Curing Meat at Home

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An assortment of homemade charcuterie ? cured meats ? on a serving platter.
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Sandwiches made with homemade mortadella, a cured meat similar to bologna.

Curing meat at home is growing in popularity, and that’s a very good thing. Our modern notion of charcuterie as gourmet has created cultural and culinary blockades against the best representation of cured meats. The truth is, home cooks can cure meat.

Good charcuterie starts with good meat and good fat from an animal that had a good life, a good death, a good butcher, and a good cook. The surest way to find such meat and fat is through direct relationships with farmers. Look for meat that has healthy lean muscle, is deep in color, and is firm but springy in texture. The fat should be creamy and white, and at least somewhat plentiful. As you develop your charcuterie practice, you’ll be able to recognize quality meat and fat almost instantly via texture, scent, and color.

Ground meat has more surface area, which means a bigger playground for bacteria, so safety and sanitation are very important when preparing charcuterie. Be sure to keep your work area, your hands, and your equipment as clean as possible. You’ll also want to keep everything as cold as possible. You may want to take a break in the middle of processing to let the meat chill in the refrigerator to ensure everything stays around 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Finally, store your cured meats in a cool, dark place. You can seal the surfaces of cured meat with fat. Do this by rendering lard and cooling it until it’s whitened but still pliable. Then, combine it with rice flour to produce a soft icing-like consistency. Spread the fat mixture over the exposed surfaces of cured items you want to store for longer periods.

How to Make Mortadella

Mortadella is very similar to bologna, but true bologna doesn’t include whole spice. If you’d rather have bologna, feel free to omit the whole spice in this recipe, and you won’t be disappointed. That being said, bologna has many variations, so you can alter the grind process for coarser textures and tweak the spice mix, and you’ll still end up with bologna.

Producing the finest textured suspension, as in the case of mortadella, usually involves what’s known as the “5-4-3 ratio” of sausage-making. That is, by weight, 5 parts lean meat to 4 parts fat to 3 parts liquid. This ratio will come into play in the following recipe, as will higher ratios of salt and spice; other than that, you’re making a very large sausage. You’ll notice that I’ve included ice as the entire liquid component. This is because I wanted a traditional recipe, but also because mortadella must remain very cold as it’s processed to preserve its texture. You can also use some frozen stock as your liquid component.

One ingredient that may stand out to you is the dried milk powder. It’s included as a binder here.

Lastly, you’ll notice the inclusion of curing salt No. 1, also known as pink salt. Many people include a curing salt in their mortadella, but this is chiefly for rosy coloration, so it’s optional.

Yield: about 4-1/2 pounds stuffed sausage.

  • 4 ounces back fat, cut into 1/2-inch or 1-inch cubes (omit if you want a more proper bologna)
  • 4- to 5-inch-diameter, 20-inch-long collagen or plastic casing, rinsed
  • 26.4 ounces pork back fat
  • 33.6 ounces lean pork trim
  • 20 ounces crushed ice
  • 1.6 ounces salt
  • 0.8 ounce pure cane sugar
  • 0.5 ounce fresh ground nutmeg
  • 0.24 ounce ground cinnamon
  • 0.24 ounce cayenne
  • 0.24 ounce ground coriander
  • 0.2 ounce curing salt No. 1
  • 1.92 ounces dried milk powder
  • 0.5 ounce garlic
  • 1.36 ounces whole black peppercorns (omit if you want a more proper bologna)

Directions:

  1. Place the moving parts of your meat grinder and the bowl you plan to use into the freezer.
  2. Meanwhile, blanch the 4 ounces of cubed back fat in boiling water for 10 to 12 seconds, and then set aside.
  3. Soak the casing in room-temperature water until you’re ready to stuff.
  4. Assemble the grinder, and send all ingredients except for the peppercorns and the blanched back fat through the coarse plate of the meat grinder. Repeat. Chill the mixture while you exchange the coarse plate for the fine plate on your grinder, and then send the mixture through this plate twice as well. Chill the mix while you wash your grinder parts.
  5. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the meat mixture, blanched back fat, and peppercorns, and process on low to medium speed until the mixture is well-combined. Chill while you assemble your stuffer and then prepare a large kettle of poaching water with a few generous pinches of sea salt. Place the kettle on the stovetop and bring it to a temperature of around 170 degrees Fahrenheit.
  6. Place the mortadella mixture into the stuffer’s hopper. Using the largest stuffing horn available with your stuffer, pull the casing as far onto the horn as possible, and begin cranking the meat mixture into it, keeping an even and tight fill as you progress. When you’ve stuffed everything in, tie off the end with butcher’s twine.
  7. Carefully lower the mortadella into the poaching water. Monitor the temperature as it cooks (from 45 minutes to more than an hour) to ensure the water stays just under a boil. Try not to check the temperature of the mortadella until you’re pretty sure it’s done, unless you have an infrared thermometer. The hole created by a traditional meat thermometer can allow water into the casing, which can screw up your texture quite a bit.
  8. When the internal temperature of the mortadella reaches 145 degrees, remove it from the poaching kettle and plunge it into an ice bath or a tub of the coldest water you can muster. Allow it to chill there, and then place it in the refrigerator to chill completely.
  9. To serve, peel back the casing, and slice as thin as you can manage.

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Meredith Leigh has worked as a farmer, butcher, chef, teacher, nonprofit executive director, and writer, all in pursuit of sustainable food. She’s the author of The Ethical Meat Handbook. Her latest book, Pure Charcuterie, is available at our online bookstore.

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