It turns out our ancestors stumbled onto something magical: Salt preserves the meat by sucking the water out, retarding spoilage and concentrating flavor. The process also allows the added flavors to infuse into the meat, making it something different altogether.
Curing meat is why humans could stay put when there was nothing to grow, kill or steal. It is how conquerors and discoverers lasted while they traveled the world.
But the refrigerator and the modern food industry — with its cans, plastic bags and chemicals — have made the average home cook afraid of this most simple and useful food preparation.
There is no good reason for this: All you really need is salt. And the result? Malcolm, my 17-year-old son, may have said it best, “Whatever is on my bagel is really good.”
He was a test taster for home-cured lox I made while madly seasoning and drying out flesh over several months for this article. I had worried that I left the fish socked with salt in the refrigerator too long. The outside was dry, jerkylike, not the silky sort from a package of even average lox. I had to cut deeper — into fresh wild salmon infused with smoked salt, sugar, fennel fronds and fennel pollen — to reach the prize.
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I was surprised by how good it was, and this is no humble brag. You can buy wonderful lox from a store: This was a different taste planet.
It was also easy. I made it myself with exactly the fish and flavors I wanted. And the boy liked it, a lot.
Unlike the decision to become a better cook generally, which pays off every day, the resolve to do your own curing prompts a few basic questions before you start. Mostly: Why bother?
“It tastes so good is the only answer,” said Brian Polcyn, the chef and an author of one of the most popular books on curing, “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing.”
“A Ford Focus is a good car. It will get you Point A to Point B. No shame in driving it. A Mercedes E class? You can feel the difference.”
Work and caution
A second question is one of ambition. Curing spans a range from bacon or basic corned beef to the elaborate, lard-chunked salamis of Italian or French charcuterie. The latter take much practice; dredging eBay and Amazon for humidifiers, grinders, slicers, casings and pH readers, even building a drying room for precise temperatures and moisture.
I’m sure it’s a satisfying hobby, but it’s also an insane amount of work — and requires elevated caution about safety. Cured food is, by definition, not cooked. Without proper precautions, it can foster dangerous bacteria. Rot can be good for wine, beer, cheese or yogurt. It can also make you sick or die. Cured meat that involves fermentation raises that risk.
Paul Bertolli, a former chef at Chez Panisse and an early advocate of bringing back home-curing, suggests leaving the more complicated stuff to the experts. A great introduction, though it does get complicated, is one of my favorite cookbooks, Bertolli’s “Cooking by Hand.” He went on to found the website Fra’ Mani, dedicated to all things cured; he learned from his Italian grandparents in California.
What I’ve been experimenting with for the last eight or so years is not grinding and fermenting but drying out solid pieces of meat as they are transformed with just salt, spices and air. Turns out our ancestors stumbled onto something magical: Salt preserves the meat by sucking the water out, retarding spoilage and concentrating flavor.
The process also allows the added flavors to infuse into the meat, making it something different altogether, as well as making it more your own.
How long it lasts depends on whom you ask. It’s safe to say dried meat will last a few weeks in the refrigerator without problems and much longer if frozen, which is perfectly fine.
Fresh products like bacon or nondried pancetta go rancid much more quickly and should be checked carefully. Trouble is easy to detect: I’ve noticed that dried meats don’t so much spoil as grow yellowish and don’t smell fresh. Then it’s time to toss them.
Don’t think of curing as an heirloom exercise in re-creating life as it used to be. Like Bertolli, many proponents of curing learned it from relatives who did it partly out of love, partly out of necessity. So despite the last few generations of mass produced and preserved food, curing is an art that was never lost. Maybe out of fashion, but ever alive.
“For me, it’s the pleasure of making things you are going to consume yourself,” Bertolli said. “There is a pride in it.”
I’ve developed a basic and useful repertoire that requires no special equipment, space or even much time: bacon, both American and Italian (pancetta); lox, and duck prosciutto, an impressive and fun little trick that I learned from Polcyn and that you can brag over at your next dinner party as if you just brought it back from Parma. It cures for just one day under kosher salt alone.
I started curing out of love of a particular dish, pasta carbonara. My family and I lived in Rome for four years, and when we moved back to New York in 2008, it was not easy to find guanciale, or cured pig cheek, carbonara’s essential ingredient, even though we’re in Brooklyn, rightly mocked and loved as the navel of foodie obtuseness.
Romans say with snobby certainty you can make carbonara only with guanciale, not pancetta or bacon. I’m fine with any, but there is no question that guanciale makes the dish taste like Rome.
