Our ancestors cured meat to survive, so it can’t be that complicated, right? Well, as humanity has advanced so has the science of food preservation. Today, prepared meat products are considered part of the charcuterie branch of cooking – which is really such a fancy schmancy name for an age-old process that creates flavorful meat products such as cured ham and sausage.
Charcuterie meats are preserved through a combination of spices and drying methods, and though it can be done without electricity, modern technology allows chefs to finely tune the environment used for curing meats. Curing is the process by which water is released from the meat. Once the water content in a meat reaches a safe low (and the salt content reaches a certain threshold high), bacteria is unable to survive. The ability to monitor the conditions of a curing chamber does not necessarily boost taste or quality, but it can help the novice charcuterie chef to develop a safe and efficient methodology.
Conditions Must be Controlled
Even without modern technology, curing meat requires a certain control of environmental factors. The conditions that must be controlled during the meat curing process are temperature, humidity and air flow. Although you may be able to use a storage room, basement or other area for curing meat, the ideal area will be isolated from volatile external elements. For example, curing meat in a garage can expose meat to exhaust fumes as well as various temperature and humidity changes.
For most people, building a meat curing chamber is the best option. The chamber protects meat from fluctuating conditions and can be closely regulated. Surprisingly, a meat curing chamber is relatively easy to construct – between the beginner and intermediate DIY level – and is extremely inexpensive.
What you Need to Get Started
An old frost-free refrigerator– Search your local classified listings or Craiglist for an old refrigerator. Free is the best price and $25 should be the maximum. Remove the shelves as needed, perhaps leaving the top shelf as a hanging mount. There should be enough room in the bottom of the refrigerator for additional equipment.
A Freezer Temperature Controller– Those old refrigerators are energy guzzlers and left alone they would produce temperatures much too cold for curing. A Freezer Temperature Controller regulates the temperature of a refrigerator much like a thermostat in an air conditioner, turning power on and off to achieve the pre-set conditions.
A Humidity Controller and an Ultrasonic Humidifier– A Humidity Controller measures and regulates the power needed to reach the ideal, pre-set humidity levels in your curing chamber while The Humidifier adds moisture to the air. An ultrasonic Humidifier simply produces a fine mist that won’t gunk up your meat with water globules. Only add distilled water to your Humidifier and choose one that will power up automatically in response to the Humidity Controller. (If you have to manually turn it on, the ease and consistency of self-regulation is lost.)
A Fan — Humidity Controllers are built with a power outlet, and by connecting a power strip to this outlet, you can simultaneously power the Humidifier and a Fan. The Fan will circulate the air and disperse the moisture in the air.
A Dual Temperature and Humidity Sensor– This tool makes it easy to monitor the conditions of your curing chamber and can catch any discrepancies between measurements from your Freezer Temperature Controller or Humidity Controller. A Calibration Kit is an inexpensive, optional tool that will ensure accurate measurements.
Additional Notes: Recipes and Rodents
Often, curing chambers are located in isolated areas that are hidden away from human activity. This positioning, paired with food, can be rather inviting to rodents. If you are concerned about rodents, you may want to drill holes in the side of the chamber to run all electrical cords. To promote airflow, holes can also be drilled higher and covered with mesh for additional protection. If you are unconcerned about rodents, you can leave the door cracked to accommodate electrical cords. However, as a matter of efficiency, you may prefer drilling holes instead.
Your curing chamber is going to look awfully funny without any meat! Here are a few sites where you can find recipes.
Wrightfood: Recipes and Culinary Adventures from a Brit in Seattle — Very creative recipes with great DIY instructions.
Honest-Food.Net — Simple, straightforward approach to living and eating as our ancestors have.
Academia Brillia — A little fancy schmancy, but the site has information on the basics.
The Real Revo — Survivor’s tips for curing sausage and other meats
Caroline Ross is a former educator who writes for www.accreditedonlineuniversities.com. She is an avid reader with the culinary habit of cooking wild game in creative ways. Please submit any comments or feedback in the section below!