Brine Cured Ham 101

Having set out a basic approach to dry curing, where the rub mix containing both the curing ingredients and the sweeteners and aromats and spices are all applied dry to the surface of the meat, we can now look at wet methods, where a liquid brine is mixed and the meat immersed in this in order to cure and absorb the flavour elements.

Brining is still an excellent method that we use a lot commercially, when curing different cuts. It’s incredibly efficient, in that once the meat is cut up into it’s primal (shoulders, bellies, loins and hams) they can all be put into the same brine tank to cure and simply be pulled out at different times, when each of them would have been suitably cured. This is the traditional curing approach for the creation of cured collars, ham hocks, back and streaky bacon, as well as typical gammons, and allows one brine cure to be mixed for all of them.

For the sake of this article though, I’m going to concentrate on methods most suitable for the home user wanting to brine cure their own ham, but be aware that once you have mastered this simple technique, it can be applied to many other cuts, including immersion cure bacons or ham hocks.

The method that is by far the simplest and doesn’t rely, as the big brine tank methods described above do, on the precise timing of when to pull the meat from the cure in order to stop it becoming too salty, is the 2:1 measured brine approach.

For me, it is the equivalent in simplicity and reliability of the measured dry cure equilibrium approach, and it’s beautiful simplicity is that the brine should weigh half of the meat weight and that the brine is of a known and adequate salinity, which ensures effective curing, but can never be overly salty, even if left too long. (note: Credit is due to Oddly, Phil and Paul on Franco’s great sausagemaking forum for successfully developing this method)

This simple approach to beautiful homemade hams is below.

STEP 1: THE MEAT

As with the discussion over bacon above, the fundamental rule of curing is that the end product will only be as good as what you put in at the beginning. Quality of the ingredient is key. Source outdoor reared (ideally pastured or woodland) pork, and preferably an older animal, rather than an immature, factory farmed and basically flavourless protein. This will provide you with a flavour, texture and intramuscular fat content that makes for better product.

For the purposes of this example, we’re going to talk about boned leg meat, to provide us with the classic cylindrical ham that is most popular. If you don’t fancy doing this yourself, ask your butcher for a boned, rolled and well tied joint of the size you prefer. This should be relatively lean, but with a nice, even covering of fat to it’s exterior, which is essential for flavour and the cooking process.

STEP 2: SALT & CURE

Brine strength is important here, and rather like the dry cure approach, there is a margin for personal preference. It’s not for anyone to tell anyone else what the best salt content is, as this is purely a matter of taste. But there are lower limits, below which the cure will not be effective and upper limits beyond which the product will be inedible. There is also to be born in mind whether the ham will be eaten hot or cold, as with all cookery, this will effect how the seasonings taste.

My recommendation is to start at somewhere around a 10% salt content for your brine. This will then be the first weight in your 2:1 cure recipe set out below:

Basic brine is to use a 2:1 ratio meat to liquid.

1000g meat

Brine
Water 420.5g
Salt 50g
Sugar 25g
Cure #1 4.5g
(or all in one salt/cure mix 54.5g)
Total Amount 500g

You can then add the sweetener of your choice, be that honey, simple white sugar or a dark
muscavado, in order to counteract some of the saltiness and also to give an appealing sweetness to the ham.

Some spices and aromats of your choice can then be added to this, to create the flavours within the brine that you want in your ham. Once this is done the liquid forms the balance of the brine weight required to total half your meat’s weight.

This liquid may generally be water, but could just as easily be a beer, a cider, or a wine added in at whatever ratio you fancy trying. Some recommend cooking off alcohol when used in a brine, other recipes have perfectly good success without doing so, it will generally depend on what the alcohol content was in the first place.

So, in order to come up with the calculation, you take your, for example, one kilo boned leg joint and know that you need to create a brine with the total weight of 500 grams. The salt content, with it’s nitrite mix included, would be 29.5 grams to give you the required salt content in the finished ham, the sugar is 25 grams to provide the balance, meaning that we need to complete the 500 grams with 420.5 grams of water (or other liquid). This mix should be heated briefly to get the salts and sugars to dissolve, and then allowed to cool completely.

