Everyone who tastes dry-cured meats such as bresaola, sausages, salamis or prosciutto walks away with two thoughts. The first is that the meat is delicious. Second, they wonder if they can make it safely at home. Fortunately, you can, and it’s a pretty straightforward process.
Once the proper curing conditions are met, following simple recipes can yield charcuterie that’ll compare to any sold in pricey delis and meat markets around the world. To start, let’s discuss proper conditions for dry-curing meats, why they’re necessary, and how to maintain them so the meat becomes fully cured and doesn’t spoil.
The proper temperature for curing meat is 45-60°F. If the temperature remains higher than 60°F for an extended period, spoilage occurs and harmful bacteria can bloom. Below 45°F, the drying process slows down or even stops, greatly extending the time required to cure the meat.
We prefer to cure our meat on the cooler side of the temperature range. I believe it speeds the drying time a little to run it cooler.
Humidity is the amount of moisture suspended in the air around the meat. Too much moisture prevents the meat from drying properly, and too little moisture dries it too quickly before fully curing.
Ideal humidity rates for charcuterie lie in the 65-75% range. Preferably, you’ll be able to raise the humidity slightly higher at the beginning of the cure, lowering it as the meat dries.
The relative humidity varies by climate. In the Deep South, the air will more than likely need to be dried to reach optimum conditions. In the arid Southwest, moisture will need to be added. Air-conditioned homes are also typically dryer than optimal.
Airflow around the charcuterie is critical to properly dry the meat. If the air is stagnant, moisture doesn’t leave the meat quickly enough to cure it safely. On the other hand, too much airflow will dry the meat’s outer surface too quickly, preventing the inner moisture from escaping and possibly causing spoilage.
Constant bright light encourages harmful bacteria to grow. While opening the chamber to look a few times a day hurts nothing, a dark meat curing chamber produces a better product than a chamber with a glass door that lets in constant light.
For thousands of years, these conditions have been met in caves, basements, root cellars and even just shady open-air spots in areas with the correct climate. But, suppose a prospective salumist (a person who makes cured sausages and meats) doesn’t have a cave handy. Home meat curing chambers are the answer.
🍖 Building the meat curing chamber
Easy and inexpensive to make, a quality meat curing chamber can be built in a day or two for less than $250; less than that if you already own an old but working refrigerator. If you don’t have an old fridge sitting around, check local yard sales or Craigslist to find one. A standard-sized, single-door refrigerator works fine; no need for anything large or fancy as you’ll be drilling holes into it during construction.
Most standard refrigerator controls won’t maintain a temperature above 42°F. To make yours run at the required 50-60°F, simply employ a temperature-control unit. These can be found online or at restaurant- or appliance-supply stores. Simply plug the controller into a working outlet, plug the refrigerator into the control box, and set the desired temperature.
The controller will work just like the refrigerator’s thermostat, kicking the unit on when the temperature rises above the desired temperature and turning it off when it drops below. Units like the Johnson Controls A19AAT-2C freezer temperature controller can be purchased on Amazon for around $65. This reliable control box features an easy-to-read temperature gauge and a temperature probe that can be inserted into the refrigerator while the control box itself remains outside.
If you live in a dry climate, insert a small ultrasonic humidifier, available from any pharmacy or box store, filled with distilled water. Distilled water decreases lime and calcium deposits, which can shorten the humidifier’s life.
To control the amount of moisture the humidifier adds to the chamber, and to maintain it at the proper curing level, the humidifier must be plugged into a control unit like the Dayton 1UHG3 humidifier control. This unit works similarly to the temperature-control unit, turning the humidifier on and off as needed to maintain ideal conditions.
Auber Instruments makes a control box specifically for curing-chamber applications that controls both temperature and humidity in a single unit. The temperature and humidity controller for curing fridges can be purchased reasonably online at Auberins.com. When setting up your chamber with an Auber unit, I recommend checking the temperature with a second thermometer in case the unit measures warmer or colder than the actual chamber temperature.
