In the simplest of terms, curing is preserving and flavouring. Salt is the common denominator between all known cured goods. It is the magical, potent mineral that draws the moisture out of the meat. It is this moisture that attracts bad bacteria, which would eventually putrefy fresh meat without this intervention of osmotic action. This removal of liquid, initially by the salt and then by a period of air-drying, not only makes the meat safe to eat uncooked, it also intensifies the flavour by essentially making it less diluted.
With all the bountiful supply of local artisan charcuterie producers to choose from, why should you make your own? Everyone can and should be producing simple cured products as a matter of course because they offer so much value to the keen amateur cook.
Curing meat is not just for Christmas; the gift is much greater than that. But there is little better than enjoying your own bacon on Christmas morning or delighting in the sticky deliciousness of a homemade ham on Boxing Day.
The golden rule of curing
It only requires a minimum of 3% salt to the weight of the meat to cure it. So 1kg of pork requires 30g of salt to turn it into bacon. Anything less is only seasoning and not curing; anything more is getting too salty to taste. The length of time it takes to cure is the equivalent of three days per 500g; that means 1kg of pork would be ready in six days.
Perfect air-drying conditions
Air-drying is a secondary process to dry-curing; the two go hand in glove. Meat is first dry-cured to remove enough moisture to cure and stabilise the meat. The second element of air-drying isn’t necessary but is all about maturation and flavour; the less liquid, the more concentrated and undiluted the flavour. When a piece of dry-cured meat has lost 30% of its original raw weight, you can eat it without cooking, as it is by then, completely inhospitable to bad bacteria.
It is possible to affect the conditions which allow for air-drying cured meat. The three main criteria are humidity, temperature and flow of air. You can air-dry cured meat without expensive kit; it can be as easy as finding a place to hang your products out of direct sunlight, where the temperature is comfortable and a flow of air can move across them. Think porch or outbuilding, a badly made shed or garage where the air can whistle through. A cellar would do as long as the air isn’t stagnant: it must have air flow even if it means using a desk fan.
To minimise the risk of flies and to maximise the natural elements of humidity, temperature and air flow, it is only really advisable to hang curing meat outside at the right time of the year. On average in the UK, the perfect conditions happen over the winter or roughly from late September to the end of March. The perfect conditions are:
• Average temperatures between 10°C and 18°C
• Average humidity between 70% and 90%
• A constant flow of air
You can further the protection of the meat by using a ‘jambon sac’ or muslin wrapped loosely around it, or you could manufacture a meat safe: a wooden-frame box that has fine fly mesh instead of panels.
Boxing Day cider-cured gammon ham
There are few better partnerships than pork and apple. This dish employs the technique of brining, which might seem daunting to the uninitiated but is really simple and effective. In essence, a brine is a way of adding flavour and moistness into a joint of meat. The quantities here are for a small gammon leg joint, bone in or boned-out.
For the brine
1 litre pressed apple juice (not
1 litre strong dry cider
4 litres water
200g demerara sugar
200g dark brown sugar or black treacle
20–30 juniper berries
30g crushed black peppercorns
10 crushed bay leaves
A small gammon leg joint
For the glaze
2 tbsp English mustard
1. Heat all the brine ingredients in a large pan until the salt and sugar have dissolved, then leave to cool completely. Transfer to a non-metallic container and chill to 3–4°C.
2. Place your piece of pork, also chilled, in the tub and submerge it completely, using a plate to weight it down. Leave the pork in the brine, in the coolest place you can find, for 3 days for every 500g of pork (pork weighing 1kg would be submerged in the brine for 6 days). If you want the gammon ready for Boxing Day, calculate the day it goes into the brine by weighing it and counting backwards from 26 December.
3. After its allotted time, remove the ham from the cure, wipe it dry with a clean tea towel and place in a pot of clean, cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 2–5 hours, depending on the size of the meat. When you can easily push a metal skewer through the meat it is ready; turn the heat off at that point. Allow the meat to cool slightly in the liquid until you can lift it out without burning your hands.
4. Remove the outer skin with a sharp knife but leave behind a nice covering of fat.
5. Turn the oven up to 180°C/gas mark 4. Score the fat in a diamond pattern and mix the honey and mustard glaze.
6. Spread the glaze over the fat and bake for 40–60 minutes to finish it off. I choose not to stud the gammon with cloves, as I find them too strong, but you can if you want a traditional look. Slice and serve either hot or cold.
This recipe features in the November issue of Countryfile Magazine, with another delicious recipe for pancetta-style bacon. Pick up a copy of the latest issue today.