A local shop made its own and kept us supplied, that is until I came across a recipe from Philadelphia pasta master Marc Vetri that he called shortcut guanciale.
It promised the exotic without much pain or cost: salt, sugar, pepper, garlic, coriander and rosemary rubbed over the cheek and plopped into a Ziploc bag in the refrigerator for just three days. To use right away, you roast it for about three hours. It is sublime.
We are fortunate enough to have a fireplace, so I thought: Why not dry it the way they do in Italy? I did, even if it drove the dogs mad, hanging temptingly just behind the screen in the unlit fireplace.
Three weeks later I was rewarded with something I felt I didn’t do enough to deserve: It looked Old World on the outside, all tough and dry, the inside a strip of meat encased in almost buttery, flavorful fat.
I realize most cooks aren’t going to find regular use for guanciale, though it adds wonders to other pastas, soups and even seafood dishes. For me, though, it lit a fuse: I moved from the pig’s cheek to its belly. Salts, sugar and maple syrup are all you need for tremendous American bacon.
Nutmeg, juniper, garlic, thyme and bay leaf make pancetta, which can be used dry or fresh and is singularly versatile in the kitchen. Fish, salmon especially, cures in a few days and makes a bagel brunch a special occasion. (I just tried a recipe from Polcyn curing salmon with beets and fresh horseradish. I recommend it.)
The list goes on, for every taste and ambition: jerky, pastrami, corned beef, full hams. I don’t own a smoker, but it notches the art up with little effort. There are websites devoted to prosciutto, which requires only salt, patience and the optimism of being alive in the year or so an entire pig leg takes to dry. Results, apparently, are spectacular.
A few basics for new curers: It’s nice to have a fireplace, for temperature and air flow, but you can hang meat to dry in many places. People use closets, garages, basements, old refrigerators, a kitchen’s out-of-the-way nook.
You won’t smell much of anything as it cures, because it generally is wrapped in plastic for many reasons, mostly because the meat gets quite wet as the salt pulls out the water. But the aroma is terrific: sweet and salty, with flavors like rosemary and cracked pepper at high decibel.
Then there are the inevitable controversies of curing, which I’ll cover here only in outline. This is what the Internet was invented for, and readers of age can decide for themselves.
Last year the curing community was set in an uproar over a World Health Organization report that linked cured and processed meat with an increase in colorectal cancer. As with many risks, experts say, moderation slims the chances considerably.
There is also a theological debate over whether to use the most common curing salt, often called pink salt or Prague powder. It is a nitrite, and thus poisonous in quantity. Some curers prefer alternatives as safer and more natural. Experts I consulted recommended using it (in the prescribed small amounts) for several reasons: It’s effective in killing dangerous bacteria and contributes to the taste and color of good cured meat. I do, without apology.
Finally, I’ll say that curing is handy (this was the whole point, before history was even invented) and can save a bundle. One recent rainy Sunday, our younger son, Nelson, came home from a day of hard New York skateboarding with a friend, starving, as 15-year-olds tend to be. We had not strategized dinner. We considered ordering out, but Indian food or sushi would run $60 at least.
I looked in the fridge, and dinner assembled itself. A hunk of my old standby, guanciale, sat in a Ziploc. I sautéed it, added some onion, olive oil, tomato, white wine, pepper flakes and pecorino. And there we had maybe the tastiest of Roman pastas, amatriciana.
Took 20 minutes. Cost less than $20 for four. The boys didn’t care where that crazy-great, salty bacon came from, but they ate and were happy. I was, too, and the pleasure was not just in my stomach.
BEET- AND HORSERADISH-CURED SALMON
Makes 12 servings
6 ounces horseradish, grated fresh, or prepared, well drained
1 salmon fillet, about 3 pounds, skin on
1 pound red beets, raw, peeled and grated, juice included
1 large bunch fresh dill, roughly chopped
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons / 5 ounces sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons / 6 ounces kosher salt (See note.)
¼ cup / 1 ounce cracked black pepper
1. If using fresh horseradish, peel, cut into chunks and process in a food processor, using the steel blade. Do not grate it by hand; the fumes will be overpowering. Drape the food processor with a damp towel and carefully crack the lid, under the towel, to absorb the fumes.
2. Remove pin bones from salmon and set aside. In a large stainless steel or glass bowl, combine horseradish and remaining ingredients, wearing gloves to avoid turning your hands purple.
