Winter hobby 2017/2018 is curing meat!
I can barely shoot a clay pigeon much less a real one. My husband, on the other hand, usually brings home everything except the bacon when he goes hunting. This year he has filled tags for an elk and a mule deer (plus assorted waterfowl). I love wild game and he is really, really good at handling the carcass in a way that minimizes any gamey flavors, so that big mule deer tastes like a tasty whitetail. 🙂
In that past we’ve put Italian sausage and breakfast sausage into the freezer, which are great when hamburger and steaks get boring around June. But we BUY bacon, salami, and the occasional cheese-filled bratwurst. We buy a lot of bacon. We love bacon. I prefer elk breakfast sausage to commercial breakfast sausage, but we thought it would be nice to diversify, try to create some of those salty meats we purchase.
This year, along with breakfast sausage and Italian sausage, Toby and his best friend/hunting buddy dry aged mule deer steaks and made AMAZING smoked summer sausage. We made porcini-sage sausages with a recipe from Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. The flavor is awesome. Then, with the guidance of Michael Ruhlman’s Salame, we started into curing. I’d never used nitrate or nitrite salt before, and it’s REALLY hard to mentally make that leap. You think if you get the ratio wrong you’ll either botulize your whole family or give them nitrate-fueled cancer, but settle down. It’s important to understand how salt or nitrites work to alter the food environment to make it inhospitable to bad bacteria, and encourage the growth of well, delicious bacteria. (Lactobacillus, for example, the magical being that converts everything I’m currently in love with. Sour beer, fermented pickles, salami.) It’s also important to look at natural sources of nitrites in your food. Celery, beets, lettuce, and spinach contain very high levels of nitrates…in fact, I’ve seen dried celery used as a meat cure. So relax (a little). Make sure you are getting your recipes from a credible source (like a reference book, your extension office, or an old Italian man) before you start following the Celery-Curing Prepper on Youtube. However, I think it is really helpful to read about the experiences of other people, so here are links to The Salty Trencherman and The Cage Free Tomato for their posts on venison prosciutto. They both seem to be alive and posting still.
We corned two rump roasts and then sliced them for lunch meat. These big roasts were sliced in half and ‘corned’ in a wet brine for about a week, which was NEARLY enough time to turn the meat pink all the way through the roast. It’s amazing to see the progress of the cure through the seemingly solid meat. After the wet brine, the meat is simmered for several hours until it is cooked through, and the end product looks just like the corned beef you know and love on St. Patricks Day. We sliced it into thin and thick sandwich meat and froze it with some of the cooking liquid.
Since I probably can’t make deer bacon, I want to make prosciutto. As I type, Toby is hunting whitetail. The size of a hind leg, whole, is manageable, and takes about 4 months to fully cure. We’ve been practicing on duck and goose breasts…carefully weighing each one and stringing them up in the cold garage. A small duck breast needs to be in salt for only about half a day, and will cure in 1-3 weeks, so it’s good training! (We’ve eaten two so far, and it REALLY makes a difference how ducky the duck was to start with…)
We’ve also oversalted the smaller breasts. Erring on the side of safety is always a good idea, but an extra 12 hours in salt for a tiny flap of duck meat is too much. The larger goose breasts, which we have not tried yet, should have a better salt ratio. I’d much rather have to eat a over-salted duck breast than ruin a whitetail leg though. So the cheese-cloth wrapped prosciutto mummies in the garage have been time well spent.
I’m waiting to hear from Toby. The kitchen is clean and the fancy peppercorns, junipers berries, and pink salt are ready.
Day 1: Also, conveniently for math, Dec 1.
