There are plenty of methods for preserving meat. Whether you are bringing home a side of venison, harvesting your flock of chickens, or just making a trip home from the grocery store, being able to preserve your food is an age-old requirement.
These days, the refrigerator or freezer are the most common methods of food preservation. But another traditional method of preservation is dry curing. Dry curing involves salting and then drying of meats until they are safe to eat and shelf-stable, even at room temperatures.
If you've ever read Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods and wondered how they put their food up for the year without a refrigerator, this is it. With a little bit of salt, some time, and the right conditions, you, too, can turn your leg of venison into prosciutto or your farmstead's pork belly into pancetta.
What Do You Need to Dry Cure Meat?
At its simplest, you will need a cut of meat and a quantity of salt. You may want to add a little bit of sugar, pepper, and some spices as well.
Pretty much any cut of meat can be used for dry curing. There are traditional cuts, of course, that are used: pork belly is used for pancetta, the leg is used for prosciutto, the pig jowl is used for guanciale.
But even if you don't use a specific cut of meat (or even if you swap venison or goat for the traditional pork), the process is the same, and the taste can still be amazing.
The first step of dry curing is to cover your meat with the salt and spices. For every 100 grams of meat that you have, you will want to add about 2.75 to 3.5 grams of salt to the cure.
This amount is important! With too much salt, your meat could end up inedibly salty. With too little, it may not be safe to eat. Be sure to weigh your ingredients to know how much to add.
After salting, place your meat in a zipper bag and keep it in the refrigerator. Turn it everyday to distribute the cure. You will want to keep it in the fridge until it is uniformly firm (about 1 day for every 1000 grams of meat).
After curing, rinse off the excess salt with water. You can also rinse the meat with wine at this point for additional flavor. Allow to dry and tie up with butcher's twine. Be sure to weigh your meat!
Now comes the waiting. You will need to hang up the meat to dry, but it's important to get the conditions right. Dry-cured meat will dry best at approximately 55-65 degrees Fahrenheit and 70-80 percent relative humidity.
Once the meat has lost 30 percent of its weight, it will be safe to slice and eat. Depending on the cut of meat you have used, this can take a couple weeks up to several months.
That's it! Preserving your meat through dry curing takes a couple more steps than just throwing it in the freezer, but it tastes infinitely better. Soon you will be on your way to eating dry-cured delicacies.
Karen Christian is a fermentation enthusiast and co-owner of Swiss Hill Ferments. She is a trained chemist who prefers to tinker with fermentation projects rather than chemicals these days.