By Barbara Walton
I tasted my first dry-cured sausage in France, purchased on impulse in Beaune’s Saturday open-air market. My husband and I brought them back to our rental house, where we ate them in the walled garden paired with a bottle of Burgundy. I remembered those sausages a few years later when I purchased Ruhlman’s and Polcyn’s book “Charcuterie” and there it was – a whole chapter on dry-cured sausage.
It was daunting. If the sections on identifying good-versus-bad mold or avoiding trichinosis aren’t scary enough, check out the half page dedicated to the dangers of botulism. But given the state of food lately, with salmonella in eggs and E-coli in hamburger and lettuce, how much scarier could it be? I had to try it.
The first challenge is the equipment. At a minimum, you need a meat grinder, a sausage stuffer, and a cool, humid spot to dry the sausages. I already make fresh sausages, so I have the grinder and stuffer. I also have an unused mini-fridge in the basement. At its warmest setting, it stays around 55 degrees F, and a small pan of kosher salt and water keeps the humidity at about 65 percent. The ideal environment for dry-curing is 60 degrees and 70 percent humidity. I was close enough.
Making the sausage itself isn’t very different than making fresh sausage – you combine meat, fat, and spices, and stuff the mixture into casings. The only additions needed for the dry-cured sausage are curing salts and an acid. The book suggests a curing salt called Insta-Cure #2 and Bactoferm, a live starter culture that feeds on sugar and produces lactic acid, which both aids in the drying process and adds a pleasant tartness to the sausage. Both are available online.
I chose Spanish-style chorizo as my first recipe. Smoky and spicy, it’s a pork based sausage that gets its flavor from smoked paprika, ancho chile powder, cayenne, and garlic. I used a pork butt roast for the meat. Ideally, you want about a 1:4 fat to meat ratio, and I find that pork butt usually requires no additional fat.
Making the sausages is the easiest part. To prep, I wiped down my kitchen and utensils with a bleach solution, as any errant bacteria had the potential to ruin the sausage. From there, the process was familiar: grind the meat, add the spices, curing salts and Bactoferm, stuff into casings. As with all sausage, things work better if the ingredients and equipment is cold, so I put everything in the freezer for an hour or so before starting. Once stuffed, I pricked each sausage several times with a needle to facilitate drying.
I hung them in the mini-fridge, closed the door, and started the 2.5-week countdown. I checked the temperature and humidity daily, making adjustments as needed. The first week, not much happened – the sausages shrank a little, but were still soft and raw. By the beginning of the second week, they became firmer and dryer. At this stage, humidity is important; it must be humid enough to prevent the casings from drying out, but not so humid that the sausages stay moist throughout. Mold is also an issue. Dry, white mold is OK, and may even be beneficial. Fuzzy white or green mold is potentially dangerous. If you catch it before it penetrates the casing, it can be wiped off with a vinegar solution. At the 16 day mark, I had a few spots of fuzzy white mold, and the vinegar did the trick.
By 18 days, the sausages were firm and compact, and dripping with liquefied fat. At the 20 day mark, it was time to sample one. I’ll admit – I was nervous. What if I did something wrong? Was I going to get sick? After all, it’s raw, dried-out meat, subject to FDA warnings and regulations, illegal to sell in some states. The first bite dismissed every fear I had. It was spicy, smoky, studded with fat and oily enough to coat my fingers. My husband and I ate my first homemade dry-cured sausage on our porch, with a cold beer, on one of the first warm days of spring. I can’t wait to make the next batch.