STEP 3: IMMERSION CURE PHASE

Then, the meat can be immersed completely within the brine, for the curing phase.

Given how efficient this method is, and the relatively small amount of brine we’re using, it’s the best that a reasonably tight fitting container is used, which will allow the brine to completely cover the meat, or I would recommend the use of a ziplock or other type of sealing bag, as this allows the meat to be put in, the brine to be poured in and then the excess air to be blown out until the meat is entirely surrounded by the brine. The bag then being sealed, this can be popped into the fridge without any mess, where it can be turned and generally jiggled around occasionally during the curing phase, which follows the same rule of thumb as the dry cure (one day per half inch to centre, plus two days).

Important though to bear in mind, that the beauty of this approach is that leaving it longer, or even accidentally forgetting about it, doesn’t matter. The ham will not become over salty, as you have limited the available salt to the level that you want.

STEP 4; EQUALISATION

As with all of these cured meats, once the initial curing stage is complete, the important
equalization stage must be remembered, however tempting it may be to get stuck in. Remember, what you are creating here is specifically supposed to be a high quality product and not the wet, flavourless junk that you may as well buy at the supermarket.

So once the ham is out of the brine, give it a quick rinse and pat dry, before setting it on a rack back in the fridge to rest, equalize, and for the flavours to really develop. This is especially important here, as the thicker the piece of meat, the more time this will take. Setting your ham aside like this for a week will pay dividends.

And there you have it, quality brine cured ham, which you can adjust to your liking, using exactly the same method, providing everything from a simple, everyday sandwich ham to a dark beer and treacle cured treat.

Once you have produced your bacons and hams or whatever other goodies you’ve created following these methods, the options are then open for hot smoking or gentle cold smoking before use.

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Bacon 101

Here, I’m going to set out an actual dry cure method using a measured equilibrium (EQ) approach which is the simplest and most efficient way to make bacon with a known salt content and which, as long as it has been given at least the minimum time given to cure, does not rely on precise timing and will not get anymore salty if left longer and nor will it require any soaking or other nonsense to make it edible.

For those interested in brine cures, which have a lot of benefits, in terms of the subtle introduction of liquid born flavours, you can simply follow the ham cure section below as this will work just as well for bacon or any other cut you choose for that matter.

Anyway here we go with basic bacon 101, which will provide with top quality, dry cured bacon inside a week and no excuse to ever pay through the nose for supermarket crap of unknown origin ever again.

STEP 1: THE MEAT

Any cut will do, we are working on the basis here that for starters, we are going to be using pork, but for those reading who don’t dabble in hog, you can do this with lamb or beef quite happily.

Always get the very best meat you can, either direct from your farmer who’s livestock and methods you know and trust, or from a butcher who can vouch for the same things in terms of where it came from. Like all good food, the results are inextricably linked to the quality of the ingoing ingredients. If you want the best bacon, you need the best pork.

Having sourced your meat supply, decide on your cut. I’m a huge fan of well made shoulder bacon, but there’s no getting away from the fact that loin (back) and belly (streaky) are the favourite cuts. Personally, I much prefer streaky as it it’s fat content produces a much more flavourful result and I find it tends to take cure flavourings much better, but each to their own.

Once you have your meat, you can skin it or not, depending on your preference and trim to the size you want your bacon, then, most importantly, weigh the meat and make a note of this.

STEP 2: SALT AND CURE MIX

There are various ways of doing this with ready made proprietary ‘all purpose’ curing salt, which will be a mix of salt and sodium nitrite (the fast acting antioxidant and curing agent), or you can mix your own by using salt and cure #1 (often known as prague powder 1). This is a very carefully measured and perfectly consistent mix of salt and sodium nitrite, which can then be mixed with the rest of the salt to provide a cure mix of a known strength.

There are now also celery juice alternatives for use in curing, which give a consistent and known strength if for any reason you prefer to use vegetable based nitrate rather than the fast acting nitrite commonly used. I would note here that many people have made a lot of effort to promote nitrite free curing methods. I would say however, that most of the reasons given for this in terms of perceived health risks are fundamentally misinformed and ignore many of the reasons we use nitrite when making bacons for taste, colour and flavour as well as safety.