The quartered deer arrives in the kitchen. Since we are curing the whole leg, there isn’t much to be done besides giving it a good rinse and making sure all the blood is out of the femoral artery. Leg 1 weighed 11 lbs, leg 2 weighed 10 3/4 lbs (the one without the Achilles tendon). Toby exposed the ball joint and left the bone in. This means the exposed joint area is more susceptible to uninvited guests, so I’m making sure the cure gets packed into any folds. There is also some airspace on the lower ‘calf’ where two large muscles can be separated, so extra cure goes in there too. In general, a venison ‘ham’ is wrapped up delightfully in connective tissue and fascia, so you have a large unbroken surface to work with (except at the joint!). Traditional prosciutto has the skin left on (cheaters), so since deer are skinned, we are technically working with a ham.
I thought they’d be smaller.
This deer lived in a steep draw, so clearly she’d been working those thighs.
We referenced a few different recipes, including a venison mocetta that seemed very close to what we wanted. Out came the micro-scale to measure everything in grams.
(scaled to two 11 lb venison hams/the back end of a whitetail)
32 grams instacure #2
4 cups salt
2 cups table sugar
100 grams garlic powder
40 grams juniper berries
48 grams mixed peppercorns
15 grams thyme
1 gram tarragon
2 grams sage
1 gram celery seeds
1 gram smoked paprika
48 grams of rosemary
60 bay leaves
Grind all spices finely using whatever you have available. I did the bay, rosemary, sage, and thyme in the food processor, and sent the juniper berries and peppercorns through a burred coffee grinder/sometimes spice mill. For small amounts I’ll use a mortar and pestle. Mix together all ingredients except the instacure #2. It is really important that this ingredient is distributed evenly. I mixed it with about a cup of the spice/salt mix, and then did a light, even coat on both legs.
The remaining spice mix is split, reserving 1/2 in airtight jars to be applied in about 3 weeks.
Using a big tray, I coated the hams with the spice/salt mix, flipping several times. I only had a little bit coming off at the end.
I arranged the hams on top of cooling racks in my tray (it’s the travel top of a sheet cake pan, find one, they are so useful), and wrapped the entire thing in black plastic. (By black plastic I mean a trash bag.)
The tray with half a deer really fit into the fridge better than I had thought it would! It takes up half a shelf, although there is some room on the top. With really large hams, they use weights to help press out the moisture, even stacking hams on top of one another. I definitely can’t fit another set of hams, but I have room to put another tray and some flat weights. I actually stuffed the braesola, which is in a tupperware, on top of it all.
I am thankful for Laurel, who brought us several branches of bay from Oregon, and Stephanie, who traded me a gallon bag of dried rosemary for dried morel mushrooms. I don’t know where I would have found 60 bay leaves, and these smelled amazing even though we’ve had them drying in the pantry for years.
We ran out of juniper berries. After spending 7 years fighting fire in southern Idaho, surrounded by explosively flammable juniper trees, it PAINS me to spend $17.90/lb at The Huckleberry to buy them. It’s like buying pinecones in McCall. I don’t like the smell, I don’t like gin, and I’m horrified that all the delicious cured meats I love are apparently flavored with these little berries. Oh well. When The Huckleberry opens today I’ll go buy a tiny bag. I used everything I had in the first half of the rub (16.55 grams, nearly half), and I’ll add the rest to the second half.
The meat will now stay in the fridge for 3 weeks before the next step. I’ll be occasionally flipping it and pouring off any moisture from the bottom of the tray.
Day 15: We took the tray out of the fridge and carefully poured off the liquid from the bottom. There was quite a bit! We didn’t reapply cure, but we did flip the legs and rub sea salt on the new ‘top’ and into the ball joint. I would have expected the meat to be a little more firm, but it still has a month to go on the cure. No sign of mold and it smells strongly of the herbs used in the rub. Yum!
Day 38: We should have done this step at Day 21, but we have been traveling for Christmas. The timeline was also for smaller legs, so we’ll have a longer total time in the fridge. Today the legs came out the fridge and we rinsed them in cold water. The metal cooling racks under the legs had a few rusty spots, so we replaced them with one covered in black plastic. We washed everything and then reapplied the cure mix to the legs. I left a few cups in a jar so that when we flip the legs in a few days we can give it another coat. Back into the fridge they went, with a new black plastic bag.