Inspired by a question from Littlefoot, I went out to do a little sleuthing:
I remember an anthropology professor reminiscing about buying food at open air markets somewhere in Africa, where refrigeration is non-existent the meat is simply out in the heat and “somehow everyone doesn’t die.” It’s a bit strange to us, because we’re inundated with messages that improper food handling will lead to the growth of horrible bacteria and death (I even refrigerate the eggs and butter, even though our grandmothers never did and the French still don’t,) but our ancestors not only managed without refrigeration, sometimes they actually tried to make the meat rot on purpose.
Helpful Twitter user Stefan Beldie explains that traditionally, pheasants were killed, eviscerated, and then hung for 4-10 days, depending on the weather.
The phrase “bluing meat” is extremely rare these days (try googling it,) but extra-rare or uncooked meat is still referred to as “blue”:
|Extra-rare or Blue (bleu)||very red||46–49 °C||115–125 °F|
Of course, there is a bit of difference between food that is merely uncooked/barely cooked, and food that has been intentionally allowed to rot.
Here’s the tale of an Inuit (Eskimo) delicacy, walrus meat that has been allowed to decompose in a hole in the ground for a year (though I suspect not much decomposition happens for about half the year up in the arctic).
Before you judge, remember that cheese is really just rotten vomit.
Have you ever heard the story that early modern Brits used a bunch of spices on their meat to cover up the taste of rot?
It turns out that this is a myth, a tall tale created by people misunderstanding cookbooks that gave instructions for properly rotting meat before eating it:
One of the most pervasive myths about medieval food is that medieval cooks used lots of spices to cover up the taste of rotten meat. This belief is often presented in the popular media as fact, with no cited references. Occasionally though a source is mentioned, and the trail invariably leads to:
The Englishman’s Food: Five Centuries of English Diet
J.C. Drummond, Anne Wilbraham
First published by Jonathan Cape Ltd 1939
… It is not surprising to find that the recipe books of these times give numerous suggestions for making tainted meat edible. Washing with vinegar was an obvious, and one of the commonest procedures. A somewhat startling piece of advice is given in the curious collection of recipes and miscellaneous information published under the title of The Jewell House of Art and Nature by ‘Hugh Platt, of Lincolnes Inne Gentleman’ in 1594. If you had venison that was ‘greene’ you were recommended to ‘cut out all the bones, and bury [it] in a thin olde coarse cloth a yard deep in the ground for 12 or 20 houres’. It would then, he asserted, ‘bee sweet enough to be eaten’.”
As Daniel Myers notes, washing with vinegar was not done to reduce spoilage, but to tenderize and get rid of the “gamey” taste of some meats. As for burying your meat to make it less spoiled, this is clearly absurd:
The example that Drummond does give is most certainly not for dealing with spoiled meat. He misinterprets the word “greene” to mean spoiled, when in fact it has the exact opposite meaning – unripe. Venison, along with a number of other meats, is traditionally hung to age for two or three days after butchering to help tenderize it and to improve the flavor. With this simple knowledge in mind, Platt’s instructions are clearly a way to take a freshly butchered carcass and speed up the aging process so that it may be eaten sooner.
Similar instructions for rapidly aging poultry can be found in Ménagier de Paris.
Item, to age capons and hens, you should bleed them through their beaks and immediately put them in a pail of very cold water, holding them all the way under, and they will be aged that same day as if they had been killed and hung two days ago.
The goal of these recipes is not to cover up rot, but to speed up the rotting (or “aging”) process.
Myers also notes that the idea of putting spices on rotten meat is also absurd because spices were horribly expensive–often worth their weight in gold. It would be rather like someone looking at a gold-leaf wrapped caviar and concluding the gold was there to distract the peasants from the fact that fish eggs are disgusting. You would have completely misread the dish. In the Medieval case, it would be cheaper to buy fresh meat than to dump spices on it.
Now, to be clear, what I’ve been calling “rot” is really more “aging.” We only think of it as rotting because we are accustomed to throwing everything in the refrigerator as soon as we get it.
As the Omaha World Herald explains:
Three factors affect the tenderness of meat in all animals, whether it be beef cattle or pheasant: background toughness, rigor mortis and aging the meat.
Background toughness results from the amount of collagen (connective tissue) in and between muscle fibers. The amount of collagen, as well as the interconnectivity of the collagen, increases as animals get older, explaining why an old rooster is naturally tougher than a young bird. Rigor mortis is the partial contracting and tightening of muscle fibers in animals after death and results from chemical changes in the muscle cells. Depending on temperature and other factors, rigor mortis typically sets in a few hours after death and maximum muscle contraction is reached 12 to 24 hours after death. Rigor mortis then begins to subside, which is when the aging (tenderization) of the meat begins.
Tenderization results from pH changes in the muscle cells after death that allow naturally occurring proteinase enzymes in cells to become active. These enzymes break down collagen, resulting in more tender meat. In beef cattle, the aging process will continue at a constant rate up to 14 days, as long as the meat is held at a proper and consistent temperature, and then decreases after that. In fowl, the rate of tenderization begins to decline after a few days.
A common misconception is that bacteria-caused rotting is responsible for meat tenderization, and this is why many find the thought of aging game repugnant. … Maintaining a constant, cool temperature is key to preventing bacterial growth when aging meats. The sickness causing E. coli bacteria grows rapidly at temperatures at or above 60 F, but very slowly at 50 F.
It’s a very good article; RTWT.
From Littlefoot we have an article that delves into the technical side of things: Microbiological Changes in the Uneviscerated Bird Hung at 10 degrees C with Particular Reference to the Pheasant:
Several interesting results from this study. They hung up both pheasants and chickens. The pheasants showed very little microbial first two weeks, whereas the chickens started turning green on day five. This is probably a result of chickens having more bacteria in them to start with, a side effect of the crowded, disease-ridden conditions chickens are typically raised in.
A taste testing panel found that pheasants that had hung for at least three days tasted better than ones that had not, with some panel members preferring birds that had aged considerably longer.
So if you plan on hunting pheasant any time soon, consider letting it age for a few days before eating it–carefully, of course. Don’t give yourself food poisoning.