HOW TO CURE MEAT
Cook and food writer, Ed Smith (aka @rocketandsquash), gives a beginner’s guide to curing meat.
“What is curing? It’s just salt and time.”
You read that a lot in pieces discussing cured meats. And it kind of is, kind of isn’t.
I’ve visited the garden sheds, prep kitchens and established drying rooms of hobbyist and established curers in the UK; also centuries-old caves, drying chambers and industrial factories in Italy, Spain, Germany, France and Scandinavia. On each occasion I’ve been struck by how similar they are, regardless of scale or success. The process is uncomplicated, clear and ages-old. It is about salt and time.
...yet it’s also about sodium nitrite, fat percentages, aromatics, fermentation, air-drying (and with that humidity levels, air movement, temperature control and yeast flora) and/or cold-smoking. More important than all of those things, in both the first instance and final judgment, it is about the quality of the meat that is being cured.
Okay...but it’s just sausages and sliced meats, right?
Yes. And no.
The clearest way to categorise different forms of cured meat is to divide them into ‘sausage meats’ and ‘muscle meats’.
Below that division, there’s a huge range of different sized sausages, which can either be snacked on, cut into pound coin sized discs, or are so big that they need to be sliced by machine. And ‘muscle meats’ can mean anything from the jowl of a pig, to meats made from necks, rolled bellies, whole legs, single leg muscles, shoulder or prime loins, all of which need to be hand-carved or machine-sliced wafer thin.
Oh, and then there’s a third ‘soft charcuterie’ category: cooked items like pates, terrines, black pudding and brawn. Other spreadable, uncooked but fully cured meats like ’nduja and sobrasata, are in the form of sausages, but you could argue sit in this soft charcuterie category too.
On which note, there’s something to be said for saying that cured back fat (for example lardo in Italy; salo in the Ukraine) is a sub-category of muscle meats. Or could it be a category in its own fatty right? What about the likes of biltong and jerky? They’re made from ‘muscle meats’, but couldn’t be further from a silky slice of bresaola.
That’s clear as mud, thanks. Any more on the why and how?
Put simply, curing is the process of making fresh meat inhospitable to bacteria. It just so happens that, by the end of the process, the flavour of the meat will have intensified, quite probably taken on other characteristics, and definitely become something quite delicious. Which in an era of easy access to fridges and freezers, is why we still do it.
Though the details are specific to each individual product, the curing process is in essence the same for most of the things mentioned so far (save the soft charcuterie). To begin with, the butcher/charcutier/artisan will add salt to the meat. For muscle meats that’s either via a dry rub or wet brine. Whilst for sausages, curing salts and other flavourings are mixed into the minced meat.
This, fairly quickly, draws moisture out of the meat, and begins to make the meat inhospitable for bacteria. Further, as this moisture change occurs, lactic acid is produced which makes the meat even less hospitable. The meats are then either dried out or, in some cases, smoked. Which, again, assists the preservation process and intensifies flavour.
Right...so how do I begin?
If you want to become an expert maker or eater of cured meats, you absolutely can. Your first action is to buy Stephen Lamb’s River Cottage Handbook on Curing and Smoking, from which you’ll get all the basics you need. From there you can decide after that how deep you want to dive. Other resources include www.weschenfelder.co.uk for curing salts, skins and more. Salumi by Michael Ruhlman; Charcuterie by Brian Polcyn; and Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery by Jane Grigson.
But you can also dabble at a more macro level. Which, in my opinion, is just as enjoyable, and can be as fleeting or devoted an obsession as you wish.
On the eating front, seek better quality and more variety than you might currently be used to. Shop at delis, markets and online, looking for ‘heritage breed’ meats, and products that are perhaps less familiar than Parma ham and unnamed salami. For example, have you tried coppa? It’s a muscle from the collar of a pig (to be sliced) which is intense because it was hard working, but also marbled with fat. It’s glorious. Or become an expert in the meats and traditions of one region: be that Emilia Romagna, Calabria, the South Tyrol, or even the UK (Cobble Lane Cured and Tempus are excellent starting points for the latter).
And as for curing itself, a great way to dabble is to make your own bacon (see Ed’s recipe here). Be sure to use top quality pork from a trusted butcher, and you will do this over and over. It’s ludicrously simple. Just add salt and time…
Ed Smith is a cook and food writer based in London. His latest cookbook is Crave; recipes arranged by flavour to suit your mood and appetite. @rocketandsquash on social media.