Sky Full of Bacon

I took down my sopressata today and tasted it again. A month ago when I tried it, it really didn’t seem like it was working at all. There was a kind of unpleasant tang and none of the pleasant funkiness that means a sausage has achieved the balance of flavors that curing is aiming for. Not spoiled, just unpleasurable.

Today, it’s certainly better. It tastes like sausage. The reactions I’ve been waiting for must have happened. That said, it’s far from a success. For one thing, I begin to wonder if we got the proportions of spices off. Because it’s very salty and very spicy and very clovey. I wonder if it didn’t get a double dose of everything.

The leg meat it comes from also doesn’t cut as neatly as the shoulder meat that went into the other. It doesn’t have the unified sausageyness that the saucisson sec has.

All that said, it’s undoubtedly better than it was. I just wouldn’t call it a success I’m in a hurry to apply the remaining several pounds of ground leg and fat to.

I also weighed the coppa again, it’s down to 620 grams, over a 40% loss. No funny things growing on it, smells great. I put it back up to hang while I try to find some form of consensus as to how long it should hang— two months so far, but I’m happy to keep it going for more if the flavors will continue to develop.

I must be coming up in the world of meat-oriented blogging, because I recently got three offers of meat samples. One was from a very well-known brand; I thought about this one, and finally decided that even if it represented their attempt to make a little higher-quality product, a laudable goal, it’s a type of meat I make myself, so what am I going to say? “This is better than their usual stuff, and still not a patch on my homemade”? I just decided I didn’t need to get into grading big time products in categories where I have a strong bias for the little guy and all he stands for. Especially when the little guy is me.

Another one, though, even though it’s clearly a marketing-driven product, was just so damned bizarre I had to try it. It’s Perky Jerky… caffeinated beef jerky. Yes, that’s right, it’s the first Red Bull rival made from actual bulls:

Look at it this way— you’re on the highway, you stop, you need a snack and some caffeine, so… why not get them in the same delicious, easy to eat package, and not have to pee again in 20 miles?  Now you see the genius of Perky Jerky, right?  Right?  Okay, it’s one of those things that either makes sense to you, or never will; you either drive down the road munching greasy salty meats, or you don’t. (I mostly don’t, although I’ve been known to pack Paulina Market landjaegers for a trip.)

Okay, bizarre as the concept is, it’s actually pretty good as jerky goes (and my son had just bought some jerky at Trader Joe’s, so I had a reasonable standard of comparison).  Tender, reasonably good quality beef with a teriyaki flavor to it; certainly by the standards of gas station cuisine, it was of a much higher quality than Slim Jims or the like.  The only hitch for me was, there’s no dosage information on the bag; I had no way of knowing if a whole bag was the caffeine equivalent of drinking a Coke, or if one little triangle would have my kids bouncing off the walls at 2 am.  And it’d be all too easy to scarf a bag down, and then find yourself feeling ready to drive to Patagonia without sleeping.

* * *

But the most intriguing meat I was offered, the most serious one, came from a guy in Milwaukee who has started an artisanal meat business like La Quercia. La Quercia isn’t big— Herb Eckhouse said their prosciuttificio is about a third the size of a small one in Italy— but Bolzano Artisan Meats is smaller yet, an employee and a half, says owner Scott Buer. All the same, they’re doing what you’d hope they’d be doing— buying quality pork (he started with Jude Becker’s Berkshire hogs, but plans to transition to mostly Wisconsin naturally-raised meat, including what must be Valerie Weihman-Rock’s mulefoot pigs, as seen in Sky Full of Bacon 5 and 6), and curing it by the old school simple means, salt and herbs and time. (Thyme and time, really.)

Buer sent me two meats, guanciale (cured hog jowl) and pancetta (cured belly, same meat as bacon, but without the sweetness and smoke of American bacon). Here’s how the pancetta looked, the ruby red color and thick fat striping of the Berkshire hog:

I would have guessed Berkshire by the look of it and I would have guessed the simple cure by the fact that it smelled exactly like the things I’ve cured following traditional cures, like guanciale and lardo— a musty salt smell leavened by a pine-forest note of the dried herbs.

I was making pizzas the day it came, so I decided to use the pancetta on a tarte flambee:

Looks like peppermint candy, tastes like pork.  What could be prettier?  The base is creme fraiche, liberally sprinkled with pepper and dotted with partly caramelized onions.  Here’s how it looked when it came out:

I often find commercial pancetta bland next to bacon, but this had a full pork flavor sharpened and transmuted by the curing process, denser with flavor (and certainly chewier) than the often limp product you buy.  Unfortunately I’ve never had the La Quercia pancetta, so I don’t have a really stellar comparison, but it seemed to have all the virtues of its origins using superior pork, and of its handling with no modern shortcuts.

