Friday, March 19, 2010
Posted by Kate at 10:10 AM
I spent yesterday in a kitchen with three farmers and several hundred pounds of pork and beef. We worked on curing pork bellies, fatback, and preparing sausages in real casings. We also regularly sampled finished specimens of lomo (Spanish, cured pork tenderloin), pepperoni, basturma (Lebanese, cured beef), bresaola (Italian, loin cured with red wine), and several other delicacies. As I had no meat of my own to contribute, I brought along a dish of pork organ paprikash, and some of my homegrown potatoes for lunch.
It was hard work, but it was also fun. I personally prepared about 45 pounds of bacon, 30 pounds of tesa, and about 15 pounds of salo, Ukrainian cured fatback. (The picture above shows a bus tub with three of the whole pork bellies I prepared. The liquid in the tub isn't blood; it's maple syrup.) The simple repetition of the steps gives me a reassuring sense of familiarity with the process. I came home with six pork jowls from pasture-raised hogs to cure at home. I'm very glad of this as I really miss having home-cured guanciale on hand in my larder. I will either pay for the jowls or give some of them back to the farmer for payment. These jowls are much, much leaner and meatier than the two I previously cured, but I look forward to seeing how they turn out. I plan to start them curing today.
The batch of lardo I started at home has taken a detour. As soon as I took them out of the cure and hung them up in our root cellar to dry down, we had a heavy, multi-day rainstorm. The humidity in the root cellar got as high as 90%, and the pieces of lardo were all wet to the touch. I panicked and decided to get them out of the damp and add a little more preservation to the mix. I smoked all of them. Smoke is itself a preservative, and has the nice side benefit of adding a flavor I love. So that batch of fatback is no longer really lardo; I have no idea what to call it. It's drying down now in the refrigerator, though I could just as well put it back in the root cellar. I've used bits of it for cooking so far, and it gives a really lovely flavor to dishes. I may start over with another batch of lardo.
I also learned yesterday that I probably could have just let the lardo go in the high humidity brought on by the storm. As long as the temperature stayed cool, the temporarily excessive humidity probably wouldn't have been a problem. I should be able to use the root cellar for drying cured meats year-round so long as the temperature stays below 60 F (15 C). Since the root cellar is on the northwest corner of our home and mostly below grade, I think there's a fair chance it will remain cool enough all through the summer. Humidity of 70-75% is considered ideal for hanging cured meats, but higher levels are not problematic unless they persist for a long time or are accompanied by high temperatures. In the case of dried sausages, even higher humidity is desirable during hanging, since low humidity results in case hardening, a condition in which the outer surface of the sausage dries so quickly and thoroughly that it becomes an impermeable barrier to the moisture in the center of the sausage. In that case the center stays very soft. Contrasted with the hard outer surface, this results in a sausage that is ruined so far as texture is concerned.
Most of all, what I took away from both yesterday's cure-fest and my own fumbling experiments with home-curing is that this is really a very easy method of food preservation. Cavemen did it; there's just very little that can go awry with a salt cure. It makes no sense that curing meat is regarded as such a dangerous and arcane practice. This is a revelation to me; I was as much under the impression that meat needs to be handled with a level of caution approaching paranoia as anyone else in American society. But I now think that if you're beginning with meat that has been cleanly raised, slaughtered, and butchered, (in other words, no industrial meat) you'd be hard pressed to go wrong. It's ridiculously easy and there's hardly anything to it, beyond a measure of hygiene and common sense.
If you live where humidity is reasonably high and temperatures reasonably low for at least part of the year (or if you can arrange those conditions), and if you can get locally produced meat that hasn't gone through an industrial meat processing plant, you could safely cure meats at home. Very little equipment is needed for a beginner who just wants to cure whole cuts of meat, especially if you're working with small quantities. A scale is helpful, but not absolutely necessary. If you want to make sausage, the equipment needs go up, as does the need for stricter sanitary controls. With whole cuts of meat, there are far fewer opportunities for contamination. All you need is a supply of salt, perhaps some sugar, spices or herbs, a container for the curing, and a suitable place for hanging the meat to dry. You can easily improvise equipment for the hanging, either skewers, or butcher's twine, or a saved net bag that onions are sold in. It certainly helped my confidence to begin curing during the winter months when outside air temperatures pretty well precluded spoilage. But so long as you have an area that remains cool enough, you can do it anytime of year.
If you want to learn about home-curing through reading, there are many books out there. I got a few recommendations yesterday which I'll be requesting through my local library. The few books I have personally read and can recommend are:
The River Cottage Meat Book
Cooking by Hand
Home Sausage Making
As I have the chance to read more titles on charcuterie, I may update this list of recommended titles. In the meantime, explore and experiment! There's a whole world of home-cured deliciousness out there!