Basic Methodology of Dry-curing Meats: Nitrates, Starter cultures, and Equilibrium curing
Nitrites \ Nitrates.
1) Europe: Here, the most commonly used product comes under the name of “Nitrite salt” (sol peklujaca), which contains normal salt and a very little quantity of sodium nitrite – 0,5-0,6%. The nitrite salt facilitates elimination of spore-forming micro-flora and prevents hostile bacteria from growing.
Just a few notes on the benefits of the Nitrite Salt:
– Overdoses of sodium nitrite is impossible, otherwise the product will be over-salted and uneatable. This way any possibility of poisoning is excluded. The nitrite salt extends the storage period of ready-made products, repressing germs’ growth.
– Takes part in color formation, improving it. Without nitrite salt sausages get unattractive grey color. On the contrary, the use of nitrite turns a product into natural, pink color.
– Also, due to the presence of nitrite salt, the taste and flavor features are intensified and products become more delicious and nice-looking. Besides, the salt is characterized by producing an antioxidant effect on lipids, improving organoleptic properties of products and extending its storage period.
2) USA: Who haven’t heard about the dangers of the nitrates, unstoppably intrusive to our food-chain? They are bad for you, right? Have you seen that “uncured” bacon or salami in Whole Foods that says: “No Nitrates or Nitrites Added!” Marvelous, isn’t it? It does say in the small print on the bottom: “Except for those naturally occurring in celery powder.” But that’s natural, after all…
Advertisements of this sort drive nuts the growing in the USA tribe of charcuterie artisans. Anyone who dry-cures his\her sausages at home or has a small shop – not to mention “real” professionals – could lecture for hours that a glass of celery juice has on average more nitrates than few salami sticks. Besides being misleading advertisement, these tactics are actually dangerous. Based on number of different factors, there are always variability of naturally occurring nitrate content in celery or few other commonly utilized for this purpose vegetables. At the end, you could have too little or too much nitrates in your “uncured” bacon…Remember, both botulism and nitrate poisoning are real.
The easiest way to insure the adequate and safe amount of nitrates in your product is simple. Just add 0.25% of Cure#1 or Cure#2 of the weight of the forcemeat to your product.
Cure # 1 (also known as Prague Powder # 1) is just salt + 6.25% sodium nitrite. It is used for products that later treated with heat (bacon, mortadella, etc) or dry-cured for less than one month. Cure # 2 (also known as Prague Powder # 2) goes to the rest of dry-cured meats. Cure # 2 has 1% of sodium nitrate in addition to the 6.25% sodium nitrite.
There is still, of course, the good old saltpeter. Some specialists utilize it, but in the realities of our world, you have to be a professional in order to do so.
Starter Cultures and Mold.
As you’ve mixed salt, cure, and spices with the forcemeat, the Starter Cultures come next. Added to the distilled water for around 30 minutes (you might need coffee to wake up, they need some time…), the cultures start the process of fermentation with the most active phase in the next 2-3 days. One can stuff sausage before or after this phase: the choice is totally yours.
I’ve always used the Starter Cultures. There are some who do not. There are professionals who domesticated them (it’s microflora, after all) around the table or in the facility. I’d not be afraid to eat sausages from some of them. But only from a select few. Moreover, as the people-who-know can testify, those high-end salumiere or charctutierie of the Old World who deny any hints of adding these cultures to their product actually…do so.
But dry-cured sausages were made without starter cultures for centuries! Correct?
It is true, but only to a point. In the good old days, some sausage-maker in that picturesque village in Tuscany would try to unlock the key to making a decent salumi. He’d mince some pork with knives, add sea salt (that would\could have nitrates too), saltpeter, spices, wine and cross fingers that the sausage would not stink. If it works out, there is still danger that someone will have a really nasty stomachache or just passes to the better world: a well-documented byproduct of this craft that killed many through the centuries. By the natural selection – and encouraged by the villagers who burned his shop to the ground few times – his sausages become not only safe, but develop a special aroma. Such special, indeed, that even Cosime de’ Medice from Florence would send for some. Salumiere’s apprentice would praise the master and children and grandchildren attribute the special taste – under the guidance of the wise priest whose chapel gets the coin from the shop — to the blessing of the local saint. How would they know that such miraculous product is simple consequence of microorganisms that abide on and under the table or even in the air of the shop? Or that these “good cultures,” as proper crusaders, kill off the “bad” ones that spoil the meat? And that special aroma is simple byproduct of the macrobacterial war…
Then this quality is passed through generations who work in the same shop to the end of the 20th Century. One sunny day – as Italian tourism industry tells us, there are no gloomy days in Tuscany — some smart microbiologist from Holland comes to visit the shop, swipes few samples, does his or her magic in a lab, and sells the product to an industrialist. Few years after, you click on something in an online store and in a week or so with the price of $10 come the same (actually, much improved) cultures that took generations of sausage-makers to develop over centuries in that unnamed Tuscan village.
