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Curing Pork Virginia Style


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Good cures start with good meat. We raise our own hogs and fatten them on a corn based ration supplemented by whatever is available - stale bakery products, household garbage, etc. Garbage should not dominate the ration as the fat will be soft. Top hogs weigh 220 pounds and yield about a 16 pound ham. We like to cure hams between 20 and 30 pounds. Large hams with adequate fat layers age better and don't dry out as much during extended storage. Country cured hams will keep indefinitely but achieve their full flavor after about one year when "white flecks" appear in the muscle. We feed our hogs to 300 pounds or better but don't let them get too fat.. Some cuts may be slightly tougher with heavy hogs. Hams, shoulders and bellies may be bought from packing houses and can be ordered by butchers if you are not in position to grow your own. You may have to buy box lots but make absolutely sure that the meat is fresh and quickly chilled. Pork should be put in cure as soon as possible after chilling and trimming but, properly handled, it can be a couple of days old. I once bought ten, 25 pound hams that had been two days in transit to the butcher and then were left in his cooler over the weekend. I lost the whole batch! Those hams had also been trimmed excessively leaving little skin and fat covering. As a result, I have gone back to raising my own so I know what I have to work with. I am supposed to talk about curing bacon and I will get around to it. As hams (and shoulders) are more valuable, demanding and risky, the entire process is keyed to the larger cuts. Curing and smoking facilities vary greatly. Traditional farm hamhouses / smokehouses are windowless wood frame buildings about ten feet square with a dirt floor. Wooden plank benches provide work areas for mixing the cure and salting down meat. Joists are within reach and studded with 20 penny nails for hanging meat. The dirt floor allows a higher humidity in winter and allows a smoldering fire to be built inside - both for smoking and to keep meat from freezing during extreme cold. Some hamhouses have external smoke generators - simply a firebox with a stovepipe stuck through the wall. This arrangement makes it easier to cold smoke for several days (or weeks) in the spring without exceeding 100F. and is essential if the smokehouse is made of wood and insulated. Either the eaves are loosely fitted or there are operable vents to allow for air exchange, especially during smoking, so that there is adequate fresh air and the smoke does not become stale and acrid. Openings are covered by fine screen mesh and the interior is kept dark to discourage skippers (larvae of a small black fly which also likes pork). My smokehouse follows the tradition except that the walls are poured concrete and the roof is metal. The thick walls store a lot of heat and smooth out daily temperature fluctuations. I have no smoke generator or operable vents but there is plenty of air exchange at the eaves. In places where conditions are not favorable, curing and smoking chambers with temperature and humidity controls and a smoke generator can be easily fabricated or small cuts may be cured in the refrigerator. My dry cure is mixed by the "pour 'til it looks right" method. My daddy showed me how. There was a request from a pork eater in Israel to provide metric measurements. Unfortunately, I don't know how to convert the SAH (Standard American Handful)! I buy plain (not iodized) dairy salt in 50 Lb. bags from a farm supply co-op and other ingredients from one of the warehouse retailers. To each 50 lbs. of salt, mix about 1 gal. of molasses (blackstrap if you have it), about 2 pounds of ground black pepper, about 8 oz. of paprika and 1 SAH (about 4 oz.) of red pepper or cayenne. I use molasses rather than brown sugar so that the mixture can be packed around the meat. Color should be light brown and texture should be friable: it should pack when squeezed in the hand but crumble easily; like good loam soil ready to be plowed. Proportions are not critical and you can add whatever dry spices sound good. Just mix and dump until you have a mixture that looks like it will cure pork! Back when hog killin' was the norm, everyone had their own mixture. Some used plain salt or salt and pepper, others added refined sugar, brown sugar, or molasses and so forth. You can add some salt peter for added safety if you want to. I have never used it and have no idea how much to put in. If you have no sense of adventure, buy Morton's sugar cure. Spread a 1/2 inch layer of cure on the bench, place meat skin side down and cover all surfaces with about 1/2 inch of cure. Force cure into the cut shank ends of hams and shoulders. I prefer laying all of the pieces out separately so I can see when cure gets thin, but you can pile it all up and overhaul more often. During the phase of rapid cure uptake, a lot of fluid is drawn from the meat. That is why you use rough wooden benches with the planks not too tight - dirt floors help too. Of coarse, never use treated wood in contact with food. Check the meat every few days at first then not as often as salt absorption decreases. Overhaul several times by moving the pieces around, making sure they are covered with cure (it won't stick to the dry skin on hams so don't worry about it). Bacon, at last! As a rule of thumb, smaller pieces such as bacon should stay in cure for 1.5 days per pound. This usually coincides with the time that the fresh sausage runs out. At this point I usually slice some to try. It should be salty but not too salty to eat without soaking. When you are satisfied with the cure, brush the salt off and hang. I like to let them hang for a couple of days before smoking but it is not necessary. Use cold smoke (less than 100F.) unless you plan to use it or freeze it within a few days. I use 2 fairly green hickory logs about 12" in diameter. Once burning on the dirt floor I adjust the distance between the logs so that they smolder actively but don't flame. Hickory will keep going like this for a day or so with minimal tending. I just check it every few hours and make adjustments. Smoke does not need to be thick and heavy to flavor meat and adequate air volume is important when using green wood. I believe that smoke should enhance flavor rather than dominate. It is not necessary to smoke bacon for preserving so an alternative would be to smoke pieces at a higher temp. before use. Bacon should be frozen or eaten before summer as it starts to get rancid if hung too long. If frozen it should be eaten prior to the next hog killin' as it will get rancid in the freezer too. When to skin: Some folks leave the skin on if they have a slicer that will handle it. I take it off toward the end of the curing time when it is still supple and fairly easy to remove. It can be removed before curing but the bacon may get too salty. When you are ready for some home cured bacon, cut a slab in half and trim to the desired size. Save the trimmings for a pot of beans (you can render a lot of the grease out in a frying pan before adding to your bean pot). Soak for several hours if too salty and chill for easier slicing. If you don't have a slicer, you can do a pretty good job with a sharp knife. Bacon is relatively easy and safe to cure as the mixture penetrates the thin slabs quickly. I would have no qualms about trying it in the refrigerator and would be interested in hearing about experiences and experiments. Hams and shoulders are more risky because of the size. The cure has to penetrate completely before warm weather or they will start to taint around the bone. A common practice is to pump some liquid cure around the bone so that it can start curing from the inside too. The addition of salt peter also helps. Hams and shoulders stay in cure for about 2 days per pound. After the curing period, I just brush off the salt leaving a thin coating of attached spices and hang. Contrary to many recommendations, I never wash or wrap meat which I am going to hang. I has been my experience that wrappings keep moisture in promoting excessive mold and spoilage but I also live in a humid area. Some mold is desirable and does not indicate problems. There are a lot of things that can go wrong in curing hams. I remember going with my father to buy country hams as a young boy back in the fifties (before the meat inspection laws robbed us of our heritage). Country stores would buy locally cured hams for resale. After discussing curing methods and inspecting the hams, the storekeeper would pull out a thin bladed pocket knife and insert it into the face of the ham right next to the bone (the most likely place to find spoilage and skippers). The aroma of that blade drawn from a properly cured ham is unforgettable (it is pretty hard to forget the smell of a bad one too!). Point being that encountering bad hams was enough of a problem to warrant precautions. Shoulders don't age as well as hams and should be used within six months or so. Hams only get better with age but small ones tend to dry out. I have some forty pounders that should be about prime by the turn of the century! - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Yield: 1 serving

Preparation Time: 0:00

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