3. Choose a nonreactive pan that is just large enough to hold the salmon fillet or line a pan with plastic wrap. Drizzle a little of the beet mixture on pan and place the salmon, skin-side down, on top. Cover the flesh with remaining beet mixture, making it thinner on tail and belly section and thicker everywhere else.
4. Cover with plastic wrap, place another pan on top, and weight with cans. Cure in refrigerator for three days.
5. Gently scrape off beet mixture and discard. Cut salmon in thin slices and serve. Whole fillet, well wrapped in plastic, will last one week refrigerated.
Note: Kosher salts are made through different processes, and as a result differ in weight. The kosher salt tested was Diamond Crystal; Morton weighs almost twice as much, so use less, about 2/3 cup.
Makes about 48 canape servings
1 whole boneless Moulard duck magret or Pekin duck breast, about 1 pound, skin on, split
2 to 3 cups kosher salt, more as needed
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
1. Weigh breasts individually so you can check their progress toward curing. With a sharp knife, score skin of each breast in a crisscross pattern. Put about 1 cup salt (a half-inch layer) in a nonreactive baking dish that will just hold the breasts without touching. Nestle breasts on top of salt, skin side up. Pour more salt over breasts so that they are completely covered. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate 24 hours.
2. Remove duck from salt, rinse thoroughly and pat dry with paper towels. The flesh should feel dense and its color will have deepened. Dust breasts with pepper on both sides.
3. Wrap each breast in cheesecloth and tie with string. Hang for about seven days in a cool (50 to 60 degrees is optimal), humid place, like a garage, a basement or in an unlit fireplace. After curing, the flesh should be stiff but not hard throughout; the color will be a deep rich red. If they still feel raw in the center, hang for a day or two longer. Generally, dry-cured products are ready when they have lost 30 percent of their original weight.
4. Remove cheesecloth, wrap duck in plastic and refrigerate until ready to use. It will keep several weeks or more.
1 pork jowl (about 1 pound)
2 tablespoons and 1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons dextrose powder or 1 ½ teaspoons superfine sugar (I use the latter)
½ teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground pepper
1 teaspoon curing salt No. 1 (available at Amazon.com)
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
1. Rinse pork jowl and pat dry. Combine other ingredients in a bowl.
2. Rub the curing mix on the jowl, then place jowl in a gallon Ziploc bag with the cure evenly spread on top and bottom. Refrigerate for three days.
3. Rinse the jowl and dry it. Roast at 275 degrees for 2½ to 3 hours.
Pink salt, also known as curing salt No. 1, is a nitrate, a combination of sodium chloride — table salt — and nitrite, a preserving agent used to deter the growth of bacteria in cured meats. Bacon is cured in the refrigerator, then slow roasted and finally cooked again before serving. It is not being consumed as a raw, cured meat, so the use of a nitrate is a personal decision. A small amount of pink salt in your cure provides that familiar pink color and bacon-y flavor, or what we have come to know as bacon-y. It is absolutely possible to cure bacon without nitrates; but be aware that the end product will be more the color of cooked pork and that the flavor will be akin to that of a pork roast.
2 ½ pounds pork belly, squared off, rind removed
2 ½ tablespoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon pink salt, optional
¼ cup maple syrup, or honey, brown sugar, white sugar or molasses
2 tablespoons cold strong black coffee, bourbon or apple cider
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, crushed
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
1 teaspoon fennel seed, toasted
1 teaspoon coriander seed, toasted
1. Place the pork belly in a large Ziploc bag. Add the salt (and pink salt if using) and the cure additions. Rub the cure into the pork belly, turning the bag over and over and pressing the cure into the flesh. Close the bag, squeezing out all the air and refrigerate for seven days. Each day, flip the bag over. Some liquid will begin to gather in the bag.
2. After seven days, wash the cure off the meat, rinsing thoroughly. Pat the bacon dry with paper towels and set it on a rack over a baking sheet. Allow the bacon to air-dry in the refrigerator for six to 24 hours.
3. Preheat the oven to 225 degrees. Roast the pork belly in the oven to an internal temperature of 150 degrees for about 90 minutes. Chill the bacon well, then slice thick or thin, to preference. Any bacon that doesn’t easily slice may be cut into chunks, for starting a pot of beans or soup. Wrapped in parchment paper, then wrapped in plastic wrap or foil and placed in a Ziploc bag, the bacon will keep for three weeks in the refrigerator and three months in the freezer.
— Cathy Barrow, The New York Times