How to make your own salumi
Cured meats at home? Authors show the way
The cure: Making salumi and other meats at home isn't as hard as you think, say authors Michael Ruhlman and Bryan Polcyn. (Matthew Bowie/For the Tribune)
If you'd asked me this a few weeks ago — when I hadn't yet read "Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing" — I would have offered a three-word answer: "Are you crazy?"
The idea of hanging raw, room-temperature meat at home for long stretches is not something I'd have recommended to any novice, especially not a home cook like me. But as I read Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's elegant, clear and inviting descriptions of home meat curing, I became increasingly convinced this might not only be doable, but advisable.
OK, a leg of prosciutto may never hang in my closet, but homemade lardo and pancetta? Sure. With Ruhlman and Polcyn's direction, curing meats sounds nearly foolproof.
(Ruhlman, a food writer, and Polcyn, a chef and charcuterie professor, co-authored "Charcuterie," one of the first comprehensive English language texts on cured meats.)
The most appealing aspect for this sustainable food lover is being able to know that my charcuterie is made from the finest meat possible — in this case pork from a local farmer who lets her jolly black Berkshires frolic and root all over her farm until the last day of their lives.
So, before I devoted a chunk of change and months of curing time to the cause, I wanted to talk to the authors for some assurance that I wouldn't end up with a big rotten piece of flesh hanging in my kitchen. I caught up with them before a salumi-making demo at Floriole Cafe and Bakery in Lincoln Park with chef Rob Levitt of The Butcher & Larder. Here's an edited transcript of the conversation.
Q: Is it really safe for the average home cook to be hanging raw chunks of meat in their homes?
Polcyn: If they read our book it is.
Ruhlman: It's a whole muscle so the bacteria can't get into the center of the muscle. As long as it dries properly, nothing is going to happen except on the outside. So as long as the outside is taken care of with mold or held in the proper conditions, it's fine.
Polcyn: The center of the meat is sterile, and the surface area is treated with salt, which pulls the moisture out and creates an inhospitable environment for microbes to grow. And so the outside becomes sterile in itself. So when you hang it at the right temperature of about 60 degrees with the right humidity, then the dehydration continues. And then as you lower the water activity, the flavor intensifies and you also have preservation.
Q: So let's say someone already owns your famous book, "Charcuterie," do they really need "Salumi"?
Polcyn: Yeah, if you wanna do the Italian version and dried meats, you need "Salumi." If you want to cook things more you need "Charcuterie."
Ruhlman: When we went to a salumeria in Italy, it was like a Willy Wonka's world of pork with case after case of all kinds of salami, lonza (loin), belly, spalla (ham made with the shoulder), prosciutto, and I said I don't even know what I am looking at here. When we got back, I said this can all be broken down in about eight parts of the pig, but it seems really complicated because they turn it into so many variations.
What I am most proud of is that the book breaks down what seems to be a complicated subject into its component parts. There are basically eight things you need to know and that is what I try to do with all my books, simplify things so people are not intimated by cooking.
The second thing we do is Brian describes how to break down the pig the way the Italians do, which is much different from the way they do in America. And we have illustrations of both the Italian (and American) breakdown because a lot more people ... are going in with friends and buying half hogs. And it's really not that hard ... if you know what you're doing.
Q: Lets say someone is a beginner. What salumi should they make?
Polcyn: Coppa. Coppa is so easy. In "Charcuterie," the simplest recipe is corned beef. Like that, if you follow the directions and understand the concept you'll have success.
Ruhlman: You almost don't even need ideal drying conditions. It's hard to screw up. This has been going on for thousands of years, but we've gotten away from it so everybody is really scared of bacteria.
Polcyn: We are a generation from losing a lot of this subject matter. Our parents may have been doing this kind of thing out of necessity. They weren't thinking of making artisanal coppa, they were thinking what is the cheapest best way to get food on the table and to preserve the meat.
But our kids think that all food comes on this white Styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic. This whole farm to table concept, this is the real deal.
Q: So honestly how good will my coppa be compared to stuff I can buy?
Polcyn: Here's what it comes down to. It's not the recipe that will make the difference, because the recipe is basically salt and pork. Chefs aren't the artists. Nature is the true artist. So if you start with a (breed like a) Berkshire, cut it properly and follow the book, you will have a great coppa. As good as you can get in Italy? I don't know.