
Some hunters are taking this one step farther, using pressure canning to preserve game meat.
Mark Smith, an Alabama Extension wildlife specialist and Auburn University associate professor of forestry and wildlife sciences, is an avid hunter who not only dresses his deer but pressure cans much of it.
He was first sold on the merits of canning years ago after sampling the fare of a fellow hunter.
Tastes completely different
“Canned deer meet tastes completely different —it comes out more like roast beef, and there is no gamey taste to it,” says Smith, who also pressure cooks squirrel and rabbit and processes feral hog meat into sausage.
While he’s become an old hand at preserving game meat by pressure canning, Smith cautions that this process requires some advanced preparation and time, though he perceives it is as worth the effort.
“I use the canned meat in a variety of ways — in open-faced sandwiches, in stews, with rice and gravy, with chili, with taco fajitas, and even with stroganoff,” Smith says. “It adds some diversity to my diet and there’s also a great deal of self-satisfaction and independence that comes with this.”
“I stay pretty busy each hunting season canning deer meat for my friends and family,” he adds.
Pressure canning is even less practical for hunters who are accustomed to processors butchering their deer rather than undertaking this task on their own, according to Smith, who dresses his own animals.
Safety is a critical concern with all aspects of pressure cooking and canning, but especially with canning. An inadequately sealed jar of meat can provide a haven for potentially deadly bacteria and toxins — a lesson driven home earlier this year to a Washington state attorney who used an old family recipe to can elk meat and almost lost his life after exposure to botulism.
“Anyone involved in pressure cooking and canning should follow all the recommendations prescribed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” says Jean Weese, an Alabama Extension food safety specialist and Auburn University professor of poultry science who heads the Alabama Extension food safety team.”
Weese says no home-canned meat product should be held for more than a year.
“Pressure-canned meats, compared with their commercial counterparts, are more prone to losing their vacuum over time, and for this reason, we tell home canners that they should consider 12 months the limit for carrying over canned meat products,” Weese says.
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