Ham's substantial, ham is fat
Ham is firm and sound.
Ham's what God was getting at
When He made pigs so round

----- Roy Blount Jr.




This is the old smoke house full of hams, bacon, and bagged sausage being cured and smoked over hickory. Pork has been cured this way on farms in the Tidewater area of Virginia for hundreds of years.

Cold Smoking

Cold smoking is carried out in a smokehouse or chamber at temperatures of 100 F. or less. The historic objective was to help in preserving meat or fish that had already been brined or cured with salt. Gentle heat dried the surface and the natural anti-microbial properties of smoke helped protect the meat from spoilage. Smoky taste was a secondary consideration and skill was required in the selection of wood and management of the fire to avoid strong and bitter flavors.

Today, the primary objective of cold smoking is to develop the intricate flavors resulting from the skilled application of seasonings and smoke. Temperatures exceeding 120 F starts the cooking process and cooked meat does not keep as well. It is still necessary to cure or salt any meat or fish that is to be cold smoked because it will spend many hours in the danger zone of 40 to 140 F. which favors the growth of food poisoning and spoilage bacteria.



Why Bother
The Basics
The Cure and Country Ham
Bagged Sausage

Why Bother?

Our forefathers cured meat in order to survive. We can buy fresh pork or beef any time. So why should we bother with learning obsolete techniques? The short answer is flavor: Nothing smells or tastes as wonderful as a properly cured two-year-old country ham. Curing meat is an art form: I derive a great deal of pride and personal satisfaction from successfully manipulating raw materials, environmental factors, and ingredients to produce something that is uniquely "mine". Finally, there is respect for our heritage. When my father was young, every farmer raised hogs and cured their own meat. Every region and every individual developed methods which worked for them and resulted in characteristic flavors. Lifetimes of experience were passed down through the generations. Much of this knowledge has been lost. My goal is to pass on the little bit that I have been taught before it, too, is lost forever.

The Basics

Until the relatively recent availability of refrigeration, folks had to either eat their meat fresh, slow the rate of decomposition, or preserve it. Freshly killed meat is not very good and tends to be tough. Muscle fibers have to go through the complex biochemical changes we call rigor-mortise and relax before they become tender. This process requires about twelve hours during which the meat needs to be chilled as much as possible but not frozen. The old timers would say that you had to take the "animal heat" out before it was fit to eat. Even if they could keep the meat cool, they needed it to last as long as possible and used available means to control microbial growth. Meat temperatures below 38 deg. F. slow the growth of bacteria in general and favor "good" microbes, which enhance flavor and keeping qualities, at the expense of "bad" microbes which produce toxins, smell bad and make us sick. Exposing meat to hardwood smoke helps a little. Smoke has anti-bacterial properties which, in conjunction with the surface drying effect from the associated heat, extend the keeping qualities of meat and enhance flavor.

The basic method of preservation is to use salt - lots of salt! If you take a piece of fresh meat and cover it with salt; water comes out and salt goes in. This is called "taking salt" and is the fundamental principle of the curing process. Eventually, meat gets so dry and salty that spoilage bacteria can not survive, even at warm temperatures. We could spend a lot of time talking about osmosis and how the salt gets in and the water gets out, but those who came before were only interested in keeping the meat cool enough for it to "take salt" before it spoiled (or became "tainted").

Mummified meat helps stave off starvation, but does little to improve the quality of life. Folks found that they could add things to salt which improved texture, flavor and color. In formulating curing mixtures, sugars are used to enhance the action of salt, improve flavor and keep the meat more moist and soft during aging. Nitrates and nitrites are often included as anti-bacterial agents as they are particularly effective against the deadly botulism organism. They also keep meat pink. Other seasonings such as black pepper, paprika, and red pepper are added as flavoring agents and may have some preservative effects but I suspect that their use is more psychological than functional. Smoke is usually used at the end of the curing process both for its anti-bacterial properties and flavor.

The Cure

Methods of naturally curing pork vary greatly in different areas because of climate and other variables. Since curing conditions are unpredictable, the methods I will describe are more art than science and procedures are admittedly vague. The general principles are pretty simple, though, and there is plenty of room for variations. In the Tidewater area of Virginia, hogs are killed from mid-November to late January. We try to pick a time when cold weather has settled in but we do not expect it to get too cold. Once meat has frozen, it does not take the cure properly and extended periods of warm weather (50 deg. F ambient) before the cure has penetrated will spoil the meat. Fresh meat freezes at 28 deg. F but as the cure is absorbed, the freezing temp is lowered. The ideal conditions for the first phase, taking the cure, is about 38 deg. F with relatively high humidity. The curing process stops at meat temperatures below 34 deg. F. and curing time must be increased to compensate. Time varies depending on the cut and weight from 2 weeks min. for bacon to over two months for large hams. After the initial cure, the meat can stand a gradual warm-up through the aging process.

