Think food-safety first when making charcuterie at home.
Charcuterie is similar to cooking a steak or vegetables on your stove; both actions are the manipulation of time and temperature to accomplish a finished project.
As fun and easy as charcuterie can be at home, I wanted to review some of the risks and safety procedures when making your own cured meats. Most dry cured whole muscles and sausages will never reach a temperature higher than that of the curing chamber, about 60 degrees. (In the case of fermented sausages, the temperature of the meat peaks during the fermentation stage, usually somewhere around 100 F.) The temperatures that meats are fermenting and drying at are in the danger zone, so it is VERY important to be very sanitary and to understand how we make these items safe to eat. If you are serious about doing any of these projects at home, you will definitely need to research safety and risks beyond this blog.
The temperatures that meats are fermenting and drying at are in the danger zone, so it is very important to be very sanitary and to understand how we make these items safe to eat.
There are many great books out there and a lot of online readings that can better teach you about the risks and how to be sanitary, but I will lay down some basics that you can use and begin to understand this beautiful art. The first book I ever read about charcuterie was Michael Rhulman and Brian Polcyn’s book Charcuterie . This book has all you need to know about safety and many helpful recipes for the beginner and advanced cooks. Their new book Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing is also very helpful.
So how can a piece of meat that has never reached a temperature greater than 60 degrees be safe to eat? While that answer depends greatly on the project, the first line of defense in any charcuterie recipe is salt.
When curing whole muscles, any harmful bacteria that may be present is going to be on the outside of the meat. The application of salt creates an environment on the outside of the meat that prevents harmful bacteria from multiplying or surviving. This step, which is taken when curing whole muscles, drastically reduces the risk of botulism. Botulism spores develop and multiply in a mildly acidic, oxygen-free environment (such as the middle of a sausage, where the meat has been ground and stuffed into a casing). That’s why curing the whole muscle, like a duck breast or a pork loin, in salt is your first and most important safety step when curing meat.
There should be free flowing air in your chamber which makes it a different environment then say the inside of a stuffed sausage
The second line of defense is to remove moisture from the meat, since bacteria tend to thrive in high-moisture environments. (In the case of projects such as bacon, smoke and heat is used to bring the meat up to 150 F which makes it fully cooked and safe to eat.) In order to dry your meat, you’ll need a Curing Chamber. Your Curing Chamber will need to be a sanitary box where you can control the temperature and humidity and also keep air flowing. Usually a small refrigerator or wine cooler will work, as long as you can set it to maintain a temperature between 50-60 F. If your Curing Chamber does not automatically come with this type of feature, it is easy to get a temperature controller that will shut your fridge off at a certain temperature. A good source for the temperature controller in the Chicago area is Brew and Grow.
The really tricky part is maintaining a humidty of 60-70%. The humidity in the chamber is not harmful because there should be free flowing air in your chamber which makes it a different environment then say the inside of a stuffed sausage. If you were looking for an online retailer for either the temperature or humidity controller, along with all your other curing needs, www.sausagemaker.com/ has everything you need.
The third line of defense, which comes into play when curing sausage, is the addition of pink salts (sodium nitrate and nitrite) and mold starter cultures. Nitrates have recently gained a negative reputation as a result of industry abuse, as well as media misinformation. Nitrates are naturally occurring in vegetables and should not scare you. When used in the proper dosage, pink salts are not harmful to people and contribute to the flavor and color of cured meats. Not to mention the fact that they can also prevent botulism, the enemy of the home curer. Since dry cured and fermented sausages are the perfect environment for harmful bacteria to grow in, we always use sodium nitrate and nitrite when preparing these types of charcuterie
When used in the proper dosage, pink salts are not harmful to people and contribute to the flavor and color of cured meats. Not to mention the fact that they can also prevent botulism, the enemy of the home curer.
There are many other steps and processes that render charcuterie safe to eat. For example, there is a fermentation stage that raises the acidity in the sausage so that any harmful bacteria is rapidly slowed down or eliminated. There are also mold cultures that are used to ensure that the good bacteria and mold out number any harmful organisms. These types of projects are the most difficult and the most "risky," but if you spend the time to do the research and are extremely sanitary and respectful with your product, these projects are the most rewarding.
Pastoral's own Garron Sanchez grew up in the Midwest and has been cooking in restaurants for around 10 years. He has been studying and working in Chicago since 2009 and has developed a great love for anything pickled, smoked, salted, or fermented.