By Kjell Hedström
In Sweden, caribou are called reindeer. The Swedish reindeer are not considered wild. The Sami people will herd and follow the deer migration, then in the spring, the herds will be gathered, and some animals will be separated for slaughter. Some of the meat will be dried and used by the Sami or sold commercially.
Salted and dried reindeer meat, torkat kött, is a traditional delicacy from Sweden. It is simple to make and tastes amazing. While I don’t have access to reindeer here in Montana, you can get very close to the original with venison. The finished result showcases the meat in all its natural flavors, only enhanced by salt and, if you so choose, by smoke.
Here you can read the traditional and my modern take on this world-class jerky.
The Traditional Way
Historically, the Sami people who live in the northern region of Sweden would slaughter reindeer in December, – when animals have more fat reserves. In more recent times, the traditions have changed, and the reindeer slaughter happens as early as September. The Sami people hang the animals to age before the meat is salted. This way, you get a more tender result than if you salt the meat immediately.
After the slaughter and the meat has matured through aging, the meat is salted, layered and packed in barrels. Reindeer fat is laid on top of the meat to protect it from damaging air, and the barrels will be sealed shut. The barrel-packed meat will rest for several months until the harsh winter yields to the cool and windy April weather.
The meat will be cold smoked and dried. The wood used for smoking will be sälg (a type of willow) or birch and juniper (Juniperus communis). The meat is cold smoked for 1-2 days and then hung to dry. The drying happens outside. The more natural airflow, the better. As the meat dries, the water content will evaporate while all the minerals and natural flavors will remain. Thicker pieces are commonly stretched out with wood sticks to speed up the process.
The cold April winds will help create a pellicle, a hard surface that protects the meat from early flies and bacterial degradation. The meat is finished drying when it feels right to the touch – dry but not too hard. The drying time takes a few weeks.
The shelf-stable dried meat is used as a snack and for cooking.
Taste of the Wood’s Torkat Kött
The traditional way of the Sami would use an estimated 1.8% salt. The salt percentage is calculated with the weight of the bones and the meat. With the removal of bones, I have found that 2.25% salt content gives a result that is just slightly saltier than the original and closer to my preference. My preferred cut for torkat kött is the whitetail or mule deer top round or bottom round.
Trimmed, lean cuts of venison. A top round or bottom round would be great choices
2.25% kosher salt (or any non-iodized salt)
A vacuum sealer with bags
Pellets or sawdust for smoking
A designated cold smoker (You can easily make a temporary cold smoker in just a few minutes. Take a leftover cardboard box, drill some air holes, two opposite facing holes for the meat hanging pole, add a hole for the chimney, and hang the meat over the smoldering apple pellets.)
- Weigh the meat after trimming away the silverskin and fat.
- Measure 2.25% non-iodide salt, based on the gram weight of the meat. (It doesn’t matter what pure salt you use. Rock salt, kosher salt and pickling salt are different volume-wise but give identical saltiness to meat weight-wise.)
- Rub the salt into the meat and package it into vacuum bags. Add leftover salt into the bag and vacuum seal it.
- Leave the bag at fridge temperature for at least four weeks per inch of thickness and up to several months. The Sami
- leave their meat for 5-6 months, so don’t rush this. During this equilibrium salt phase, the salt will penetrate the meat and will continue to break down muscle fibers and enable more flavors.
- Once the salting equilibrium phase is completed, you should weigh the meat. While you can go “by touch” to know if the meat is done, I recommend beginners go by the numbers. Weigh each piece of meat in grams, write it down on paper and attach the paper with butcher’s twine to the meat.
- Cold smoking is next. The meat is hung by hooks or butcher’s twine and is cold smoked for 12-14 hours. I wait with cold smoking until the ambient temperature is around 32-40 F. Don’t worry if you don’t have a fancy cold smoker. Like in the picture, a functioning cold smoker can be made for practically no money at all and in just a few minutes.
- The drying should take place in temperatures from 32-50 F with airflow around the meat. A cold, unfinished basement where you let in fresh air now and then could work. A fridge could work if you can hang the meat; the downside is that the fridge will smell of smoke. A cold garage could also work, especially if you air it out now and then. Stay away from locations with scents and smells of their own as they might impart this flavor on the meat.
- If you can hang it outside, with natural airflow and protection from precipitation, you will be closer to the original method. Don’t worry if you hit a cold spell, as it will only slow down the drying process. Here in Montana, the end of February to the end of March will often have the perfect temperature for drying meat. If birds or squirrels are a concern, then some thin mesh chicken wire can be used as a protective barrier. Whatever you do, don’t use your dehydrator. Drying the meat in cool temperatures gives a result that is completely different from drying the meat in a warm temperature.
- The drying is completed once you have reached 35-45% weight loss. It can take up to six weeks, depending on the thickness of the meat, humidity, temperature and airflow. My recommendation is to go for 39-40% weight loss. Make a mental note of how the dried meat feels if you prefer to go “by touch” in the future.
In the rare case of white mold forming, don’t worry: Any white mold forming can be wiped away with water and vinegar.
Sample the meat once it’s finished drying. Make sure to write down what you thought of the smokiness and salt level, in case you want to do modifications for the future.
Optional: The torkat kött will continue to improve, age and water equalize if you vacuum pack it after drying and leave it at fridge temperature for at least one more month.
Torkat kött is great as a hunter’s snack or couple with a robust wine as an appetizer at a fancy dinner. The kött should be enjoyed in thin slices to last you the longest.
BHA member Kjell Hedström is a hunter and a DIY meat processing and aging ambassador. In addition to his role as VP of engineering at Ganaz, Kjell runs TasteOfTheWoods.com promoting awareness of improved meat aging practices and wild game delicacies.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Backcountry Journal. Join BHA to get 4 print issues a year right in your mailbox.