Originally published on December 4, 2017
Author Meredith Leigh
We hear from Meredith Leigh author of The Ethical Meat Handbook Complete Home Butchery, Charcuterie and Cooking for the Conscious Omnivore and the recently released Pure Charcuterie: The Craft and Poetry of Curing Meat at Home. Today Meredith shares with us her top 5 reasons to cure our own meat.
Curing meats at home doesn’t have to be difficult, and once the home cook has even a basic understanding of the technique and process of charcuterie, he or she can realize a multitude of benefits in the curing craft. Of course, the principle reason to learn and to create is to experience delicious food, but there are a host of other benefits just waiting to be realized. Here are the top 5 things I seem to enjoy the most about my charcuterie skill. Perhaps they will help tip your hand towards trying a few homemade lunchmeats, hand-cured bacon, or other charcuterie items in your household.
Curing meats usually requires us to seek out cuts of the animal that you wouldn’t typically throw on the grill, and it asks us to buy larger portions. As a butcher, this gives me an incredible appreciation of charcuterie craft, and as mother and head of household, the price tag attached to lesser used cuts and larger portions is an added plus. You may not know that one of the things driving up the per pound price on the meat you buy, especially if you are seeking ethically raised meat from small-scale and local farms, is the exorbitant cost of processing. This is to say that you’re not just paying the farmer for the cost of raising the animal, but you’re also paying for the cost to slaughter and cut the animal into usable portions. Sure, you say, that’s to be expected, but you may not realize that the more fabrication you ask for from the farmer or processor, the more expensive that meat becomes. If you tackle some home butchery yourself, or curing projects, you can often access larger muscle groups at a lower price per pound, which saves the farmer processing fees, and saves you money in the grocery budget. Not to mention, your choice of lesser used muscle groups in some cases is going to drive demand for the whole animal, making better use of each carcass and increasing the farmer’s profit potential. I think they call that a win-win-win situation.
From left to right: prosciutto, coppa, pancetta, culatello
Charcuterie was first practiced as a way to make use of the animal when there was no ability to immediately cook everything or to store it via the use of refrigeration. It is, by tradition, a beautiful method of storing and putting food up, and you can still realize this benefit in your kitchen today. While cured meats may require some extra time in your kitchen repertoire, their inclusion in your overall pantry inventory will eventually save you time in the longrun. I guarantee you, there is nothing more satisfying as a cook than when my family is hungry, they think there’s no ready solution to that hunger without a lot of effort at the stove, and I pull out a salami or a cured ham. Admittedly, once you get started with homemade charcuterie, you’re likely to get hooked, and your stash of lovingly made slow food will start to accumulate for those on-the-go moments, those backpacking trips, and those school lunch emergencies in a way that will surprise and delight you.
This one is huge. My readers and my students have admitted the most shock when they realize how many additives, colorants and sugars are added to mass produced cured meats in order to quickly develop shelf stability, or to achieve the color or counteract the off-flavors incurred in processing. Taking matters into your own hands on the home front empowers you to be the judge of what you eat and don’t. Sound charcuterie practice requires a few lessons in food science, and once you understand the principles controlling shelf stability and the potential pathogens you might encounter in your meat curing adventures, you can omit additives and preservatives that you might find on the supermarket shelves. One big example is in the use of nitrite in meat curing. While I do not believe nitrite should be flatly condemned, I do understand the controversy surrounding this ingredient. The primary reason for the use of nitrite in cured meats is to counteract the toxicity of botulism spores. While this is supremely worthy, it is known that cooking a product preserved with nitrate produces nitrosamine, which is a carcinogen. The home salumist has the benefit of being able to omit nitrite from the process when curing any meat that he or she plans to cook to temperature, since the cooking process will kill the botulism anyway, and simultaneously a nitrite free homemade product will not produce nitrosamine. This is just one example of the ways in which an understanding of the science and process of charcuterie allows us purity on the home scale that we often cannot realize by buying food at the supermarket
Lean & fat components are weighed separately, to establish the proper ratio
There is little question that creativity blossoms when you get to have final say. Once you understand the ratios behind cured meat recipes, you will be amazed at the opportunity for imagination when it comes to flavor pairings, or producing interesting textures and eating experiences, to name a few. My books seek to help you understand the essential building blocks for cured meat success, without strict subscriptions that tie you to recipes. The emphasis is on empowering the home cook to create his or her own recipes by communicating the relationship between ingredients and the science behind the process. Piggy backing on the discussion of thrift, above, you can also leverage your creativity by incorporating leftovers or unique ingredients into your curing projects, thereby discovering inventive flavor profiles while also making use of all the food in your fridge or pantry. When you attach craft to the efficient use of all the herbs, spices, sauces, and liquids available, cooking becomes an adventure of many creative proportions, rather than a chore and an engine of waste and want. Here’s to kombucha sausages, herb salted hams, and pomegranate bacon.
From left to right: pate gratin in lard, Working Woman's Lunchbox Pate, and Pate en Croute
A beautiful attribute of charcuterie is the interaction and collaboration it requires with nature. Firstly, in the sourcing of truly inspiring ingredients that are reflective of a healthy relationship with the soil, with clean good water, and with vibrant animals, and secondly in the symbiosis with beneficial microorganisms that charcuterie encompasses. In Pure Charcuterie, I note the importance this connectivity plays in my cured meat practice- how the healthy soil microorganisms on resilient farms make way for the hog’s growth and development, and then fermenter and curing microorganisms, when respected and provided for in charcuterie practice, make way for the successful cured salami. There is a wonder and a reverence that charcuterie engenders in the home cook, a respect and a humility at the power of nature and its mechanisms that I have encountered in almost every person I have met who practices any kind of food preservation. Cured meats are no different, and in some ways, the successful preservation of raw muscle is almost more amazing to us than the preservation of a plant, somehow, it feels like a feat of science and imagination that we might not have believed we were capable of. And the truth is, we aren’t, at least not solely. To truly master the craft of cured meats, the cook must understand and respect his or her pact with nature, and once this is achieved, I find there is daily wonder and awe in the projects I manifest, from the poof of fungal spores in my koji incubator, to the deep unparalleled color of a salami I’ve just cut into for the first time.
Buttermilk Boudin Blanc
There are so many reasons to adopt a craft of some sort, and food crafts deliver not only delicious and nutritious sustenance, but also a host of other satisfactions. I’d love to hear from other readers about the biggest reasons they keep curing and preserving foods. The above reasons are just a few of mine. And if you aren’t already engaging in home food preservation, I hope this discussion has potentially tipped your hand towards giving charcuterie a try.