HARD CIDER, DRY CURED HAMS & BACON, WILD EDIBLES AND OTHER TOOTHSOME DELICACIES
by Doug Cook
(December 21, 2009) — Simple things in life are sometimes the best. In regards to home made toothsome delicacies, this adage comes in a myriad of flavors and forms.
This is the first installment of a running documentary, written to bring you, our valued reader, a selection of yummy delights for your perusal and enjoyment. Information and insights into practical home grown backwoods vittles and drink from West Virginia that hopefully enable you to try for yourself, and broaden your culinary adventures.
Since it is a timely matter, presented here by this NH Yankee living in the wild wonderful mountains of West Virginia, a dissertation into the art of dry curing hams and bacon. (In order to properly enjoy your own home cured smoked ham steaks or such, the next installment is about, hence the title, brewing your own Hard Cider.)
The adage, all good things come to those who wait, is truth in all things salt cured and smoked. There is nothing like the taste and sense of pride resulting from your labor and ingenuity. Surprisingly home curing and smoking meats is easy.
There are a few things that require your utmost attention, nothing of complication, just basics that adhered to that result in a finished product of quality that cannot be obtained at any price. Dry cured bacon is sublime, the flavor of the fat is to die for, and makes an excellent condiment for beans soups and other dishes. A properly dry cured smoked aged ham requires at least 1 year of aging. Some family’s in the Appalachians have prized hams approaching 100 years old! I have never tasted one this old, but have managed to be patient enough to greedily consume one that I cured for 7 years. The flavor is like nothing else on this good earth. Nutty rich and oh so tender. The red eye gravy made from it is outstanding, and the pea soup we made with the ham bone became legendary. A 100 year ham has to be mind blowing.
If you have or entertained husbanding your own hogs, fall is the traditional time of year best suited to butcher up those fat happy pigs you have been raising all summer. The cool days and chilled nights lend themselves well to proper processing of your home raised meat critters. If you don’t have the means to raise your own, a proper fresh ham or side of meat, (pork belly’s), obtained from a reputable butcher or neighbor work just as well. The higher the quality to start with the better the results. The most important factors that require due diligence is cleanliness and temperature. Cleanliness is next to godliness; the less you handle meat with bare hands, and the cleaner the tools and surfaces that come into contact with your meat the better the taste. This is key to flavor and quality. Temperature is paramount to success in every respect. Temps must remain below 40 degrees Fahrenheit at all times. This is to keep the dangerous growth of bacteria, which is always present, from propagating. During the curing process temperatures must be maintained between 36 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit as this allows for timely and proper salt exchange in the meat. Below 36 deg Fahrenheit curing is very much slowed down.
The process is simple, the equipment and ingredients required are basic and few. Your attention to detail is your best tool to obtaining excellent results.
From left to right, as seen in photo above:
1. Fresh Ham with freshly applied cure mix on poly cutting board
2. Accurate refrigeration thermometer
3. Morton Salt “Home Meat Curing Guide”( I highly recommend use of this scientifically oriented booklet)
4. 10lb kitchen scale
5. 2 cup measure
6. White Sugar
7. Brown Sugar
8. Canning Salt, Kosher and Sea Salt works just as well. Do Not use iodized salt.
9. Morton Sugar Cure.
10. Stainless butter knife, large spoon and teaspoon and table spoon measure
11. Clean work area
Not pictured but important items are: a food safe tub and clear plastic bags. I process my piggy in our front pantry. It is unheated, cool and sunny. I plan for a cool day of at least 40 degrees Fahrenheit, preferably in the 30’s or colder. We leave the door open to let the night chill cool things down. If this can not be arranged, chill your meat to just above frozen in your freezer. A ham takes a couple of days to freeze solid so you can not over do it. Bacon can be lightly frozen, just add a day to the curing time to account for below range cure temp.
This is the area the salt reaches last during the cure. Keeping an extra cure mix at these areas, along with maintaining proper temperature helps to avoid bone sour and subsequent spoilage. If you have a good nose you can smell if your meat has soured, or use a piece of clean stiff wire run up along the bone, pull it out and give it a good sniff, you will know right away if things went south.
THE FUN PART IS DECIDING UPON WHAT INGREDIENT AND SPICES YOUR CURE IS MADE FROM
Purists claim a pure salt cure is best. Salt is the curing agent; when used in conjunction with other agents its many benefits of flavor texture and appearance are gained. These aspects are no less important as we eat with our eyes as much as with our mouth.
