Sunday, July 29, 2007

Key equipment piece #3: The curing chamber

Here we are. This is probably the post most beginners are waiting for. This is the hardest part of curing meat. The necessity to maintain a cool temperature around 50-55 deg. F/ 10-13 deg. C, and a high relative humidity, around 65%, make curing meat at home difficult. Incorrect temperatures or humidity will cause the meat to cure too slowly or too quickly and possibly spoil or yield poor results.

Let me start by saying, making a curing chamber isn't TOO difficult. It will require some spare equipment and some small modifications to the equipment, as well as some money. A complete curing chamber can be built for about $250 of parts. Let me also say, that I assume NO responsibility for anything that may happen, injuries or otherwise.

Basically making a curing chamber boils down to modifying a home refrigerator. Let me start with some refrigeration theory which will allow you to understand why we need to do what we do.

When a frost free refrigerator (pretty much all modern day fridges) cools the air by running air over the cooling coils, it condenses humidity from the air, and delivers cold, very dry air to the inside of the fridge. The air is way too dry (around 20% RH) to be any good for curing meats, so we want to put moisture, the right amount, back into it. Additionally, a fridge normally run at about 33-43 deg. F, which is too low for our uses. This means we'll have to find a way to allow the fridge to run warmer.

A good place to look for a fridge is classifieds. Without too many problems I was able to find a frost free fridge for $80. I might have been able to find one even cheaper if I had kept looking. I guess you could go buy a new fridge, but that seems to be a waste to me. Remember if you buy an old used fridge, it HAS to be the frost free type.

Now lets make the fridge run like we need it to, at 50-55 F and 65% RH.
Lets start with the easier problem: the temperature. Some fridges have an adjustable set screw which would be covered by a panel which will allow you to adjust the fridge to keep the temperature higher than the normal 43. Mine didn't have that option, so I had to rely on other measures. An external temperature controller used to control many things, and often sold as a control for freezers to make them into beer keg fridges, is easily findable. These can be found online. I found mine on Ebay.

The device is quite simple. A remote temperature probe, seen on in the picture on the left connected by a brass capillary tube to the body of the temperature controller hanging on the outsize of the fridge. The temperature is adjustable between 20 and 80 deg. F. The fridge plugs into the piggyback style plug on the controller. The controller cuts power to the fridge when it reaches the temperature setting, and allows power to the fridge once the temperature is at (set point + 4 deg.). It works very well, maintaining the temperature between 52 and 56 deg.
You can order one of these from many places on the web, there is even a reseller on Amazon. Just search for "keg temperature controller" on Google.

The next task is a little bit more difficult. Maintaining humidity. This is done using an ultrasonic room humidifier. I specify ultrasonic since the cool air ones use sponges which in short order become moldy and need to be replaced, which gets expensive. A warm mist one, well, that is just counter productive (I've tried it, believe me, it is a foolish idea:) ) as you're trying to keep the fridge cool.

Any ultrasonic humidifier will work, but you probably want one with a nice large tank so that you don't have to refill it very often. The one on the left is the one I use, it is a Sunbeam model 701, and holds about 2 gallons of water, which allows me to run it, in my fridge, at my settings, for about 15 days before having to refill it.

So you've procured yourself an ultrasonic humidifier, but how do you make it stop humidifying at the right level, instead of continuously going until the water runs out? With a hygrostat. It is a device which, just like the temperature controller above, supplies or cuts power to the attached humidifier as necessary to maintain the correct humidity level. This piece of equipment, unfortunately is quite expensive. I got mine on Ebay for $75, but they retail for about $115.

You can see in the picture on the left, the humidity setting is adjustable between 10% and 90%, and you can hook up a humidifier or a dehumidifier. This one is called the THC-1 and is made by Green Air products, and is easily found by searching for THC-1 on some search engines.

This one is another model I ran across, which can be found here: .
This one was really hard to find, so much so that I can't find it again searching for it, so I'm giving you the direct link. Who knows how long it'll be a good link though.

I have seen, and bought on Ebay, an ultrasonic humidifier with a settable humidity controller on it, but they seem to be rare, I'm not sure why. The cool mist types have them, but for some reason, the ultrasonic ones don't seem to. If you end up spending as much for one as you would as buying the controller separately, I would buy them separately, so that if the humidifier breaks you can just replace that cheaply, instead of having to buy another expensive one.

So now you've got a fridge, a temperature controller an ultrasonic humidifier and a hygrostat. Now what? Well, now you set it all up INSIDE your fridge! You put the humidifier inside the fridge, the controller probe inside the fridge, and the hygrostat inside the fridge. Set your temperature to about 53 deg F, the hygrostat to about 65 and let 'er rip.

You're going to be running plugs into the fridge from extension cords which could be unsafe, so if you follow my instructions, don't email me if you electrocute yourself. This is what my fridge looks like. You can see a nice pancetta hanging in there too.

You can see my humidifier, and the humidity controller, and the temperature probe. You can also see that I made some additional modifications by drilling a hole in the side of the fridge and wiring a plug on the inside wall, instead of having an extension cord going in from the fridge hinge. You can also see a light bulb at the top of the fridge.
This bulb isn't totally necessary, but it allows you to control the humidity level in a tighter band. Without the bulb the fridge runs between 50% RH and 70% RH, but it is at the upper and lower limits for a short time. After the fridge runs to cool the air (goes to about 50% RH) the humidity drops as the air is dried (explained above), and the humidifier takes 10-15 minutes to catch up and rehumidify the air. It is at the top of the humidity level since the controller has a dead band (the point between setting and turning off or on), of about 5%, so it overshoots the humidity by a little bit. By putting a light bulb in the fridge we can introduce a small amount of heat, which will force the fridge to come on more often, drying the air more often. If you do want to do this, use a 25w bulb and run it to an adjustable dimmer do you can adjust the amount of heat you're putting into the fridge.

I'm actually not 100% sure about the necessity of the bulb, so installing one is up to you. It does seem to maintain the humidity in tighter band, but I'm not sure that it is that important.

This is a picture of my connections on the outside of the fridge. I ran 1 main power line to a supply box and put the light dimmer in there. The controller and fridge plug into the box.

Oh, one more piece of necessary equipment is a thermo hygrometer. These are small electronic devices which measure and display the humidity and temperature. You can find them on Ebay for about $8. Just put it in the fridge, and you can measure the humidity and temperature to make sure you're running at the right values. I got one with a remote probe made by Oregon Scientific so I don't have to open the fridge to see what is going on inside. The reader is inside, and the display is outside and receives the signal via radio frequency.

Before concluding, let me mention another method to control humidity. I've tried this method, and wasn't pleased with the performance. In theory a saturated salt solution with excess salt added (water in which as much salt is dissolved to saturate it, that is, so that no more salt will dissolve in it, and then adding more salt, essentially creating a tray of wet salt in a saturated salt solution), will maintain a humidity of about 70%. If the solution is placed in an area which is lower, the water will evaporate until the ambient is 70%, and if it is higher, it will absorb the humidity to lower it to about 70%. The problem I found with this method is that it all happens so slowly (the humidity changes), that it becomes useless. If you want to try this, use an oven tray and make a saturated solution in it, and place it in the fridge.

Wow, quite the blog entry. I hope the why and the how is explained clearly. If you want to cure meats at home, unfortunately for just about everything except pancetta, you'll need one of these. If you have any questions, ask, and I'll answer them if I can. While this is a bit of an investment I hope the components will last a good long while. I've had mine for about 2.5 years now and it still works well.

As far as future modifications I have in mind for the fridge, well, some sort of fresh air inlet. Normally I open the fridge and let it "air out" every few days. I'm trying to think of a way to get fresh air into it, either on a timer, or when something else turns on. Given that the fridge is in my garage, the air isn't so fresh unless I have the garage door open too, so for now I'll leave the system closed and manually refresh the air.


Saturday, July 28, 2007

Key equipment piece #2: The stuffer

The stuffer, well, stuffs! It is used to force ground meat, or meat paste into casings. Again, this is a piece of equipment which is only necessary to make cured meats which involve ground meat. I guess I'm saving the most difficult piece of equipment to make, the curing chamber for last!