For the guanciale, well, there’s one classic dish that this cured meat figures in, bucatini all’Amatriciana.  Hog jowl is an incredibly lush fatty meat— sadly, it’s a cut that’s often ruined during the inspection process (they slice through the jaw to inspect the glands) and discarded or sent for rendering.  But barbecue places in the south will put it in beans, resulting in incredibly silky, fatty beans, and just handling it, it was like pork meat made with the best hand cream you ever owned.

The last time I saw a pattern like that, little pink archipelagoes of meat in a sea of fat, was on a kobe beef brisket.

I vaguely follow a recipe in Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian*, although it’s a dish almost too simple to need a recipe.  Interestingly, they say (copyright 2001) that guanciale is impossible to find in the U.S., and suggest various substitutes.  How quickly things change: I’ve had access to no fewer than four different American guanciales lately.  Admittedly, two of them were homemade (my own and Chuck Sudo’s).  One key thing about the recipe is that, even though it still says guanciale, they clearly adjusted the quantity of meat upwards to produce the desired amount of cooking fat, because when I used 6 oz. of actual guanciale, I had a swimming pool of fat in my pan.  3 oz. will do you just fine.

So you dice the guanciale, fry it, scoop it out with a slotted spoon and let rest on a towel.  Add some red pepper flakes, then fry a 28 oz. can of tomatoes in the oil, chopping them as you go (I used my own canned tomatoes from this summer) for about ten minutes while the pasta (bucatini or, if you can’t find it, spaghetti; I don’t know what difference the hole in the center of a bucatini noodle makes) cooks.  Add a couple of tablespoons of good parmigiano-reggiano, mix till melted.  Toss all that with the pasta, place in bowls, sprinkle the guanciale on top and grate some peccorino romano as desired:

It’s a wonderful comforting dish and Bolzano’s guanciale brought it lots of lushness (in the sauce) and crunchy porkiness on top.

So I liked both of the meats they sent me a lot— though it has to be admitted, these are fairly easy as cured meats go, hard to screw up at least once you’ve made the crucial decisions to spend the money on the best pork you can get and to cure it with no funny business.  The real test, which I’m looking forward to immensely, is the speck prosciutto, which will be ready in April.  Speck prosciutto is a particular style, smoked with rosemary and juniper— you may remember I linked to these photos of a speck plant high in the hills of Italy— and while it won’t be directly comparable to the La Quercia prosciutto (or their speck, for that matter), because it is a different style, it should have many of the same virtues of the longer curing time breaking down more of the proteins and making it all just that much more complex and umami-riffic.  It will be a wonderful thing if these first meats from Bolzano prove to be the beginning of a serious artisanal cured meats movement in Wisconsin, comparable to the improvements in Wisconsin cheeses in recent years.

In the meantime, you can get Bolzano guanciale and pancetta at several places in Milwaukee, including the Wisconsin Cheese Mart and Glorioso Brothers, as well as at farmer’s markets in several Wisconsin cities.  (CORRECTED: At this point, it’s only Wisconsin-inspected, so he can sell it via the internet to individuals, but not to retailers or restaurants who will resell it.)  And Perky Jerky, I’m sure you can get that at several gas stations on the way up there.

* Search inside the book for bucatini and you’ll find the recipe.

So it being the first of the year and whatnot, I decided to take an inventory of the various charcuterie projects I have going.

Saucisson Sec. I’ve served a few people off one of the sausages I made from the Ruhlmann book, and as noted before, it’s been universally praised. I’m very happy with this one and this recipe. I took the remaining sausages down and carefully examined the ones that had been problematic. The one where I circled a blue mold spot on the outer skin seemed fine; I’m still going to treat it carefully. The one that really did have problems was one of the two that were too long for my wine cooler, and I had make them slightly j-shaped; this one I could see had formed a gap inside the casing at the point where the meat had to make a left turn, and not surprisingly, a little fuzz grew there. I trimmed it off substantially above where that point was, about 2″, but a very modest taste test of the upper portion (which looks great) seemed fine. Still, I’m going to do a little reading and not be surprised if that one has to go.

