As meat cures, doubt dissipates
Proof is in the taste of home-cured coppa and pancetta
Elegant and clear: Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn give elegant, clear and inviting descriptions of home meat curing in "Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing." (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
Walking into the interview, I harbored deep reservations about the wisdom of hanging raw meat at room temperature in my own home for weeks on end. It seemed to violate some of the most basic rules of modern food safety. Plus, I'd never dry-cured anything before.
But these guys reminded me that folks have been deliciously combining meat, salt and time for centuries. They assured me that if I just followed some basic rules, I could do it safely too. I left the interview fairly sure my home-cured meat would not be lethal. But would it be edible? There was only one way to find out.
The first and most important part, the authors told me, was to find great pork. So I started with the finest pastured local Berkshire pork I know. It comes from Faith's Farm about two hours south of Chicago, where the hogs run free, soak up sunshine and forage for much of their food.
The meat costs about $10 a pound, pretty standard for Berkshire pork (which also can be purchased and shipped nationally from purveyors such as Heritage Foods USA (store.heritagefoodsusa.com).
I say this upfront to point out that home curing is not likely to save you a hunk of money over buying a pound of prosciutto di Parma, for instance, at the deli. My guess is that it will, however, make you and your guests appreciate the final product a lot more.
Ruhlman noted that, as an experiment, he once tried to make cured meat with what he called "supermarket pork," meaning from industrial breeds raised in confinement on corn, soy and daily drugs to make them grow faster and survive the diseases that can spread in crowded conditions.
"It was terrible," he said.
"It's like comparing soft-serve to real ice cream made with cream and vanilla beans," Polcyn added.
I asked the guys to start me off with some foolproof projects, and they suggested pancetta and coppa. Pancetta is made from pork belly, the same cut used to make bacon, and coppa comes from a special Italian-style cut near the neck and shoulder. For either it's best to visit a butcher who can cut exactly what you need. .
The first step — mixing an applying the cure — was easy.
For the pork belly, I simply measured and weighed sea salt, garlic, pepper, fresh thyme, rosemary and pink curing salt and rubbed them thoroughly into the meat. I then sealed it in a zip-close bag, squeezed out any excess air and let it cure in the fridge for a few days.
For the coppa, I used a salt and pepper cure, sealed the meat in a bag, placed it on a jelly roll pan, topped it with another and stacked two superheavy books on top to weigh it down for three days in my 40 degree stairwell.
The second step, which requires preparing a curing chamber, was a little tougher.
Curing times are determined by type of salumi and weight of the meat. When my curing times were up, I washed off the salt, rolled the pancetta tight and tied both it and the coppa with butcher string, weighed them and hung them in a half-empty spare closet. Luckily, my closet offers lots of air circulation and stays between 55 and 65 degrees (ideal curing temps) in the winter and fall, not coincidentally when most traditional farm slaughters used to happen.
Tending to the humidity was probably the most involved part, as it fluctuated with the weather and the level of forced-air heat in my home. I learned to adjust it with a pan of salt water, a wet towel on a hanger and a small humidifier. Every home curing chamber — or "coppa cabana" as we named our closet — will likely require different methods to keep conditions steady.
When checking each day, I half expected to encounter a rotting smell or some fuzzy mold. But it never happened. Polcyn explained that the initial salt cure had made the surfaces inhospitable to bad bacteria, and the inside of the meat was cut off from oxygen, remaining safe as well.
When time and weight loss indicated the cured meats were ready to eat (four to six weeks for coppa), I sliced the first morsel with trepidation and excitement. The coppa bore the faint scent of Spanish jamon serrano and tasted creamy, luscious, nutty and slightly tangy, like excellent prosciutto di Parma. For the pancetta, I fried up slices with some eggs and took in the rich fat and lovely porkiness along with a slight fragrance of the thyme and rosemary used in the cure.
When I asked Polcyn if, using his book, a gal in Chicago could really make salumi as good as the Italian masters, he said he wasn't sure. Maybe it's the coppa talking here, but I think my cured meat is as good as any I've purchased in Florence, Madrid or fancy delis.