Best of 2008: The Art of Curing Meat

2nd Feb 2009


Welcome to our Perpetually Late Year-End Roundup. It's a tradition here at The Paupered Chef that we tend to pull off sometime in January or February.  Maybe we only put this thing together for our own amusement, because when you're constantly writing and thinking about new things, you sometimes forget where you've been.  It's illuminating, to see what captured one's imagination over the course of a year-- especially with a blog that charts the learning of a craft.  We see concrete things, how we've grown and changed as cooks.

The Paupered Chef began as a blog about recipes--like most food blogs out there.  The money shot of the final dish, fuzzy pictures of the process, and a little witty commentary along the way.  We still write that kind of post.  But lately, more often than that approach, we try to go a little deeper and understand why something works, why it tastes the way it does, and how to achieve it in the kitchen.  Often this has led us to big projects that take lots of time--like months--as in our numerous attempts at homemade cured meats.

It's our strange way of being more conscious eaters--the mantra that says you don't just buy the shrink-wrapped meat at the grocery store, you find out how it got there.  One part of this equation is to know the welfare of the animal whose meat you're eating, which lots of people have grown more aware of in terms of buying free-range or from local farmers who treat the animals right.  This is wonderful.  But there's a whole other part of that curiosity--for example, how chunks of meat, salt, and spices were turned into a salami.  It's the food dorkiness factor.

American meat curing is just beginning.  With the publication of Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie , which has swept the food world into a mania of meat-curing and preserving, people everywhere are diving in; the New York Times just did a feature on La Quercia , in Iowa, a company that is making cured ham prosciutto-style that Jeffrey Steingarten proclaimed the best he'd ever tasted -- foreign or domestic.

We cured a lot of meat this year in our apartments.  It was a lot of fun.  Here's a little overview of what we covered.

Stick around for tomorrow's post: The Hamburgers of 2008

Fennel-Cured Salmon
Fennel-Cured Salmon Part 2: Out From the Deep

While I started the meat curing train late in 2007 with duck prosciotto , Nick's first foray was with cured salmon, a great introductory project that happens completely under refrigeration and results in some pretty great bagel-topping.  It remains the easiest and shortest cure project out there.  Its deliciousness is in very high proportion to the level of effort.

Adventures in Homemade Bacon
Real Homemade American Bacon

Even though we dallied in other cure projects to get our feet wet, we knew that bacon was our inevitable goal.  I set off first with "fresh bacon," (" Adventures in Homemade Bacon ") which means that you coat the pork belly in salt and spices and frige-cure it, then slice it and use as you would store-bought bacon right then and there.  Nick one-upped me, though, going for a true American bacon, i.e. hot-smoked like barbecue (" Real Homemade American Bacon ").  He broke out the hickory sawdust, some bottles of Bud, and a Hank Williams album and spent an afternoon.

Beef Jerky Hijinks
When Nick published a post involving air-conditioning filters and bungee cords, I knew things were getting hairy.  An adventure of true food dork proportions, some slices of beef were cured with salt and spices, and then dried using a fan and polyester air filters, a contraption that only our hero Alton Brown could have invented.  Going to these lengths to make something that you can buy at any gas station?  If you respond with "Why not?" this is the post for you.

Guanciale, Or How to Hang a Pig Jowl in Your Living Room
Homemade Guanciale, the Verdict Is...

Perhaps our most high-brow project, this was my story of finding the jowl of a pig in New York City (not an easy task) and embarking on my first successful attempt at air-drying meat.  Guanciale is the bacon-like meat that Italians use for many pastas, which led me here.  I procured on old fridge on the street, put it in my living room, hung the meat, and waited.  It was an incredible success and from it I made authentic Pasta Carbonara, Amatriciana, and Gricia--three of my favorite things on earth.

"Saucisson" of Pork Tenderloin
The remaining project that neither of us has yet attempted is making salami or any type of dry-cured sausage.  It involves buying intestines, grinding meat, and very exacting humidity conditions.  Someday it will happen when we can get our hands on more specialized equipment; but in the meantime, this Jacques Pepin recipe has me smitten with its salami-like shape made from a pork tenderloin.  The result is a tangy taste approximating proscuitto, and fit to serve as such.


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