For me, bacon without nitrite is salt pork. A perfectly respectable product in its own right, but hey, if you like grey bacon, and insist on thinking there is something wrong with nitrite use, knock yourself out.

Having sourced this ingredient, you can decide upon the percentage rate that you prefer. Generally, a good guide, is between 20 and 25 grams per kilo and the increments between these two levels will have a surprisingly large effect on taste. I tend to go with 2.25 to 2.5 myself, but this is a personal thing. When talking in terms of grams per kilo, this is total salt/cure mix, so we’re talking 20 grams of all purpose cure or 20 grams being the combined weight of salt and cure #1.

Carefully weigh out the right amount of salt/cure mix for the weight of meat (see step1), so for every kilo of meat you weigh out for example, 20 grams of salt/cure mix.

STEP 3: APPLICATION

At this point, all that is to be done to create great, simple, classic tasting bacon is to rub your salt/cure mix all over the meat until all of the weighed out mixture has been applied evenly in a rough, 75% meat side and 25% fat/skin side, ensuring that every bit of the mix adheres well, especially in any pockets.

What I am concentrating on here is the ingredients actually needed to cure safely and to provide a simple and delicious bacon. Sweeteners, spices and aromatic herbs can be added on top of this basic mix to you hearts content, and experiment away knowing that underneath these additions is an effective and reliable cured product.

STEP 4: CURING PHASE

For dry cure, the meat simply then needs to be rested on a slightly tilted tray or plate (alternatively on a wire rack above a suitable tray or plate), in a fridge with the occasional turning. For a period long enough for the salt/cure mix to be drawn right through the muscle. As all meats vary to some extent, in terms of density as well as fat content and dispersal, definite curing times can vary slightly, but a reliable rule of thumb is that one day for every half inch of thickness to the centre of the meat, i.e. a two inch thick belly would need two days, a four inch thick loin would take 4 days. Then add a day to this total. Meaning that your belly would be 3 days and your loin 5.

STEP 5: EQUALISATION & FLAVOUR DEVELOPMENT

Once the initial curing has had enough time, give the bacon a quick rinse and set back into the fridge to equalise.

This stage is very important for achieving a consistent flavour, as once the curing agents have got to the middle, and met one another as they headed in from each side, they will then tend to spend the next period balancing themselves out through the meat, insuring a consistent level throughout, regardless of the impact that fat caps or differences in density may have had in the process of the cures.

After letting the bacon equalise for minimum of two days, ideally nearer a week, you will have firm, dry, perfectly cured product with a consistent and well developed flavour throughout.

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Bacon Part Two: ‘Measured Dry Cure’

John Gower

John Gower

Brines are great, I love them as a way of introducing flavours and I love the way you can chuck a whole heap of pig in a bucket and simply pull various bits out at different times (hocks first, then belly, then back, then hams). However its a lot more space and time consuming to get right and, in my view isn’t where the beginner looking for convenience and confidence building should start.

‘Salt box’ is another oft used term for basically burying your pork in salt rather than brine. A solid, rather than liquid, immersion if you will. Again its a great method in some circumstances but, again, is not where I think we should start. It uses a ton of salt you don’t need and requires perfect timing or otherwise unnecessary soaking before your product is at the right salinity to enjoy.

Then there is the ‘EQ dry cure in a bag’ routine. Its simple, clean, easy and on the right lines but can also often lead to the meat being in contact with the brine created if you are not careful and this is not good. Its a great method when introducing flavours which may be liquid or sticky but again fails the test as the best place to start for me. Its also absolutely not ‘dry cure’ but more a carefully measured, limited brine method.

So, here we are at last, my suggested starting point for all beginners bacon is the simplest of all. Measured dry cure.

First, get your (highest quality you can find) meat, trim it up and weigh it.

Next, decide what final salt content suits your tastes, there may be some trial and error here to find this definitively, for your own tastes, but nothing suggested here will be inedible or even unpleasant as a starting point from which to find your happy medium. I would recommend starting somewhere between 2.5 to 3 % (so to keep it simple either shoot for 2.5, 2.75 or 3%). you may eventually decide you like less, or more, thats up to you.

I typically use a sea salt/sodium nitrite mix (99% salt and 1% SN) but a homemade mix of your chosen salt and Cure#1 will work just as well, and it is the total weight of this ‘curing salt mixture’ (salt plus cure) that you want to add to your meat.

So You have weighed your 5kg of lovely pork belly and you have weighed out 125g or 150g of curing salt mixture.

Then rub it all on to the meat concentrating around three quarters of it on the meat side. Make sure you apply it to every side, edge, nook and cranny until all of the salt mixture has adhered. You may be surprised by how little there actually is, but it will just cover it all nicely so don’t be tempted to add more and ruin the purpose of ‘measured’ dry curing.

Now lay it in the fridge over a plate, tray, dish etc ideally on a rack and turn every day or so. Fridge temps are fine as we are using nitrite so there is no waiting for nitrate to convert or reliance on the bacteria that do that being at a comfortable (for them) temperature. It will just get straight on with curing the meat.

The average belly will have completed its initial cure in just three or four days (I know! Great isn’t it!) but the beauty of this method is that if you leave it longer, forget or are otherwise delayed for any reason it just doesn’t matter as there will never be any more salt in the meat than the correct amount you added to begin with, so it will never ‘go over’ or need soaking to make it palatable.

What it will need, and this is vital, is a (very) quick rinse and pat down and then to sit back in the fridge to equalise for at least two days before use, a bit longer if you can bear to wait.

Made this way it will keep well, will only improve if hung or left for a bit longer to mature and can be seen as a ‘base bacon’ providing you with the basic cure from which any experiments with flavours, sugars, aromatics, smoking methods etc you may choose to add are only limited by your imagination, safe in the knowledge that the underlying product will be safely cured, not too salty and ready to eat within a week (which is comforting).

We will look at all of these other steps and variations in later posts but for now a basic bacon is so easy, so simple, so make some!

Basic Bacon!

Basic Bacon!

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Bacon Part One: All about the base.

John Gower

John Gower

Bacon, as many a GIF and T-shirt exclaims, is the gateway meat. I mean, who doesn’t love it? so making your own doesn’t ever sound like a bad idea – ‘as much bacon as you want, whenever you want it’ its not exactly a hard sell, right?

As luck would have it its a particularly easy one to cure to. Its not like some bone in ham or Culatello, no magic winds need to sweep down the right mountain to get it made, anyone with a fridge is basically ready to go.

Most of the trouble and confusion actually seems, to me, to start precisely because people love bacon so much. People become so passionate that we end up hearing bacon MUST be done this way, or made that way, must be hot smoked, must be cold smoked, must be sweet, must be salty, must be dry cured, must be brined, etc., etc. until anyone new to the scene has a head that’s spinning.

I have come to fully accept that there is a trinity of bacon. There is unsmoked (sometimes known as green) bacon, there is cold smoked bacon, and there is hot smoked bacon. We might all have individual preferences but they are all welcome here as part of the family and to a greater or lesser extent you cant have one without the other.

I also appreciate there are also different cuts that have similarly loyal followings. Here in England I would say that back bacon (loin) is the most common, although streaky (belly) is also universally available. We have a tradition of curing whole middles so are used to back, belly and rolled bacons that include both. In other places I fully understand belly is king and, given that it’s the most universally used cut I will generally refer here to making what we would call ‘Streaky bacon’ for the sake of simplicity.

Sorry if this preamble is all a bit long winded but, in fact, this relates to my point. Curing your own bacon can easily become far more complicated and confusing than it ever needs to be, ignore that and lets start at the beginning.

I am going to try here, in very simple terms over the course of some related posts, to break down some ‘Bacon Basics’ in order to hopefully explain to beginners a good grounding and simple technique which will lead, first and foremost to tasty reliable bacon. Once you have this cracked then the tweaking along the road to your personal perfection can be done confidently, knowing that the underlying product is both safe and a solid foundation to work off.

