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curing meats

Curing Meats at Home

Family traditions add unique flavors to a centuries-old pastime

By Jennon Bell Hoffmann

Beginning centuries ago, humans have developed different ways to preserve, tenderize, flavor, and store fresh meat. Collectively, this process is called “curing” and was especially useful before refrigeration came along.

Curing has since evolved from a food preservation necessity to a culinary art, and for some, a fun family tradition.

During the curing process, excess water is leeched from the meat using salt to flavor, color, and preserve. Melissa Senese, 28, and her Italian family, who live in Northwest Illinois, have been using a time-tested recipe handed down over centuries to home-cure their sausages. Here, they share some handy tips to keep the process safe, infuse as much flavor and texture as possible, and guarantee a tasty product.

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU START CURING MEATS
Success often favors the prepared, and that definitely applies to curing meats. Before you head to the butcher or begin setting up your kitchen, be sure you know how your environment and technique will influence the final product.

Environment
Temperature, humidity, air flow, and ventilation can all significantly impact the curing process. In addition to kitchen space, you’ll need a cool, dry place with little fluctuation in temperature. Many home-curers designate a space in their home, such as a closet, a dry garage, or an unfinished basement, to hang the curing meats.

“[My grandmother says] back in Italy, some families would hang the sausage above the fireplace so they would dry and cure faster. Others would have a room, like an attic, where they would hang the sausage, windows open, with dry, cool air,” says Melissa, whose Nonna—Italian for Grandma—Donata Pezzuto, grew up in a small town south of Salerno and has used the same family recipe for more than two centuries.

Today, Donata usually hangs the sausage in a cool pantry in her basement.

Outside temperature and climate make a difference too. If you live in a humid region, you may need to take extra steps during your home-curing experiment to limit the amount of moisture in the air, or you may want to wait until the cold of winter sets in. Melissa and her family gather to cure meats several times from mid-December through the end of February, when the weather in their area is cold and dry.

Methods

 For home cooks, there are two common methods for meat-curing: traditional or equilibrium curing (EQ)

  • Traditional salt curing involves covering the meat in a generous amount of curing salt and letting the dehydration happen naturally. Packed in a salt and seasoning mixture, the meat is air-dried for one or two days, then placed in the fridge to neutralize all of the dangerous bacteria and prevent the meat from spoiling. Another way is to mix the salts with the seasonings and let it air-dry longer in a colder space
  • EQ, a new-school method, involves calculating a percentage of salt, seasonings, and/or sugar combinations based on the total weight of the meat. Either method works, as long as you use enough of the curing salt mixture for proper dehydration.

PREP YOUR MEAT CURING SPACE AND TOOLS

Just like with any home-cooking project, having all your ingredients and tools ready to use before you cure can prevent issues down the line.

Make room: You’ll need plenty of surface area to work, so put away any appliances or ingredients that you won’t be using for curing. In addition, check the storage space where the meat will hang (if applicable) to ensure that it’s clean, away from a window that would let in direct sunlight, and has proper air ventilation and temperature control.

Check your equipment: If you’re making sausage, ensure your meat grinder is clean and all the pieces are in proper working condition.

Set out your tools and ingredients: Have the casings (natural or synthetic) and twine parceled out and your containers ready to use.

Do the math: Before you head to the butcher, calculate how much final product you want to end up with, keeping in mind that the cure application and equalization processes will shrink the size of the meat by approximately 8 to 10%.

CHOOSE YOUR MEAT CUT FOR CURING
Any freshly butchered beef, pork, poultry, and game can be cured into delicious dried meats. The fat content in cuts such as pork belly or pork butt—the usual choice for Melissa’s family—are more forgiving. Just be sure to poke the fat lining in these cuts with a prong to allow the salt mixture to fully penetrate the meat.

Talk with your butcher before you dive in to get additional tips and insider knowledge about the kind of meat you should use for curing.

And don’t forget to have fun. Melissa and her family host meat-curing parties across three households and enjoy the fruits of their labor during celebratory meals.

