Pig in the Basement
Legs can be sexy, very sexy, especially when they’re coated in salt and left to hang from a floor joist for twelve to fifteen months. I’m talking about curing pork and I’m wondering why it took us so long to try this. We’ve fermented multiple batches of sauerkraut so why not meat? Talk about putting the horse before the cart.
There is a little bit of information on the web about curing pork but it’s difficult to find an actual step by step recipe. So we’re more or less winging it, and learning a lot along the way. Perhaps our trip to Italy in May will help us uncover the hidden mysteries of curing pork the old fashioned way?
We started with a 24lb pork leg from our friend Dave at Muskoka Meats. Lucky for us the weather has turned cool again after a very unseasonable warm spell. Once home we quickly got the leg salted. I first trimmed off any loose bits of meat and fat which could hold moisture and promote molding. Originally I had planned on brining the leg to draw out the moisture, but then I stumbled upon Sara Rosso’s blog Ms. Adventures in Italy and was inspired by her post about visiting a prosciutto facility in Parma, arguably the quintessential prosciutto capital of Italy. The traditional way of curing pork appealed to us, so I kept it simple and used straight salt. I smoothered the skin in regular table salt and used unrefined grey sea salt on the fleshy parts. The sea salt has a high moisture content and will hopefully keep the flesh from drying out prematurely.
After salting the leg, making sure to rub it in to every crevice, I took the leg down to the crawl space where I will leave it to mature. Typically, you would get your leg in the fall, when you would be guaranteed of cool weather to come. Thankfully for us the weather is becoming seasonably cool again so I don’t have to worry about the leg spoiling before the air warms.
At this point, I’m realizing why there are few definitive recipes out there for curing pork, as there are basically three ingredients: pork, salt, and cool temperatures. Feel free to crack another beer, cause this ain’t no soufflé. After salting, I placed the leg on a cooling rack, skin side up over a plastic container to catch the liquids. I slightly elevated the hoof end and placed weights (carefully selected rocks from the edge of the driveway) to aid in drainage. Every day for a week I placed fresh ice cubes in the plastic container and set a few ice packs around the leg to help keep it cool. I don’t know if this was necessary but I really didn’t want the meat to spoil on my first attempt. Next time, I wouldn’t bother with the weights because I don’t think they push out much more liquid. And if I was going to ice the dripping container again I would place the leg skin side down, as the evaporating ice seemed to dissolve the salt on the fleshy side. I sprinkled a little extra salt everyday to counteract that. The temperature in the crawl space seemed to hover in the mid forties, and I’ve seen no sign of spoiling. I don’t know what kind of results you could achieve by trying this in a regular refrigerator, as I’ve read varying reports on ideal humidity. If you have a wine fridge where you can control temperature and humidity that would be ideal. Although people with a fancy ass wine fridge probably aren’t hanging 25lbs of blood dripping pork for 12 months next to their vintage Bordeaux.
I left the leg like this for a week, emptying the container (dogs new favourite water bowl) of drippings and adding ice every morning. After a weeks time I removed the salt from the leg using a damp cloth. Then I resalted with fresh salt and tied a nylon rope around the hoof end of the leg.
I then tied the leg to hang from a floor joist, by a window in the crawl space. Evey morning I open the window to let the cool fresh air work at drying out the leg, and then close it again every evening, as we are still experiencing freezing temps at night. Perfect maple syrup weather if the buds weren’t out, dammit!
I’ve had the leg hanging for a week now with the container below it. You can really see that it is drying out by this stage, as the blood vessels are now visible in the skin and the whole thing is starting to feel firm.
As per Sara Rosso’s post I will probably leave the leg as is for a few months before applying the sugna (a lard mixture containing spices). I will post again then and plan on starting a couple more legs in the fall. In the mean time, I found an awesome video by Michael Gebert on some high quality pork being cured in Iowa, inspiring.