It has been a while since I did anything other than a restaurant review on the blog, but I am a great fan of home curing and have been making my own pork belly bacon now for years (it tastes so much better when you know you have made it, shrinkage is minimal and you get none of that horrid looking white scum when it is cooking). I also cure and smoke my own salmon (better than most on the market and way cheaper than the artisan ones that shade it taste wise – at least according to friends and family).
Most people think “home” curing is hard work and they are probably right if you are looking to make a salami or a leg of serrano ham, but there are lots of simpler home cures. Some home curing is ridiculously easy and below are a couple of “hassle free” home cures which make for tasty treats that will impress friends and family (well mine are, but then again they are easily impressed).
A cheeky bit of bacon
Most people equate bacon with either streaky (belly) or back, but the denizens of Rome and its surrounding area tend to favour air-dried bacon made from the cheek of a pig. This bacon is known as Guanciale and is what the Romans use to make a proper carbonara.
The higher fat content of the cheek gives it a porkier flavour, with the curing and air drying process meaning (if cut thin enough) it can be eaten raw (like prosciutto) or cooked, like traditional bacon.
Easy to make and very versatile of use. Soups, stews, in pasta sauce, as a pizza topping you name it. Let’s face it (excuse the pun here), what doesn’t good bacon go with?
1kg – Pig’s cheek (good butchers like Martin Player in Whitchurch will have these)
100g PDV or decent sea salt
100g sugar (dark brown)
10 crushed juniper berries
5 chopped bay leaves or couple sprigs of thyme (fresh is best, but dry fine)
Teaspoon of English mustard (powder)
In terms of spices/aromatics just add whatever you feel like to give it your own twist.
If the pig cheek is smaller or bigger than 1kg amend cure proportions accordingly.
Make sure the cheek is thoroughly dry and if there is any hair on the skin burn it off with a kitchen blowtorch or over a gas burner. Don’t get too hung up about this as at a later stage the outer rind needs to come off anyhow (it just gives me the hibbie jibbies if I touch it when rubbing in the cure mix).
Mix the cure ingredients in a bowl ensuring that the sugar and salt are probably integrated.
Rub the cure in thoroughly on both the skin and flesh side of the cheek, making sure everywhere has a good covering. Put the cheek in a zip lock bag (I use a vacuum packer) with the rest of the cure and be sure to get an even spread of it over the cheek. Try and get as much of the air out of the bag as possible.
Place on/in a non metallic container and put in fridge. Leave for 3 – 5 days (depending on size of the cheek) turning everyday as the cure turns to liquid.
After 3 – 5 days (bigger the cheek the longer it will need), the cheek should have a harder feel to it and it is them ready to come out of the cure. The longer you leave it the saltier it will get. Wash it under cold running water so all of the cure is removed. Make sure it is thoroughly dried (tea towel/tea cloth) and them liberally grind black pepper over both skin and flesh sides.
Wrap the cheek in muslin and then hang it somewhere cool and dry, with some airflow.
I use my wine room/cupboard which (handily for this purpose) has built-in aircon, but in theory a breezy shed or garage will do. If you don’t want to risk outdoors, a fridge will suffice but make sure there is airflow all around the package (i.e. put it on a cooling rack so the air can get underneath or better still hang it from the fridge ceiling – masking tape and some string will do the job).
After 3 – 5 weeks it should be ready (it should have lost about 30% of its original weight) and you should then remove the rind (retaining as much of the fat as possible – you will need a very sharp knife to do this as the rind will, through the air drying process, have become quite hard).
This is what you will get.
Use as you would normally bacon or to make an authentic carbonara.
I also like to made a bacon seasoning out of it. I do this by grilling the guanciale until crisp and then blitzing it with fennel seeds and granulated garlic.
Once the mix is crumb like spread it out on kitchen paper to dry and then store in an airtight container. Great for pepping up salads, dips and soups and as an all round seasoning. I like it as a dry dip to make crudité completely unhealthy.
Quackingly good proscuitto
Duck prosciutto is a lovely thing to have around to slice up and nibble on. It is great as a starter or to have with drinks. It also has the added benefit of being incredibly simple to make.
The base ingredients for the cure are the same (sugar and salt) as with the guanciale. Make sure you apply the relevant ratios and amount of the cure based on the weight of the duck breasts (I would recommend doing at least a couple of breasts at a time).
In terms of added aromatics, juniper berries work well, as does star anise and citrus peel, but feel free to mix it up a bit with whatever flavour you fancy.
The base process is also the same as with the bacon, but only keep it in the cure for around the 24 hour mark (depending on the size of breast), then wash off the cure, dry thoroughly and coat liberally with cracked black pepper.
At this point you can, in theory, simple slice and fry the duck and you have duck bacon (great for non pork eaters). To turn it into prosciutto you need to air dry it.
To do this, wrap the breasts individually in muslin and hang for between 7 – 10 days somewhere cool, dark and with an airflow. The 30% rule equally applies here (so a 300g breast should come in at 200g when it is ready) and the breast should no longer have much give to the touch (if it still does, hang them back up for a couple more days and check again).
Before (right) and after (left) the curing and air drying process shots are below.
The shrinkage is not as much as the comparison may suggest (30% reduction in weight is what is required).
Serve raw (sliced thinly) as you would prosciutto.
I have left a couple of the cured duck breast to hang for as long as 3 weeks and they came out fine. I actually prefer the harder texture of those left for 3 weeks.
Simple curing with incredibly satisfying results. So easy to do, with the hardest bit being the waiting for the cure and then air drying processes to do their magic.
Would I do them again? Definitely. Give them a go – you now you want to.