The next time you order a ham sandwich, enjoy a small plate of prosciutto and cheese, or savor a forkful of melt-in-your-mouth smoked salmon, tip your hat to our ancestors who centuries ago figured out the delectable art of curing and smoking meats.
Before refrigeration, curing was used as a way to preserve meat for when the lean times came. Curing involved covering a piece of meat in salt and letting it sit in that concoction for days or weeks. The basic role of salt in curing is to draw moisture out of the meat just enough so that bacteria cannot thrive.
Although today’s typical home cook may not have the time or desire to prepare food in this manner, several local valley restaurants continue the tradition, offering diners the exquisite flavors that can be created through this age-old practice. We spoke to chefs at two of the busiest restaurants in town.
As executive chef at Gretchen’s at the Sun Valley Lodge, Derek Gallegos regularly makes his own fresh pancetta, an Italian style bacon made from pork belly, which he cures in a mixture of curing salt and other spices such as juniper, nutmeg, black pepper, and fresh thyme.
“We cure the meat in that for a week to 10 days, then rinse off the cure when the meat is nice and firm, and rub it with even more fresh crushed black peppercorns,” Gallegos said. “Then we’ll hang it in a walk-in for three or four days until it dries out a bit and the flavors are concentrated.”
During the Lodge’s busy season, Gallegos prepares two pork bellies every week, each weighing in at about eight pounds.
Once cured and dried, the pancetta goes into a variety of dishes, from homemade stuffed pastas and salads, to fillings for meats and poultry. “Or we slice it paper thin and wrap it around a pheasant or chicken breast. It surrounds the meat and, when you cook it up, it gets crisp and the fat melts all over the bird. Yummy!” he laughed.
Curing spans a range of meats from bacon, ham and pancetta to fish, poultry and the more elaborate salami, which take much more practice and precision, according to Gallegos. “For the home cook, starting with pancetta or a small piece of meat like a coppa is a good way to learn, rather than salami.” He explained that preparing salami is more technical as it involves using bacteria and molds to ferment the meat. “That fermentation is what gives salami its tanginess, but you really have to monitor your environment closely.”
Over at the Ketchum Grill, owner Scott Mason cures prosciutto and ham, and smokes a variety of fare, including salmon and trout, sausage, chicken and bacon.
Like Gallegos, Mason explained that curing is done with salts, such as Kosher and others that contain small amounts of nitrate and nitrite, which help prevent spoiling. “After salting the meat you leave that on for quite some time depending on the size of the cut, so a big pork leg with a bone in it will take three or four weeks, and something smaller like a pork loin might take two days,” he said.
“The advantage of curing meat is that you can create your own product that’s definitely yours. You can choose the best quality meat you can find, and you determine how it’s going to taste, since you control what goes into the cure. If you want to vary the spices and herbs you can do that. For example, if I want my cure to be a little sweeter I can put in white or brown sugar. Another thing we’ve been doing a lot is adding lavender to our curing salt and that gives the meat a floral flavor, which is very different from what you could get in a commercially produced product.”
Smoking is also used to preserve and cook meats, and infuse it with a rich flavor, and Mason noted that he uses a cold-smoking process for his salmon and trout. Cold-smoking uses low temperature smoke without exposing the fish directly to heat or fire. The burning wood and smoke are located in a separate chamber away from the fish, and the smoke passes through pipes, and blows over the fish in the other chamber.
“With cold-smoking you need just enough heat to create the smoke, but you never let the wood catch fire. So you heat it up until just before it ignites,” Mason said.
Because cold smoking doesn’t thoroughly cook or cure meats, brining or salting is usually done prior to the cold smoking to ensure against spoilage during smoking or later storage.
“Our cold-smoked salmon has a nice moisture to it and it’s sliceable and doesn’t crumble like a lot of smoked salmon,” Mason said. He added that his other restaurant, Enoteca, occasionally does in-house curing and brings the meats to the Ketchum Grill to be smoked.
Curing Challenges and Advice
Both Gallegos and Mason agree that a main challenge to curing meats in Idaho is the lack of humidity.
“The humidity in Idaho’s climate is very low, and you need to have a certain amount of humidity when you dry this meat, otherwise the outside of the meat gets leathery and crusty and the moisture on the inside can’t get out,” Gallegos said, explaining that the moisture is where bacteria thrives. He said that a humidifier in his drying chamber does the trick.
Said Mason, “I tend to dry everything in the refrigerator where there is more humidity and it dries at a slower rate so the flavors are better developed, but even a cellar would work if it was 45-50 degrees in the winter. You hang it in there for several days until it dries out a bit and the flavor concentrates.”
Their advice to people who want to start curing or smoking meat at home is to research online or invest in a good book, such as “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing” by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.
“I learned to cure through reading, research and trial and error,” said Gallegos, who on occasion butchers and cures whole pigs at home for his personal use. “Pancetta is a pretty easy place to start. There’s no smoking involved and the only equipment needed is two, one-gallon Ziploc bags and a refrigerator. You cure it for a week in the fridge, put more pepper on it, put it back in the fridge uncovered for a few days, and you have pancetta. Boom!”
Enough for half of a pork belly, about 4 to 5 pounds
100 g. kosher salt
100 g. brown sugar
2 teaspoons pink curing salt
30 g. garlic, coarsely chopped
¼ cup crushed black peppercorns
¼ cup crushed juniper berries
20 bay leaves crumbled
1 whole nutmeg berry grated on microplane
30 grams fresh thyme, one large bunch, chopped stems and all
Mix all above ingredients together in medium size mixing bowl. Cut belly in two equal pieces. Place each piece in a one-gallon Ziploc bag, rubbing cure evenly on both sides of belly. Seal. Place on cookie sheet in refrigerator for 10 days, flipping them over after four days, until belly has given up quite a bit of liquid and is firm. After belly is cured, rinse off cure and rub each belly piece with 2 tablespoons of crushed black peppercorns. Place uncovered on sheet pan and place back in refrigerator, flipping over every day, for four days.