It’s basically just dehydrating the meat. You’re just rubbing in salt and drying it out. The meat absorbs the salt and the salt helps prevent any botulism in the meat. It helps prevent any bacteria that may get into the meat. You can do a wet brine or a dry brine. The difference is just what it sounds like - the wet brine involves water. The process is a lot faster if you have a tumbler but we don’t have one. So I do everything the old-fashioned way.
What is a tumbler?
It’s exactly like it sounds. It’s a big machine that keeps the meat and the salt inside and keeps it rolling all day long. With a tumbler, you can cure meat ten times faster, but we don’t have one so I turn my meat once a day by hand. It takes a lot longer but you get the same result.
What ingredients do you use?
The main ingredient is salt. You have to have salt or else you can’t cure your meat. Other than salt, it just depends on what you’re curing and what you prefer. When I cure our bacon, I like to sweeten it a little so I add some brown sugar, thyme, and ground black pepper. It really is up to you what you use. But whether you do the dry or the wet brine, you have to have salt.
Does it matter what kind of salt you use?
A lot of people use cure salt. It’s mostly called pink salt actually. It’s just sodium nitrate. But using it is what makes the bacon or ham have that nice pink tint to it in the store. It also helps make sure there’s no botulism or bacteria. Personally, I just use regular kosher salt. I don’t see the pink salt as necessary. I actually like the color of the meat I cure. It’s a mix between gray and a dark maroon. It doesn’t sound too appealing, but I think it’s beautiful. The pink salt isn’t expensive, but it can be harmful and considered a carcinogen in large quantities. So I just don’t really see it as necessary when the regular kosher salt works just fine.
How do you cure your meats?
I use a dry brine. I just would rather not deal with the extra hundred pounds of water weight that comes with a wet brine. With the wet, the meat has to be completely submerged in a salt water solution. I prefer the dry so you don’t have to deal with all of that. So with our beef, I put the dry rub on it, pack salt around it, and put it in the fridge. Once it’s in the fridge, I turn it over once a day. I also pack more salt in there if it looks like most of it has been absorbed. The movement of turning the meat helps move the process along. It could take anywhere from a week to a month for the meat to be completely cured. Once it’s done, you can put it on the smoker. Turning the meat every day and packing more salt in is what’s most important.
What are the benefits of using a smoker?
I like it because you get that smokiness in the meat. It gives it a nicer aroma and flavor. In my opinion, I think smoking the meat helps keeps flies off it too. But you’re really just preserving it. The smoke smell is an extra bonus and tastes good if you have the right wood. You have to get a cherry or an apple wood to add good flavor. Smoking is really simple. You’re just letting the smoke touch the meat all day. It’s usually only 80 degrees in the smokehouse. You aren’t actually cooking the meat, you’re just adding extra flavor and preserving it further so that there’s no chance of bacteria growing. Using a smoker isn’t necessary though. You can just brine the meat and hang it in the refrigerator at 45-50 degrees and let it dry out that way. I prefer the smoking because of the extra flavor.
How long does the meat last once it has been cured?
It depends on what it is, but with the proper refrigeration, it should last at least a month. After you’ve cured and smoked it, you can get a good month out of it before it starts to turn on you. If you freeze it, it will last even longer. A lot of people get weirded out about frozen meat and I don’t understand why. If you freeze the meat right after it’s butchered and cut, it’s the same exact thing when you thaw it out. Freezing your meat right away is actually the best thing to do to ensure it stays fresh longer. Don’t be afraid to freeze the extra cured meat. We do it all the time and it’s nice to pull it out in the middle of winter.
Is your process something that someone can replicate at home?
Absolutely. It’s not a hard thing to replicate. All you really need is a food-safe tub and the mixture. Anyone can look up a recipe for wet or dry brine. That’s pretty easily accessible. The only thing that may limit you is your access to refrigeration. Everyone should have a deep freezer. But if you don’t have access to a lot of refrigeration, then you can’t do it on too large of a scale. But it’s definitely something you can do at home. It’s fun. It’s a form of art and you get a great product at the end of it. And the smoking can be as primitive as possible. You can literally just make a fire, let the coals burn down, and let the smoke it gives off touch the meat. It’s doable and accessible and I definitely recommend doing it at home. It doesn’t take a lot of time, there’s a bunch of different things you can do with it. Be creative. Add your own touches.
In your opinion, what is the importance of preserving meat?
I think it’s crucial. Knowing how to preserve anything is huge. That’s the way it always used to be. People had a working knowledge of these processes fifty years ago. But nowadays, food is so convenient and we take it for granted as if it’s no big deal. In our region of the country, we should be able to feed ourselves and part of that is knowing how to preserve. When you have a bountiful harvest, you should save some for the winter time. It seems like we’ve lost that knowledge somewhere along the way and we have to try to get that tradition back.
Does this go beyond food for you?
It does. It’s not even completely about food. It’s about coming together and working together. We shouldn’t be shipping “fresh” strawberries across the country in the middle of winter. We should be able to feed ourselves. There’s no reason for tractor trailers to be polluting the air on their way to give us a luxury that we don’t need. You gain a lot of knowledge through preserving things. Togetherness is important. It takes many hands and it makes you feel united, like you’re part of something. That’s hard to find in a world where most people’s greatest sense of belonging is Facebook. People want to belong and it’s hard. Get down in the trenches with us and we’ll make you part of it. It goes much deeper than food.