Project Porker: The Curing

packaged pork 1

I bought a pig from a local farm for a few reasons:  I want to support local agriculture, I love the versatility of pork, and I enjoy learning how to cure my own foods.  Another reason I wanted to try a local pig was freshness.  I’ve never bought pork that didn’t come in a plastic bag or under plastic wrap.  That freshness could work against me, though, so for a couple days last week I spent my time trimming and curing.

The easiest to start with was the guanciale. Guanciale is made from the cheeks and jowls of hog, a part that I never would have known to ask for were it not for the recipe provided in Charcuterie.  The cuts are about the size of a  beef steak, but they need to be trimmed of the lymph glands.  Having never sought out lymph glands before, I had to learn what to look for.  My first surprise was their abundance, and the second was their distribution.  It took some effort to track them all down.

The cure consists of salt, sugar, garlic, peppercorns and thyme.  I was pleased to use garlic and thyme out of the garden.  I rubbed the cure generously over both of the jowls and put everything into a plastic zip-top bag which went into the fridge, and have been flipping the bags every couple of days, making sure the meat stays in contact with the cure.  After almost a week, they are ready to be hung for drying.

The next cuts to get the business were the tenderloins.  They were smaller by about half than what you might buy at the grocery store, so I adjusted the recipes accordingly.  One loin was to be dinner and the other Canadian bacon.

packaged porkFor the spice rub, I used ground pepper, cayenne, chili powder, ground coriander, dark brown sugar, oregano, paprika and salt.  I rubbed the spices thoroughly into the tenderloin and tossed it into a bag to refrigerate and marinate for a couple of days.  I cooked it outside on the grill over indirect low heat to bring it slowly up to temperature.  The loin recipe called for hot smoking the loin to cook it, but I didn’t have the patience to set up the smoker, and the pan of chips I put on the grill didn’t put out much smoke while the loin was on.  The finished dish was tasty, but didn’t have the smoked flavor I hoped for.

The other loin was brined in a solution of water, salt, sugar, sage, thyme and garlic.  The recipe also called for pink salt (nitrites) which I decided to leave out.  I was stoked again to use our own sage, thyme and garlic in this brine.

The loin was submerged in the brine for about three days before I removed it and placed it on an open rack in the fridge.  It now has a nice pellicle and is ready to be hot smoked.

I had two bellies to work with, again about half the size of what you’d get from the store.  One belly was dedicated to pancetta, which is cured, rolled and dried.  The other belly I cut in half so I could do a “plain” bacon and a savory bacon, both of which will be smoked.

I veered pretty far away from the original recipe for the bacon, which called for salt, sugar and pink salt.  Last time I made bacon I used salt, dextrose and pink salt.  The dextrose is really meant for dried cures, like salami, which bacon isn’t.  I think it made the bacon sweeter but it also seemed to brown and blacken (caramelize) faster when cooked, which I didn’t like.

This time I intentionally left out the pink salt and dextrose, but I simply neglected to include granulated sugar.  Essentially, I dredged both belly halves in salt, put one into a zip-top bag as “plain”, then added garlic (from the garden!), bay leaves and peppercorns to the another and called it “savory”.  I put them in the fridge and flip them every couple of days  They’ll be ready to be smoked very soon.

PancettaPancetta is basically rolled and dried bacon that’s seasoned but unsmoked, so its treatment was similar to the bacon, but also included garlic and thyme (from the garden!), dark brown sugar, ground pepper, bay leaves, nutmeg and juniper berries.  I added about half the amount of pink salt suggested.  I’m a little concerned because pancetta is rolled before it is dried, which seems to me would increase the chance of a cure going bad.  I decided to use a little bit of nitrite just to hedge my bets, perhaps for no good reason.  I’ve been flipping the pancetta in its zip-top bag to keep the cure in contact with the meat.  Soon it will be ready to be rolled and tied up, then hung to dry.

Most of the cuts required little to no trimming, but the hams needed some work:  Both needed to have the hip bone removed (the “aitch” bone).  It took a few minutes per ham, but it wasn’t too difficult to trim off the meat around the bones to expose the hip joint, which was then severed.  I took both of these bones and the spine and turned them into pork stock.

The two hams received the usual treatment:  Liberally salted and rubbed, stuffed into a kitchen garbage bag and refrigerated with pressure applied (in this case, all of the other curing meats were stacked on top).  I’ve been rotating them like everything else.  They’ll probably need another application of salt and another week in the cold before I’ll hang them.  The country ham will be smoked and dried, but the pancetta will simply be dried, both for nine months or more.