This is the cheapest stuffer, an attachment for the grinder for the Kitchenaid mixer, and I bought it thinking, hey one less piece of equipment to buy, I have the grinder already. Wow was i ever wrong. Basically for $15 you get three stuffer tubes for different size casings, and a few pieces. You put the tubes on instead of the cutter and grinder
plates and, in theory, the meat paste is loaded into the top (like the meat cubes were) and is forced into the tube and then the casings by the auger. Unfortunately, all you end up with is a complete mash of the fat and meat that, with some luck, MAY end up in the casings, if you don't pull your hair out first, and if your wife hasn't killed you for the mess you've made from going crazy trying to do this.
This stuffer is TERRIBLE. Do not waste your $15, it serves no purpose other than making an undifferentiated meat paste which has no recognizable components, AND it is impossibly difficult to even get it to do that well.

This next stuffer was the next one I tried. It is a push stuffer. I bought mine on Ebay, a stainless steel 3 pound model. I don't remember how much it cost me exactly, but it was about $40 after shipping. The theory behind it is sound. You load the meat into the chamber, and you manually push the handle down, which forces the meat paste from the chamber into the stuffing tube and into the casing. Unfortunately, the theory is sounder than the practice. Since the piston is also made of steel, and has no gasket around it, there is a considerable amount of meat which, when you're plunging the piston, is forced out around the piston, instead of out of the tube. The sizing between the piston and the body just wasn't tight enough. For a while I remedied this by making my own rubber gasket which I would put over the meat before plunging, and that worked OK, but using this thing was just not very easy, it slipped around when plunging, and just generally wasn't fun to use. I'd say, if you're looking for the cheapest option (other than spooning the mixture into the casings), this is the one, but it just isn't great.

Finally, once I'd had enough of using the push stuffer, and I got a crank stuffer. What a difference. Now stuffing wasn't something I dreaded anymore. The ground meat retained the proper texture, the meat and fat didn't smear, and it was really easy to use and clean. Wish I had saved the money and aggravation and gotten one of these right off the bat. The best deal can be had from Northern Tool, for $80 plus shipping for one of these, and it is money very well spent if you plan on making sausages or salame.
The meat is loaded into the steel chamber, and a plastic piston with a nice rubber gasket around it is forced into the chamber by the use of a crank. Yay, mechanical advantage! You gently crank, the piston lowers and forces the meat out the piston. It is as simple as it gets. It comes completely apart for cleaning, and running through the dishwasher, making the cleanup simple.

Here are some of the components. You can see the meat chamber which holds about 4-5lbs of meat, the piston and its o-ring, the air valve to allow the air out of the chamber as you press the meat, and one of the three stuffer tubes that comes with it.

Save yourself time, money and a lot of cursing, and buy this one if you need a stuffer.

Next post: the curing chamber. I'll try to get to it tomorrow


Thursday, July 26, 2007

Key equipment piece #1: The grinder

I hope I'm not detailing information which is useless to most, but i figure if there are any beginners, they might benefit from this. There are a few pieces of equipment which are necessary to make cured meats. The only truly essential piece of equipment is probably the hardest for the home user to find or make; the curing chamber. That will be the topic of another post. This one will deal with the grinder, a necessity to make salame or dry cured sausages.

On the left here you can see an annotated image of the Kitchenaid grinder attachment. I use this attachment as it works quite well, is inexpensive and for the amount of meat I grind in 1 sitting (5 to 10 lbs/ 2-4kg) it is enough. This grinder plugs into the drive output on the Kitchenaid mixer. Everything you see in this picture, except the 7/16" plate comes with the grinder. That plate was made by a machinist friend of mine to allow a larger grind size. (this is one big disadvantage of the Kitchenaid grinder, the plates are proprietary to the KA, and therefore standard plates don't work)

The auger fits into the grinder body, the cutter blade is put on the end of the auger and the grinder plate is placed in front of that, and held in place by the ring which in the picture is attached to the grinder body. Meat is fed in from the top of the body where the tray is and is forced through the cutter and plate, yielding ground meat.

In using this grinder, it is important to remember that the meat and fat mixture needs to be very very cold, chilled in the freezer to the point where it is a little hard. The colder the meat is kept, the cleaner the cut. This means that the meat and fat chunks will remain distinct, which is important, fat smearing is the enemy of salame.

It is also important to trim the meat well, removing sinew, or this will wrap itself around the cutter blade and cause the meat to mush through the plate instead of being cleanly cut. I believe with bigger more powerful grinders, this is not as critical as they're able to cut through the sinew, but with the KA grinder it is important.

When making sausages and salame I've found it works best to mix the meat and the fat chunks to be ground, and grind them together, rather than separately and then mix them. This isn't optimal, obviously, for salame which requires different size meat and fat particles.

The grinder is pretty simple. Most grinders will work for making salame. If you don't have a Kitchenaid mixer, and are still interested in making salame, you can buy a standalone grinder for about $75, or a hand grinder for about $35.

Let's also remember that a grinder isn't a necessity to make cured meats. Many are cured whole muscles, and as such, do not require grinding.

Next up, key equipment #2: the stuffer, and key equipment #3: the curing chamber.

Stay tuned!


Monday, July 16, 2007

Picture issues

Seems I was having some problems with the images in the sanguinaccio description. Hope to have fixed it. If you read the entry previously and saw no pictures, take a look again.


Sunday, July 15, 2007


Sanguinaccio - what is it?

Sanguinaccio derives its name from the Italian word for blood: sangue. It is a sausage made using the blood of pig or, less commonly, cow. In my mind this is the epitomy of the waste not culture of old where no part of the pig was wasted.

I've never been a big fan of it. Growing up we'd eat it every so often during winter as part of meal of "bollito misto", which is a pot of all sorts of meats, boiled and served with potatoes ,cabbage and other cooked vegetables. It always tasted like iron to me. Traditionally, in the Piedmont region of Italy it is made using only blood, mashed potatoes, fat, and spices.

Last week my friend told me he was interested in making some, so I offered my assistance. How could I pass up making a salume of my childhood, play with pig blood, AND do it all in his kitchen! Instead of using the traditional Italian recipe, he wanted to give it a French flair, turning a sanguinaccio into a boudin noir, which uses meat,fat,onions, apple and spices.

The recipe we used was an involuntary adaptation of one found on a great page, , so credit for it goes to him. The recipe we used is as follows:

Sanguinaccio / Boudin Noir (adapted from recipe by hertzmann)

1050 grams minced onions
200 grams rendered lard
250 grams cored, and minced apple
300 grams pork fatback
450 grams pork loin
18 grams minced garlic
30 grams minced flat-leaf parsley
20 grams salt
6 grams ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon quatre ├ępices
1125 grams pork blood
We started by mincing the onions and appled by hand, and quickly turned to a food processor for help. Short pulses made sure we didn't make apple sauce or onion puree. You'll have to drain the onions if you use a processor as it does force water out of them, unlike a knife.
Sweat the onions in 150g of the lard for about 30 minutes until soft. Sweat the apples in the rest of the lard for about 10 minutes. Remove and allow to cool to room temp.

Cube the meat and fatback into 1/2-3/4" cubes and place in freezer for about 30-45 minutes. Grind the loin and fatback through a fine plate grinder.

Combine everything except the blood into the bowl of a stand mixer, and mix for about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the blood and mix for another 30 seconds- 1 minute to get everything mixed up.

Using a funnel on which you've "threaded" some regular, soaked and cleaned, hog casings (29-33mm) stuff this semi liquidus mixture into them, after tying off the end. Try to avoid getting air into the casings as much as possible. This really is a 2 person job. 1 person holding the funnel, and the other plunging the mixture into the casings.
We used about 4' lengths of casings so they didn't get unmanageable when they were stuffed, and it took us just about 4 of them to use up the mixture.

You now have the option of making them into links by twisting at desired lengths, or leaving them as a long coil (you've sealed the ends at this point, after linking).

Simmer them in water which is kept at 185-190 deg. F, for about 17 minutes, until the internal temperature is 170 deg. F. Cool them in a bowl of cold water.

They are now ready to eat. Either reheated by simmering, or fried in a pan gently. Serve with eggs for an interesting breakfast, or with polenta for Italian style. It would be good with grits too, making it a southern type dish with Italo/French roots. These will keep in the fridge only for a few days, so freeze if you're not going to eat right away.

I acually enjoyed eating these. They are not as metallic tasting as I remember, possibly because the original Piemontese recipe doesn't use any meat, and fewer fillers, leaving the blood flavor to come out more.


Saturday, July 14, 2007

Next post coming shortly

Sorry for the long delay. As I mentioned in my 1st post, life keeps me very busy. I hope to have something up tomorrow or Monday. My friend and I just finished making sanguinaccio, blood sausage/boudin noir. I know this isn't cured, but it also isn't a normal sausage you'd see everywhere, so I thought I'd post about it.

Stay tuned.