Sopressata. Well, having made two things from Paul Bertolli’s Cooking By Hand, I can safely draw one conclusion: he likes cloves a lot more than I do. I tasted this today (having just reached its suggested range of 50 to 60 days) and clove was the main thing I tasted. The pork didn’t seem to have nearly the good funky flavor that it does in the saucisson sec; it doesn’t have the lactic funkiness of great sopressata, or the clean porky flavor of the meat. Really, it was kind of blah. It’s also not very pretty because the skin is all wrinkled up and dried on the outside, not snugly wrinkled like the saucisson sec. Not sure if something didn’t go right— I did make it much smaller than the customary sopressata size, which surely affected something— but I guess I’m glad I didn’t make all of these and still have most of the ground pork, unseasoned, in my freezer. I put this back to hang another week, what the hell, and I’ll try it again then, but in the meantime, I may start investigating a different recipe that can use that quantity of leg meat.

Coppa. I unwrapped the coppa to see how it was doing. Of all of these, it spent the least time in the less than optimal conditions of the wine fridge and the most in the fairly perfect conditions of my wine cellar in wintertime. It looks great! It’s lost over a third of its weight (1105 to 698 grams), feels appropriately gnarled, smells appropriately spicy-funky. I’m looking forward to this one a lot.

By the way, I was just sent some samples by a new artisanal charcuterie company here in the midwest, and tried one of them last night.  Very promising… watch for a report soon.

Check Out My Sausage!
Misadventures in Sausage-Making
Feeling Better About My Sausage
More About My Meat
How My Meat’s Hangin’
Meat on the Move

So I decided to sample the saucisson sec at long last.  I selected one that looked and felt done— and by the way, one can’t help marveling that one’s own handiwork has produced something that looks so textbook-perfect, sausage like it looks hanging at a meat market, created by your own hands and a fair quantity of nature’s activity and time.

I cut myself a slice and ate it.  Then I waited about 36 hours for the symptoms of botulism to appear.  As you may have guessed from the fact that the headline is not “Notice To Readers of The Late Mr. Gebert’s Blog,” nothing bad resulted.

So how was it?  How is it?  It’s delightful!  Full of fresh garlic and spice flavors, yet also a clean porky flavor that bespeaks the excellent pork I started with.  I went to a party on Sunday where there were all kinds of different sausages to try— everything from Polish grocery sausages to sopressata from Riviera to something or other from Armandino Batali’s Salumi in Seattle— and it absolutely would have belonged right alongside them, better than a few, as good as many, no disgrace to any.

I still have to test some of the others which didn’t dry as picture-perfectly— I have no idea, for instance, if the one that’s sort of J-shaped will be any good in that curved part, or any part; and then there’s the one that grew a little turquoise-colored mold, carefully marked on the skin.  If that one has to go goodbye, then it does, c’est la salami. Plus, after about 60 days (somewhere around January 7th) the test sausage of the other style I made, sopressata, will be ready as well, so I can see how that compares. But for now— sausage, it worked! It’s good!

Here’s a complete set of links to past chapters in my sausagemaking saga:
Misadventures in Sausage-Making
Feeling Better About My Sausage
More About My Meat
How My Meat’s Hangin’
Meat on the Move

In the ongoing adventures of my sausages and coppa, temperatures finally dropped enough to make the unheated parts of my basement a consistent 50 to 60 degrees and 70% humidity, so I removed the rack with everything tied to it from my wine fridge (which has never held a bottle of wine) and rigged a way to support it in my wine cellar/pantry (which has).  We’ll see how it does, but hopefully even if the coppa gives off a lot of moisture, now things can be at their optimum humidity.

Larbo’s comment on my last charcuterie report scared me a little, so I’ve been working really hard at controlling humidity related problems inside my wine fridge.  At this point, I really have to say, I can’t recommend the wine fridge route for something like this that needs to lose a lot of water over time— they’re designed to maintain whatever humidity’s inside them, and that’s going to keep the humidity too high.  Lardo or guanciale were fine because they’re mostly fat and don’t lose much liquid.  But sausage has left a puddle on the bottom every day.  And given Larbo’s comment about the possibility of nasty mold growing, I took everything out on Saturday and inspected it.  Sure enough, I was getting a little white activity on the outside of the casing, which is not unexpected, but on one sausage, I also had a turquoise green growth where I think it was pressed up against another sausage and not drying out.

I washed everything down with a vinegar solution and then I circled the area that had the turquoise green with a marker, just to see what it does in the future.  I also weighed everything, and after 12 days, all of the saucisson secs had lost between 25 and 38% of their weight to date.  The test sopressata, which came from drier leg meat, was behind all of them, at 22%.

Despite some scariness, I have to say that it’s smelling good and starting to gnarl up nicely into sausage.  If it gets cold enough, maybe I’ll hang it out of the wine fridge in my basement; otherwise I’ll just keep monitoring the humidity and soaking up what’s on the bottom.  Maybe now, the rate of loss will slow and it will start to become possible to keep the humidity range I really want.