Good cures start with good meat. We raise our own hogs and fatten them on a corn based ration supplemented by whatever is available - stale bakery products, household garbage, etc. Garbage should not dominate the ration as the fat will be soft. Top hogs weigh 220 pounds and yield about a 16 pound ham. We like to cure hams between 20 and 30 pounds. Large hams with adequate fat layers age better and don't dry out as much during extended storage. Country cured hams will keep indefinitely but achieve their full flavor after about one year when "white flecks" appear in the muscle. We feed our hogs to 300 pounds or better but don't let them get too fat.. Some cuts may be slightly tougher with heavy hogs. Hams, shoulders and bellies may be bought from packing houses and can be ordered by butchers if you are not in a position to grow your own. You may have to buy box lots but make absolutely sure that the meat is fresh and quickly chilled. Pork should be put in cure as soon as possible after chilling and trimming but, properly handled, it can be a couple of days old. I once bought ten, 25 pound hams that had been two days in transit to the butcher and then were left in his cooler over the weekend. I lost the whole batch! Those hams had also been trimmed excessively leaving little skin and fat covering. As a result, I have gone back to raising my own so I know what I have to work with...

Curing and smoking facilities vary greatly. Traditional farm ham houses / smokehouses are windowless wood frame buildings about ten feet square with a dirt floor. Wooden plank benches provide work areas for mixing the cure and salting down meat. Joists are within reach and studded with 20 penny nails for hanging meat. The dirt floor allows a higher humidity in winter and allows a smoldering fire to be built inside - both for smoking and to keep meat from freezing during extreme cold. Some ham houses have external smoke generators - simply a firebox with a stovepipe stuck through the wall. This arrangement makes it easier to cold smoke for several days (or weeks) in the spring without exceeding 100 deg. F. and is essential if the smokehouse is made of wood and insulated. Either the eaves are loosely fitted or there are operable vents to allow for air exchange, especially during smoking, so that there is adequate fresh air and the smoke does not become stale and acrid. Openings are covered by fine screen mesh and the interior is kept dark to discourage skippers (larvae of a small black fly which also likes pork). My smokehouse follows the tradition except that the walls are poured concrete and the roof is metal. The thick walls store a lot of heat and smooth out daily temperature fluctuations. I have no smoke generator or operable vents but there is plenty of air exchange at the eaves. In places where conditions are not favorable, curing and smoking chambers with temperature and humidity controls and a smoke generator can be easily fabricated or small cuts may be cured in the refrigerator.

My dry cure is mixed by the "pour 'til it looks right" method. My daddy showed me how about forty years ago. I buy plain (not iodized) dairy salt in 50 Lb. bags from a farm supply co-op and other ingredients from one of the warehouse retailers. To each 50 lbs of salt, mix about 4 pounds of molasses (blackstrap if you have it), about 1 pound of black pepper, about 4 oz. of paprika and about 2 oz. of red pepper or cayenne. I use molasses rather than brown sugar so that the mixture can be packed around the meat. Color should be light brown and texture should be friable: it should pack when squeezed in the hand but fall apart when poked; like good loam soil ready to be plowed. Proportions are not critical and you can add whatever dry spices sound good. Just mix and dump until you have a mixture that looks like it will cure pork! Back when hog killin' was the norm, everyone had their own mixture. Some used plain salt or salt and pepper, others added refined sugar, brown sugar, or molasses and so forth. You can add some saltpeter for added safety if you want to. I have never used it and have no idea how much to put in. If you have no sense of adventure, buy Morton's Sugar Cure.
Spread a 1/2 inch layer of cure on the bench, place meat skin side down and cover all surfaces with about 1/2 inch of cure. Force cure into the cut shank ends of hams and shoulders. I prefer laying all of the pieces out separately so I can see when cure gets thin, but you can pile it all up and overhaul more often. During the phase of rapid cure uptake, a lot of fluid is drawn from the meat. That is why you use rough wooden benches with the planks not too tight - dirt floors help too. Of coarse, never use treated wood in contact with food. Check the meat every few days at first then not as often as salt absorption decreases. Overhaul several times by moving the pieces around, making sure they are covered with cure (it won't stick to the dry skin on hams so don't worry about it).

