After the radio interview I did earlier this month for the KCRW Good Food Show I thought I might well just do a post about how gosh darn easy it is to make a little setup at home to cure meat in.
When I first started making moldy meat in my garage over a year ago I figured that it must take very specialist equipment, and a team of well read meat science boffins to make anything resembling a decent cured product. I quite frankly am not a meat science boffin, or have very specialist equipment. Nor do the thousands of other people around the globe that cure meat at home, and make a darn fine product too I should add.
It turns out it is actually exceptionally easy to make a basic reliable setup at home to cure meat in, and one that doesn’t cost a pretty penny either. In fact, with a little wheeling and dealing, I reckon the whole thing can be put together for around $100 – even less if you have an old fridge already, or a room/garage/basement that has some of the right environmental properties (more on that later).
My first ever setup was a just simply hanging the meat (inside a cage incase any animals got in..) in my garage. This proved somewhat unreliable because temperature and humidity fluctuated so much – often outside the limits of what should really be considered safe. From here on in I started looking into making a more controllable setup at home that wouldn’t require a walk in fridge area, and lots of special equipment.
So – meat curing is just really the slow controlled release of water from meat. Once the water activity level (aW) of meat gets low enough it is considered safe to eat, since living organisms (bacteria included) need moisture to survive.
A setup for curing meat is really just making a small area with the right environmental conditions.
These conditions are temperature, humidity, and air flow.
In order to make a decent (and safe) product you need some way of controlling all three – or at least keeping them within a certain range. Lets look at each element separately, and see what we can do to control it.
temperature: a safe temperature range for curing meat is below 60F. Above that and bacteria grows a lot faster. Ideally you want the temperature between 50F and 60F. Below 50F and the curing process slows down a great deal, making the process take much, much longer (which also means it takes much much longer for your charcuterie to reach a safe water content level, but that is getting a bit geeky). Most likely you are going to find that you will have to cool and area to get it to 60F rather than heat it.
humidity: for most of the curing you want the humidity between 70% and 75%. Below 70% and you run the risk of the outside of your salami/meat drying out too fast, which means moisture is trapped on the inside, leading to spoilage. If the humidity is really high for too long then the sausage wont dry correctly, and you run the risk of getting a lot of bad mold on the charcuterie.
Ideally when you first put something in to dry cure, you want the humidity at around 85%, and then over the course of the next week you want to drop the humidity down to 75%. The reasoning here is that you want your humidity just a bit less than the water content of the meat you are curing – this stops the meat drying out too fast and developing case hardening. At the start of curing the meat has a lot of moisture in it (especially leaner cuts), so you want your curing humidity to almost match that. As the meat looses water you drop the humidity down accordingly (or roughly anyhow).
Typically we find that most areas in a house aren’t this humid, unless you have a cold, dank basement. Often enough we find ourselves having to add extra humidity to a space to make it perfect.
air flow: some air flow is critical in not only helping to dry the meat (pulling moisture away from the surface of the sausage), but it also really helps keep bad mold (green, black and fury mold) off the meat too – since there isn’t stagnant damp air constantly around the sausage. In practical terms this can just mean fanning the meat a couple of times a day, or setting up a low powered fan to blow a little air around.
SETTING ALL THIS UP IN PRACTICAL TERMS:
So, we know that we have a bunch of conditions that we need to control. How on earth does one go about making a space that has the right temperature, humidity and air flow?
1) buy a temperature and humidity sensor and find an area in your house with good temp/humidity
the first thing to do is get your hands on a temperature and humidity sensor. Over the course of a week, put it in different locations around your house for 24 hours, and see what readings you get.
If you have a basement that is somewhat unfinished (and not heated) then you might have somewhere with decent temperature, and possibly even humidity. Here in Seattle especially in the winter, most peoples basements can get pretty humid, thanks to all that fine rain we have.
I recommend against curing meat in a garage that you will have to open the garage door a few times a day with. Been there, done that, thrown away the meat because of it. Opening the door is going to lower the humidity quite a bit, and it will stay low for a while. Unless you get a humidifier to bump it back up as needed. Obviously don’t cure meat in a garage that you are going to drive a car in to either! Salami flavored with car fumes ain’t gonna taste too pretty.
The temperature and humidity sensor I recommend is this one: HygroSet II Adjustable Digital Hygrometer
It is relatively cheap, accurate, and most importantly adjustable. Often enough hygrometers (humidity sensors) aren’t incredibly accurate out of the box, and you need to calibrate them. Most digital sensors don’t allow this, but this one does. How to calibrate you ask? Spend less than your daily latte on this: Boveda One Step Calibration – a simple calibration kit that is so incredibly simple to use.
2) OK, my house is rubbish for meat curing.. now what?
Worry not, that is how it goes for most of us. The next thing to do is to construct yourself a curing chamber. Rent some old MacGyver episodes, read up on Heath Robinson, and make some friends at Home Depot – you are you going to need to!
Here is what you do… Go to craigslist. Search your local area for people selling old frost-free fridges. You shouldn’t spend over $25 on it to be honest. Quite a few are being given away free, if you can get your mits on a truck to take it away with. An old fridge makes an almost perfect curing chamber, albeit with some modifications!
Oh, and don’t worry about these old fridges draining the power grid, and your salami causing massive widespread deforestation and global warming due to the high power consumption. The fridge won’t be on that much – we are going to setup a controller that will turn it on and off to maintain a temperature of 57F – which is much higher than the regular fridge temperature of 36F.