As for the rest of the meat, coppa is getting another week in the fridge to soak up salt and flavor, bacon is smoking as I write (Sunday afternoon)…

…and the hambone has a rendezvous with a pot of beans later today.

(Meanwhile, I also taught myself how to make croissants on Sunday (first batch came out all right), and started soaking a country ham to take to a Thanksgiving dinner.  I was like a 60s housewife on amphetamines.  19th nervous breakdown undoubtedly impending.)

Updates on the progress of my sausagemaking adventures (chronicled here, then here):

I took the remaining piece of shoulder and smoked it the next day.  Great pork, you could taste the quality, but not quite so great as deeply smoke-infused pulled pork— I wonder if the meat was a bit denser than the usual supermarket meat and thus smoke did not penetrate as easily.  The other possibility of course is that I simply used less wood than normal, and didn’t realize it.  Anyway, if not quite so smoky as I liked, certainly a satisfying end for the last 6-7 pounds or so.

Meanwhile, my ham was curing per the recipe in Cooking By Hand:

I finished it with a glaze vaguely inspired by this one from Emeril.  At first I really liked the fresh flavor of this ham, but after a certain point I decided it had too much of the floral spices, clove and allspice or whatever, you got fatigued by them and they gave it sort of an eating-an-air-freshener-cake vibe.  So if I ever do this again, I will reduce the sweet spices, up the savory (a little garlic or just more onion might have been good), and maybe increase the salt, it was not all that salty for a cured product.  But I’m definitely intrigued by the idea of doing one’s own baked ham, after doing it it seems like, hey, why wouldn’t you?

Meanwhile, the sausages continue in the wine fridge.  The really hard part is keeping the humidity in the right range– if you do anything, it seems like the tiny space promptly shoots to one extreme or the other.  I’m hoping that a lot of time at 100% humidity and a little time at 0% averages to the 70% I’m supposed to be aiming for.

Well, thanks to some kind words of encouragement in the comments and the fact that they smell pretty good now and look like something that should turn into something good someday…

I’m feeling more positive about my sausages.  The one issue I’m having is that humidity seems to be all over the place, but I’m mainly trying to keep them from getting dried out (this can be a problem, if the outside dries out too quickly, sealing the wet interior so it can’t dry).  I adjust this constantly, hoping it will average out.  You’ll also note that I made a couple of them too long, hence them being tied into a J-shape at the other end, to keep from touching the bottom of the tiny wine fridge.

Meanwhile, the sopressata used chunks of pork leg which came from a large fresh ham.  This is actually it after I whittled it down by half, trying to keep a more or less ham shape.  Cooking By Hand has a recipe for house-cured ham, so I made a brine including vegetables and various spices, injected this piece all over, and will brine it for about six days:

So I’ll get some taste of my efforts, if not sausage, soon.  That makes me feel better about it all.

Like Super Dave Osborne, I throw myself into various culinary adventures heedless of the outcome, and so far I’ve usually succeeded well enough in the end— my first loaf of crusty bread was crusty in the same way a Sherman tank is, but within a few more tries, it was pretty delicious, and I’ve been making it ever since, happily.  Likewise, the first thing I tried out of Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie was bacon, and it went so well that, with a few refinements (such as buying better pork), I was soon renowned as a bacon maven.

This time, though, I may have been beaten.  Maybe I’m just tired after a long day, that’s what my partner in charcuterie Cathy2 suggested, but this one feels like it got away from me, I bit off more than I could chew, whatever.  Here’s my saga of an intense day of porkology, and hell if I know if it will prove successful in the end.

So it started with two large boxes of pork from my pork producer connection in Iowa.  In them were contained:

• Two full-length bellies (usually I just get the squarer rear half)
• One ham
• One shoulder
• Back fat
• Leaf lard

I would end up doing something with all of these except the last today.  First off, I cut the bellies in half and added the cure and maple syrup to three of the belly halves (the fourth went to Cathy).  That was old hat, and easy.

Next I cut out the coppa muscle.  You may recall my Coppablogging posts (here here and here), and how I said that it was fairly simple to find the round coppa muscle once someone like Rob Levitt at Mado had shown me where it was. Well, it was really simple to spot this time:

I sliced it out and trimmed it up, and Cathy got the pleasure this time of massaging the seasoning and cure into it.  That was easy too, and it went into the fridge for about two weeks of absorbing the cure.  Meanwhile, I set to dicing and cubing the meat and backfat for the next and most ambitious parts of today’s adventures in advanced porkitude.