Hams and shoulders stay in cure for about 2 days per pound. After the curing period, I just brush off the salt leaving a thin coating of attached spices and hang. Contrary to many recommendations, I never wash or wrap meat that I am going to hang. It has been my experience that wrappings keep moisture in promoting excessive mold and spoilage. Some mold is desirable and does not indicate problems. There are a lot of things that can go wrong in curing hams. I remember going with my father to buy country hams as a young boy back in the fifties. Country stores would buy locally cured hams for sale. After discussing curing methods and inspecting the hams, the storekeeper would pull out a thin bladed pocket knife and insert it into the face of the ham right next to the bone (the most likely place to find spoilage and skippers). The aroma of that blade drawn from a properly cured ham is unforgettable (it is pretty hard to forget the smell of a bad one too!). Shoulders don't age as well as hams and should be used within six months or so. Hams only get better with age but small ones tend to dry out. I have some forty pounders that are Y2K comliant!

Year-old hams

One year old hams


Bacon, at last! As a rule of thumb, smaller pieces such as bacon should stay in cure for 1.5 days per pound. This usually coincides with the time that the fresh sausage runs out. At this point I usually slice some to try. It should be salty but not too salty to eat without soaking. When you are satisfied with the cure, brush the salt off and hang. I like to let them hang for a couple of days before smoking but it is not necessary. Use cold smoke (less than 100 deg. F.) unless you plan to use it or freeze it within a few days. I use 2 fairly green hickory logs about 12" in diameter. Once burning on the dirt floor I adjust the distance between the logs so that they smolder actively but don't flame. Hickory will keep going like this for a day or so with minimal tending. I just check it every few hours and make adjustments. Smoke does not need to be thick and heavy to flavor meat. It is not necessary to smoke bacon for preserving so an alternative would be to smoke pieces at a higher temp. before use. Bacon should be frozen or eaten before summer as it starts to get rancid if hung too long. If frozen it should be eaten prior to the next hog killin' as it will get rancid in the freezer too.

Some folks leave the skin on if they have a slicer that will handle it. I take it off toward the end of the curing time when it is still supple and fairly easy to remove. It can be removed before curing but the bacon may get too salty. When you are ready for some home cured bacon, cut a slab in half and trim to the desired size. Save the trimmings for a pot of beans. Soak for several hours if too salty and chill for easier slicing. If you don't have a slicer, you can do a pretty good job with a sharp knife.

Bagged Sausage

I love the unique flavor of aged pork sausage. I have even put the 2 pound plastic wrapped bags of store sausage in the refrigerator for about 3 weeks to let them age. This is probably a risky practice but it has worked in a pinch. The risk with any aged sausage is botulism (literally "sausage sickness", if that gives you a hint). By sealing the casing with fat, anaerobic conditions are created. During natural aging, it is not unusual for meat to be in the "danger zone" at least part of the time. If botulism organisms are present and can out grow the benign aging organisms, a lethal product results. The good news is that both the organism and the toxin are destroyed by ordinary (160 deg. F.) cooking temperatures.

Many years ago, my father and grandmother taught me how to make and age bagged sausage. It is hung in the garage or shed or smokehouse for several weeks and the aging conditions are dependent upon the weather, therefore, every batch is a different experience. The trick is to get the full flavor without letting it get too strong. I have never had any spoil. This past winter I accidentally re-discovered the value of smoke as an effective preservative.

Usually, we let the bags hang without smoking. We keep sampling until we like the flavor then freeze what we won't eat within a couple of weeks. Last winter we put up 66 bags weighing 2.5 pounds each! Before they attained a real good flavor, we had a serious cold snap with lows in the single digits. Afraid that the sausage and the meat in cure would freeze, I built a smoking fire on the dirt floor of the smokehouse. I had a lot of trouble getting the kindling started and threw a few extra oak slabs on to get things hot enough for the hickory to catch. It was too cold to hang around and watch the fire. When I checked on it about three hours later, thick smoke was pouring from the eaves. On opening the doors I found a lively fire, heavy smoke and the temperature was up to 120 deg. F. The sausage was dripping fat and condensate (creosote) was dripping from the roof. I managed to keep the fire smoldering for the next two days but I was afraid I had over smoked during that first day. The sausage had a strong (not unpleasant but definitely dominant) smoke flavor). I sampled sausage over the next month and it was not getting that familiar aged flavor; nor was it going bad. It was very good but not what I was used to. In addition to being an excellent breakfast sausage, it was fantastic on pizza (even dominating anchovies) and made a killer spaghetti sauce. I finally froze most of the bags but kept a few back to see what would happen. It is now June; twenty weeks after we hung the sausage. I still have one bag hanging and one that I am using! There is no sign of spoilage and the taste and aroma is indescribable. Next year I will try stopping the aging process with smoke after the sausage is ripe.

 Bagged Sausage:
      25 lb Fresh pork sausage, seasoned
      10 Sausage bags
 Use only freshly ground seasoned pork sausage. If seasoned with a
 commercial mix, add extra sage to taste (we test fry samples as we
 season). Make bags of cotton feed bags or unbleached muslin. Cut
 rectangles 8" X 16" and stitch bottom and side allowing 1/4" for seams
 resulting in a 3 3/4" finished bag. Soak bags in water. Stuff sausage by
 hand and squeeze down hard so as to eliminate air and squeeze fat
 through bag (some people waxed them). Twist end tight, tie and hang in
 cool place (smoke house or garage) until distinctive aged flavor
 develops. Do not allow to freeze during aging. Temperatures should
 average in mid 30's. Weather with lows in upper 20's and
 highs in low 40's will age sausage in 3 to 4 weeks. If warm, check to
 see that sausage is not getting too strong or spoiling. May be cold
 smoked for 24 hours or longer at less than 100F using hickory or apple
 wood. Always cook aged sausage to well done. Do not wrap in plastic to
 store in refrigerator because of mold. Seal cut end with grease and
 store uncovered or hang.
Posted to the BBQ mailing list 6/96
Revised 4/25/97

Pastrami and Corned Beef

OK, it's not pork, but it is cured and smoked. Pastrami usually refers to beef brisket (but may be other cuts such as plate, shoulder, neck, etc. or other meats such as turkey and goose) which has been dry cured or cured in a brine containing garlic and other spices, coated with cracked pepper and coriander seeds and then smoked. It may be smoke cooked, baked, or steamed to serve. Corned beef is brined without the garlic and usually boiled. Commercial corned beef (which is pumped with a solution and may contain up to 30% added water) may be made into a pastrami-like product by coating with cracked pepper ,coriander seeds and garlic powder or adobo and slow smoking until tender.

I have found recipes for corned beef and pastrami in old cookbooks, some going back to around 1900. I have also found a number on the internet. The one in Rick Thead's Meat Smoking and Curing FAQ calls for prague powder and dextrose and is roughly the equivalent of using Morton's Tender-Quick and garlic juice. I don't use nitrates in my cures; Pink color is not an issue with me and it is not needed for preservation when whole cuts are properly handled. The following procedure for old-fashioned pastrami is based on a number of these recipes and I have used it with great success on brisket and sirloin tips.

I divide whole briskets into flats and points. Trim excess fat leaving a thin fat cap of maybe 1/4 inch. Thicker pieces such as beef shoulder (chuck), whole sirloin tips and rounds may be pumped in order for the cure to be distributed throughout. Place meat into a ceramic or food grade plastic container and fill with water to cover by about 2". Measure water and discard. For each gallon of water or 15# of meat (approximate) mix the following:

4 qts. Cold water
1.5 lbs Kosher or pickling salt
1/4 lb. Brown sugar or 1/4 cup molasses
1 tsp prague powder or saltpeter (optional)
2 Tbsp pickling spice
1 Tblsp garlic (juice, minced, or crushed)

Boil pickling spice and garlic in a saucepan, allow to cool. Mix salt, molasses (and nitrates) in cold water to dissolve. The brine should float an egg. Add boiled spices. Pour mixture over meat until it shifts and starts to float. Place a plate and weight on the meat to keep it fully covered with cure and put in a cold (<38 deg.F) place for 7 - 10 days. Inspect and repack every two days.

This is a full cure and the meat may be rinsed, surface dried and hung in a cool place to age without spoiling. Optional cold smoking before hanging enhances flavor and keeping qualities. It is also very salty and hanging concentrates the salt as the meat dries. It should be soaked overnight in two changes of water before cooking.

If the meat is going to be cooked within a few days of curing, it does not need to stay in the cure but a couple of days and will not absorb as much salt. Remove from cure after at least 2 days, rinse, wrap in plastic and store in refrigerator for a few days to allow the flavors to mature.

Pastrami may be cooked like brisket except not as long. The curing process has a tenderizing effect and makes the meat firmer and faster cooking. Coat with cracked black pepper and coriander seeds before cooking. I usually smoke mine for about 8 hours at 220, then wrap well in aluminum foil. After wrapping, the meat may be frozen for later reheating, left in the smoker (or oven set on 200 deg. F) for another 6 hours or so or packed in a dry cooler. This second phase of cooking allows the meat to "stew in it's own juices" resulting in tender, moist and flavorful pastrami.

Dan Gill 2-12-00