Sugars add character to meat, balances the harshness of a straight salt cure, maintains a moist-like texture, and a pleasing quality for the taste bud when meat is cooked. Sweet and salty are two of our bodies main taste sensors. Salt is an important chemical compound to our bodies function. Sodium Nitrate and Nitrite, both curing agents, contribute to development of color and flavor. The last two agents are present in carefully calculated trace amounts being that they are strong compounds; Morton curing products are very convenient and effective containing both. I always use at least a small amount to any cure I’ve started, the results have been consistently excellent.
For any who are suspicious of Nitrates and Nitrites, sea salt naturally contains these two compounds. Actually, using sea salt in your cure adds a very fine flavor to your finished product. I like to use it in conjunction with a honey black pepper cure on bacon. This is a most tasty complimentary paring of ingredients.
Maple syrup, honey or brown sugar can be used to great effect, they lend delicious results. Other spices used such as clove, ginger, allspice, sage, red pepper or hot sauce are highly recommended especially for bacon. For hams, I think mostly due to the type of meat, a salt sugar cure works best. Brown and white sugar in combination seem to lend top results for most pallets. Cook like you like to eat, that is my motto.
Personally my favorite is a maple syrup cure with a good smoke on bacon. But a variety of cures is very nice indeed. Note the quality of the Stainless Steel Coleman cooler, with rotating milk jugs of water frozen in the freezer. this allows for stable temperature maintenance of 34 to 40 degrees Farenheit. The all important temp range enabling the cure process to take place along with inhibiting the growth of bacteria. Note also the Fridge thermometer; valuable investment of around 8$. These are to be had at a good hardware store. After 2 weeks, a clean water soak of 1 hour and drying out, this yummy bacon is ready for the smoker.
On the menu in this photo, we also have bacon curing with cure mixes as follows; sea salt and pepper, honey pepper and kosher salt, maple syrup and Morton Sugar Cure, brown sugar and MSC, straight MSC, brown sugar and spice/MSC, white sugar and kosher salt and a maple/brown sugar/MSC cure with liquid smoke flavoring. Pictured also is a loin roast curing as Canadian Bacon; this is a brown sugar and MSC cure. Sliced up thin it makes for a mighty fine eggs Benedict. Once all is cured everything goes in the smoke house, (except the liquid smoke cure bacon, that is for immediate gratification of my patience and hard work). Bacon and hams need not be smoked, but it certainly adds a wonderful flavor to your cured meat. The mahogany appearance and the aroma of cooking smoked bacon is fabulous. An accompanying installment to this article on smoking and building your own smoke house, once the cure process presented in this article is complete, is forth coming.
PUTTIN’ THE SALT TO IT
So we come to application of your cure to your piggy. This is the easy part; wash and pat dry your meat. Weigh it, mark your Ziploc bag or cure tub with weight, date and cure mix used. Place your meat on a clean dry board, wood or plastic is fine. Measure out your ingredients for bacon; use ½ (1 tablespoon) mix per lb of meat. That is using a straight Morton sugar cure. I use 2/3 salt to 1/3 sugar if mixing my own cure from separate ingredients. I also add at least one Tablespoon MSC to almost every custom cure mix, I like the results the Nitrate/Nitrate provide.
Unlike application of cure mix to bacon, for hams the cure needs to be divided and applied in 3 separate applications. Cure amounts are as follows; for hams to be aged after curing 1 to 1 ¼ ounces ((2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons per lb. If aging is not preferred, use ¾ ounce ( 1 – 1 ½ tablespoons per pound of meat )) applied in two stages. Spices are optional. Immediately upon portioning out your cure mix thoroughly rub the mix into the entire surface of the meat. Make certain to get plenty of cure on the bone ends of your ham. Any extra should be applied to the exposed flesh section. Curing agents are absorbed through muscle tissue much quicker than through skin and fat.
With bacon curing time is 7 days per inch of thickness at 36 to 40 degrees. With hams the cure is staged, the times are longer. Seven days after first application, apply a second, for hams that are to be aged the third application 14 days after the first. Applying the cure in intervals allows for an even penetration of salt into the meat. A calendar to mark dates and reference to is rather handy.