For the fresh airflow needed to properly cure meat, simply opening the chamber door once or twice daily is usually sufficient. If you don’t anticipate peeking into your meat curing chamber that often, simply drill a few holes in the top of one side of the refrigerator and the bottom of the opposite side.
A small computer fan mounted over the lower holes to blow stale air out and draw fresh air in from the top vent can be added, if needed. Make sure to cover the vent holes with a fine mesh screen to keep insects and pests from entering the chamber.
To easily monitor all conditions, a digital temperature-and-humidity gauge can be added to the front of the chamber by simply drilling a small hole through the door and inserting the monitoring probes so that they rest inside the chamber itself. Some of these units have a programmable alarm that alerts you if the conditions inside the chamber vary from your settings.
🔨 Putting it all together
To assemble the meat curing chamber, begin by removing any shelves and drawers from the refrigerator. Insert one shelf at the highest position inside the fridge to provide a rack for hanging the meats. Thoroughly clean all inside surfaces with a water-bleach mixture. Use a small brush (a toothbrush works well) to clean any cracks and crevices too small to dean with a rag or sponge.
The goal is to rid the meat curing chamber of bacteria or mold spores lingering on the surfaces. Since the meat will be hanging in the chamber for long periods of time, the fewer contaminants, the better.
Mount the temperature and humidity control units to the refrigerator, and make sure the monitoring probes are located near the center of the chamber. Plug in the humidifier and set the temperature and humidity controllers to your desired levels. Monitor the conditions for several days before adding meat to the chamber in case adjustments are required.
I recommend inoculating the chamber with a desired strain of mold before adding meat. This mold, normally white and powdery, can be taken from meat cured successfully in another chamber, or ordered online. We use Mold-600 Bactofenn which is a single-strain culture containing spores of Penicillium nalgiovense in a convenient freeze-dried form. Mold-600 suppresses growth of undesirable organisms such as indigenous molds, yeasts and bacteria.
The culture has a positive effect on the drying process by preventing the emergence of a dry rim. Furthermore, the mold degrades lactic acid during maturation, resulting in a pH increase and reduced sourness. The freeze-dried powder is reconstituted in water, then sprayed on all surfaces of the chamber.
🦠 Is mold in your meat curing chamber good or bad?
An integral part of curing meats is the mold that forms on the outer surfaces. These molds help preserve the meat and add flavor to the finished product, but not all molds are good. Some molds and bacterial growths can be dangerous, even causing food poisoning when ingested.
🧫 How do you classify mold?
As a rule, white or extremely light-colored and chalky dry molds are good. Anything else is bad. Keep an eye on your meat as it cures. If you see dark mold, gray, black, green or brown, begin to spread over the meat’s outer surfaces, remove the product from your meat curing chamber and scrub it thoroughly with salt brine or white vinegar. If you catch it before the mold penetrates into the meat, you should be able to safety remove it from the surface.
Onto cleaned, rehang the meat in the curing chamber and watch it to ensure the dark mold a mildew doesn’t return. If you encounter this problem, double-check your temperature and humidity controls to make sure they’re maintaining the proper conditions inside you meat curing chamber.
If you aren’t using a fan to move air into and out of the meat curing chamber, dark molds or mildews might indicate that you need to increase the airflow through your meat curing chamber.
As with just about everything, let common sense be your guide when consuming cured meats. If It has an unpleasant odor or appearance, be cautious about consuming it. You’re better off losing a sausage or two than taking a trip to the ER for food poisoning.
📚 Recommended Resources
Once your chamber is up and running, it’s time to cure some meat. I recommend picking up a couple of detailed reference books for methods and recipes. I often use Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, and The Art of Making Fermented Sausages by Stanley Marianski. Both contain time-tested recipes, detailed descriptions on methods and techniques, and tons of general information on cured meat in general.
Suggested resources for survivalists: