Just Add Salt: How to Make Bacon and Pancetta at Home - The New York Times
New York Times
18th May 2016
Curing meat is why humans could stay put when there was nothing to grow, kill or steal. It is how conquerors and discoverers lasted while they traveled the world. But the refrigerator and the modern food industry — with its cans, plastic bags and chemicals — have made the average home cook afraid of this most simple and useful food preparation.
There is no good reason for this: All you really need is salt. And the result? Malcolm, my son, may have said it best, “Whatever is on my bagel is really good. ” He was a test taster for lox I made while madly seasoning and drying out flesh over several months for this article.
I had worried that I left the fish socked with salt in the refrigerator too long. The outside was dry, jerkylike, not the silky sort from a package of even average lox. I had to cut deeper — into fresh wild salmon infused with smoked salt, sugar, fennel fronds and fennel pollen — to reach the prize.
I was surprised by how good it was, and this is no humble brag. You can buy wonderful lox from a store: This was a different taste planet. It was also easy.
I made it myself with exactly the fish and flavors I wanted. And the boy liked it, a lot. Unlike the decision to become a better cook generally, which pays off every day, the resolve to do your own curing prompts a few basic questions before you start.
Mostly: Why bother? “It tastes so good is the only answer,” said Brian Polcyn, the chef and an author of one of the most popular books on curing, “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing. ” “A Ford Focus is a good car. It will get you Point A to Point B.
No shame in driving it. A Mercedes E class? You can feel the difference. ” A second question is one of ambition.
Curing spans a range from bacon or basic corned beef to the elaborate, salamis of Italian or French charcuterie. The latter take much practice dredging eBay and Amazon for humidifiers, grinders, slicers, casings and pH readers, even building a drying room for precise temperatures and moisture. I’m sure it’s a satisfying hobby, but it’s also an insane amount of work — and requires elevated caution about safety.
Cured food is, by definition, not cooked. Without proper precautions, it can foster dangerous bacteria. Rot can be good for wine, beer, cheese or yogurt.
It can also make you sick or die. Cured meat that involves fermentation raises that risk. Paul Bertolli, a former chef at Chez Panisse and an early advocate of bringing back suggests leaving the more complicated stuff to the experts.
A great introduction, though it does get complicated, is one of my favorite cookbooks, Mr. Bertolli’s “Cooking by Hand. ” He went on to found the website Fra’ Mani, dedicated to all things cured he learned from his Italian grandparents in California.
What I’ve been experimenting with for the last eight or so years is not grinding and fermenting but drying out solid pieces of meat as they are transformed with just salt, spices and air. Turns out our ancestors stumbled onto something magical: Salt preserves the meat by sucking the water out, retarding spoilage and concentrating flavor. The process also allows the added flavors to infuse into the meat, making it something different altogether, as well as making it more your own.
How long it lasts depends on whom you ask. It’s safe to say dried meat will last a few weeks in the refrigerator without problems and much longer if frozen, which is perfectly fine. Fresh products like bacon or nondried pancetta go rancid much more quickly and should be checked carefully.
Trouble is easy to detect: I’ve noticed dried meats don’t so much spoil as grow yellowish and don’t smell fresh. Then it’s time to toss them. Don’t think of curing as an heirloom exercise in recreating life how it used to be.
Like Mr. Bertolli, many proponents of curing learned it from relatives who did it partly out of love, partly out of necessity. So despite the last few generations of mass produced and preserved food, curing is an art that was never lost.
Maybe out of fashion, but ever alive. “For me, it’s the pleasure of making things you are going to consume yourself,” Mr. Bertolli said.
“There is a pride in it. ” I’ve developed a basic and useful repertoire that requires no special equipment, space or even much time: bacon, both American and Italian (pancetta) lox, and duck prosciutto, an impressive and fun little trick that I learned from Mr. Polcyn and that you can brag over at your next dinner party as if you just brought it back from Parma.
It cures for just one day under kosher salt alone. I started curing out of love of a particular dish, pasta carbonara. My family and I lived in Rome for four years, and when we moved back to New York in 2008, it was not easy to find guanciale, or cured pig cheek, carbonara’s essential ingredient, even though we’re in Brooklyn, rightly mocked and loved as the navel of foodie obtuseness.
Romans say with snobby certainty you can make carbonara only with guanciale, not pancetta or bacon. I’m fine with any, but there is no question that guanciale makes the dish taste like Rome. A local shop, Bklyn Larder in Park Slope, made its own and kept us supplied, that is until I came across a recipe from the Philadelphia pasta master Marc Vetri that he called shortcut guanciale.
It promised the exotic without much pain or cost: salt, sugar, pepper, garlic, coriander and rosemary rubbed over the cheek and plopped into a Ziploc bag in the refrigerator for just three days. To use right away, you roast it for about three hours. It is sublime.
We are fortunate enough to have a fireplace, so I thought: Why not dry it the way they do in Italy? I did, even if it drove the dogs mad, hanging temptingly just behind the screen in the unlit fireplace. Three weeks later I was rewarded with something I felt I didn’t do enough to deserve: It looked Old World on the outside, all tough and dry, the inside a strip of meat encased in almost buttery, flavorful fat. I realize most cooks aren’t going to find regular use for guanciale, though it adds wonders to other pastas, soups and even seafood dishes.
For me, though, it lit a fuse: I moved from the pig’s cheek to its belly. Salts, sugar and maple syrup are all you need for tremendous American bacon. Nutmeg, juniper, garlic, thyme and bay leaf make pancetta, which can be used dry or fresh and is singularly versatile in the kitchen.
Fish, salmon especially, cures in a few days and makes a New York bagel brunch a special occasion. (I just tried a recipe from Mr. Polcyn curing salmon with beets and fresh horseradish.
I recommend it.) The list goes on, for every taste and ambition: jerky, pastrami, corned beef, full hams. I don’t own a smoker, but it notches the art up with little effort.
There are websites devoted to prosciutto, which requires only salt, patience and the optimism of being alive in the year or so an entire pig leg takes to dry. Results, apparently, are spectacular. A few basics for new curers: It’s nice to have a fireplace, for temperature and air flow, but you can hang meat to dry in many places.
People use closets, garages, basements, old refrigerators, a kitchen’s nook. You won’t smell much of anything as it cures, since it generally is wrapped in plastic for many reasons, mostly because the meat gets quite wet as the salt pulls out the water. But the aroma is terrific: sweet and salty, with flavors like rosemary and cracked pepper at high decibel.
Then there are the inevitable controversies of curing, which I’ll cover here only in outline. This is what the Internet was invented for, and readers of age can decide for themselves. Last year the curing community was set in an uproar over a World Health Organization report that linked cured and processed meat with an increase in colorectal cancer.
As with many risks, experts say, moderation slims the chances considerably. There is also a theological debate over whether to use the most common curing salt, often called pink salt or Prague powder. It is a nitrite, and thus poisonous in quantity.
Some curers prefer alternatives as safer and more natural. Experts I consulted recommended using it (in the prescribed small amounts) for several reasons: It’s effective in killing dangerous bacteria and contributes to the taste and color of good cured meat. I do, without apology.
Finally, I’ll say that curing is handy (this was the whole point, before history was even invented) and can save a bundle. One recent rainy Sunday, our younger son, Nelson, came home from a day of hard New York skateboarding with a friend, starving, as tend to be. We had not strategized dinner.
We considered ordering out, but Indian food or sushi would run $60 at least. I looked in the fridge, and dinner assembled itself. A hunk of my old standby, guanciale, sat in a Ziploc.
I sautéed it, added some onion, olive oil, tomato, white wine, pepper flakes and pecorino. And there we had maybe the tastiest of Roman pastas, amatriciana. Took 20 minutes.
Cost less than $20 for four. The boys didn’t care where that salty bacon came from, but they ate and were happy. I was, too, and the pleasure was not just in my stomach.
Recipes: and Salmon | Duck Prosciutto | Shortcut Guanciale | Bacon.
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