Some of you might know that I am one of the judges for the rather large, rather viral #charcutpalooza challenge. I am in great company there I have to say, and the challenges are shaping up to be very interesting. Michael Ruhlman does a great job in his Charcuterie book to go in to some detail about the safety side of things when curing meat, but I figured I would add my thoughts on the whole safety side of things too.
When I started meat curing at home many years ago I promised my wife two things – If I thought it might dicey, I wouldn’t eat it. I would read up as much as possible on the safety of curing meats, the process and so on, so that I can guarantee my work is safe.
If done properly, with good technique, attention to detail, and the right environment curing meat is safe. Very safe. It has been done for centuries. People in the past have died from it so we don’t have to. Sounds harsh, but it is true. No need to make the mistakes that others less fortunate have. With that in mind, here is a list of safety facts that I have gathered along the way, to make sure what I do doesn’t make myself, or even worse other people sick.
1) If in doubt, throw it out. Goes without saying, however it is an incredibly hard thing to do. I have thrown out quite a bit of product. Most likely perfectly safe, very tasty product – however I will never know. Some pieces developed some nasty black mold. That is an instant trash-can job for me. Others got some case hardening that I wasn’t fond of. It is all a learning experience. If it went right all the time we would never learn as much.
The biggest thing here is your time and emotional investment. Throwing out a piece of meat after it has been hanging for two months is a tough thing to do. However, if you have any doubt as to the safety of it, it goes. Use your instincts. Does it smell OK? Does it look OK? How well is it drying? What is that growing on the outside of it? Has my temps and humidity been good?
Generally things are most critical around the start of the drying process, when the meat is most damp. As the product dries out, less potentially can go south, apart from case hardening (more on that later). Due care and attention is really all that is needed. If something looks wrong, find out what it is and how to fix it. Email me if you want, and I can see if I can offer suggestions.
One last thing I should add. If you really are rather attached to that piece of charcuterie you have hanging and hate the idea of throwing out what might be a perfectly good piece of salty dried meat – go get it tested at lab. Sounds ridiculous I know, but there are labs all over the country that for a small fee will test your meat for nasties. It might end up costing more than the meat you bought to do the charcuterie in the first place, but at least you know. A friend told me of one place in Seattle that will test meat for pathogens for $35.
A friend recently had to throw out a whole prosciutto after it had been curing for 6 months, because a fly got in to the meat. It is heart breaking, truly heartbreaking but you gotta do it.
2) Use properly raised meat
This isn’t just my personal ideology, but something I consider important to the safety of the meat. Use meat from small non-intensive farms that have care for the animals they are raising, and that have the meat slaughtered and butchered properly. Studies have shown these meats have less bacteria in them.
3) Temperature and Humidity (for dry curing)
When air drying (dry curing) meat you want to keep the environment within a certain temperature and humidity range. The temperature range should be high enough for the meat to cure properly and dry, but low enough so bad bacteria and mold doesn’t grow. Ideal temperatures are between 50-60F (10C-15C).
Humidity is equally as important as temperature. The humidity of your hanging environment needs to be between 65% and 80%. If the humidity is 80% or above you better have some air movement in your environment otherwise nasty stuff is going to grow. For points of reference – a house heated by a furnace in the winter is going to be about 40% humidity in cold climates. Your regular fridge at 36F is going to run between 30 and 50% humidity, depending on what is in it.
Before you start any air drying of meat you need to accurately measure your environments humidity and temperature. To do this you can use a temp/humidity sensor. I personally like this one. It is small, cheap and you can calibrate the humidity sensor on it, which is pretty important because all humidity sensors can be inaccurate.
4) Dry curing (air drying) environment
It should go without saying that you want to keep the meat away from pests, bugs, rodents… and pets. Don’t hang anything in a place where your pets can give it the stink eye. My personal preference is to keep the stuff away from anything toxic too. I have my curing chamber in my basement garage, however I have moved all those paint cans and so on that seem to collect over the years out to the shed. Going a bit far? perhaps.. but well, that is just me.
Before you go and spend any money converting a fridge or whatever to an environment to dry cure meat in, go buy that temp/humidity sensor listed in 3. Over the course of a couple of weeks position the thing in various (SAFE) places around your house for 24hours, and see if areas in your house have the right temp and humidity range to cure meats in. Often a good choice is a cool slightly humid basement. Remember of course that over the course of seasons your environment is going to change, so keep an eye on the measurements.
If you do want to go down the “building a meat curing chamber” route, then may I suggest taking a look at this post I wrote a while back on converting an old fridge to a meat curing chamber: http://mattikaarts.com/blog/charcuterie/meat-curing-at-home-the-setup/ The whole project can be done for just over $100, if you find a fridge on craigslist for free (there are often a lot of old fridges going for free if you can just pick em up).