In later posts I will look at other methods, flavours, suitable variations of cure agent, different sugars and liquid additions to the bacon making process as well as look at smoking methods and approaches, but first we will look at the foundation on which all these other things are based.

Fundamentally, for me, all bacon is just pork cured with salt and nitrite. Before everyone kicks off I said “for me”. Some folks don’t like curing with nitrite personally I think its part of the taste that actually makes bacon, bacon. Don’t get me wrong, other ‘bacon like’ products are fantastic be they Ventreche, Pancetta or Schinken but they are fantastic in their own right. I also agree that the taste of the meat itself can be more pronounced, more delicate etc without nitrite cure, and that’s great – but for me Bacon has to have that ‘tang’, else its just salted pork, so I am not getting into them here.

If we agree with (or even just entertain) my premise, that basic bacon is pork so cured, then whats the easiest, simplest, cleanest and most consistent way to achieve the desired result? For me, for here, that’s easy – and it’s what I will call, ‘measured dry cure‘.

Basic Bacon!

Basic Bacon!

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Recordkeeping

Photo of Michele Pfannenstiel, aka Dr. HAACP

Michele Pfannenstiel, aka Dr. HAACP

Know this: When it comes to food safety, if you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen. And frankly, if you don’t write it down the way the USDA/FDA wants you to write it, you will get written up for lousy record-keeping. All good food safety plans, HACCP or no, require records. Keep records and do it correctly.

Why? Because good records are essential to good operations. Even if you are a one woman shop, you need good records to work with. It baffles me that “Establish Record Keeping” is the 7th step in the 7 step HACCP process. I’ve changed up my training to start off with teaching good record keeping and records maintenance because from the minute a producer/processor decides to write a HACCP, they need to start keeping records.

First, let’s get the regulations understood:
USDA records requirements are outlined in 9CFR 417.5 and must have

  • Date and time of each activity
  • Each entry is initialed
  • Information is entered at the time observed
  • Actual observations and values are recorded
  • Reviewers signature and date of review

FDA records requirements are outlined in 21CFR 123 (juice) and 21CFR 120 (seafood)

  • Name and location of processor or importer
  • Date and time of activity
  • Initials/signature of person doing recording
  • Production ID code when appropriate
  • Processing info entered at the time observed
  • Actual observations and values obtained
  • Reviewers signature and date of review

But, the fun doesn’t stop there. Good records should also follow these other guidelines:

Do not recopy. Recopying records is an indication that a processor wants to expunge them of something. Real records from production are messy, and that shows that the plant takes record keeping seriously. Include Company/plant name and location. An inspector needs to know where the record was generated. And even if you have a small operation, you’d be surprised how quickly geography of what record was generated where can become confusing. Put the title of the record on the record.

Be really specific. Time/Temperature log of what product? What cooler? Include the critical limit that you are monitoring. This applies to monitoring records. The person who is writing the records needs the critical limit in front of them, because they have to meet the critical limit every time. Document Corrective Actions taken and by whom, if necessary. CAR (corrective action records) are their own records, and need to comply with the USDA/FDA records requirements.

Review them. Have an SOP that details how you review your records. Retain them as your regulatory agency requires (1 year for slaughter and chilled products; 2 years for frozen, preserved, or shelf stable; 3 years for canned). Consider a records access SOP. Production records are FOIA-able (Freedom of Information Act), and once they are in the hands of your inspector, they can become public record. Be smart, and do your best to ensure that never happens.

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PEDv affects all life stages

A new virus, identified and isolated in May 2013, has been wreaking havoc on pig growers and as we go into our new piglet season, I thought I’d take some time to explain Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDv). PEDv is a corona virus similar to Transmissible Gastroenteritis (TGE) another terrible cause of piglet death. We know that PEDv is spread through fecal contamination and if manure is dried and airborne, aerosolized transmission is possible. Corona viruses are named because they show a halo around them under an electron microscope. That halo is what virologists call an envelope. The good news is that enveloped viruses are much less likely to survive in a clean environment because the envelope deteriorates rapidly. The bad news is that PEDv seems so infectious that it doesn’t have to last long in the environment to infect the next pig.

