Processing of some varieties of meat to create lunch meats was described briefly earlier in Food Nirvana to illustrate what you can do at home if you have the right equipment. This document has been created for the Sandwich Stuff recipes and for other uses you might have for what we call cold meats or lunch meats. I provide considerable detail here for the handling and processing of each type of meat or fowl.
A good supermarket may have up to fifty different varieties of lunch meats and at least a dozen varieties of cheeses, and the essential intended use for these products is simply sandwiches or salads like a chef’s salad. We do love our sandwiches, for when they are made well from good ingredients they are both tasty and convenient. Let’s take a look at the practical side regarding what is available at the supermarket delicatessen.
Omitting the plethora of different seasonings and flavorings it all pretty much boils down to beef, pork and turkey. Beef subdivides into roast beef, pastrami, corned beef and dried beef. Pork subdivides into many varieties of ham, pork loin and salami. Turkey is typically simply turkey breast, roasted and sliced. The various other lunch meat products, like bologna and other formed meat products like salami, are made of beef, pork and/or turkey along with fillers and seasonings and, in the case of salami, fat. If you think about the beef product used in places like Arbys® it is obvious that the loaf of meat they slice has been formed and processed from miscellaneous pieces of meat. In other words, the scraps of beef, pork (ham) and turkey are used to create less expensive composite loaves that will slice like a whole ham or turkey breast and thus be suitable for use in a sandwich.
Now let’s look at the products in terms of what you might do at home versus what you will purchase but not make. Of the beef products, you can easily roast a piece of lean beef, like eye roast, to make lunch meat. If you are adventurous you can buy chemicals in mix form in bags to process raw beef brisket to make pastrami and corned beef at home. Morton® markets various curing mixes to do that at home. Dried beef is generally not made at home, but purchased in high quality form at a good price from stores like Fisher’s Country Store in Cessna, PA. You can roast pork loin and slice it thinly to create a delicious roast pork sandwich. You will not normally attempt to make ham, but buying and processing the right type of ham allows you to slice it thinly to make lunch meat, or, it may already be sliced as in the case of a spiral ham. Very special ham products like Virginia country ham or the Italian Proscuitto ham are items you must purchase rather than make at home. It is quite simple to roast a turkey or a turkey breast at home and slice the breast meat thinly for sandwiches.
Given the above starting point the idea is that whether you make the product at home from raw meat or buy a ready to eat lunch meat you can process what you have using vacuum sealing and refrigeration to obtain very high quality lunch meats that will have exceptionally long shelf life in your refrigerator. I am talking about shelf life time periods of a month or longer depending on the meat product, where the cured meats may last easily for six months or more. This is contrasted to the reality that when you buy sliced meats at a delicatessen you best use all of the product within a week or less or it will, without fail, spoil and be unfit to eat. The other major consideration is that high quality ham, roast beef and turkey breast are very expensive at the delicatessen. In 2012 the top quality brands, like Boar’s Head® sell for about $12 per pound. The specialty products like Proscuitto ham in the best brands, like Parma®, cost at least $18 per pound. Careful purchase of hams and turkeys and beef roasts on sale can provide the regular lunch meat products for your use at around $4 per pound or less, with quality every bit as good as the best Boar’s Head® products.
Now I will list explicitly what I do and the results I obtain. I buy eye roasts of beef, and I will cut them in half and vacuum seal and freeze the pieces until I am ready to use them, individually. I thaw one and I remove any fat that might be present on a surface, and I bake it for 45 minutes at 350 degrees F. I then process the hot meat with my meat slicer to create thin slices. I immediately vacuum seal ¼ lb. quantities in small vacuum sealing bags and then I simply refrigerate the product. It is medium rare roast beef. It is tender and juicy and delicious. It has a proven shelf life of at least four weeks. And my cost was (in 2012) $3.49 per pound. In other words, it is idiotic to buy roast beef at the delicatessen for $12 per pound and have it spoil within a week. Why the ¼ lb. quantities? Because that is the amount you are likely to use to make two nice sandwiches, so I am being economical in opening a package and using all the contents while they are fresh. I do not have to worry about any amount of the product spoiling.
Periodically I will buy three to five pounds of sliced dried beef from Fisher’s Country Store. I visit their web site to get their phone number, I call them and place my order and they ship the dried beef to me anytime except during the summer months. The high salt content of the dried beef allows for shipping without refrigeration. The last time I purchased it the price was $8 per pound, plus shipping cost, which is very economical compared to other sources for dried beef, and the quality is very superior, the very best I have found. I vacuum seal it in ¼ lb. amounts and I will refrigerate some of that and also put some of the packages into the deep freeze, for that product, once vacuum-sealed, freezes very well. The refrigerated vacuum-sealed product has a shelf life of approximately a year.
The pork loin process is virtually identical to the roast beef process except the smaller loins, in terms of diameter, get to cook all the way through during baking, which is essential to safety when processing raw pork. Pork loins can often be purchased for $2.50 per pound and that is contrasted to paying around $10 to $11 per pound at the delicatessen. It is important not to bake the pork longer than absolutely necessary or it will dry out and be far less enjoyable when used, so I highly recommend checking it for internal doneness, visually, in five minute intervals after 30 minutes of baking. You can do that by cutting a loin in half and simply looking at it. If it is pink it needs further baking. If there is no pink or pink juices then it is done. Remove it from the oven immediately and process it with your meat slicer and vacuum sealer immediately, to retain all the internal moisture, which will keep it tender and most enjoyable when used later. If you want to be tricky about retaining moisture you can do the baking with the pork loin wrapped/sealed in aluminum foil, and/or baking it with a casserole of water in the oven to provide moisture along with the heat.
I buy hams when they are on sale, either a butt portion that will normally be baked or a spiral ham that is pre-sliced and ready to eat. Sometimes the butt portion hams are fully cooked so no baking is necessary. I try to avoid the brands that are water-logged and opt for the more expensive brands that provide the best quality for dollar spent. The better brands, like Deitz and Watson®, use superior curing and/or smoking processes (depending on the type of pork product) and thus they taste better. You may have to do some research in your geographic area to identify the best brands of ham. The key point is to buy these products only when they are on sale, and that is no problem because after you process and vacuum seal the slices they will have a refrigerator shelf life of up to four months and longer.
I purchase hard salami and proscuitto ham as end cuts sold by Market Basket® in bulk vacuum sealed packs for very low prices, which means about $2.50 per pound for the truly excellent salami and $4.50 per pound for the proscuitto ham. I use my meat slicer to create thin slices of each product and then package the slices in vacuum sealing bags and process them as discussed above. The shelf life of these meats is always at least six months.
When I decide to roast a turkey it is a whole turkey that I have purchased on sale at less than $1 per pound and kept frozen in the deep freeze until I decide to use it. The directions for roasting turkey are within the Fowl section of Food Nirvana. I will use all of the meat on the turkey in different ways but the breast meat is what I use for making sliced lunch meat. I process it through my meat slicer while it is hot and juicy and I immediately vacuum seal ¼ lb. portions and then refrigerate it. It is superb as a lunch meat. It has a shelf life of at least four weeks.
Well, that concludes my advice about Food Nirvana techniques for having superior lunch meats, inexpensively. Overall the work to do what I do is trivial. Most of us simply never think about how much money we waste both in the initial purchase and later discarded spoiled product when we buy lunch meats from a supermarket delicatessen. A bit of work and a bit of wisdom improve your quality of life at the same time you save money to use for meeting other needs.