5) Nitrates and Nitrites
I wrote a long post about these often misunderstood curing ingredients here. In short – USE THEM. I don’t want to hear that meat has been cured for centuries without them. People died from botulism poisoning, you don’t have to. That Spinach salad you ate with your dinner last night? Yep. That had more nitrates in it than a whole salami.
Recent studies have also shown that nitrates are beneficial in cardiovascular health, when consumed within safe limits.
I recommend against using celery powder. The amount of nitrate in it is totally variable, so you could end up consuming far more than the accurately measured professional cure.
It is almost impossible to buy straight nitrate or nitrite. I also totally recommend against doing so. The actual amounts of each you need are very small, and if you over measure you could make yourself very sick. Instead, go to SausageMaker and purchase Cure 1 and Cure 2.
Cure 1 is salt and nitrite, and is used in bacon and other smoked meats. Cure 2 has salt, nitrite and nitrate is used for long aged dry cured meats and salami. Make sure you keep both of them away from children and pets, and stored away from other cooking ingredients that they could get mixed up with. I personally choose to keep all my meat curing ingredients and small equipment inside a plastic storage box on a high shelf in the garage.
Botulism is a rare but incredibly serious food borne disease. Fatal. C. Botulinium is found in soil and sediment all over the world. The bacteria itself can form a spore which is incredibly resilient to heat and chemicals. These spores are not dangerous unless they are in the right environment for growth. The spores can then germinate and the deadly toxin Botulism is produced.
The bacteria grows best in anaerobic conditions (without oxygen). In this condition, at the right temperature (78-95F is optimal, but growth can happen between 40F-120F) then spores that are formed will produce toxins.
In order to grow these bacteria need a slightly acidic, damp warm environment. The interior of a sausage is pretty much exactly that.
The botulism bacteria can be found on the outside of meat. This isn’t generally a problem if you are hanging whole muscles – since the outside is open to the air, it isn’t an anaerobic condition. Even if you case your whole muscle cuts it still isn’t oxygen free, since the casing allows the passage of air and moisture. If however we take a whole muscle and grind it up – now we have a problem. The exterior has now become the interior. When this gets tightly stuffed in to a sausage casing, you have a warm, moist (meat has a lot of water in it) oxygen free environment.
The same thing goes for smoking any kind of meat. The smoke environment, if very thick, can be considered oxygen free. So then even a whole muscle cut could be a possible breading ground for botulism.
It should also be noted that when making a rolled pancetta you are technically rolling the outside of the meat in to the inside, and creating an air free environment on the inside of the roll. I guess you now know my thoughts on nitrates in pancetta..
The use of nitrates/nitrites is the only thing known to stop the transformation of the spores to toxins. That is why nitrates and nitrites are so incredibly important.
The risk of getting Botulism is incredibly small. However it’s severity cannot be underestimated.
I get quite a handful of emails a week from people asking me to look at pictures of their drying meat, and to give my opinion on whether a certain mold is safe or not. I am certainly no mold expert, so you can imagine my reply – but here is the basics about mold on dry cured meats:
WHITE: powdery white mold is good. A form of penicillin. It will have a smell of ammonia. White mold that is furry or hairy is bad.
GREEN/BLUE: not the best. If this is present you generally have a humidity or airflow problem. Try to either lower the humidity in your hanging environment, or make sure there is some positive airflow in your chamber, with regular transfers of air (get the stale air out, and fresh air in).
BLACK: Serious stuff. Can be toxic. Generally only forms when there is very high humidity and no air movement. I have only ever had black mold appear once. For me anything that grows black mold is instantly thrown away.
The best way to deal with a case of the fuzzies or blue/green mold is simply to wipe the area in question with vinegar. It wouldn’t hurt to wipe your chamber with the stuff either. Once you are done curing, clean the chamber out with a 10% bleach solution and let it dry for a couple of days before using again.
The air around us has all manner of mold spores in. If we hang meat in any kind of environment it is going to most likely get both good (powdery white) and bad (blue/green) mold on it – especially if your humidity isn’t perfect. The best way to help the good mold along is to actually spray the hanging meat with a mold culture. This will cover the meat in lots of good mold that over the course of a week will grow rather nicely, and soon cover the meat – helping prevent anything nasty from growing. The product is called Bactoferm 600 and can be bought here. Mix 1 teaspoon with 1/4 cup of distilled water (the chlorine in tap water will most likely kill the good mold), and leave at room temp overnight. Dilute further with another 1/4cup of distilled water, and mix. Let this sit for 30 minutes, then spray or pour over your hanging meat.
You will find that once you have a good curing environment setup then you most likely wont have to use the mold spray that often. The atmosphere of the chamber (and the neighboring salami) will have good mold on them which will inoculate the newly hung pieces.
Can you eat the white mold? YES you can. Personally I am not that keen on the taste of it, but you can certainly eat it. When eating salami I peel the casing back, and slice the meat, discarding the casing as needed. That is really just personal preference though. Remember that some casings are considered inedible.
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