3) Fridge, check. What’s next?
Time to talk about controlling those environmental factors above that we talked about.
If you leave a fridge turned on, it will self regulate itself to hold a temperature around 37F. You can make go to about 45F, but that is still too low for meat curing – which should be between 50 and 60F (preferably 55-60F).
Thankfully there is a great little (and simple) product that will automagically turn a fridge on and off to maintain whatever temperature you set it to. It has a temperature probe that you put in the fridge that monitors the fridge temperature. You plug the fridge into the controller, and the controller into an outlet. Set the temp at 57F, and you are done. The controller simply turns the fridge on and off to maintain the set temperature.
The controller that you see on the left is just under $50 and can be ordered here, and is meant for home brewing – but works exceedingly well for meat curing applications.
Humidity is a different ball game to temperature. Humidity can vary a lot depending on where you curing chamber is. In most situations you are going to need to add humidity, and not remove it.
Since humidity in your chamber (er, old fridge..) varies depending on atmospheric conditions, how long your fridge is on for (the cold air pumped into fridges has very low humidity), how much meat you have in there, and at what stage the meat is at – we need some kind of humidity controller, and humidifier.
Some options for controlling humidity:
1) bowl of salty water. Yes it can be that simple. In the bottom of your fridge put a big bowl of very salty water. The salt prevents bacteria growth in the water. This might be enough to raise your humidity to a decent level.
The problem here is that as those conditions above change, this salty water doesn’t give out any more or any less humidity, it is constant. This leaves you forever checking it to make sure it isn’t getting too humid in there.
2) a humidity controller (hygrostat) and humififer
This is by far the best solution, but it is more expensive. The humidity controller works in pretty much the same way as the temperature controller. You set a dial saying what humidity you want, and the controller will turn a humidifier on and off to maintain that rough level. All you have to do is make sure you keep your humidifier stocked full of distilled water.
On the left is the Dayton Humidifier Controller. This does exactly what is mentioned above. Set the humidity you want on the dial, plug a humidifier into the front of it, and put the thing in your curing chamber. Easier than breathing. This will turn your humidifier on and off to maintain the humidity you set it to.
One thing that I have done is actually to add a fan into this equation too. I have a power strip plugged into the humidity controller, and into that strip I have BOTH a humidifier and a fan plugged in.
So, when the humidifier turns on, so too does a fan. This pushes the humid air around the chamber, and makes sure the chamber has even humidity across it. This also provides some much needed airflow every now and again.
Now lets talk about humidifiers for a second.. You want to make sure that you get an “ultrasonic” humidifier. This gives out a much finer mist than regular humidifiers, which is absorbed into the air much easier, and wont leave you with large water globules sitting on your meat. You also want one that will just start going when you plug it into the wall – and doesn’t require 10 button presses to start – since the humidity controller cannot press buttons for you..
I use this one:
This one has a dial on it to determine how much moisture it kicks out. I have it cranked all the way up, and it raises humidity rather quickly. The unit is pretty small, which is great because you don’t want it taking up valuable meat space. For me, I have to fill it every couple of weeks. Oh, and on a note on filling humidifiers – always use distilled water, otherwise you get mineral deposits in your humidifier, which causes it to conk out much faster.
So you put the humidifier in the bottom of the fridge, along with the fan if you are using one (you don’t have to). Hook it up to the humidity controller, which needs to sit somewhere in the fridge too. Set the controller to the desired humidity, walk away and have a beer (the beer part is instrumental to the success of the whole seutp).
You can get uber-complicated here. Certain airflows are best at certain times during the curing process. You could buy a small 120V computer fan, drill a hole through the side of you fridge, and mount it in the fridge, to give some air flow. Heck, even just drilling some holes in the top right side and bottom left side of your fridge would most likely give enough airflow, without the fan.
You could do that if you want.
Personally for me, I just leave the door of my chamber open a little bit. It isn’t like I don’t check on my meat twice a day, swing open the door, take the meat out, give em a squeeze, and so on. Plenty of airflow going on there.
If you have your fridge in a place where you cannot leave the door open, then seriously consider drilling some holes through the side of it (don’t worry, there shouldn’t be anything bad to drill through in the SIDES of the fridge) for some airflow. If you have rodent problems, then I suggest putting some fine mesh over these holes too. Rats can squeeze through a hole smaller than a quarter you know..
So there you have it – your basic fridge curing chamber setup. With the temperature and humidity controllers in place, this really is a pretty hands free setup.
3) Make some cured meat!
This is the fun bit. Get some recipes, get some meat, and all the stuff you need for it and get cracking making some lovely moldy bits of pig. There are some particular products you are going to need – curing salts, dextrose, casings if you are doing salami. I highly recommend Butcher & Packer for these.
You are also going to want to break down a buy a decent kitchen scale. Using cups and tablespoons isn’t accurate enough for most meat curing antics. Quite frankly, I have no idea how people bake/cook using volume measurements for dry ingredients anyhow. Scales rock. They aren’t expensive either.
Oh wait.. I nearly forgot recipes. Well, there are a couple of great books to get you started:
Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcyn – a great book covering cured meats, salami, pate, sausages
The Art of Making Fermented Sausages by Stanley Marianski – fabulous book on making salami. A lot of information here, including a lot of science – however it is extremely accessible, and not at all dry. Marianski has managed to write a technical book with great recipes that is easy for you and I to read.
Finally, if anyone gets started curing meat, let me know! I want to hear about it.