My plan was to make two dry-cured sausages today.  The first was from Ruhlman’s book— a saucisson sec, a simple French country garlic and pork shoulder sausage.  The second, a bit more ambitious, was the sopressata from Paul Bertolli’s Cooking By Hand, a book widely used by professionals of my acquaintance (the Eckhouses taught themselves to make prosciutto out of it; Rob Levitt cited it as his main guide as he began making charcuterie at Mado).  That the latter is geared more toward professionals is evidenced by the fact that I had to cut the recipe by 2/3rds to equal the quantity produced by Ruhlman’s recipe, about 6 lbs.

Now, one thing I quickly learned is that sausagemaking is not a hobby you take up casually at no great expense.  I had the Kitchenaid with the grinder and sausage stuffer attachments, and some dextrose left over from the original coppadventure, but I still wound up having to buy 1) a smaller scale capable of measuring grams, 2) a better boning knife, 3) Instacure #2 and 4) Bactoferm starter culture (which promotes lactic acid formation, preventing nasty things like botulism) by mail from, and a container of salted pork intestines at Paulina Market— and that was only after I’d decided not to make big sopressata in 4″ wide cow intestines, because they only come in a $35 tub of 500 feet worth or some such.  You could spend a small fortune just getting ready for this, and as with the fortune of the late Mobuto Sese Seko promised you by a banker in Nigeria, it’s only the fact that you’ve already put so much money in that keeps you from stopping and saying the hell with it all at some point where doing so would be the only logical thing left to do, if you weren’t delusional by that point.

Anyway, I sliced and diced and cut into strips:

Into the freezer it all went.  First up to grind: pork shoulder and backfat for the saucisson sec.  And here we encountered one of the problems with the Kitchenaid as a sausagemaking tool: you can grind about half a pound before the silverskin and whatnot in the pork shoulder has wrapped itself around the blade and rendered it useless.  So I had to break the machine down and clean the blade and the thing with the holes it pushes the chopped meat through, every couple of minutes.  It made what should have been a few minutes of grinding into most of an hour; I was instantly envious of Eddie Lakin of Edzo’s, who told me when I interviewed him for a video that his grinder has a way of catching that stuff and wrapping it around the auger before it can choke off the blade.

Anyway, much later than I’d hoped, we finally had the meat for the first sausage all ground, and could add the seasonings in the mixer— Cathy having been hard at work getting them together and crushing them in the mortar where needed.  Then it was time to extrude the seasoned pork mix into the casings— and this too went much too slowly, with endless problems caused by the fairly gooey sausage mixture blocking air or creating air bubbles in the casings as we tried to stuff them.  I swear this was much easier the other time I did it, I’m not sure what the deal was today; but I have to think that part of it is simply that, while sausagemaking with a Kitchenaid mixer may be possible, it’s less than ideal and this is another case where having the right tools is the difference between a difficult and frustrating job and a relatively smooth one.  Another much longer-than-expected span of time went into this, with lots of frustration and some careful rereading of the books to see if we were missing something, but finally, we had about six good saucisson secs:

I tied them off and attached tags indicating which sausage they were and their weight in grams at the time of making.  At this point I realized something: my little wine fridge wasn’t big enough to hold these sausages, an equal quantity of another kind, and a coppa.  But the pork leg and backfat for the sopressata were already cut, so Cathy suggested that I make one or two sopressata as a test and freeze the rest of the meat for future use.  So we ground it all and I packed up most of it, measuring out one pound of the meat and then dividing Bertolli’s recipe by 15 to get the proper amounts.  Thankfully, at least the pork leg ground easily without the connective tissue problems the shoulder had had.

On the other hand, the thing that’s really a crapshoot is whether we did the Bactoferm starter culture right; by now we were working with such small quantities relative to Bertolli’s recipe that we could only guess how accurate we were.  At least two things I think should prevent any possible nastiness such as botulism: one, that it’s much smaller than the customary sopressata, so it should dry out more readily than a bigger sopressata and cure  more quickly, and two, when we fried up a little of each sausage and tasted them, they were both already quite salty.  So I would think that the salt should help prevent some of these problems, though I’m not sure if it will be too salty by the time it’s shrunk a bit and become more concentrated.

So anyway, here are the saucissons sec in the wine fridge, while the lone test sopressata sits out at room temperature for a day to activate the Bactoferm culture:

Even if the sausages are a total loss— and I don’t think they will be, but they may not be all that great, either— at least the coppa should work and I have, left over, a somewhat whittled-down but still decent size shoulder and about a half a ham, each of which should make for a nice, non-cured main dish at some point.  But I just don’t know about the sausages; stay tuned to see if it proved too much for me, or if I’m just selling the day’s effort short because it’s worn me down.  Maybe, with luck, the day will come that the pain and difficulties are forgotten but the taste makes it all worthwhile.