Curing Bacon and Ham without Nitrates

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There are two ways of curing meat – a salty brine, or just plain salt. I will share recipes for both.

Which method to choose

Brine-cured meats are preserved for a shorter time, and also are ready to eat sooner. We chose to cure one leg of ham in the brine, to be boiled for our midwinter feast, and we cured the side bacon in brine, because I’d never heard of salt-curing that piece before (although it probably can be done), and we wanted to try different preserving methods.

Brined ham can be hung up for a few weeks before being cooked, so it’s a good shorter term meat preservation method, traditionally preserving the meat from the late autumn pig kill to the winter solstice feast.

Salt-cured meats will store for longer, but in the case of prosciutto, it also involves waiting for longer before getting to eat it. Prosciutto needs to be hung for at least six months before it can be eaten, preferably eight or more months. Speck can be used right away, or can just hang there in the larder until you’re ready to use it.

Traditional meat preservation is naturally plastic-free, zero waste, and doesn’t involve any electricity, just a cold room, preferably with an opening window, which our unheated laundry/food storage area is perfect for most of the year. Outdoor meat safes and ventilated cheese caves will also do the job well, and if you’re not worried about rats then prosciutto can just be hung anywhere outside away from the sun. Many people get away with hanging it under the eaves of the house, or in open carport sheds.

Smoking

Smoking the meat is optional, but we like the flavour of it, and my friend had set up an old wardrobe, some bits of flue, and an old wood heater in her backyard as a cheap DIY way to cold smoke foods. I will try and get a photo of this in a couple of weeks and add it to this post.

Bacon and brined ham can be hot smoked instead if you won’t be preserving it for long. Hot smoking cooks the meat, cold smoking just infuses it with flavour and purifies it. It is much easier to hot smoke, some bbqs can be used, or two woks. I’ve never done this so I won’t put instructions here for it, but instructions can easily be found online or in books.

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A simple brine cure recipe

This brine makes enough for one leg of ham and the sides (short bacon) from one whole pig (if you recall from my last post, we used the meatier half of the sides of two pigs for roasts, and the other half for bacon).

You can scale this recipe up and down by adding 100g of salt and 30g of sugar for every litre of water.

10 litres cold water
1kg unrefined, additive-free fine salt*** (eg flossy salt, celtic sea salt or himalayan salt)
300g coconut sugar or rapadura (honey might work well too)
a good splash of apple cider vinegar

Mix all the ingredients together in a food-safe, non-reactive container, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar. This is where it is so important to have fine salt and not rock salt, although it can be very difficult to find fine salt without additives.

***If you can only find rock salt, you can stir it into boiling water to dissolve it, and then cool the brine down before adding the meat.

Put the meat in the brine, and if it floats, find something clean, heavy and non-reactive to weigh it down. I think my friend used her stainless steel mixing bowls filled with stuff. Cover the containers.

Leave the meat in brine to age anywhere out of the sun that is always less than 15ºc, but not so cold that the brine will freeze solid.

Leave side bacon in for around 4 days. A bone-out leg of pork can be taken out after 4 days, or left for 8 days if the bone is in. (You can leave the meat in the brine for longer than these times, but it will make the meat saltier. Our bacon stayed in for longer and is very salty, but we just soak it in water for a while before cooking and it gets rid of the excess salt.)

Remove the meat from the brine and let it sit on a wire rack overnight, or until completely dry, before smoking or storing it as is.

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Speck

Salt cure for speck (belly bacon)

If you want to make traditional Bavarian speck, take equal amounts of juniper berries, peppercorns, and bay leaves and crush them in a mortar and pestle. You want to make enough of this to completely cover all of the belly except for the skin. If you just want plain salted pork belly, skip this step.

Fill the base of a food-safe container large enough to fit the bellies with enough salt to cover the base (or chop the bellies up and use a different-shaped container). Put a layer of pork belly, then completely cover it with salt, then more pork belly, more salt, and so on, until you have a stack of pork bellies, completely surrounded by salt, with salt on the top. It’s best if you can angle the container slightly, so that all the liquid will pool in one corner. Doing this will mean you don’t have to keep adding as much salt.

Put a lid or cover on the container, and leave it anywhere out of the sun that is always less than 15ºc, but not so cold that it will freeze the meat.

Leave to age for around eight days. One book I have says it can be as little as 2 days, but leaving it up to 2 weeks will mean that it will keep longer and be saltier. Our was cured for around 2 weeks, it’s salty, too salty for some people, but I think it tastes good. Open the lid of the container every day to check to see if it needs more salt on the top. If there are any cracks in the top salt layer, you will need to add salt.

Once the meat has finished aging, rinse the salt off and leave it to hang and dry. It can either be stored as is, or cold smoked and then stored. to store it, just hang it in a cold place and hack bits off as you see fit.

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Prosciutto

Salt cure for prosciutto (slow cured ham)

First you will need to trim off any excess flaps of meat on the leg of pork. You want to have a smooth surface for covering with salt, so that when it’s aging there are no little places for mould to grow in. It is very easy to accidentally hack off too much, so just slice off a small amount at a time.

Some people say you need to squeeze excess blood up from the trotter to the ball joint on the other side of the ham, others don’t. We didn’t do this.

Cover the base of a large food-safe container with salt (around one inch of it). Put your leg of pork in, and completely cover with more salt. You can put more legs in if you have them, making sure they are all completely surrounded by salt. Angle the container by lifting a corner up on something so that the liquid can drain off it as it ages.

Some books say to age the leg in salt for 2 1/2 to 3 days for every kilogram of meat. We did it for less than this, around 15 days for our large pigs. If you are not smoking it you probably want to do it for the recommended time (so around 20 days for an 8kg ham).

Lift the lid every day to see if there are any cracks in the top layer of salt, if there are, add more salt on top.

Remove the ham from the salt and rinse it off. You can put vinegar over it now if you like, and/or cold smoke it.

When the ham is completely dry (and smoked, if you’re smoking), have a look at the exposed meat side of it and trim off any more obvious scraggly bits to try and make a flat surface. Put lard into any crevasses in it, and then coat the surface of the exposed meat with a thick layer of more lard, so that there is no meat showing, only skin and lard.

Hang it for at least 6 months (preferably 8 or more months) in a cool, dry, and airy place.

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