And for the better.
As promised, our second foray into charcuterie was everyone’s favourite, bacon.
I picked up the naturally-raised Berkshire pork belly by semi-accident: back when shopping for the sausage ingredients, I asked one butcher for back fat, and before I could see the sign on the meat he was pointing to, 2.5 lbs of pork belly were on the scale, and a tiny lightbulb went on above my gluttonous cranium.
The only special ingredient required for bacon is curing salt, aka Prague Powder #1, aka pink salt: 93.75% table salt and 6.25% sodium nitrite. Here it is mixed with salt and sugar, per the recipe in Ruhlman’s Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing.
The pork belly is coated generously in the mixture:
and placed in a ziploc bag with optional spices and flavourings – we used 1/2C of maple syrup. This sits in the fridge for a week or a bit longer, and the cure does basically all of the work from here on out – you just flip the bag daily.
Once the meat is good and firm (snork), which may take up to 10 days (ours was ready at 7 days), take it out of the cure, rinse it off and dry it with paper towels, and it’s almost bacon.
All that remains is to cook it to an internal temperature of 150’F. You can do this in a 200’F oven, or in a smoker. We used the latter. Lacking a dedicated smoker, we have a Weber grill equipped with the very handy and very grandly named Smokenator 1000. This gadget fits into the bottom of the Weber kettle grill, and keeps a bunch of coals in a neat little pile – which makes them burn in a more controlled manner… this means lower temps for a longer time. It also incorporates a receptacle for water, which creates steam, which prevents food from drying out. So far I’ve used it for ribs and bacon, and I recommend it. Here is the bacon on the grill with the Smokenator in the background, about 90 minutes into a two-hour smoking session:
And here is your money shot of the fully-smoked bacon:
Make some thin slices, plunk ’em in a cold pan…
And fry them up. Ideally, you will fry them a bit more carefully than I did: the syrup-and-sugar-laden edges tend to char pretty quickly.
The verdict? In the words of the less-carnivorous of your two nomnivores: “The best bacon I’ve ever had.”
We’re looking forward to getting creative and making some more savoury versions, incorporating juniper, black pepper, chiles, and other spices. Any suggestions?
The cookbook of the moment is Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing.
Of the first two experiments with this book, one (a beautiful-looking saffron-crab-scallop terrine) was an epic fail, due to oversalting and poor quality ingredients. We’re anxious to make it again and to do it right.
The second – Spicy Italian Sausage – was a resounding success, a lot of fun, and deeply satisfying both in the making and the eating.
It starts off with pork shoulder and pork back fat. Back fat is harder to find than I expected. Fortunately, one of the butchers at St. Lawrence Market (White House) happened to be trimming a side of pork when I dropped by, and spared me a brief, quizzical glance before giving me just over a pound of it for free. Score. Back fat is creamier and blends / melts more easily into the other ingredients than belly fat, which is more gelatinous.
The pork is cubed and tossed with a not-so-secret blend of herbs and spices: coriander and fennel (toasted briefly in a dry pan), paprika, chili flakes, fresh basil and oregano, black pepper, cayenne, sugar, and salt. Ideally, the pork has a lengthy conjugal visit with the spices before they are turned into sausage, but we didn’t have that kind of time.
The keyword for the mise en place is cold. The meat should be chilled so it’s frosty-crusty on the outside. The grinder, the plunger and the bowl should be icy, and the bowl should be immersed part-way in a container of ice-water. This is not – as I had previously suspected – due to an overabundance of caution with respect to food safety: it’s also because the heat of the grinding process can cause protein and lipids to separate, which leads to grainy, dry, sawdust-textured sausage.
Another key step to build the proper texture is to aggressively mix the ground meat with the Kitchenaid’s paddle attachment until it becomes sticky and cohesive. That only takes about 30 seconds.
Next, throw your mixture in the freezer. If you’re using a Kitchenaid grinder attachment, wash it, dry it and put it – minus the grinding plate, but with the sausage stuffing attachment – in the freezer as well.
This gives you a half hour to soak and rinse your hog intestines!
Good quality natural sausage casings are not smelly, sticky, slimy, or creepy. They come in dry-salted suspended animation, they’re cheap (think $1 to encase 10 lbs of sausage), they last indefinitely, and after cleaning they’re supple and… neutral is the word that comes to mind. (Note for Torontonians: we got ours at Jerry’s Supermarket on the Danforth.)
Having soaked and rinsed the sausage casings – rinsing involves finding one end and holding it under a gently running faucet, being very careful not to let the slippery, water-filled creature escape your grasp and slide into the drain – you’re set to make sausage.
Coat the stuffer with oil, and gently slide the casing onto it. You’ll find that the casing is surprisingly strong. Still, if you’re using the cheap-o, poorly designed Kitchenaid stuffer attachment, you’ll need to exercise a bit of care to avoid having the casings get hung up and tear on the sharp lip of the stuffer. Just take your time and it will be cool.
Here – assuming, once again, that you’re using a Kitchenaid – is where it gets tricky. Filling the sausage is absolutely a job for four hands. Nomnivore #1 feeds the hopper with the frosty ground meat, and Nomnivore #2 guides the sausage casing as it fills to the proper tension and cascades like a delicious, porky Niagara (!) towards the counter below. The person feeding the hopper tries to minimize the amount of air in the mix. The person on the other end will occasionally encounter an air bubble that will require him/her to stop the machine, poke the casing with a knife, and re-start. It sounds fiddly, but while it requires a bit of care, it’s not at all threatening: if things aren’t going right, you just stop, adjust, and continue. This is not Lucy in the candy factory. Which is fortunate, because spicy pork tartare is not the order of the day.
Behold: 5 pounds of sausage.
Making links is about the most fun you should have with raw pork: pinch, twist, pinch twice six inches apart, twist in the opposite direction. Repeat.
Ready for cooking:
And after the bbq:
They were, in a word, great. We served them on buns with sautéed Italian frying peppers and onions. Four of us ate way more than we should have.
Notes and lessons learned:
Ruhlman’s recipe is heavy on the coriander, which we found surprisingly awesome: the seeds were like little flavour bombs. The amount of dried chili flakes could have been bumped up.
The grind was a bit on the fine side, and there was a very slight trend towards graininess in the sausages. This could have been due to a slightly less than optimal fat-to-meat ratio (i.e., too little fat), but may also have been caused by running the mixture through the Kitchenaid for stuffing as well as grinding. Even without the grinding plate on, pushing the ground meat through the auger could have compromised its texture. Next time, we’ll use the coarse grinding plate rather than the fine one.
Even so, we found the quality to be far superior to anything we’ve bought in the shops.
Next up from Charcuterie: house-cured and smoked bacon!