In the long expanse of our culture's history with food, it is only very recently in that timeline that we have had the modern convenience of refrigeration. My grandmother tells stories of purchasing blocks of ice from the local Ice House in town to keep the milk cool for days at a time. Meat was usually only eaten fresh within a few days of slaughter. It was out of necessity that we found ways to make our food last more than the few days before going rancid. Out of this came cured meats!
Modern day meat curing has become more of a flavor enhancer than a way of keeping food for extended periods of time, though that is indeed an added bonus. I first found interest in the art of charcuterie after realizing that cured meats fell well outside of all the food rules I knew. The fact that I can hang a pork belly in my basement for 3 months and then eat it was something I had to better understand. So, around December of 2014, I began to amass the knowledge, equipment and ingredients necessary for some very basic charcuterie.
After finally having everything necessary, I sought out my first pork belly. One recipe I was going to try suggested a skin on pork belly, so that's what I went looking for. It was through a local meat provider that I was able to finally order one.
It took a week, and I wasn't really sure what to expect. When I went to pick it up, I was greeted by a 12 lb slab of meat. It was later that I found there to be a row of nipples on the animal, which kind of weirded me out, to be honest. I mean it's a pig's belly with the skin still on, so I don't know how it could have been any other way, but none the less, it made me a little more uncomfortable than I bargained for. I briefly contemplated cutting them off, but the act of pinching and lifting them and slicing them off with a sharp knife was a little more disturbing than the idea of consuming them later.
My original plan was to make a rolled pancetta, which would cure for about two or three months. I also decided to make a pancetta stesa, which is not rolled and hung for about 10 days. And lastly, some smoked bacon. I'd never attempted smoking any foods before, so this was also new to me.
First, I cured these two slabs of bacon in the fridge for about 9 days in a 2 to 1 mixture of salt and brown sugar in a ziploc bag. Then I rinsed it off and let it sit in the fridge for another 24 hours. This creates a sticky outer layer that the smoke will better stick to. The above picture was my very basic smoking setup for the bacon. A smoldering fire in a weber grill for a couple hours. I never let it get over 200º, which took quite a bit of attention. More so than I expected, at least.
After it was all said and done, I realized that the meat should have been soaked for a while, as opposed to just a quick rinse. It was the saltiest meat I've ever experienced. I ended up putting it in a big vat of black beans and making feijoada and replacing the salt pork with my slabs of super-salty bacon. It was amazing!
Second was this Pancetta Stesa, or flat (as opposed to rolled). This and the rolled pancetta (below) were cured in the fridge for 3 weeks in a ziploc bag with some awesome spices. This is basically the Italian version of bacon, and doesn't require smoking. After the stesa hung in the basement for 9 days, it was ready.
I don't think I've ever had a better cured meat than this. Such a bold and amazing flavor. It was the shining success of the experiment, and something I plan to make again and again!
The third and longest cure was this beautiful Pancetta Arrotolata, or rolled pancetta. This cure had the skin left on it to slow down the release of moisture. It was also the most labor intensive, including learning how to tie butcher's knots. I failed many times before finally getting the knots down.
It hung in my basement for over 2 months, and was quite an interesting thing. One part of me was weirded out by the concept of allowing meat to just hang. It felt a little wrong. I can't imagine what my wife was going through. She's the cautious one of the family. I'm sure she had her doubts about the whole prospect of aging meat in our house, but kept her thoughts to herself.
The other, more excited side of me just couldn't bare the wait. Two months the longest time I've ever spent prepping food of any kind. The anticipation was great, but you can't rush flavor.
Finally, last week, the moment came where the meat had lost 25% of its weight in moisture, and it was time to take it down and try it out.
Now, just to review, when you hang meats, the idea is to block the bad molds and allow the good molds to thrive. So, mold is inherent in the process They say white molds are good, green/blue molds are ok, and black or red are deal breakers and should be thrown away immediately.
When I finally cut into it, this is what I found...
The green, gummy edges of the roll had an immediately negative response from my gut. Also, the yellow mold was instinctively no good, though it was never mentioned in my initial research of mold acceptability. After searching around, I found the consensus to be "throw it out!". Better safe than sorry is the way of the beginning charcuterie enthusiast.
It was heart wrenching. I'm inherently waste-averse, especially after putting all this work into a food. It took me a couple days to actually put it in the trash.
In the end, I had one failure, two over-salted bacon slabs that went perfectly in a huge pot of beans, and the most amazing cured meat in the Pancetta Stesa. Two out of three ain't bad, they say. As a first timer, I think things came out quite well. I think I'll stay away from the rolled pancetta for a while and stick with the more basic meats. I'm looking forward to trying other whole meats and eventually some ground meats as well.
Nick Gore was a corporate peon by day who just made the leap to full time pizza geek. Follow his path to world class Pizzaiolo right here on the GoreMade Pizza blog. Also, check out the facebook page.