The November Charcutepalooza challenge was about curing, which included my old nemesis – salami – as an apprentice challenge. When I saw that lardo – which I had made successfully the first time I tried – was an advanced challenge, I thought either I got lucky with the lardo, or I really suck at making salami. I was unwilling to cop to the suckage, but I knew I’d need some professional advice if I was to succeed.
Matt Wright, one of the Charcutepalooza judges, had warned me to bin my last batch of salami due to the likelihood of it being a petri dish full of nasty bugs. I subsequently found his blog, in which he documents his adventures in the art of cured meats. He patienly answered my questions about my failed attempt, recommending a book (The Art of Making Fermented Sausages) and an overhaul of my curing setup.
From the book I learned that curing meat, like eating oysters, should not be attempted in months whose names don’t have the letter “R.” Working in a hot summer kitchen pre-incubated the meat with whatever was floating around, and it over-accelereated the bacterial fermentation both inside and outside the sausage. I knew I’d have to create an environment that maintained a steady temperature of 55 °F and a humidity of at least 80%. After locating the parts I’d need on Craigslist and Amazon, I assembled the ideal curing rig on Halloween. Behold, the Cabinet of Doctor Charcuterie*:
It’s a repurposed 13 cubic foot frost-free freezer attached to a temperature controller, with a humidifier and fan hooked up to a hygrostat. When the humidity drops below 80%, the humidifier and fan power up and circulate cool, moist air throughout the cabinet. Before setting up the components, I washed, bleached, and dried the interior and shelves – if any bacteria were to be found inside, it would be bacteria that I introduced. I let the rig stabilize for a few days, then got to work on the next batch of salami.
I made sure I took no shortcuts. To ensure that the fat wouldn’t smear when it was stuffed into casings, I cut it by hand instead of running it through the grinder.
I used beef casings instead of hog casings to create a thicker sausage which would dry more evenly.
Instead of fennel seeds, I used fennel pollen, which would be more evenly distributed through the filling. I also had a huge container of the stuff that a friend had brought back from Italy.
From that point on, it was the usual series of steps that I had become accustomed to. Season the meat, grind it, mix in red wine, and stuff into casings. The major differences this time around had to do with room temperature (I kept the windows open to create a cold work environment) and sanitation (lots of hand washing, and many changes of latex gloves). I wound up with six foot-long lengths of salami that I tied with butcher’s twine to provide structural support (some people cheat and use pre-formed elastic webbing). The two shorter pieces are a hasty repair of a split casing, the plastic-wrapped bit at the left is what remained in the stuffer – it would serve an important function.
I coated each link with a liquid mold culture, which would control the drying speed, promote the growth of beneficial bacteria on the outside of the casing, and prevent any nasty bugs from taking hold.
I let the salami ferment in a plastic box which I placed in my oven with the light on; it was a perfect 75 °F. After two days, I unwrapped the piece sealed in plastic, made a thick paste of the meat and some water, and tested the pH. It was 5.1, the ideal acidity for curing.
I added a long loop of string to each salami, tied tags to the end, and hung them in the curing rig.
After a few days I noticed white spots blooming all over the casings; within a week they had completely covered the salamis with powdery mold. This was a good thing. I weighed the links once a week and marked the progress on the tags.
After a little more than three weeks, the links had lost 35% of their weight and were firm to the touch. It was time to cut one open and taste it.
I should have diced the fat a bit finer, I failed to account for the shrinkage which would alter the fat to meat ratio. That flaw aside, the salami tasted exactly as I hoped it would: acidic without being sour, with the flavors of fennel, wine, and pepper balanced throughout. I had cut open the shortest link as a test, but we devoured it within minutes – a sure sign of success at Chez Belm. And now we have five pounds of good salami to nosh on.
Bresaola and Lonzino
Finally succeeding at making a batch of salami wouldn’t be enough for me. I had to try something new, so I decided to apply the same set of steps to beef round for bresaola and pork loin for lonzino. I started with about three pounds of each cut, completely trimmed of external fat, and different spice cures for each: salt, pepper, sodium nitrite, and juniper berries (both), fennel and bay leaf (lonzino), and sugar, rosemary, and thyme (bresaola).
I rubed the cuts with the cures, bagged them, and let the sit in the fridge for a week, during which time I was preparing the curing rig (multitasking!).
I rinsed off the cure, let the cuts air dry for a few hours, then prepared them for hanging. I simply tied off the beef.
I tried a different technique for the pork, stuffing it into a beef bung before tying it.
They joined the salami in the curing cabinet.
Notice the white splotches on the beef and a few spots on the pork – they’re the same mold from the salami casings, which got carried over as the spores blew around in the cabinet. (Microbiologists would insert a “species jumping” joke here.)
As with the salami, I weighed the beef and pork every week, but, due to their significant thickness, they took longer to lose moisture. How do they taste? I can’t tell you because they’re not ready yet. As of yesterday, they had both lost about 25% of their total weight, which means they still have at least a week to go.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this series of challenges, it’s that patience is rewarded. And I can be patient. Until then, my bresaola and lonzino are biding their time.
* Apologies to Fritz Lang.