Adventures in Pork: Belly, Cheeks and Ham Update

Fresh pork belly, halved and ready to receive the cure

Fresh pork belly, halved and ready to receive the cure

This weekend, the Adventures in Pork continued with curing the belly and cheeks from Salumi. With pork belly you can make bacon, lardo, or pancetta. The cheeks/jowls are used to make a dried meat called guinciale, which is famous in Italy (particularly in Roman cuisine) and used for pasta dishes like carbonara and amatriciana. 

The distinctions between the types of cured belly are sometimes unclear and vary from country to country and cuisine to cuisine. Asian cooking uses pork belly too, and I am far less versed on its uses, although I believe that it is sometimes cooked fresh (braising, or steaming and later frying) and also cured. In European cuisine, I am most familiar with Italian preparations, followed by French. In Italy, pancetta is frequently rolled before slicing, and adds peppercorns as a chief flavoring. Lardo is sliced thin and often eaten crudo, with antipasti. Most versions of “American” bacon are smoked (in addition to, or instead of curing), but to the extent that we’re calling this bacon, my version is salt cured.

Pork belly with cure

Pork belly with cure

I am working with two whole sides, approximately 5 pounds each, each of which I divided in half, creating four square belly pieces approximately 2.5 pounds each. With this I could, for example, add peppercorns and roll up one section (or more) for pancetta. You could also add fresh herbs to the cure or following the cure during drying. Fresh garlic is frequently added to the cure.

Cheeks/Jowls with cure, belly underneath

Cheeks/Jowls with cure, belly underneath

The cure that I used was very basic in the following ratios: approximately one pound of granulated salt to about 8 ounces of sugar. In this case, I had some dextrose (corn sugar) available, which I used along with some table sugar. If you use dextrose, you need more in the cure than table sugar, due to it being less sweet. Dextrose is regarded by some as being slightly better than table sugar for curing. To the cure I also added 2 ounces of InstaCure #1 (“pink salt” or “prague powder”, 93.75% ordinary salt and 6.25% sodium nitrite), some freshly cracked black pepper, less than a teaspoon of granulated garlic, 3 crushed dry bay leaves, and some dry herbes de Provence.

Side view, through plastic container

Side view, through plastic container

The dry cure mixture is added to completely coat all of the outer surfaces of the meat. The traditional guinciale cure is slightly different: no pink salt is required, although you can add InstaCure #2 to maintain a brighter color to the meat and preserve freshness, and brown sugar, fresh garlic and fresh thyme are added. We have an entire case (35+ pounds) of cheeks to cure (a separate blog to follow) in the traditional style, so for these two from Salumi, I opted to toss them in the bacon cure.

The belly and cheeks will release a lot of liquid, which is good because the liquid is part of what is needed in the cure. Each couple of days, the meat will need to be rotated so that it all remains in contact with the surrounding liquid. After a week or so, the liquid is removed, the meat is rinsed and set to hang and air dry.

Prosciutto, approximately one week into cure, before removing liquid in bottom of container and re-packing with new salt

Prosciutto, approximately one week into cure, before removing liquid in bottom of container and re-packing with new salt

Finally, I did a check on the hams currently curing in the style of prosciutto. The visible meat has already darkened a great deal in color, with a deep garnet or purple color. A pool of liquid filling the bottom 3/4″ of the plastic containers was present in both containers, which I drained. I also removed the wet sludgy salt in the bottoms of both containers and replaced with a new layer of dry salt. Finally, I re-packed the outsides of the hams in salt again, turned them in the containers opposite to their original orientation, re-covered them in plastic and replaced the brick weights.

I’m hoping to remove everything and begin the air-drying early next week, possibly 9/24.

[NOTE: Just two weeks of voting left for Beer Camp!]

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