Friday, March 19, 2010

Dispatches from the Curing Front

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!


Wendy said...

My husband has been brain tanning hides, and the other day he contacted our local butcher about getting brains. So, my husband's friends are joking that he's going to end up with a whole pig head.

To which I thought, "Oh, I could make guanciale" :).

Aimee said...

Great post! I've been trying to work up the nerve to try home curing. Sopressata is my holy Grail. Maybe I should just forge ahead.

The Mom said...

I am so envious! Another thing that I want to do now. Enjoy your delicious meats.

Anonymous said...

That's great news about the root cellar being usable as a meat locker, too. I will have the space...I'm definitely going to try home-curing some meat this fall!


Aussiemade said...

It is a bit like the cheese, bread and yogurt making process. Of course companies want you to think it is hard, so you do not do it. Congratulations. This is on my list of things to do. What a wonderful community you live in.
So perhaps I will give making bacon and ham a go.

Anonymous said...

I think you're absolutely right about the feeling we all have that food preservation is difficult and potentially dangerous if you make a mistake.
We've made bacon (courtesy of the wonderful Hugh Fearlessly-Eatsitall) and sausages (the reaction by friends and family was as if we'd said we'd learnt DIY appendicectomies)and converting a filing cabinet to a smoker is high on my to-do list.
When I've got a pigs head from a local farm I've made brawn (head cheese/Fromage de Tete), which I can strongly recommend. Not preserving as such, but very frugal. I didn't include all the fat- some I rendered in the oven and got about 1l lard.
I think I'll try guanciale next time, thanks.

Kate said...

Wendy, I think the whole tanning thing is very impressive. I may take that craft up someday, but it's rather low down my list. Still, I admire anyone who pursues it. As for the pig's heads, he may indeed get one for the brains that has been "condemned" by the FDA inspector. One of the farmers I know told me that often happens with pig heads if the killing shot causes splinters through the meat. In that case, it's supposed to be thrown away and not salvaged for any consumption. Using the brains for tanning of course should be fine by the FDA. If the damage from the shot isn't too bad, the jowls may be perfectly salvageable. So it might really be something to look into.

Aimee, thanks. I highly recommend forging ahead. Start with whole cuts such as belly or jowls first if you need some confidence. I've heard shanks can also be turned into a kind of prosciutto. They're often removed from what Americans consider the ham, and so are sometimes rather cheap to come by. Italians cure the whole leg and call it prosciutto, so the shank really is part of that.

The Mom, thanks. I really encourage you to try it. It's easier than you imagine!

Emily, yes, I thought of you regarding the root cellar and was going to shoot you a note on your blog or by email about this. I'll be watching the temp/humidity in our cellar over the summer. I hope yours and mine both turn out to be suitable for year-round curing.

Aussiemade, I think you're right about the mystique around certain foods. Though I also suspect that centuries ago there was also a secretiveness cultivated by professionals bakers, butchers and other working professionals to keep the secrets of their trades to themselves. Those secrets were after all, their livelihood. In any case, I'm happy to live in an age when information is so widely and easily disseminated. Good luck with your curing experiments.

Hazel, I too am a (new) fan of HFW, and I appreciate his try anything approach to his food. I had to laugh at your comment about sausage making equating to DIY appendectomies! I suspect I'm going to start using more lard as a cooking medium, so I admire your approach as well!

Anonymous said...

I read recently that lard is a less saturated fat than butter, and as I'm trying to avoid shortening but only eat 'happy' meat products, homemade lard is the only alternative for things like pastry, where the white fat gives you the 'shortness', 50/50 with butter for flavour.
When I saw how much fat came out I was very glad I hadn't put it all in the brawn like the old recipes recommend! The dogs/children/DH ate the crispy scraps afterwards, so zero waste!
While you're buying a pigs head you could get some trotters and try this- my children love it:
Probably partly because they can use their fingers, but the sauce is delicious. I make a Chinese style plum sauce every year, and I sometimes substitute that instead. The recipe is also in his Meat Book, if you have that.


Kate said...

Hazel, I'm in a bit of a discovery phase with lard myself at the moment. It's had a horrible reputation for years, of course. But the Weston Price folks sure embrace it and claim good health benefits besides. In any case, I think it's great that I've spent the last 20+ years obsessed with food and there are still things for me to discover and explore. I'll check for the plum sauce recipe, as I do have that book. And I hope you'll share any lard recipes you particularly enjoy.