The Salt Cure
The second Charcutepalooza challenge is the salt cure (yes, I know I haven't posted on the first challenge yet--it's coming soon). Salt (especially with the addition of sodium nitrite) changes both the flavor and texture of meat - and keeps it safe longer. I won't go into the debate about the safety of sodium nitrite, but suffice it to say I am willing to take a calculated risk to eat bacon. Perhaps bacon haiku is in order?
Nitrite health debate
Dilemma unfolds. Eschew,
or to chew bacon?
(I didn't say it was GOOD haiku...)
For this challenge, I made pancetta and bacon, which both start with the same cut - pork belly. Pork belly products are so tasty, it's a shame pigs don't have more than just one belly.
The basic dry cure is simple: salt, pink salt, and sugar. Pink salt looks like something you would put on a cupcake - but it is tinted this lovely color to prevent it from being accidentally ingested (too much is toxic). It is 6.25% sodium nitrite. The original reason to "cure" meat was to extend the shelf life. Inspired souls added flavor by throwing in aromatics and brilliantly thinking of smoking the meat. Aromatics such as garlic, pepper, maple syrup and, in the case of pancetta, bay leaf and juniper berries, enhance the flavor of the basic cure. You can purchase pink salt online, at places like Butcher-Packer.com. I made up a batch of the basic dry cure, which keeps indefinitely, so it's very easy to whip up a batch of bacon.
Since I arrived late to Charcutepalooza, I couldn't get pork belly from my usual local source (it's special order only), who can tell you in great detail the provenance of the meat. Luckily, I found an Asian grocer who sells local meat (in Minnesota that is not difficult, and if you stay away from the big chains you are likely to get local product) and found two very small pieces of pork belly (and a duck, which you shall read about later).
Both bacon and pancetta begin life the same way. Once the dry cure (with different aromatics for each) is massaged into the pork bellies, the meat placed into a zip-closure bag and refrigerated for a week or so. Every other day the bag is flipped to assure even distribution of the cure. This spa treatment (liquid leaches into the salt cure to make it rather like a bath) changes the texture of the meat, and it becomes firmer.
After the ideal texture is reached, bacon and pancetta procedures diverge. American bacon is hot smoked (according to my husband, ideally over hickory chunks) to an internal temperature of about 150 degrees. Since it was 20 degrees below zero outside, I just roasted mine in the oven. Italian pancetta undergoes further curing - it is rolled, tied, and hung in a cool, semi-moist environment for up to 3 weeks. Due to the marvelous winter climate in Minnesota (i.e. inhumane cold), my upstairs bedroom closet is an ideal location to cure meat. It stays about 50 degrees with about 55% relative humidity. There has to be some advantage to the extreme weather!
Leap of Faith
Once the cure is complete, the only thing left to do is slice, dice and enjoy! However, I have to admit that the first time I cured my own meat it took a leap of faith to eat it. My anticipation turned to anxiety: What if I screwed up? What if I didn't measure the pink salt correctly? I could make myself really sick! Since I once landed in the hospital with food poisoning (NOT from anything I made, mind you), I was trepidacious. However, I was very careful in all stages, I assured myself. So I ate the bacon--and it was good. Success! Now I look forward to trying some of the more complicated challenges to follow.
I used the pancetta to create the carbonara pictured at the top of the post. Carbonara makes a fine meal because it is simple yet so delicious.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, sliced thick and cut into strips
1/4 cup vermouth or dry white wine
2 large eggs
1.5 ounces Parmesan cheese, finely grated (about 2/3 cup) (add some Pecorino Romano to make it even better)
2 small cloves garlic, pressed through garlic press
1/2 pound spaghetti
a few tablespoons cup reserved pasta cooking water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Place large serving bowl in oven to warm. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in large stockpot.
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned and crisp, about 5. Add vermouth and simmer until slightly reduced. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm. Beat eggs, cheeses, and garlic together in small bowl; set aside.
When water comes to boil, add pasta and 1 tablespoon table salt; stir to separate pasta. Cook until al dente; reserve some pasta cooking water and drain pasta briefly, leaving pasta slightly wet. Transfer drained pasta to warmed serving bowl. If pasta is dry, add the reserved cooking water and toss to moisten. Immediately pour egg mixture over hot pasta and, using tongs, toss well to combine. Pour bacon mixture over pasta, season generously with black pepper, and toss well to combine. Serve immediately.