What does this all mean for our small producers? So far the recommendations for prevention of transmission are to avoid other pigs, avoid transporting with other pigs, keep birds away from pigs, and practice biosecurity. That’s all well and good for large hog farms with indoor housing and multiple trucks for transportation, but what’s a small diversified farm to do? Birds transmit TGE and PEDv and birds are a fact of life on a farm. I think re-creating Silent Spring in response to a virus is a bit of an overreaction. A qualitative risk analysis is in order and then some concrete steps to take to reduce risk and deal with the hazard of PEDv is a good place to start.

First, the danger of PEDv is that it infects all stages of pigs causing explosive diarrhea and has 100% mortality in preweaned pigs. Farmers experience high costs to treat as well as loss of productive pigs while older pigs recover from the dehydration and electrolyte loss. It’s very expensive to treat a pig that’s not putting on weight for market.

What’s the risk of your operation?
So what farms are at risk? Right now, this virus has been identified at large hog operations, but, that’s where the vets and research money are. Smaller producers who can’t or don’t implement practices are at very high risk. The highest risk small producers would be ones who are close to large hog operations. If there are birds coming in and out of the tractor trailers parked outside, those birds are flying to other farms. Other at risk small producers are ones who buy at auction and bring piglets back to the farm to grow. Lower risk producers would be farms that produce all replacement gilts in house and take finishers to slaughter themselves. Also lower risk would be farmers with low stocking densities that prevents high concentrations of the virus in any one spot if a pig gets sick. Many diversified farmers fall along a spectrum of risk with their practices.
So what can small hog producers do? First off, don’t feed garbage, pigs or pig waste to your pigs. If you have a pig that dies of explosive diarrhea, incinerate it. Do not compost it and don’t grind it into food for the pigs. While yes, it is legal to grind up piglets from your own farm and feed it to sows, it’s a terrible idea for a lot of reasons. Remember any off farm meat or garbage that is fed to pigs must be cooked first and there is permitting and inspection that goes along with a garbage cooker. Garbage in, garbage out and disease transmission to boot. Don’t do it. Expose the sows to the diarrhea, because that’s where the viral load is.

Second, practice biosecurity. Do not let vehicles that go on other farms with pigs onto your farm. If they must come on, such as your veterinarian’s truck, make sure the truck is disinfected first. Spray wheels and bumpers. Make sure personnel wear clean booties and coveralls. Wash hands. If you must clean up the barn, do not put the hose on high and blast the diarrhea off the walls, because you’ll be aerosolizing it at the same time. If it is on the floors, you can spread clay cat litter down to absorb moisture and shovel up the remains. Then, use low pressure water and a mop or squeegee to clean the floor of the barn. Then, once all organic material is up from the surfaces, you can disinfect it with sodium carbonate (washing soda) and iodine based disinfectants.

Third, if your herd is affected, repopulate from a negative herd. But before you repopulate, let the virus blow through your herd. While a vaccine is in the works, natural immunity is going to have to play a part. Isolate any new animals for three weeks before your house them with your herd.

Viruses in pigs are complex and they cause a lot of heartache to producers. But, being aware of new diseases that are in the pig population and practicing good biosecurity and hygiene can go a long way to reducing the risk of PEDv.

Thanks to Dr. David Reeves at the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine for his help on this article.

If you would like to discuss the topic of this post with Dr. HACCP and others, please do so on The Salt Cured Pig’s Facebook Group.

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Welcome to the Salt Cured Pig food safety blog!

This is where we thread the needle between old school pork production, and new school food safety. Here’s where we talk HACCP (Hazard Analysis for Critical Control Points), sanitation, good manufacturing practices, and traditional production. We are going to talk microbiology and biochemistry, chemicals and cures, all while respecting the animals we work so hard to raise. The trick to doing this is to have a conversation. I can lecture food safety, but wow, boring. Everyone learns more when we work together to make awesome cured pork.

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