RECIPE Nonna Donata’s Cured Pork Butt Sausage

 Family and food go together like peas and carrots—or for Melissa, like pork butt and Nonna Donata’s special spice rub. Melissa and her family have Kindly shared their ancestral recipe for curing meats at home. Like many family recipes, quantities aren’t exact and are usually eyeballed. Use this as a guide and make modifications to suit your preferences.

EQUIPMENT:
1. 2 to 4 large plastic containers for the meat. If you can, avoid using metal trays because the metal will react poorly with the sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite in the curing salts. If metal trays are your best option though, cover the surfaces with parchment paper so the meat doesn’t touch the metal

2. A meat grinder and attachment to stuff the meat

3. Vinyl gloves for working with the meat

4. Food-safe needle

5. Strong butcher’s twine

INGREDIENTS
- 50 pounds fresh pork butt.
If your local butcher or grocery store doesn’t sell that quantity, consider visiting a meat market or slaughterhouse.

Salt
Melissa’s family uses premixed curing salts, specifically the Insta Cure #2 type, which is best for dry-curing sausage because of the specific amount of sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite.
Curing salt:
Use 1 teaspoon of curing salt for every 5 pounds of meat (10 teaspoons for this recipe)
Kosher salt:
Use 1/4 pound of salt per 10 pounds of meat (about 1 1/4 pounds of salt for this recipe)

Seasonings.
Quantities vary depending on preferences. Donata uses a “by the handful” method for most of the following spices, adding a little at a time. It’s best to have each seasoning in 3- to 4-ounce servings (a rough handful) accessible at your workstation.
Red pepper flakes:
For a slightly hot sausage, start with about 1 handful and continue to add more as you work the flakes into the meat, until they’re about 2 inches apart from each other throughout.
Fennel seeds:
Start with about 1 handful and continue to add more as you work them into the meat, until the seeds are about 2 inches apart from each other throughout
Paprika:
A handful
Coriander:
Up to half a handful
Cayenne pepper:
2 tablespoons

- Casings (pig intestines), presalted and also purchased at the butcher.“[Synthetic] casings are stronger, but we use natural casings for preference,” Melissa says. Wash the casings thoroughly by running water through them and then soaking them with lemon and orange wedges. Ask a butcher for the proper size of casings you’ll need for 50 pounds of pork butt sausage.

Gather your family or a group of friends to make this recipe a fun winter group activity.

DIRECTIONS:

1. Trim the fat from the pork butt. Then cut the meat into strips thin enough to fit into the grinder. Set meat strips in one container.

2. Grind the meat one piece at a time and place the ground meat into another container.

3. Once all the meat is ground, gradually incorporate the curing salt, the kosher salt, and all of the seasonings, using either a mixer or gloved hands. Melissa’s family has a tradition of all the members mixing the meat by hand together.Note: The amount of each seasoning per 50 pounds of meat is mostly eyeballed and added by the handful. To check that the seasoning ratio is correct, fry up a small piece of meat to taste-test, and add seasonings accordingly. For this family recipe, the salts are added at the same time as the seasonings and mixed thoroughly together.

4. Using the meat stuffing attachment on the grinder, tightly fill each casing with meat. But be careful not to overstuff or the casings could burst. Then, using butcher’s twine, tie up each end of the links to keep the sausage together. Just twisting the casing’s ends might cause them to break, and the casing alone may not be strong enough to hold the hanging links.

5. With the needle, poke small holes all around each sausage so that the moisture can escape.

6. To store the sausages, hang the links from strong hooks or nails in a dry, cool space. Temperatures should remain between 39 and 49 degrees Fahrenheit, cool enough to keep the meat from spoiling, but not too cold that the meat can freeze.

7. The sausage will be done curing in approximately four to five weeks, depending on the temperature and conditions. You’ll know it’s done when the sausage is hardened and feels solid throughout. If unsure, wait another week and test again.

Visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation online to learn more about safety guidelines for curing meats at home.

Jennon Bell Hoffmann writes lifestyle and human-interest stories from her home in Illinois.