Bag your piggy in heavy duty Ziploc bags and refrigerate ASAP. If your ham is too large for bagging, use a food safe tub made from plastic or Stainless Steel. A good enamel container is suitable as long as no exposed metal is present like from chips or dents. Salt cure is very corrosive with metal. Some colored plastics have a dye that can leach out into your meat. Both of which will taint the flavor of your meat in undesirable ways.
MEATY MATTERS AND DETAILS OF IMPORTANCE
Sealing your meat from odors during refrigeration is paramount to flavor quality. If Ziploc bags are not used, plenty of plastic wrap carefully enclosing meat and tub is recommended. Do not use aluminum foil or tubs, the salt will eat through it in quick time and ruin the meat. Only clean hardwood, food-safe plastics and stainless steel should come in contact with your cure mix and curing meat. Again, invest in a quality fridge thermometer, this is money very well spent. Guessing cure temps is a sure way to loose your meat to spoilage.
An extra refrigerator is pretty handy for large volumes of curing. An alternative is to use top end coolers, like from Coleman. In the climate here in West Virginia, November on provides for cold nights and cool days. Keep your cooler out in the cool air or in an mold free clean unheated suitable room. Pre-chill your cooler with frozen milk or soda jugs filled with water for at least 24 hours to stabilize a cold environment inside your cooler. Keep a few jugs in rotation, and place on bottom of your cooler with meat at suitable intervals. Use of your thermometer will indicate temps; this technique provides for a steady temp of close to 36 degrees. I use this method to great effect. It works surprisingly well and saves on costs of an extra fridge, plus the energy costs required to run it. It is also most reliable if you loose power, like we do here on regular basis.
Once your piggy is cured the ham will require an equalization period. For reference curing times are approximately 7 days per inch of product, for skinned hams run 5 days per inch. Or 2 days and 1 ½ days per pound respectively. Salt equalization occurs at the end of curing times. Most of the salt absorbed remains near the surface and, traces are present near the skin side if left on. Dry curing requires an additional 20 days for equalization to take place. The importance, salt properly distributed throughout your ham, results in a ham that will not spoil if stored at temps below 100 degrees Fahrenheit. A factor highly important to proper aging if so desired.
At the end of curing process, soak your ham in a large clean container filled with clean fresh lukewarm water (60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit) for 1 hour. Soaking helps dissolve remaining cure at the surface, enables further distribution of seasoning, and causes the cured meat to be more receptive to smoking. Pat the meat dry and return to a clean bag or container properly refrigerated so salt equalization can take place. Due to salt at the surface having been removed, certain bacteria can develop on the ham. This growth is not harmful, it appears on the surface only as a slime. The container holding the meat can be left slightly open to reduce the growth. It can also be effectively scraped or washed off after equalization, and allowing the surface to dry.
YOUR PIGGY IS READY TO CONSUME, BUT BEFORE YOU DO, YOU HAVE TWO OPTIONAL PROCESSES OPEN TO YOU IF SO DESIRED
Smoking is highly desirable for most folks. Through smoking appearance and taste is greatly improved upon, nothing like the look and aroma of a dry cured smoked ham or bacon cooking up on your stove. The flavor smoking brings to your meat is nothing short of a total compliment to the taste of your cure. In subsequent installments I will show how to build and properly cold smoke your once squealing treasure.
Aging, like smoking, is a matter of personal preference. It provides for a rich nutty flavor. Enzymes present act upon the meat creating a pleasant slightly rancid flavor. It is not for everyone, similar to how real aged beef can taste — rich, filling and remarkable. It is not unpleasant, and to some taste buds is much preferred. Our modern pallets are accustomed to highly processed foods, aged and smoked pork is an acquired taste. But fear not, these are techniques of food preservation that have been a part of the human diet for thousands of years. Not like brine cured non-aged commercial ham and bacon from your local supermarket. Along with smoking, aging will be explained in detail further on.
Hopefully you have read this and come away with insights into doing it yourself. I hope to have provided a common sense approach to assisting you to accomplishing a time honored process and obtaining with your own druthers a healthy toothsome delicacy well worth every effort.
Publications for further reference:
- Home Meat Curing Guide, Morton Salt, Morton International, Inc. For product and Curing Guide: Web Site
- Basic Butchering Of Livestock & Game, John J. Mettler, Jr., D.V.M.(Storey Books)
- Cold-Smoking & Salt-Curing Meat, Fish & Game, A.D. Livingston (The Lyons Press)
- Five Acres And Independence, M.G. Kains (Dover)
- The Best Of Shaker Cooking (MACMILLAN)