Finally, the hocks.  Lacking any sense of creativity, I simply applied a liberal amount of salt, put them into a zip-top bag and refrigerated them, rotating the bag every couple of days.  Sound familiar?  I think these might need another dose of salt, too, before they’re hot smoked and ready for use in beans, soups, stews, etc.

Though I wanted to Q them fresh, I ran out of time and chose to freeze the baby back ribs.  I also froze the Boston butts, but they’ll all get what’s comin’ to them soon enough.  Just as soon as I get us some applesauce, we’ll try the chops.

“Yeah, right, Lisa, a wonderful, ‘magical’ animal… hehehe”


Project Porker, Part I: Going Where So Many Pigs Have Gone Before

In 2012, my wife and I committed to buying an entire pig from our local CSA, Whistling Train Farm (who also happen to be WordPress bloggers).  I love supporting this farm, because they embody all of the things I appreciate in food and business.  I can walk around freely and explore all aspects of what they do (beef, pork, chickens, flowers, veggies, etc.).  I can see the way the critters are raised; I know they are treated with care and fed a diet appropriate for their critter kind.  They are very close to my home — slightly more than 3 miles away.  Perhaps most importantly to me, they farm because that’s what they want to be doing, and it shows.

<a href="">Three Pigs</a> by Petr Kratochvil

Not the actual pig(s)

Shelly let me know that the piggy, for which I had placed a deposit last August, was slaughtered last week and in the process of being butchered yesterday, and I could pick up the pieces, as it were, as soon as they were ready.  I drove over to Lind’s Custom Meats and walked into the butcher shop, where I was able to learn more about what we’d bought into.  Shelley and her husband Mike were there to wrap. In between cuts, Shelley was kind enough to field a bunch of questions.

We had purchased a winter sow.  I knew this going into it but didn’t know what that really meant.  As it turns out, from a weight and cost perspective a winter sow means less.  Winter pigs naturally put more of their energy into staying warm, and that reduces the amount of fat and weight they put on.  If I want the most meat and fat, I need to buy a summer male who’s had ample time to grow and no opportunity to use the energy he’s stored away.  Noted for next time.

When Shelley contacted me about the slaughter, she asked for my cutting instructions.  I tried to be as specific as possible about what was important to me:  I wanted whole hams, whole sides (bellies), whole tenderloins, shoulders (Boston butt), the cheeks and jowls, baby back ribs, and all the fat that could be mustered (especially the “leaf lard”).  Everything else was less important to me, but that list still included chops, loin roasts, ground pork and sausage, spare ribs, bones, and hocks.  I was able to dictate the size of cuts I wanted, too.  For an additional fee, the butcher could cure and smoke just about anything on the list.  Since I wanted to do that myself, we opted out.

Pig tastiness chart

Couldn’t draw it better myself.

If you think you want to buy a whole or partial animal from a farm, I suggest scouring the Internet for some basic animal anatomy and butchering cut charts.  Learning how an animal’s muscles are organized and seeing how they make up the cuts of meat we see packaged in the store will help you understand why your pork chops are smaller if you want the tenderloin whole, and why asking for baby back ribs means your chops will be boneless.

With me to the butcher, I brought along a giant cooler with a few one-gallon jugs of frozen water inside.  Everything fit perfectly, even the awkward hams.  I wasn’t headed straight home, but that didn’t prove to be a problem, as it all stayed nice and cool with the frozen water jugs in there.  Since I got home, I’ve been keeping the cooler out in the garage and will occasionally swap out a couple of the jugs for new ones to keep it as cool as possible.  This lifts the burden of space from my refrigerators and freezers, which all seem to have beer in them, for some reason.

This pig had never been frozen or vacuum-packed, and I wanted to take advantage of that freshness.  A few months ago I bought a book called Charcuterie:  The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.  Just about everything I want to do with this pig is included in that book and I’m using their recipes as a starting point for all of my projects.

The list is long:

  • Canadian bacon – 1 tenderloin
  • Spicy pork loin – 1 tenderloin
  • Baby back ribs – 2 racks ribs
  • Savory bacon – 1/2 side belly
  • Plain bacon – 1/2 side belly
  • Pancetta – 1 side belly
  • Guanciale – 2 jowls
  • Prosciutto – 1 ham
  • Country style ham – 1 ham
  • Pulled pork – 2 shoulders
  • Pastry dough – leaf lard
  • Sausage – back fat and shoulder roasts

Sounds tasty, no?  We’ll be enjoying a lot of this stuff over the next few weeks, but some of it is truly an investment.  The two hams might be ready in time for Easter 2014.  The good news, if you’re into this kind of thing, is that I plan to document these projects here, starting with my very next post.