Yep, there’s meat hanging in the basement. In our house it’s certainly not high tech, and calling it a “curing chamber” suggests a level of complexity and engineering that just isn’t present here. For this month’s Charcutepalooza challenge: curing I made 9 links of saucisson sec (about 5 lbs starting weight), and they’re hanging in a canvas and plastic wardrobe with a zipper, the kind of thing that you might store winter coats in during the summer in an attic. We’re not using it for coats.
The temperature in our basement stays pretty consistent, just under 60 degrees — it hasn’t been terribly cold for too long yet this fall — and the room is fairly dry. So I placed a pyrex casserole dish filled with water and kosher salt in the bottom of it to help raise the humidity. I have not taken the time yet to set up a more elaborate curing chamber with a spare fridge. Several bloggers have explained this process with helpful posts (See posts on Wrightfood, Cured Meats, and The Sausage Debauchery for detailed directions on that kind of setup).
Science. Why is it alright to eat 3-4 week old cured (but uncooked and unrefrigerated) meat? Three reasons: salt, acid, and available water. The first thing that protects the sausage from spoilage bacteria is salt, and two kinds are used here: sea or kosher salt and sodium nitrate (Instacure No. 2). These are necessary to prevent colonization by bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum (which cause botulism), and other microbes that normally cause the meat to rot (not appetizing, but not as scary as botulism). Bacteria that can tolerate the salt, and ones that are comfortable at cool room temperatures include several species of Lactobacillus. These ferment available sugars in the meat to form lactic acid, which lowers the pH of the meat. The drop in pH protects the food from other spoilage bacteria (in the same way that pickles are preserved). The third form of protection in the case of salumi comes in the form of drying, taking away available moisture that the bacteria need in order to live.
Recipe. I stayed true to the recipe for saucisson sec in Ruhlman and Polcyn’s Charcuterie. Really simple. 4 1/2 lbs of pork shoulder (with about 1/2 lb of fatback added in), salt (regular and sodium nitrate), crushed peppercorns, and garlic, stuffed into hog casings.
Drying. So if you’re doing this for the first time, the counterintuitive part is that you want the salami to dry out as slowly as possible. If the room/chamber is too dry, the outer part of the sausage will dry first, trapping moisture inside, which is bad. That leads to spoilage. If you rig up a refrigerator and humidifyer with temperature and humidity controls I think you could probably cure and dry anything with excellent results (see curing chamber links above). This becomes more important the larger the salami is, since it takes more time for the moisture to escape from the inside. I opted for the low-tech approach because I was using hog casings, and I was pretty happy with how things turned out. I had some mold bloom after the first week (when the sausages were still pretty wet), mostly white and furry, which I wiped off with a paper towel wet with vinegar. I also turned the sausages so that they were not hanging against each other, and I opened the vent in the chamber to allow for additional air circulation. The goal is to lose about a 1/3 of the original weight. Total time depends on the casings used, the diameter of the sausage, and your local humidity and temperature condidtions. The smallest link in this batch took 20 days to drop from 150g to 100g, just in time for Thanksgiving. I weighed the links every few days to keep track of water loss.
Results. The transformation of the sausage from its raw and squishy state (when it’s really just a fresh sausage) to dried salami is pretty remarkable. Its color deepens, the casing shrinks around the meat and fat, and it starts to smell and look like real salami. (I mean, it is real salami.) Several friends have asked about this part, about how you know when it’s done, and how you know it’s okay to eat, and I think the best answer is to look at it and smell it. There’s nothing about this that seemed spoiled or off. Then you slice into it and try it out. Simple as that. And it was a nice, mild salami, with great flavor. It flew right off the pre-Thanksgiving cheese board. The garlic wasn’t too strong — I think I’ll add more next time — and I might branch out with some other flavors: crushed red pepper, fennel, thyme, nutmeg, etc. But this is a really simple salami to make, and if you’re looking for a good entry-level way to dry cure some meat at home, this one could be for you.