There’s a bit of magic in curing meat. Letting a fresh cut muscle or sausage hang just below room temperature while a salt cure slowly marbleizes and condenses the flavor of the meat over the course of months until you take it down, slice a few pieces and share it with friends and family.
You can count the number of national artisan meat producers that supply a wide range of charcuterie and salumi on just about two hands. Too, it’s difficult for restaurants and stores in many states, including Colorado, to receive permits that will allow them to serve their homecured meats — as time-honored as the recipe and method may be — to the public.
And so now a new movement, a home curing movement, is beginning to swell. Home producers are working with butchers and specialty retailers to safely cure a variety of old world cured meat in their refrigerators, basements and wine cellars. To figure out how to get started, Boulder RWeekly I C K Sasked T E RBoulder S chefs and home curers Alberto Sabbadini (Meadowlark Farm Dinners, The Kitchen) and Dakota Soifer (Café Aion) to walk through Twhere R I C Ka Sbeginner T E R S can start their cure.
First a note about safety: Unhealthy bacterial growth may appear on raw meat during the curing process, including the bacteria that causes botulism. It is important to be extremely careful, attentive and proactive about eradicating bad mold (more on this below), and deciding when to eat home cured meat.
Both Soifer and Sabbadini say unequivocally that curing meat at home is safe, and Soifer says part of successfully curing meat is recognizing where to begin and knowing your limits.
“It’s raw meat so you want to be careful and I think sort of starting with things that you cook — sausages, bacon, pancetta — is a great place to start just to start to kind of understand meat and meat handling,” Soifer says. “The next step is the whole muscle salamis, like coppa, lomo, bresaola, and then you get into the ground cure: Genoa salamis, Toscanos, anything that gets ground and then cured, because that sort of has the highest risks, the air pockets, you’re handling the most, you’re introducing and manipulating the most. Those are the three categories that if you read up on it and feel comfortable about category one, move on to category two and then if you feel comfortable, move on to three.”
Sabaddini agrees, “Curing whole muscle is simple and doesn’t require casings or a stuffer. A good place to start is with the [pork] belly, which is easy and more common. Then you can move on to sausage and salame with a better idea of how the process works.”
So if we start in category one, with pork belly, we can start to see how the curing process works. You can pick up a portion of pork belly from a butcher. Blackbelly Market does custom cuts, as does Whole Foods and Your Butcher Frank in Longmont. Many local farms will also have quality, freshly cut meat depending on the time of year, and Sabbadini also runs a butchery guild at Cure Farm, where you can learn to cut your own pork belly.
However you get it, Soifer says a good rule of thumb is “to use stuff that you would want to cook up and eat.”
You’ll want to get a cut of pork belly that can fit inside a gallon-sized Ziploc bag, Soifer says. Then, you want to rub the meat with a spice blend according to your tastes, however, you’ll want to use at least a quarter cup of kosher salt per five pounds of meat, according to noted salumi master Michael Ruhlman on his cure blog.
For the spices, Soifer says he uses kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, thyme, cloves (optional), and a splash of maple syrup after the meat is in the bag. Sabbadini says he’ll use salt, pepper, bay leaf, juniper berries and chili flakes on pork belly.
“I’m usually conservative in the beginning,” Sabbadini says of spices. “If the first batch is light, add more until you find the right taste for you.”
Make sure that the cure is “really well caked on” the meat, and then put the meat in the bag and the bag in the refrigerator for about 10-14 days. Turn the meat over every couple of days to ensure that the curing spices are working with the meat.
Soifer says knowing when your bacon is done takes a bit of trial and error, and suggests keeping track for future endeavors.
“It’s going to feel significantly firmer than a raw slab of pork belly,” Soifer says. “The biggest thing that I’ve found in curing is get yourself a curing diary and start with your raw ingredients, your cut of meat, how long it cured for… That’s huge.”
As alluded to earlier, cooking the bacon will help ensure the safety of your newly cured meat.
When curing takes on more difficulty, and more art, is what Soifer called category two and three meats — whole muscles and ground salami.
Take coppa for instance. Coppa is a muscle that runs along the head, neck and upper back of the pig. You can harvest it from buying a whole pork shoulder/Boston butt from the butcher.
“If I was making a coppa,” Soifer says, “I would pretty much follow the same steps [as the pork belly]. I have a measured recipe, rub it all in there, stick it in the refrigerator, wash it off, case it and then it goes into the curing cellar.”
To unpack that: use whatever salt and spice rub you want, amply apply it to the meat, put it in the refrigerator for about two weeks (or until firm), rinse off the cure with wine or water, and prepare it for hanging. Soifer says he cases his muscles like coppa in sausage casings (you can use anything that breathes, like cheesecloth, intestine or artificial casings) to help keep moisture in, but says it isn’t necessary. Then the cut can be hung in the curing chamber.
The curing chamber can be a number of different things, but it can’t really be your standard refrigerator anymore. That’s because there’s too little humidity in the refrigerator and the outside of the muscle will dry too quickly. To successfully cure meat, you’ll need to take time to set up a clean curing environment.
“A proper curing environment doesn’t exist; you have to create it,” Sabbadini says. “To start, you can buy a used fridge or wine cellar, a small basement could be an option, preferably north-facing with a window and a stable temperature between 40 and 50 degrees. It has to have some air flow but not too much.”
Of the whole muscles, Soifer says, “You’re going to want them to age in a nice environment. I think it’s around 55 degrees and 60 percent humidity. What a damp cave would be.”
Sabbadini says he wouldn’t cure meat in a chamber over 50 degrees, which highlights the variety in curing methods.
Once hanging, you’ll start to see one of two kinds of mold grow on that coppa or other curing specimen. The good kind (white), or the bad kind (brown, green and fuzzy). The good kind of mold protects the meat and keeps the bad mold at bay. If you do see bad mold growing on the meat, “You can get rid of it with a towel soaked in warm water and red wine vinegar,” says Sabbadini.
Soifer says he will sometimes introduce bacteria to the cure in order to promote the growth of good mold. You can buy something like Bactoferm F-RM-52 and spritz it on the meat occasionally, Soifer says, to “offensively go after” the bad mold. Soifer says additions like the Bactoferm help people who can’t create a perfect curing environment.
One final way to mitigate risk when preparing cured meats is to add nitrates, or pink salt, to the cure. Soifer says if you plan on serving any home cured meat to anyone, adding a quarter or an eighth of a teaspoon to the original salt cure “is a huge insurance policy.”
“There’s very valid arguments against using preservatives and I totally respect those, but I feel like at home you can really control the amount you’re using and you probably shouldn’t be eating pounds and pounds of salamis and cured meats anyways. You don’t want to kill anyone. That sucks,” Soifer says.
Soifer says you’ll know when your cut of meat is done when it reduces by about 30 percent in size. For prosciutto — a whole leg of ham — that could take a year; for coppa, it could take two months. Salami and ground cures vary on size, but Sabbadini offered this final tip:
“The thicker it is, the longer it takes. Start tasting it after a month to make sure it’s not too soft or too hard. If it’s too hard it means it dried too fast. This process takes time, and can’t be rushed,” Sabaddini says.