Nowadays, the Starter Cultures come from different manufactures with variety of applications for the desired product. Typically, a recipe would state which culture one must use or provide a general parameter: “low-acidity\fast fermentation\”traditional\etc.” Each culture has its own requirements of humidity and temperature for fermentation process. In all cases, the requirements are clearly explained by the manufacturer and\or seller.
Do not be scared of dextrose as well. It’s just naturally occurring “D-glucose.” This product is utilized instead of raw sugar simply because dextrose feeds the starter cultures without adding the extra sweetness to your sausage.
There are also some cultures, developed for the use in whole muscles. From time to time, I fancy myself with Texel DCM-1. Unlike starter cultures for sausages, these are totally optional. They do infer to the product a special aroma and taste that not easy to describe, but revealed by other senses once tried.
Use of the “White Mold” (Penicillium Nalgiovense) is not obligatory, although often recommended and desirable. It protects your sausage from rancidity and “bad” molds while playing a role in the magical transition on the most basic level of the product by degrading lactic acid. There are some options on the market, but Bactoferm 600 Mold being the standard and choice for majority of artisans and “professionals.” Some of my colleagues from Eastern Europe simply buy molded sausage and put it in the Curing Chamber. Slowly but steady, everything becomes inoculated. Also, some of them experiment with molds that developed for cheese manufacture. They are reporting some “cheese” overtones in their dry-cured sausages. Although I have not tried it yet, it is something worth experimentation.
Before being applied to the casing the spores are dissolved in distilled water. Although adding dextrose is not necessary, it would bring you better results and allow more efficient utilization of your resources….
There are number of different technique to apply the mold to encased sausages. Some let the casing rest in the water with mold, some sprinkle the sausages with solution.
If mold is undesirable, just wipe it off with a cotton or linen cloth, dipped in vinegar or wine. Likewise, potassium sorbate works miracles.
Equilibrium Curing for Whole Muscles.
Instead of dipping whole leg or a neck in salt, counting the days per diameter of the cut, rinsing and resting the meat, some smart guys have developed a simple and bulletproof technique, generally known as the “Equilibrium Curing” method. Typically, it designated in recipes as a “EQ” method. It works for curing whole muscles; and works very well.
The process is simple. Weight the meat; add 2.5% to 3% of salt, 0.25% of cure, spices and whatever comes with the recipe and just vacuum seal the meat. Put it in refrigerator and turn it around every day or two while giving some “massage.” There are formulas for how long one should cure the whole muscle this way, but the basic rule is the following: for cuts like coppa – 1.5 to 2 weeks; for whole pig’s hind leg – a month and a week or so. Everything else goes between. I’ve kept some of the smaller cuts in fridge for a month: they come out to be just fine.
After this initial salting\curing, rinse (water or wine: your choice) the meat, dry with some proper paper towel, let it rest at least overnight in fridge, add aromatics, encase. The last step is recommended, but not required.
To add more confusion, there is another step after dry-curing is completed, also called “equilibration.” When the weight loss of the product reached desirable percentage, you might consider taking the casing off and vacuum-sealing the product for a week or two again. It balances the remaining water and improves the product. If your coppa or bresaola happened to be overdried, just add a splash of wine before sealing.
Remember that the magic of transformation does not end when the product is removed from the Curing Chamber. Without exceptions, if you vacuum-seal that capocollo and let it rest in the corner of the fridge, in six month from now it will be much better product.
Basic Formula for Dry-Cured Sausage.
If all stated above followed, the path to your own dry-cured sausage is simple. Find a recipe you like on this website or other reputable source. Here, every recipe is checked by the “wise guys” before publishing; the same cannot be stated to all other resources, including the printed ones.
Get some decent – this is cannot be overstressed enough– meat and keep everything on your kitchen immaculately clean. Some recipes require adding salt to the meat day-three before it goes to the grinder. Most – after the grinding. The meat should be semi-frozen to avoid smearing. This is best achieved if you cut it in 1-2 inch cubes and spread on some suitable sheet in freezer. Placing parts of the grinder and stuffer to the freezer is encouraged as well. After grinding the meat, add salt (2.5% to 2.75% from the weight of the meat), cure, and spices. After mixing, add the liquid. Then – starter cultures. The forcemeat should reach the texture and consistency at which a small “meatball,” placed on your palm vertically to the table, does not fall. After you start this journey, pretty soon you’ll “feel” when it is done…
After stuffing and fermenting – or fermenting and stuffing – everything goes to the Curing Chamber. The sausage generally considered to be ready for consumption when it loses 35% of the original weight. I prefer the range between 42% and up to 50%.
Just be careful. Once you start it, there is no way to put brakes on this “sausage making madness.” Charcuterie is more addictive than heroin…