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
Cold smoking is carried out in a smokehouse or chamber at temperatures of
100º 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
Today, the primary objective of cold smoking is to develop the intricate
flavors resulting from the skilled application of seasonings and smoke.
Temperatures exceeding 120º 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 40º
to 140º F. which favors the growth of food poisoning and spoilage bacteria.
CURING PORK VIRGINIA STYLE
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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
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
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
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