Curing pancetta in a wine fridge June 09, 2015 10:56

Our friends over at Urban Digs Farm were kind enough to give us an insider's peek at some of their curing pork - and boy does it look appetizing! They dry age it to concentrate the flavour, a practice many commercial butchers have abandoned since it reduces the water weight inside each cut. You can get your hands on some through their Beasty Box Program

 

You can get cured pork from them directly, but watching Felipe trip the skin off this side of belly got me thinking about a project I've had on hold for several months: making pancetta! This aromatic, sweet and savoury cured pork belly is often described as a kind of Italian bacon, but I don't think that does it justice.

This is half a side of pork belly, skinned (thanks Felipe!) and trimmed. This piece was about 5lb, which in my experience is about typical. Perhaps obviously, the first step to a great pancetta is to start with a happy, well-fed pig. Urban Digs' food-fed pigs seem like they must be a trump card here.

Spices

This is my first effort at Pancetta, so I've tried to follow as closely as possible the recipe from p.44 of Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's CharcuterieThis is the cure prepared for 5lbs belly - it's got juniper, brown sugar, sea salt, fresh thyme, bay, nutmeg, and #1 prague powder.

The cure gets rubbed all over the belly.

And it's all tucked into a large freezer bag! Charcuterie recommends using a 2 gallon size, but I couldn't find one. This one gallon bag was just a little smaller than I would have liked, so next time I'll try harder to find a larger size. It gets a week in the refrigerator like this with one flip about halfway through. It should come out nice and firm.

After a rinse and pat dry with a lint-free towel, the belly gets rubbed on the meat side with a prodigious amount of ground black pepper.

Note the shininess on the towel - that's cling wrap. I don't use it often, but after struggling to hold the belly in a tight roll while simultaneously tying it with string, I tried this little trick. The belly gets rolled in plastic wrap for a few days to set the shape.

Cling Wrap

After a couple days the belly has agreed to be in a roll, and it was much easier to get the string tied around it.

The Tied Roll

The tied roll, ready for curing! Now, here's where things get tricky. I picked up a mini wine fridge at the second-hand store a few months ago, with the intent that it become my new "cave" for aging cheeses and cured meats. Readers will recall that most cheeses and meats (and wines, and vegetable ferments) like to be aged in a cool spot a bit warmer than a refrigerator but a bit cooler than room temperature, and around 60-70% humidity. Since the wine fridge has an adjustable temperature controller built in, it should be the ideal curing chamber if I can just get the humidity sorted. I know there are commercially available humidity controllers, but I'm looking for a lower-tech (cheaper) solution.

In my article on duck prosciutto I tried a method of using a saturated salt solution to achieve a constant humidity. To recap, a saturated solution of a particular salt will establish an equilibrium with the air above it at a particular relative humidity. In the case of sodium chloride that humidity is about 75%. This is just a wee bit too high for the 70% I wanted for the prosciutto, but significantly higher than Charcuterie's 60% target for pancetta, the subject of my wine fridge's maiden voyage.
So, what I really want is a salt that I can put into a tray and have it equilibrate to 60% humidity - if I can get my hands on such a salt, it should make humidity control a cinch! Problem is, a quick search here and here and here turns up nothing in my cupboard that gives near 60% at 15 Celcius. However, I see that magnesium chloride (MgCl) gives 33%, and I have *lots* of that - it's the same thing as nigari, the coagulant we sell for making tofu. Perhaps a mixture of MgCl and NaCl (nigari and table salt) in the right ratio will give me my 60% humidity?

I'd left the nigari at work, so I started with coarse sea salt in a tray. There's just a little bit of liquid dripping into the pan on the left.

With the added nigari. We used about 50% of the volume of sea salt. Note the hygrometer showing over 70% humidity - uh oh!

To our delight, it didn't take long for the humidity to drop to just over 60%.

Ten days later there's a good deal of moisture in the salt tray, but we've encountered a problem. When we add nigari, we get 1-2 days with the humidity near 60%, but then it climbs back up to 70% or higher. I think this means all the nigari is dissolved, which is confirmed by the photo above - if you look closely, you'll see it's all coarse granules (sea salt) and no flakes (nigari). And now I'm out of nigari, and the humidity is climbing! Stay tuned for a creative solution :)

Update: my creative solution was to source NaBr, sodium bromide, from a pool supplier. My research indicates that it's sometimes added to brominated pools as a bromine reservoir / chlorine alternative. At 15 celcius it equilabrates to just the right relative humidity. Unfortunately, after calling every pool and spa company in Vancouver, I learned that pure NaBr is a controlled substance in Canada. It can, in theory, produce toxic bromine gas if handled improperly. So, it's back to the drawing board trying to get a mix of NaCl and MgCl that will work!

Update 2: even without perfect humidity control, the rolls look great after three months!

home cured pancetta

home cured pancetta

I've been spraying the ends with vinegar, but even so a small amount of white mold is visible in the gaps at the end. I've read recommendations that you trim the ends flat before aging to prevent just this kind of growth. Next time maybe I will. However, the growth here is minimal and I anticipate little problem brushing or cutting it off.

slicing the end off home cured pancetta (dry aged)

the first slices look great! There was a bit of green mold in there with the white, so I trimmed that off with a clean knife.

home cured pancetta interior

once the rough bit at the end is gone, the rounds come off beautifully! The aroma is sweet and nutty.

slicing finished pancetta

just another shot of the finished pancetta

cooking finished pancetta

I cooked up some nice rounds in a skillet. It's incredible! I thought I would miss the smoky richness of the hot-smoked bacon I usually make, but the complexity and sweet, nutty, concentrated flavour more than makes up for it. It's just a totally different experience. I'll definitely do this again!