With the festivities of Thanksgiving behind me, and turkey soup simmering on the stove, I can finally sit down and better explain how we cured our own pork this year. I have had several people asking me questions so I thought I would give a basic outline of the process.Day 1:
Picked up our raw hams and bacon along with the rest of our half pig at the Windham Butcher shop. Day 2:
Brining. The biggest challenge in getting ready to brine was figuring out what type of brine to use...there are commercial brines, homemade brines, different flavors, with nitrites or without. I decided to go with a pre-packaged brine from the Sausage Maker (http://www.sausagemaker.com
) for my hams. I just felt a little unsure about the size of the hams and how long I would need to brine them without nitrite. For the bacon we went nitrite free with a simple homemade maple and salt rub.
The bacon in one slab was pretty big, about 12 x 36 inches. The maple rub recipe I used was from Charcuterie by Ruhlman and Polcyn (with nitrite salt omitted). Before applying the rub, I cut the slab into 4 sections that each fit into a gallon ziploc bag. (Last year I helped to butcher a pig so you wouldn’t think the long row of nipples on the bacon would throw me, but I have to admit that I did find myself carefully selecting where to cut the bacon to avoid them!) After applying the rub, the four bags went into the fridge to brine for 10 days, getting flipped over every other day.
The ham brining was a bit more involved. I injected the ham with brine solution and followed the guideline based on weight, I had to get about 5 cups of brine into the two hams. (This was complicated by the fact that I was too cheap to pay $30 for an actual meat pump and was using a baster that came with a screw on injector needle...not ideal). Injecting the brine reduces the time the meat has to soak, and is supposed to help even out the brine inside. After injecting (and making a huge mess in my kitchen) the two hams were nestled together in a 5 gallon bucket with the remaining 2 gallons of brine. This went into the fridge (after much reorganization and shelf removal) to brine for 5-7 days.Day 3:
Unrelated to ham and bacon I rendered the fat back and leaf lard. I also made a bit of sausage with the meat that I trimmed from the fat back before rendering. I ended up with about a pound and a half of sausage, 2 quarts of nice clean lard, and whole tray of "cracklins." Cracklins are the equivalent to pork rinds and one of the cruelest jokes of cooking because they looked like mouthwatering golden fried treats but no matter what I did to them, drained, salted, refried, they made me gag. Day 5:
I was planning to start the ham smoking today, but in order to get the full 5 days (low end of the recommended brining time) I wouldn't be able to start till noon. Figured it would be better to wait till day 8...allow more brining time and an early start.Day 8 (into Day 9):
No early start. At 1:30 I finally had the smoker fired up and quickly realized that heat control with hardwood briquettes is like solving a Rubik's cube blindfolded. After 9 hours of adding bundles of hickory woodchips wrapped in foil, and adjusting the fire 2-3 times an hour my ham was only at 120 degrees and needed to be 155. Being that it was 20 degrees outside (and well after my bedtime) I decided to bring the ham inside and put it in a 180 degree oven to get to temperature. This seemed to work fine. The small ham (about 8 pounds) came out at 2am and the big one (17 pounds) came out just before 7am. It was a long night. Fortunately I borrowed a remote probe thermometer which allowed me to check the internal temperature of the ham without getting out of bed! Day 9:
Ham sampling reveals...success! I cut several steaks off of the big ham and froze them separately. This did require the use of a bone saw (non-traditional family heirloom, what can I say?) but I think any kind of small-toothed saw would work. I cut the meat first with a knife and then just sawed through the bone. Day 11:
The thought of firing up the smoker again was not all that appealing, but the promise of crispy maple bacon got me through. I planned to get an early start but didn't catch the detail in the recipe about rinsing and drying the bacon before smoking. This allows a layer of protein called a pellicle to form on the surface of the meat. It allows the smoke to stick and also helps prevent drying. Several hours in front of a fan did the trick but set me back to an afternoon start once again. I still had problems maintaining a high enough temperature in the smoker and ended up leaving the bacon on for 4 hours and then bringing it up to temperature in the oven. It looked beautiful when it was done. The skin was golden and sliced easily away from the fat revealing perfect slabs of bacon. I immediately fried up a slice for sampling and it was amazing. I froze it in 2 inch slabs and will defrost and slice when I'm ready to use it.
The whole process was a lot of work and very time consuming, but it was a learning experience and the results were even better than I hoped for. I do think that if I were to do this more than once a year I would seriously consider investing in a smoker with temperature control and a second fridge to run in the basement only when I need it for brining. It would be nice to do a whole pig at once, but I could never get two 5 gallon buckets into my fridge. Of course there’s always the option of a salt cured prosciutto instead…